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Dyslexia: Fix the Disconnect

How to define dyslexia and connect schools with parents to help kids with learning differences succeed

Kids with dyslexia may struggle with their studies, but they’re often quite adept at appearing to make progress as they blend in with their classmates. That’s why the condition has been called “a hidden disability,” says Julia Sadtler, president of the Pennsylvania Branch of the International Dyslexia Association.

Though typically known as a reading disability that causes people to confuse or reverse letters and numbers, dyslexia is in fact a neurological disorder that incites a person’s brain to process information differently.

Learning Difference Definitions
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin, characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”  —International Dyslexia Association’s definition of dyslexia
Dyscalculia is a difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic.
Dysgraphia is a transcription disability that leads to deficiency in the ability to write, primarily in terms of handwriting, but also in terms of coherence.
Dyspraxia, also known as developmental coordination disorder (DCD), results in coordination, cognitive and movement difficulties that can read to others as clumsy.

“Dyslexia is in some ways a misnomer,” says Richard Selznick, PhD, director of the Cooper Learning Center at Cooper University Hospital in Voorhees, NJ and author of The Shut-Down Learner. “It’s a reading, writing, spelling problem, not just a reading problem.” Kathleen Carlsen, MEd, director of the Children’s Dyslexia Center of Philadelphia, also parses the term “dyslexia” carefully: “It’s a learning difference; it’s not that the child can’t learn,” she insists.

And this difference is often exacerbated by the disconnect that can occur between parents and schools over when and how to intervene in the teaching of children with dyslexia.

Don’t wait for “wait to fail”

Although identifying students with dyslexia can occur when a child is “quite young,” says Wendy Ross, MD, director of the Center for Pediatric Development in Bryn Mawr, PA, most public schools are organized around what’s been called a “wait-to-fail” system. “You have to fall a certain amount behind before schools will intervene,” explains Dr. Ross. That’s why many kids aren’t identified as having dyslexia until they’re in 3rd or 4th grade, when they’re required to read independently and start doing word problems in math.

If you suspect that your child may have a learning problem, don’t ignore it. No matter what grade he’s in, there’s no advantage to waiting, says Dr. Selznick: “If you think something’s off, more than likely there is.” At this point, “the bottom line is to make sure you get evaluated by an expert,” says Jean Buzzard, coordinator of the Greater Newark (DE) chapter of the national organization Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD).

“There is no one test to diagnose for dyslexia,” says Sadtler. Instead, “an evaluator will perform a battery of tests in the many areas where dyslexics struggle.” It may be faster (though more expensive) to seek an independent evaluation, rather than wait for the school, which by law is required to respond to a parent’s request for a dyslexia evaluation. “Often this is a roadblock for parents who don’t know where to turn,” says Sadtler. She recommends finding someone who can help you navigate the school system, such as a certified school psychologist, while Dr. Selznick advises locating an expert who is experienced in assessing dyslexia (see “Dyslexia Resources” for leads). However, in the end, schools may want to conduct their own evaluation.

Assess the dyslexia evaluation

School evaluations are apt to classify a child as “learning disabled,” with no mention of dyslexia. “The report might say ‘specific learning disability,’” Carlsen explains; using the term “dyslexia” means the district must provide more specialized personnel for a child who may not qualify for the school’s formal special education program.

Because most schools do not offer programs specifically targeted to dyslexic students, “There has to be enough severity [in the child’s classroom progress] to qualify for special education services,” says Dr. Selznick. Even if a child is accepted into special education — and an estimated 70 to 85 percent of special-ed students have a form of dyslexia — this route can frustrate parents with curricula similar to the mainstream lesson plan that initially caused problems for their child, only presented at a slower pace.

“A kid who has dyslexia needs a different approach,” says Carlsen — one tailored to each child’s specific struggles. Methods range from an independent evidence- based remediation plan to mainstream classroom accommodations that include reducing the amount of content the child has to copy, oral tests and a teacher-supplied homework checklist.

Assistive devices like pens that record lessons and game-based software also help kids with dyslexia get a handle on their learning. “This is the best time there’s ever been to have a learning disability, because technology is only getting better,” says Dr. Selznick. Asserts CHADD’s Buzzard, “Dyslexia is something you can overcome."

Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

New NJ Dyslexia Laws
In January, the New Jersey legislature passed a group of laws, signed by Governor Christie, that specifically pertain to dyslexia. The first requires that the International Dyslexia Association definition of the disorder be written into the state’s special education code, so schools will no longer be able to classify dyslexic students as having a vaguer “learning disability.” The other law dictates that children who show signs of learning issues be evaluated for dyslexia by the end of the first semester of second grade and that districts provide at least two hours of training in dyslexia and reading disorders to preK through third-grade general education teachers, as well as to special education teachers and reading specialists. Parent advocates see the passage of these laws as a hopeful first step but warn that a close eye must still be kept on the matter as the state’s Department of Education starts the lengthy process of incorporating the legislation into its code for the 2014-15 school year. Pennsylvania parents, take note: A similar early dyslexia– screening program bill was introduced to the state Senate last summer.

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