Jamie Bennetts created a spreadsheet of every child’s reading scores in the small Knightsen Elementary School District a few summers ago, identified the laggers and greeted them in the fall with state-adopted reading interventions. She was new to her job as a reading interventionist, a position she sought after the unnerving experience of teaching 7th-graders, many of whom she’d taught as 1st- or 2nd-graders, and discovering that the 6- and 7-year-olds she’d known as poor readers were still reading poorly at 12 and 13.
“I was stunned to find a lot of kids hadn’t made a lot of progress since I’d left them,” she recalled. She was stunned again by the unsuitability of the reading programs that came with her job. “They stunk,” she said. “They were too broad, too general, not diagnostic and not prescriptive.” She talked her district into paying for her to get trained in interventions for children who have dyslexia, the No. 1 reading disability in the United States.
Now, in roughly three years on the job, she’s spread her training to receptive teachers in her Contra Costa County district. Referrals to special education have dropped by about 70 percent, she said, and children with signs of dyslexia, a neurological disorder that makes it difficult to “sound out” words by matching letters with sounds, are getting the right kind of help.
The hope is for districts across the state to follow Knightsen’s example, according to legislation that last week produced its goal: the release of the California Department of Education’s California Dyslexia Guidelines, a long-awaited document meant to let schools know what exactly dyslexia is and what interventions have been proven effective. Estimates of the prevalence of dyslexia range from 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population — which would mean between 300,000 and 1.2 million children in California public schools. Brain imagery has shown that people with dyslexia process word identification differently, and children do not outgrow dyslexia. The goal is to learn how to compensate for it. The disability is unrelated to intelligence, but students have long floundered without the correct help.
“The idea that there is a document with the state seal and the word dyslexia on it — I’m exultant,” said Anjanette Pelletier of the San Mateo County Special Education Local Plan Area.
“My teachers would write, ‘She’s very bright, she just doesn’t apply herself,'” recalled Joyce Childs, a resource specialist in the Twin Rivers District, president of CARS Plus, an organization of California special educators, and a person with dyslexia. When she was a 5th-grader at Coyle Avenue Elementary in Carmichael, Childs recalled, she was asked to read aloud and mispronounced “island.” “Everybody laughed and my teacher laughed and I never read aloud again in my education career,” she said.
The 132-page guidelines, which are not mandatory, are the upshot of years of lobbying by parents who watched their children agonize over learning to read with little help from teachers or specialists, even though effective methods for teaching dyslexic students to read have existed for decades, said Tobie Meyer, state director of Decoding Dyslexia California, which led the legislative lobbying. Worse, Meyer said, is that many special education teachers maintain they are not allowed to even say the word dyslexia. Among educators, fear of the word and the associated costs of replacing reading curricula with dyslexia-specific interventions has been such that the federal government in 2015 issued a letter instructing districts to do more for dyslexic students and “say dyslexia.”
New guidelines call for early screening
The power of naming what’s happening is not to be underestimated, said Holly Synder, a parent of a son with dyslexia and a member of Decoding Dyslexia California. “You don’t want your child to have something wrong, but to have a name for it, a reason why it’s happening and a path you can take, it’s an amazing feeling,” she said.
The era of denial should be coming to an end, said Anjanette Pelletier, senior administrator for the San Mateo County Special Education Local Plan Area, a regional center for special education. “The idea that there is a document with the state seal and the word dyslexia on it — I’m exultant,” she said. The parents of Decoding Dyslexia California “took their frustration, anger, pain, sadness and desire for other people not to have to deal with this” and initiated a change with potentially far-reaching effects, she said. Most crucial is the focus on early intervention and prevention, she said.
“I’ve devoted my life to special education and it’s not the best model,” Pelletier said. “Special education is not preventative, it is reactive.” In contrast, the guidelines give schools a way to intervene with dyslexic students before their reading careers are derailed, she said. The guidelines call for kindergarten teachers or reading specialists to screen all kindergartners by spring using an evaluation that has been proven to detect signs of dyslexia. These “universal screening tools” should continue to be used through high school, the guidelines say, and begin in the general education classroom. “Students who have dyslexia are ‘general education students’ first, can be educated in general education classrooms, and benefit from a wide variety of supports,” the guidelines say.
California students are in need of better instruction in reading, the guidelines note. In 2015, 41 percent of 4th-grade students in California scored below basic achievement levels, compared with 32 percent nationally, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Among students with disabilities, 80 percent of California students scored below basic achievement levels, compared to 67 percent nationally. “One of the greatest contributing factors to lower achievement scores in reading is the lack of early and accurate identification of students with dyslexia,” the guidelines stated.
The remedy includes better teacher training. “There needs to be a commitment” from credentialing programs to teaching future teachers reading methodologies that help all students and are particularly helpful for students with some degree of dyslexia, the guideline state. Typically, these methods involve practicing how a letter or pair of letters look and how they sound. Teacher preparation program standards set by the International Dyslexia Association are a start, the guidelines suggest.
Mara Wiesen, president of the Los Angeles branch of the International Dyslexia Association, concurred, saying that school districts should not have to step in to train their teachers in proper reading instruction. “That shouldn’t be their burden,” she said. “All of our teachers should come out of teacher preparation programs knowing how to teach reading.”
She praised the guidelines. “I think they covered everything and covered it all quite beautifully,” she said
Now it’s up to districts to take the guidelines, which were produced as a result of Assembly Bill 1369, a 2015 law by Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, and put them into action.
“The devil is in the details — now we need to look at how we convert this into practical and implementable practice in our public schools,” said Meyer of Decoding Dyslexia California. She acknowledged the stress of limited school funding. “Without a budget for teacher and professional training, it will be impossible to address the needs of not only our dyslexic students but all struggling readers,” she said.
Some school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, already are moving ahead. In late June, the Los Angeles Unified school board passed a resolution giving the district 90 days to come up with a plan to train teachers to work with students with dyslexia. To that end, a work group is to meet for the third time next week. “I think it’s being very carefully done,” said Virginia Kennedy, an associate professor at Cal State Northridge, a member of the state Dyslexia Working Group that drafted the guidelines and a member of the group working with LA Unified.
Thanks for reading.
Can you help sustain our reporting?
Our team of journalists, editors, and fact-checkers do an estimated 440 hours of research every week to bring you the news on California education. That's a lot of work.