October is Dyslexia Awareness Month. Dyslexia is a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words (decoding). The number one way to ensure dyslexic students achieve success is early and appropriate intervention. Towards this goal, 41 of the 50 states in the U.S. have instituted a universal screener (predictive assessments that measure risk factors for dyslexia through a “snapshot” of the student’s reading). New York State is not one of them. This needs to change!
According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, dyslexia impacts about 20% of the population and 80 to 90% of learning disabilities are dyslexia. In addition, while no national studies have been conducted regarding the prevalence of dyslexia among prisoners, in 2000, a study was conducted in Texas prisons. It was concluded that 48% of prisoners were dyslexic, and two-thirds struggled with reading comprehension.
Universal screening is a critical first step in identifying students who are at risk of experiencing reading difficulties and who need more systematic and explicit reading instruction. It has been my experience that structured literacy (systematic, explicit, and diagnostic) helps all children learn to read. However, it is extra helpful for children with dyslexia, who often have difficulty with basic reading skills. The earlier children build a solid literacy foundation, the better they can develop more advanced reading skills.
Unfortunately, New York State students are not being screened for dyslexia. This puts our students at a serious disadvantage. While their peers in Connecticut and NJ are being screened in kindergarten through second grade, our students are left to flounder and “wait and watch.” New York parents who are concerned about their child’s reading ability must beg school districts to give their child some sort of assessment. Equally challenging are parents who trust that the school is doing the right thing for their child. This often leads to the “wait and watch” phenomenon, in which parents are told that they need to give their child time to develop as a reader. Here is the catch, one out of every five people has dyslexia. In a class of 25 students, theoretically, five students have dyslexia. If those five students are in the “wait and watch” group, without a universal screener, by the time those children are evaluated, critical learning opportunities have slipped by.
I am a retired teacher with over 30 years of experience. Ten of those years I was a first-grade teacher, and I was a literacy specialist for 17 years. I have seen firsthand what happens when a child’s learning disability goes undiagnosed. Teachers cannot be responsible for picking up all learning issues by observation and informal assessments. While often experienced teachers can identify students with learning disabilities, new teachers, and twice-exceptional students (a child who, along with being considered gifted in comparison to same-age peers, has one or more disabilities) can cause learning disabilities to be missed. That is why a universal screener is so important. The screener can help capture each student’s reading and language strengths and weaknesses in the early stages of development.
Interestingly, as I was writing this, it occurred to me that the percentile of people with dyslexia is the same as the percentage of the states not administering a universal screener. Those nine states (or 20%) not administering a universal screener are Alaska, Hawaii, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
Currently, there is a bill (#S7418) in the Senate Education Committee waiting to be passed. A summary of the bill reads as follows: “amends the education law by adding a new section 4407-a, requiring all school districts to provide mandatory screening for the purposes of early identification, support, intervention and accommodation of children with dyslexia.” New York, our children deserve to get the interventions they need, as early as possible. We must join the 41 states that are already doing the right thing. Please reach out to the Senate Education Committee chair, NY Senator Shelley Mayer, at firstname.lastname@example.org and let her know you support this bill!