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How Can Schools Help Students With Dyslexia? In California, Responses Are Far From Consistent

LAist logo: MainLogo LAist 8/17/2022 Kyle Stokes
An abstract photo illustration of a child whipping what looks like a jump-rope, with numbers appearing between the waves of the rope, over a hopskotch grid with the phonemes for the word © Photo illustration by Arantza Peña Popo / LAist An abstract photo illustration of a child whipping what looks like a jump-rope, with numbers appearing between the waves of the rope, over a hopskotch grid with the phonemes for the word

Carol Taylor’s daughter was 12 years old when someone finally labeled her reading difficulties as “dyslexia.”

At school, Taylor’s daughter had a special education plan that entitled her to extra help — but the evaluator who wrote it didn’t use the term “dyslexia” anywhere in the document. It wasn’t until the pandemic, when Taylor was able to witness her daughter struggle with virtual school, that she knew the document was incomplete.

“She is still getting her B’s and D’s backwards,” Taylor remembered thinking. “This is dyslexia!

Reversing letters actually isn’t always a sign of dyslexia — but by that point, there had been other warning signs too. As a fifth grader, Taylor’s daughter read at a second grade level, at best. Taylor sought out a second opinion.

By comparison, Lali De Aztlan’s daughter Maya received the label at school at a much earlier age.

After kindergarten, Maya was invited to summer school and then for after-school help in first grade — but still made little progress. At the end of first grade, Maya’s teachers performed an evaluation and concluded her struggles with word sounds were “characteristics associated with dyslexia.” This school year, Maya will qualify for special education services.

Getting that label was a “relief,” De Aztlan said.

“It was like, OK, finally we’re taking the next step forward,’” she said. “And I feel very confident in our school … I felt the support.”

Districts Take Varied Approaches To Dyslexia

The California public education system’s approach to educating students with dyslexia is a study in contrasts.

Some schools have made real strides in recent years to implement curricular and culture changes aimed at helping struggling readers and dyslexic students overcome their early difficulties before they fall too far behind.

Yet in many schools, a lot of parents feel they must fight the system to get support for their kids, paying thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for tutoring services or private evaluations. Advocates say Sacramento’s reluctance to hand down clear mandates means some schools’ approaches to literacy instruction remain woefully out of date.

Their case in point: California is one of only 10 states that do not require schools to assess all students for dyslexia.

“Approaching this issue of poor reading outcomes is really done with a comprehensive approach, and I feel like California isn't there yet,” said Lori DePole, co-director of the advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia California. “We don't have a comprehensive approach.”

DePole said “comprehensive” legislation would mandate and pay for student screenings and teacher training on dyslexia — and provide funding and firm directives for how schools should respond, especially when students are identified as at-risk.

“Teachers need information. Parents need information. It's just not forthcoming from the legislature,” said Kareem Weaver, co-founder of the Oakland-based group FULCRUM, which advocates for reforms to literacy instruction.

State policymakers have handed down some guidance. In 2015, the legislature passed Assembly Bill 1369, which ordered the creation of the California Dyslexia Guidelines. The document, published in 2017, is a roadmap schools can follow to create a literacy program that benefits all struggling readers, including those with dyslexia.

There’s no law requiring schools to follow the guidelines. Still, educators say the mere fact the document exists represents a step in the right direction.

“I do think it demystified the term ‘dyslexia’ in the field a little bit,” said Veronica Coates, who oversees special education services for the Tehama County Office of Education in northern California. “I do think there was a shift, because there was a product that was put out by our state department with partners from all across disciplines.”

“The next step is now implementation,” Coates added. “Everyone's at different implementation stages — so what's next is kind of an exciting thing, but also our state is so vast that there are vastly different implementation stages.”

‘There Needs To Be A 911 Emergency’

One example: paralleling the statewide push in 2017, the L.A. Unified School Board passed its own sweeping dyslexia legislation that year. As a result, at least one special education teacher at each elementary school in California’s largest district has now received comprehensive training on dyslexia.

Dyslexia advocates in L.A. consider this a win, though they also say it hasn’t resulted in a transformation of the district’s culture or huge gains for students.

LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho promised his August budget will include a “multi-million dollar” investment in screening and expanding this training — and making it mandatory — for teachers, though he noted the training will likely have to be negotiated.

Carvalho said the advocates have a point: California must take a “unified” approach to its dyslexia response.

“The best way,” he said, “to guarantee that every single child across the state who deals with dyslexia is identified is by mandating the training, providing the resources, and providing the platform and the protocols for early identification.”

While some schools are making strides on policy, some students are also foundering on reading tests.

In 2019, 32% of California fourth graders scored as “proficient” on a national benchmark reading test. Among eighth graders, just 30% were proficient. Both marks were lower than the national average. Black and Hispanic students performed worse than their white peers — and California’s racial achievement gaps on these tests were among the widest of any state in the nation.

“The biggest heartbreaker is kids in middle school and high school who cannot read,” said Pam Cohen, leader of the L.A. chapter of Decoding Dyslexia. “They’re faking it, they’re getting pushed along, and they’re on the road to dropping out.”

“There needs to be a 911 emergency to find those kids,” she said.

‘Why Can’t You Say Dyslexia?’

For years, Carol Taylor could’ve pointed to multiple reasons why her daughter was falling behind.

Maybe it was her premature birth. Taylor had adopted her daughter — whose name is also Taylor — after she arrived at 27 weeks. Maybe that early arrival had resulted in developmental delays. Maybe it was time she missed because of severe asthma that landed her in the hospital.

Maybe it was all that bouncing between schools: Taylor had enrolled her daughter in six different South L.A. schools — both charter and LAUSD-run — searching for an elementary option that fit, and fleeing programs she found disappointing.

When Taylor’s daughter was in first grade — in the 2015-16 school year — the charter school she was attending at the time, KIPP, determined she should receive special education services. Taylor’s “individualized education program” (IEP), the legally protected plan of services they negotiated — outlined interventions to help her daughter with reading and math. The document would follow her to each of the schools she attended next.

The document made no mention of dyslexia; Taylor said the evaluator told her that her daughter wasn’t dyslexic.

Four years later, after observing her daughter make basic reading mistakes during distance learning, Taylor sought out a second opinion. With the help of an attorney, she asked LAUSD to reevaluate her daughter based on the theory she had dyslexia. The district’s evaluators concluded Taylor had a reading disorder and deficits in visual and auditory processing — though once again, the evaluation did not classify her daughter as dyslexic.

Seeking clarity, Taylor sought an outside opinion. She works as a service coordinator for a government agency that serves students with disabilities. Through that agency, Taylor connected with a psychologist who performed a multi-day assessment and concluded her daughter presented with “clear signs of dyslexia” — about as definitive an opinion, Taylor realized, as she was going to get.

The verdict made the school’s evaluation all the more confusing to Taylor.

“If you’re diagnosing her with a reading disorder, why can’t you say, ‘dyslexia'?" Taylor wondered, adding later, “If I had known, I would’ve gotten her a researched reading program.”

An Effort To Say Dyslexia Out Loud

Educators have long had a fraught relationship with dyslexia — not only the condition, but the term itself.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education issued a nationwide memo that declared bluntly: “There is nothing in [federal law] that would prohibit the use of the term dyslexia” in official special education documents.

The memo spoke to how cautious school officials had become about using the word. Some of that caution makes sense: “Dyslexia” is a medical diagnosis most educators aren’t credentialed to offer. Under California regulations, a diagnosis itself doesn’t trigger eligibility for special education services, administrators said. Technically, they qualify under a generic-sounding category: “specific learning disability.”

“I have no aversion to it, it's just not part of our language in education,” explained Benay Loftus, an administrator overseeing special education services in 10 school districts in northern L.A. County.

But Sherry Rubalcava, a retired LAUSD administrator of 37 years, felt the distinction was more than semantic: Without clearly labeling the target — a student’s dyslexia — schools sometimes offer services that miss the mark.

“When you have dyslexia, you must provide structured literacy,” said Rubalcava, referring to the approach that evidence shows works best for all struggling readers. “That’s the only way this child is going to learn to read.”

She said she witnessed students whose teachers gave them the formal label of “specific learning disability” and put the students through a generic remedial reading program — not structured literacy. She said it was “a waste of their time,” and the students rarely progressed.

“We had students who had a ‘specific learning disability’ diagnosis in second or third grade,” recalled Rubalcava, “and they were in special education for six years, and they couldn’t read. I know this firsthand.”

Rubalcava is now a leader in the L.A. chapter of the advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia.

In 2017, two months before the state published its dyslexia guidelines, LAUSD board members passed their own dyslexia legislation — and included a provision designed to empower teachers to say the word out loud.

The board’s resolution acknowledged the 2015 federal memo, affirming to LAUSD staff that regulations “[do] not prohibit the use of the term ‘dyslexia’ when determining special education eligibility and educational services noted in IEP documents.”

Rubalcava said that this effort to embrace use of the term dyslexia in formal documents has been the most successful part of LAUSD’s dyslexia push.

In IEP documents, LAUSD’s policy asks teachers to use the term — and to “include, if there are characteristics associated with dyslexia, how that would impact their learning,” said Maribel Luna, senior director for the district’s Division of Special Education.

Mileage may vary, however — it was after this policy change that Carol Taylor asked the district to re-evaluate her daughter for dyslexia, to limited success. Still, the younger Taylor was routed into a program that advocates say serves dyslexic students best.

Last year, in seventh grade, she was enrolled in one of LAUSD’s “Intensive Diagnostic Education Centers,” a program that serves students in special education who need structured interventions to catch up in reading and writing. Taylor’s daughter has improved, jumping three grade levels in reading.

But the fight for services has exhausted Taylor, a single parent, and strained her finances. She’s paid for attorneys, tutoring programs, and reading specialists, and only occasionally been reimbursed. Her daughter recently returned from a dyslexia camp in Kentucky — an $8,000 trip, though the cost was largely covered by a grant.

Though Taylor heaps praise on the IDEC program, there is no equivalent program for her daughter in high school, which Taylor’s daughter begins next year. While she’s eyeing her options, her favorite so far is the Frostig School (part of the nonprofit Frostig Center) in Pasadena and West L.A. that doesn’t contract with LAUSD. Advertised tuition: $42,000 per year.

“God provides,” Taylor said. “Would I love to have a new kitchen? Yes. I would love to have a new roof. I would love to have new electrical for my house. But it’s sacrifices, because we only have a little bit of time with our kids.”

What It Might Take To Change District Culture

While LAUSD’s resolution may have marked the beginning of a culture shift, the district’s experience rolling out training also highlights why advocates believe California needs to adopt a more comprehensive approach to dyslexia.

Consider the 2017 LAUSD resolution’s call for a plan to train staff “to improve the understanding of dyslexia and its warning signs.”

More than 5,700 teachers — roughly one-quarter of LAUSD’s teaching force — have since received “in-depth training on implementing a structured literacy approach to support struggling readers,” Luna said in an email. Another 850 paraprofessionals have also received this training.

In addition, in 2019, all district teachers and administrators received an overview of the latest dyslexia research and the resources LAUSD offers to help struggling readers.

But Rubalcava, who retired from LAUSD as an assistant principal a decade ago, says that beyond this general training, the most useful professional development was optional — and she contends it wasn’t clear that the district would require staff to use what they learned in these dyslexia sessions when working with students.

“I know what we gave our teachers,” she said, “but then they would go back to the schools, and without any accountability, they would revert back to the way they were [originally] taught reading.”

“It needs to be something that the principal will insist upon,” Rubalcava added. “It’s not enough for teachers to learn how to teach reading … if the principal doesn’t hold anyone accountable for using those strategies.”

In an interview, Luna said LAUSD does train its principals each year “on how to supervise structured literacy, how to talk to parents about dyslexia and structured literacy and why it’s important.”

Rubalcava, who was instrumental in crafting the 2017 resolution, said advocates might’ve been more effective had they called for a less-sweeping training, focusing on driving home the message to a more-specific target audience — perhaps LAUSD’s resource specialists, the special education teachers who provide pull-in or push-out services to students.

Luna said her division is planning to roll out mandatory training for that group of teachers.

“The logistics of that are still being worked out,” Luna said, though she said general education teachers could also be involved.

Luna made these comments before Superintendent Carvalho hinted at devoting additional resources to dyslexia, including mandatory training. He said full details of his proposal will be available in his revised budget, which is due out before the end of August.

“By eliminating the stigma, creating parental awareness, enhancing the possibility of universal screening, and perfecting professional development,” Carvalho said, “we will be able to do something in this district that is currently not seen across the state because of the non-existence of a legislative mandate to make it so.”

Balanced Literacy Vs. Structured Literacy

It’s also impossible to divorce the discussion of how California schools address dyslexia from parallel controversies about how elementary schools ought to teach reading and writing.

The state’s dyslexia guidelines say “extensive research” backs the structured literacy approach. Structured literacy emphasizes the association between letters and sounds. An individual sound is called a phoneme, and so the ability to associate letters and sounds, as the basis for reading and spelling, is called phonics.

Many teachers are prepared in another approach called “balanced literacy,” which relies on teaching students to use context clues to identify a word they don’t immediately recognize — letters in the word, patterns of sentence structure, even photos on the page. Balanced literacy advocates say their method does incorporate phonics instruction, but critics say not enough — that this method essentially teaches students to read using the coping strategies of struggling readers.

George Ellis, who directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UC Berkeley, said dyslexia advocates are generally right to say the structured literacy approach teaches skills that all students need — so long as educators don’t neglect the task of teaching young readers how to comprehend what they’re reading.

California is taking steps in the right direction to equip schools to address dyslexia, he said: “Although we’re behind where other states are, I think we’re headed there.”

However, little data exists to show how many schools have embraced structured literacy, Ellis said.

He said the dyslexia guidelines help, including by endorsing structured literacy. Ellis noted many teachers have been hard-wired to prefer other approaches to teaching literacy — including by their teacher preparation programs or influential mentor teachers. He also noted that California hasn’t endorsed a set of new curricular materials since the guidelines emerged, leaving open the possibility that even an informed teacher might be using outdated reading and writing textbooks.

“We’ve given these guidelines that really guide teachers to embrace, possibly, a new approach,” Ellis said, “yet their materials are the old materials.”

And there's a money element, too.

"When we’re talking about making [curriculum] decisions, many times that is at the district level with a district administrator. Their first point of contact when it comes to reading could be a sales rep," he said. "A lot of the district admins we work with in the Bay Area tend to have transferred down from high school and were never trained in reading science.”

What California’s Guidelines Say — And How Schools Can Put Them To Use

While different schools are at different stages of culture change, many special education providers see the state’s dyslexia guidelines as a firm foundation to build on.

That they have positive feelings about the guidelines is saying something. Initially, their Sacramento advocacy group — Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) Administrators of California — opposed Assembly Bill 1369, the legislation that ordered the guidelines’ creation.

Based on some of the regulatory changes the bill ordered, SELPA administrators feared lawmakers’ remedy for dyslexia would be to refer more students for special education services. Not only would that be costly and time-intensive, but it would go against the advice of literacy experts, who say a dyslexic student can make just as much progress in a general education setting with a properly equipped teacher.

“We really went on a road of healing with, especially, the dyslexia community after that,” said Coates, the Tehama County administrator who is now a member of the statewide SELPA advocacy group’s executive committee.

But then the guidelines came out in August 2017 — and it became clear the onus would not be on special education alone.

“The guidelines do a nice job of saying to schools, ‘You need to restructure how you look at this,’” said Patty Metheny, the chief administrator for a SELPA that covers six districts in San Bernardino County and current chair of the statewide SELPA advocacy group’s executive committee.

The structure the guidelines recommend: a series of gradually escalating responses to students’ individual levels of need — in education-speak, a “multi-tiered system of support”:

  • Lowest tier: Services every student receives; the guidelines recommend schools screen every student for dyslexia “in kindergarten and no later than first grade.” 
  • In the next-highest tier: For those the screenings identify as lagging behind; students might have teachers keeping a closer eye on them in smaller groups. 
  • In the highest tier: The small percentage of students with the most severe need; would be pulled in for individual help.

“If, over a period of time, [educators] find … the student is not responding to that targeted instruction,” Metheny explained, referring to the middle tier, “that's when it may be appropriate to dig a little deeper” and refer the child for special education services.

The guidelines “encourage that move away from one-size-fits-all” services, Metheny said.

‘I Do See Progress’

Last year, at WISH Charter in L.A.’s Westchester neighborhood, Lali De Aztlan saw a similar escalation of interventions for her daughter, Maya, and her twin brother.

At the beginning of their first grade year, their teachers sent home a folder full of flashcards with sight words — as, is, it, I, am. Though both Maya and her brother were struggling with reading, De Aztlan said her daughter had a harder time retaining the words on the cards.

“She’s good at sounding it out, but she … doesn’t identify it with a word that she knows,” De Aztlan explained.

In January, her teachers asked De Aztlan to let both Maya and her twin brother stay after school for an extra 15 minutes of more intensive, small-group intervention. Her brother started gaining reading levels, but Maya still lagged behind. De Aztlan, who was also working full-time, felt overwhelmed.

“As a busy mom, I was like, ‘I’m not doing enough,’” she said. “It would be like, ‘Oh my god, it’s bedtime and I’m not doing the flashcards.’”

Last spring, De Aztlan hired a tutor — on her own dime — to work with the children on reading skills. When it was clear Maya still wasn’t gaining ground fast enough, De Aztlan requested special education services. Her school’s evaluation concluded Maya’s reading struggles likely stemmed from dyslexia.

Maya’s progression of escalating interventions echoes an approach that the special education administrators hope schools across California will embrace.

“It’s targeted intervention,” said Loftus, who heads the Antelope Valley SELPA.

“It’s shifted that focus,” Metheny added, “from just special education being the [only] resource for a student who's struggling to read.”

This fall, as the new school year starts, Maya will have an IEP at school entitling her to at least a half-hour of intensive instruction with a reading specialist. For De Aztlan, the special education plan was a “relief.”

“I do see progress,” she said. “We have seen progress from her — and I think the best thing about Maya is that she wants to learn. She wants to read.”

Part 4, coming August 24: Bringing Dyslexia To College

LAist reporters Julia Barajas, Mariana Dale, Robert Garrova and Jill Replogle, and engagement producer Adriana Pera, contributed to this story.

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This story originally appeared on LAist.com.

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