Dyslexia can be a lever to address literacy gaps

February 3, 2020
The following article was written by Don Austin, Ed.D., Superintendent, Palo Alto Unified School District. Dyslexia is believed to affect approximately 17 percent of all learners, and while more than 40 million American adults are dyslexic, only 2 million have been properly diagnosed. The American Dyslexia Association estimates that roughly 70 percent of learners with reading difficulties have a form of dyslexia, yet most school districts have failed to recognize the potential positive impact of implementing strategies to support dyslexic learners as a cornerstone of their literacy efforts.  The Board of Education and leadership team at the Palo Alto Unified School District has recently aligned resources to prioritize dyslexia as a significant lever to impact reading skills through targeted interventions and support systems.   In 2017, the California Department of Education released dyslexia guidelines for all schools. Dyslexia is a neurobiological disability, manifested through a cluster of symptoms, resulting in difficulty with specific language skills and reading. Although those with dyslexia may excel at connecting ideas and 3D thinking, the disorder is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.  At the time when young learners are forming efficacy and expectancy mindsets that will last throughout their schooling careers, dyslexia gives the impression of an inability to read. Difficulty maintaining the arrangement of letters or making sense of sight words leads to a diminished vocabulary. Without the skills to access reading to learn, students often lag behind their peers and earn poor grades in content courses.   Early identification of dyslexia is essential to provide support systems before the disability becomes a barrier to future success. Palo Alto USD recognized early identification as a starting point to address reading deficiencies and administered the Shaywitz Dyslexia Screener to all 2,112 students in grades K-3. The Shaywitz assessment is a teacher rating scale of language and academic risk factors that indicate whether a student may be at risk for dyslexia. The results of this assessment alone are not sufficient to diagnose or rule out dyslexia; however, the results provide a reliable and valid indication of risk for dyslexia.  The initial results, although consistent with research, were staggering, resulting in identification of 546 (25 percent) of students in grades 1-3 as at-risk (kindergarten assessments will commence shortly). After cross-validating with other data sources, 239 of those students were found to need additional monitoring without specialized services. Another 225 students were identified for Tier II interventions, including in-class instruction from reading specialists and instruction beyond the school day. Finally, 73 were referred for the comprehensive Feifer Assessment of Reading assessment, and nine were identified for Tier III supports. Students requiring some form of additional support mirrored estimates from dyslexia research, which says between 14 percent and 17 percent of students benefit from screening and supports. Secondary schools have a more daunting challenge when it comes to supporting dyslexic students who may have gone unidentified in prior years. Fourth graders who scored 1 or 2 on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, and students identified by their teachers at the end of their fifth-grade year, were assessed to determine the level of support needed in sixth grade. Depending on the assessment results, students were provided interventions ranging from Tier 1 instructional supports to Tier 3 reading support. The team is currently working on a flowchart to illustrate steps in the process and appropriately coupled interventions.  A pilot of Universal Protocol for Accommodations in Reading is occurring at Henry M. Gunn High School. This protocol takes students through a series of reading passages under different accommodated conditions (text on a screen, text on a screen read by a recorded adult voice, and text highlighted in sync with a computer voice). The data resulting from the protocol shows the comprehension level of the student with different types of accommodations, helping struggling readers and their teachers determine which of the three strategies best serve them to access and learn the content. Tools accompanying this product are also available to the students and teachers in this pilot. English Language Learners identified as struggling readers who did not show indications of dyslexia on the screener were recommended for the Academic Language Development course. Students in this course receive support with language acquisition and practice speaking, reading, writing and listening in English using Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English techniques. Early literacy is recognized as a foundation for future success. Reading instruction and pedagogy are sources of recent debates and differing opinions. Absent from most conversations is the potential power of teaching reading through the lens of what we have learned through studying dyslexic students. Perhaps our lever to improve reading instruction is staring us right in the face through the early identification and remediation of barriers attributed to dyslexia. 
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