Dyslexia affects one in five students

Rachel Berger, founder of advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia, right, and Jan Hagedorn of the Rochester Reading Institute testify at a legislative session with Sen. Roger Chamberlain this spring.

By this time next year, all Minnesota school districts should have dyslexia screening in place.

It was a small step dyslexia advocates made in the Legislature this year, reported Rachel Berger of Hugo, founder of advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia.

The new law, added as an amendment to the Reading Well by Third Grade policy, will “require all school districts to report to the Commissioner of Education their efforts to screen these children and proceed with alternative methods of instruction,” Berger said. “School districts are now already reaching out to our group and others in the field.”

However, advocates didn't get their bill passed — a specialist bill that would have included a reading tax credit of $3,000 for parents who have to pay for tutoring instruction outside school and the hiring of dyslexia specialists at the Department of Education. Advocacy groups will work on a new angle for legislation next year, she said.

Dyslexia causes language decoding difficulties, which often manifest as spelling or reading difficulties.

Lyn Haselmann, of White Bear Township, is a structured literacy tutor who uses literacy curriculum developed by Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham in the early 20th century.

The approach teaches literacy through word formation concepts. It breaks down words into morphemes — meaningful units in words — and phonemes — meaningful sounds in words. Examples of morphemes are root words, prefixes, suffixes and “a smaller word inside a big word,” Haselmann said. Phonemes are sounds that distinguish words from each other. For example, the sound represented in English by the letters, sh, is a phoneme because sip and ship are words with two different meanings.

Teaching literacy using the structure of language as a foundation can help children with dyslexia learn to read. In fact, Haselmann said the structured literacy approach should be used by all new readers.

“They would benefit all kids, not just ours,” Haselmann said. “There is a greater capacity for all children to learn with structured literacy.”

Between 17 and 20 percent of students struggle with literacy and dyslexia, many who are undiagnosed, Haselmann said. But many are future entrepreneurs due to the creativity that comes with dyslexia — 50 percent of engineers at NASA fall somewhere on the dyslexia spectrum, Haselmann said.

“We need them, and we can't be sidelining them,” she said. But Haselmann and Berger are the last ones who would say teachers don't care — it is an awareness and training issue.  

“Ninety-five percent of teachers said they want more training in dyslexia,” Berger said. “The teachers care deeply and they want the tools for their toolbox.”


‘We knew nothing about dyslexia’

One local educator who aims to equip teachers is Wildwood Elementary K-2 reading specialist Judy Livingston, in the Mahtomedi School District.

Livingston became interested in dyslexia and how it affects early elementary literacy two years ago when her professional learning community (PLC) group was discussing struggling learners' reading skills.

They noticed a pattern — students would skip small words like “a,” “an” and “the,” would reverse letters, substitute similar words for each other, know a word on one page, but not on the next page, and misspell words.

The group of educators began to research. They watched a Youtube documentary, “Embracing Dyslexia,” and listened to a lecture from Susan Barton, a renowned expert in dyslexia literacy teaching methods.

“All of us in the room graduated from college, but we knew nothing about dyslexia,” Livingston said.

Dyslexia became “one of my passions,” she said. First, Livingston took Orton-Gillingham classroom-based training. This summer, through the Hansen Inspired Teacher Grant, she attended a course taught by Barton in Chicago that made her an official dyslexia consultant.

“When I came back from this conference all I wanted to do was talk about dyslexia,” Livingston said.

She wants parents and teachers to understand that dyslexia does not equal low intelligence.

“They are out-of-the-box thinkers,” she said. “Their brain is wired differently. We need to be able to support that. Who knows what famous people we have in our classrooms sitting right in front of us?”

Dyslexia is also along a spectrum — on the high end are people who find it hard to “even read a menu” as adults and on the low end are people who struggle with reading, spelling, directions, memorizing math facts and telling time on a clock.

The key to helping children with dyslexia reach their full potential is early screening, Livingston said. Already, Livingston added a rhyming assessment to this year's fall kindergarten screening — rhyming is related to phonemic awareness. Livingston's goal is to identify students who may have indications towards dyslexia, not to diagnose them.

She is working with teachers to develop interventions based on Orton Gillingham and Barton Reading and Spelling System teaching philosophies.

In September, she conducted a 3-hour training for intervention teachers at Wildwood and O.H. Anderson Elementary. Some kindergartners who have been receiving phonemic awareness interventions are already showing progress.

“You can tell their phonemic awareness is stronger this year than in the past,” Livingston said.

Second-graders have also benefited.

“The district allowed us to order and use the Barton Reading and Spelling intervention with second-grade students who fit the profile,” she said. “We are so happy with the results we are already seeing.”

Livingston said she sees a “new energy” among teachers in Mahtomedi elementary schools this fall regarding dyslexia. She has been sending out email blasts on the topic this month; October is Dyslexia Awareness Month.

White Bear Lake Area Schools has plans to provide further training and evaluation on dyslexia.

“Staff members have received information on dyslexia and the district will continue to inform and provide ongoing training to staff members about dyslexia and those who persistently struggle with reading,” said Ann Malwitz, professional development coordinator, in an email. “We will report our efforts to evaluate and identify students with dyslexia to the Commissioner of Education by July 1, 2017.”

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