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Should we screen all kids for dyslexia?

Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators are pushing to develop a tool that could be used to screen every young student in California schools for dyslexia.

A mother shares how her son went years without help for his dyslexia – still reading at a kindergarten level in sixth grade. What can be done to keep children with dyslexia from slipping through the cracks?

Transcript:

Anne Vasquez:

Welcome to Education Beat. I’m Anne Vasquez, executive director at EdSource. Governor Gavin Newsom and state legislators are pushing to develop a tool that could be used to screen every young student in California schools for dyslexia. Screening students in early grades can help teachers and parents address one of the biggest barriers to academic success, the failure to read at grade level. It’s a topic that’s close to Newsom’s heart. He has struggled with dyslexia since he was in elementary school. He knows how it feels to struggle with reading as a child. He even wrote a children’s book inspired by his own experience.

New Speaker:

You feel dumb you feel isolated. And frankly, a lot of the caregivers, teachers themselves, or the advisors, they didn’t really know how to handle it.

Anne Vasquez:

In California who’s getting screened and who isn’t? How can we prevent undiagnosed kids from falling through the cracks? Here is this week’s Education Beat with host Zaidee Stavely.

Zaidee:

Renee Webster Hawkins is a mom of two children both in the Sacramento Unified School District. When her son Jeremy was in first grade, he struggled with reading. So his teacher recommended that he be evaluated for a learning disability. A private evaluator said he did likely have a reading disability and needed more testing. So they reached out to the school district and asked for an evaluation.

Renee:

We did ask for a comprehensive evaluation and we included the D-word.

Zaidee:

The D-word is dyslexia. But the school district decided Jeremy had no reading disability whatsoever.

Renee:

And he continued to fail in reading primarily, but also his basic math skills. He was just very by behind. He was bright. He was creative. He was socially popular. And got along well in the classroom and outside and he was athletic and participated in all the school activities. But he couldn’t read.

Zaidee:

Finally, near the end of third grade, the school district evaluated Jeremy again. They decided he did have a reading disability. But they didn’t think it was dyslexia. So they started pulling him out of class to get extra help with reading

Renee:

And they didn’t provide him any specific curriculum tailored for reading disabilities. They really just integrated what his general education teacher was providing him and hoped that with more time in a smaller group, more attention focused attention that perhaps he would get it.

Zaidee:

But Jeremy didn’t get it. He still couldn’t read. Meanwhile, his classmates were moving along. They went to fourth grade. Then fifth. By this time, you really need to know how to read to be able to learn other content. Jeremy started feeling terrible about himself.

Renee:

He was falling to sleep regularly, every night, crying that he was gonna end up in juvie. He thought that was his destiny.

Zaidee:

This is Education Beat getting to the heart of California schools. I’m Zaidee Stavely. This week: should we screen all kids for dyslexia?

Zaidee:

By the time Jeremy was in fifth grade, his parents were seeing all kinds of signs that they thought pointed to him having dyslexia. When reading he would skip words, but not the same words every time he would read the same sentence. He wasn’t understanding the basic rules of how consonants and vowels fit together to make words. So they arranged for another private evaluation, this time with a doctor of educational psychology, someone who’d been in the field for 30 years, who had evaluated hundreds of children throughout her career.

Renee:

She evaluated him as having the most severe dyslexia that she had ever seen. We took that evaluation back to the school and they still refused to believe it. And they refused to provide him the kind of intervention that that education science proves can work for kids who have this kind of learning disability.

Zaidee:

So for sixth grade, Renee enrolled Jeremy in a private school that specializes in teaching students with dyslexia. When they evaluated him there, they told Renee he was reading at a kindergarten level.

Renee:

I was horrified.

Zaidee:

Almost instantly Renee saw changes in Jeremy at the new school.

Renee:

The words out of his mouth the first day is, I finally found my peeps. And he meant other students that were bright, but struggled like him in reading and teachers who saw that he was bright and that he had promise and who committed to him to working with him with the appropriate instruction.

Zaidee:

At the private school teachers taught Jeremy about phonemic awareness, what sounds letters make and how they work together. They focused on roots of words, how prefixes and suffixes work, but all in a way children can understand. By the end of eighth grade, Jeremy was reading at a 10th grade level. Now he’s back in public school. He’s a junior at the school of engineering and sciences in Sacramento. He’s getting mostly A’s and B’s and he’s planning for college. Jeremy’s story is a success story, but it’s also a cautionary tale. Jeremy’s parents had lots of education. They knew about dyslexia and they were able to pay for private evaluations. They had to take out a loan to pay the tuition at his private school, which was $15,000 a year. Most families in California wouldn’t be able to afford that, or they wouldn’t be able to access a loan. So what about those kids? Renee believes every child in California should be screened for dyslexia early on in kindergarten or first grade.

Renee:

Teachers need and deserve this information as well. You know, teachers all want the best for their students. And most of our teachers have gone through teacher prep programs where they don’t teach teachers how to teach reading. And so they don’t even know to ask for screenings or what kinds of evaluations that can help them identify with precision what kind of help their kids need.

Zaidee:

Governor Gavin Newsom is taking on that issue this year. My colleague Carolyn Jones is writing about it for EdSource. Hi, Carolyn, how are you?

Carolyn:

I’m good. Thanks. How are you?

Zaidee:

Prtty good. So what is Newsom proposing?

Carolyn:

What he’s doing is that he’s put 10 million dollars in his proposed budget for dyslexia research at UCSF as well as money that he gave to UCSF in previous is budgets. And it’s kind of being divided between UCSF, UC Berkeley, UCLA to really kind of double down on dyslexia research. And the goal is to come up with a tool, an assessment, that can be given to kindergartners and first graders. Ideally to every single child in the state within the next year or two.

Zaidee:

There’s also a bill in the state Senate that would mandate these screenings for all children. Can you give us a little bit better sense of what dyslexia is?

Carolyn:

Sure. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what dyslexia is. It’s a disability with reading, essentially, where there’s a bit of a disconnect between what your eye sees on the page and then how your brain interprets that or understands that. Children learn to read in a lot of different ways. Sometimes they look at a picture and they memorize the word, or sometimes they learn to kind of sound out a word, or they kind of decode it, or they get the information a lot of different ways. And for children with dyslexia sometimes it’s really hard for them do that. And so you have to learn how to read in a different kind of way than the way that most children learn how to read right now in kindergarten.

Zaidee:

Here’s how governor Newsom described his own experience in elementary school to ABC 7 News.

Gavin Newsom:

Back of the class with eyes down, back of the class, acting like you’re doing something else so no one would ever look up at you. Nothing more terrorizing seriously than going down the rows of desks, everyone’s asked to read a chapter in a book and you’re just staring at the clock going, please, please, please get this period to end so I don’t have to stand up in front of everyone.

Zaidee:

And so, and how big of an issue is it? Do we know how many kids in California have dyslexia or may have dyslexia?

Carolyn:

Well, it’s considered a spectrum disorder. So there’s some kids who have dyslexia who are never really diagnosed. And some estimates are as high as 20% of children have some kind of problem with reading, but then there’s severe dyslexia, which is really obvious and notable. And that’s a much smaller percentage. But the stakes are very high. If kids don’t learn how to read pretty fluently by third or fourth grade, I mean, things tend to sort of unravel. They have a harder time in school. It’s hard on their self confidence. Sometimes they never catch up. There’s been a lot of studies that show people with dyslexia are less likely to graduate from high school. So the stakes are very, very high to get these kids to learn how to read early.

Zaidee:

And Renee was able to get help for Jeremy outside of the public school system. But are there other kids that are just slipping through the cracks that no one realizes they have dyslexia?

Carolyn:

Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, you just have to look at the data. I mean, the number of students in California who aren’t reading at grade level by a third or fourth grade is large. And probably a good percentage of them have dyslexia or some other kind of reading disorder. If you catch it early, if you catch it in kindergarten or first grade, and you teach that child how to read in a way that makes sense for them, there’s no reason why they can’t do just as well as all their peers and classmates. I mean, Gavin, Newsom’s a perfect example.

Gavin Newsom:

This the gift I think of dyslexia at the end of the day. And I know word gift is a controversial one because it’s really ways of overcompensating become gifts. They become attributes, they become advantages. But what I’m able to do is after I read something, I have to read it again. And in reading it again then it becomes indelible in my mind. I’m able to take it away from the written word and I’m able to connect it in a way where my memory is strengthened and my ability to communicate that message is strengthened. So there’s so many wonderful things that come from it. Being creative, learning how to fail, because that becomes an expertise. There’s a creativity with a lot of dyslexic people that makes them some of the most, I think, dynamic and magnificent people because they see things a little differently and they connect dots a little differently. And we live in a world where we don’t want linearity. We don’t rote. We want people to think outside the box. We want people to connect things in different ways. And you look at Winston Churchill, you look at Picasso, you look at Richard Branson, all these fellow dyslexics. We’re in good standing. And we’re in a good place.

Zaidee:

That was Newsom speaking in an interview with ABC 7 News.

Carolyn:

There are lots and lots of strategies that kids can learn. And the younger you start, the more you can kind of rewire your brain, the easier it is. It’s like learning a language, you know? So the younger you are, the more natural it comes. So that’s why there’s a lot of pressure to do this early. I interviewed another family whose daughter was severely dyslexic in first grade and was just doing terrible and hated school and felt like the class dummy and all this. And they spent some money and hired a specialist. And they were able to get her reading at grade level within a year or two. And they said, yes, it costs as much to send her as it would’ve to send her to a private school, but they felt they had no other choice. So there’s this idea that all children should have that opportunity.

Zaidee:

So the problem seems clear. Kids with dyslexia are slipping through the cracks, struggling in school, because nobody realizes what’s wrong or what they need to succeed. So more assessment might seem like an obvious solution. But not everyone agrees that all children should be screened at an early age for dyslexia.

Carolyn:

The teacher’s union has been opposed to this in a past, as well as the California School Board’s Association has been opposed to this for a variety of reasons. One is that students learn how to read at their own pace. And there’s a concern that students might be over-diagnosed or misdiagnosed at a young age. If kids don’t reach a certain benchmark at a certain age, suddenly they’re identified as having a disability, which might or not be the case. So there’s some resistance based on that. And also with English learners of all languages, not just Spanish, but you know, Asian languages, dyslexia looks a lot different in different languages. There’s a concern that the assessment tool is not gonna take that into account. And that a lot of students will be diagnosed with dyslexia when really they just don’t understand English that well or speak a different language.

Zaidee:

Right. I’ve talked with advocates who say that the tool needs to be done… it can’t just be translated from English into another language such as Spanish. It has to be actually developed considering how children would learn how to read in that language.

Carolyn:

Absolutely right. Right. Which is what the researchers are trying to do it now. And they really are trying hard to come up with an assessment tool that is well translated into other languages. Apparently like in a lot of Asian languages there is no phonetics. There’s no phonics. So you have to come up with a completely different way of measuring how students read. So it’s taking some time and there’s some equity issues. Like they don’t wanna trot out the English version first and have everyone else wait. I think they want to unveil it as close together as possible. So that’s been some of the concern about making sure they really get this right.

Zaidee:

Getting it right, developing a tool that won’t over-diagnose and that takes into account the variety of languages spoken in California schools is a big challenge. This school year, UCSF launched a pilot study of an English language tool to detect dyslexia in 30 schools across California. A separate version in Spanish and another in Mandarin will be piloted later this year. With help from the funding in Newsom’s budget the researchers say the new tool, called Multitudes, could be implemented across the state as soon as 2023. In the meantime, it often falls to parents like Renee to advocate for their struggling kids.

Renee:

And that’s why I’m speaking out today, because I know that for every Jeremy there’s 999 kids whose parents don’t know that they have a right to ask for that evaluation or whose parents don’t know about dyslexia. And that if given the right intervention early enough, you can not only help your child learn to read, you can avoid the special education program altogether. If given the right intervention in first or second grade for most kids, not all, but most kids, if they got the right intervention, they would be on track and reading at grade level by third grade.

Zaidee:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools, a production of EdSource. You can check out Carolyn’s story on edsource.org. Our producer is Coby McDonald. Special thanks to Renee Webster Hawkins, Carolyn Jones, and our director Anne Vasquez. Our theme. Music is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. I’m Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week and subscribe so you won’t miss an episode.

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