Addressing Dyslexia in Arizona, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a three part blog series on addressing dyslexia in Arizona. Part 1 can be found here.

The subtitle for this post should be “Call It What It Is.” Where are we today in Arizona policies, student support and teaching practices to address dyslexia?

The answer is a complex one, and this post ended up being a lot longer than I anticipated, despite barely scratching the surface. Arizona, and possibly other states in the nation, is truly in a transitional period when it comes to supporting students with dyslexia. Parent activists and other dyslexia advocates have, it seems, felt as though they have been in the belly of the whale for decades, and yet are perhaps emerging into a more hopeful time.

In my first post on this topic, I mention feeling figuratively hushed from using the “D” word in meetings. I want to explain that a bit more. Over my years teaching English, I have learned some of the basic symptoms of dyslexia. From time to time, when discussing a student’s reading gaps or slow progress during meetings, I have questioned whether a student might be dyslexic as a potential factor. However, in none of these meetings has a counselor or special education teacher ever really validated that language; they don’t repeat the word or follow up on further assessment to determine whether the student is dyslexic. I honestly can’t think of a single time, over several schools and districts through the years, that the word “dyslexia” was written into a single individual education plan (IEP) or accommodation (504) plan. And I never knew why, but I think I am beginning to understand.

In the vast majority of schools, there is no program designed specifically to address the unique challenges of dyslexia, especially in secondary schools, but even at the elementary level. Under IDEA (the law that guarantees access to special education services and accommodations for students who need them), “dyslexia” is not a separate category, but is included under the umbrella of “specific learning disability,” in reading or writing. Whatever is put into a student’s individual education plan (IEP) for special education is what legaly has to be addressed through services and accommodations. On a practical level, this creates a massive challenge for schools in which few teachers have the training or resources necessary to effectively remediate for students with dyslexia, but where they do have time, resources and training in other types of reading interventions. These teachers typically teach in classrooms with students who may have various types of SLD’s, and interventions for dyslexia may not address those students’ needs. There are research-based and effective programs (Orton-Gillingham, Barton, and Wilson are examples), but they must be implemented with fidelity. That takes the most scarce resources a school has: time and money.

If a student’s disability is determined to be enough of a barrier to academic progress, the student receives special education services. However, as you can see, those services will only rarely be targeting dyslexia. In 2015, the federal Department of Education clarified to the states that nothing in IDEA prohibits including “dyslexia” in a student’s IEP. However, nothing in their letter really encourages anyone to include the term (or other more specific conditions that qualify as an SLD). However, according to reading and dyslexia specialist Sharon Hanna, and other sites I have read, approximately 80% of students determined to have an SLD are dyslexic. But it is almost nowhere in their plans.

And, of course, many dyslexic students develop coping mechanisms that allow them to close a bit of the gap themselves, and may not qualify for or receive services at all under special education policies and laws. These students are likely highly intelligent, and reading adequately, but perhaps not at the level they could reach were they given targeted remediation.

Several activist parent groups exist in Arizona because this, sadly, has been our history in addressing dyslexia. In fact, if you want to look at the issue through a more cynical lens, schools may have created a culture where the “D” word is off-limits to avoid legal challenges to the special education services that they are equipped to provide. Theoretically, if a school were to write “dyslexia” into an IEP and then not provide services that have been shown to be effective in helping students with dyslexia, they open themselves up to lawsuits which could, in addition to damages, require a district to pay tuition for the student to attend a school that does specifically support students with dyslexia.

A less cynical way to look at it is that many school psychologists feel uncomfortable “diagnosing” dyslexia (possibly because of this culture of silence we have created). Even fewer teachers feel that they have the expertise to identify students with dyslexia or to help them learn to read and write using the best practices available. Families are usually informed that if they wish to pursue a more detailed diagnosis of dyslexia or other disorders, they need to go see a specialist outside of the school system and pay for it themselves.

However, according to Sharon Hanna, based on training she received from the International Dyslexia Association, there is no reason that with a bit more training in how to interpret assessment results, a school psychologist could not identify dyslexia in a student. She even argues that a teacher or instructional aide could be trained to do effective initial screenings to help identify students earlier, even potentially using DIBELS, a commonly used reading assessment being used in classrooms now. Certainly staff training is less expensive than incarceration, and research in Texas suggests that about 48% of prisoners are dyslexic. The question is whether there is a will to adjust our school systems to address this specific challenge.

Perhaps if more supports were available in schools to for students with dyslexia, more people would be motivated to develop screening programs. In public education, we have been conditioned to accept the general truth that up until now, schools have done little to help students with dyslexia.

Some teachers I have spoken to are not sold on the idea of creating specific dyslexia programs. Several reading specialists I have spoken with mention that the techniques used in Wilson or Barton programs are the same types of strategies they use in their reading intervention classrooms.

This may be true in some sense. The problem, according to Hanna, is that typically, the frequency and amount of time dedicated to these interventions is not adequate. For a true Orton-Gillingham, Wilson or Barton program to be effective and have an impact, it needs to be implemented with fidelity, consistently, with sufficient time allotted, approximately an hour per day at least four days per week. This is much less than the typical services provided to a student being pulled out of class for reading intervention or special education services. Schools confronted with this dilemma worry about the students missing out on core classes such as math and language arts. However, if the student cannot read and write words, although there may accommodations such as reading aloud that can help the student develop comprehension skills and content knowledge, spending time in the core classes will be frustrating. If the student were given remediation with fidelity and the appropriate time allocated for one year, it is quite possible he or she would be back in core classes and reading at grade level.

This all sounds incredibly bleak, but parent groups have been pushing on the issue for some time, and recent developments seem to be building momentum and the will to change school systems. In my next post, I will share what I am learning about the changes taking place in Arizona. If you want a spoiler on the sequel, check this out.


Amethyst Hinton Sainz

I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years.

My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM.

In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me.

I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.

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