Last week I highlighted the diversity of multilingual students, including those that have learning disabilities. Because October is Dyslexia Awareness month, this week I’d like to focus on this particular learning difference.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a neurobiological condition that affects the brain’s ability to process the written form of language (orthography) and results in an unexpected difficulty with reading (and writing). When we learn to read and write, we have to match what we know about the sounds of our language (phonology), to the symbols (letters) that represent them. In dyslexia, phonological processing is impaired when it comes to decoding (reading) and encoding (writing). Because oral language is the basis of literacy, when we can’t match our oral language to written language, learning difficulties arise, whether we are learning disabled or just don’t have enough oral fluency in the language.
People with dyslexia are not cognitively disabled, in fact, they often have above average intelligence. That’s why parents and teachers are usually surprised when a child shows difficulties in learning to read.
Dyslexia is a condition that stays with someone for life. It can range from mild to severe, but it usually profoundly affects a child’s ability to learn in school and achieve later success in life, and can lead to problems with self-confidence, motivation, and depression. Dyslexia also has a tendency to co-exist with other disabilities like ADHD and dysgraphia.
How many of our students are dyslexic?
Dyslexia is perhaps the most widespread of learning disabilities: it affects 1 in 5 people, or 20% of the population. That means that out of the 2,629,970 students in NY State, over half a million children have it; in NYC, that number is approximately 220,000.
Those numbers of STAGGERING if we think about children’s ability to achieve academically. Currently, NY State does not implement universal K-2 screening for dyslexia (watch this video and sign the petition here!); only a handful of states do.
Emergent bilinguals represent large numbers of students in our school population, both in NY state and nationwide. Researchers estimate that the number of K-12 English Language Learners with disabilities is over 350,000 students, which represents 9% of all ELL students, and 8% of all children in special education. If we calculate that 20% of ELLs are likely to have dyslexia, that equals approximately 40,000 students in NY State.
However, it’s alarming to see that ELLs are disproportionately identified as learning disabled all over the country. Schools often have a hard time distinguishing whether a student’s learning difficulties might be due to emerging proficiency in English, or a learning disability, or perhaps both. It’s equally alarming to see that to date, there has been no state-wide effort to provide a comprehensive and effective response to helping students with dyslexia, whether they have an IEP or not.
Is it any wonder that with the widespread prevalence of dyslexia and 4.5 million ELLs and counting across the country, 68% of 4th graders are reading below grade level??
What can be done?
The most significant impact you can have on a young person with dyslexia as a parent or educator is to inform yourself about the condition. There are resources for educators as well as parents to inform themselves and advocate for their students and children.
School administrators can inquire about the Shaywitz Dyslexia Screen developed by The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity , the first of its kind universal dyslexia screener that can be implemented in schools for K-2 students.
School administrators and teachers can also inform themselves of the development of English in emergent bilinguals, in order to avoid misclassifying a student as learning disabled. Watch my mini lecture here!
At the same time, work still needs to be done on how best to meet the needs of ELLs with disabilities – more on that in a future post!
At the heart of intervention for dyslexics is a Structured Literacy curriculum. Structured Literacy is a comprehensive, systematic approach to teaching literacy that involves explicit instruction of phonological awareness, especially phonemic awareness, spelling, handwriting, writing, and reading comprehension. Orton Gillingham, Wilson, Lindamood-Bell are well known and effective examples.
Dyslexics benefit most from either one-on-one or small group instruction, but going forward, I’m going to suggest ways that Structured Literacy, in particular Orton Gillingham, which I am trained in, can be effectively used in the classroom, as well as suggest techniques parents can use at home.
In the meantime, I urge you all to check out the resources I’ve given you, better inform yourselves, and contact me if you have questions!