We are excited to bring you the following guest blog post about dyslexia dynamics and finding appropriate reading support for children with dyslexia. This post was written for our blog by our colleague and fellow special education attorney Alexis Greenberg (bio below):
Children with language-based learning disabilities often go unnoticed in the classroom, their silent struggles continuing as they fall further and further behind. Though parents are often told that their child is a “late bloomer” or that their child will “grow out of” these difficulties, the fact remains that dyslexia and other learning disabilities are lifelong challenges stemming from unique neurological processing patterns.
Dyslexia is a language-based learning difference. This means dyslexia is one of a range of difficulties related to the use and understanding of spoken and/or written language. Students exhibiting some of the most recognized signs of dyslexia are frequently offered generalized reading support programs. Unfortunately, students often remain in such programs even when it is clear they are not making progress. In addition, school districts sometimes discourage parents from actively seeking evaluations, particularly when the child is already receiving the school’s own reading supports. Parents should know and remember that they may request an evaluation of their child at any time, even if the school recommends that the child remain in the generalized reading support program for a while longer before evaluation. In fact, it is critical for students who may have language-based learning disabilities to be formally evaluated as soon as possible.
Once a child has been evaluated, the diagnosis may seem confusing. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) is the formal handbook of diagnoses used by evaluators. The actual word “dyslexia” may not appear in a child’s diagnostic report because the DSM-5 does not use the term. Instead, children with dyslexia are generally diagnosed as “Specific Learning Disorder with Impairment in Reading” under the DSM-5. When discussing a child’s diagnosis, it is important to note that dyslexia and intelligence are not related. A student may show exceptional intellectual strengths and still struggle with reading. When considering whether an offered program is appropriate, all aspects of the student’s cognitive profile should be considered, not just any known difficulties with reading.
The key point to remember is that children with dyslexia have a unique neurological processing pattern. Reading programs that do not recognize or respond to this unique pattern will be unsuccessful in teaching a student with dyslexia to read. This is where Orton-Gillingham comes in.
In short, Orton-Gillingham is an approach to teaching every rule (and exception) of the English language. In other words, it is a systematic way of breaking down English into each of its component rules and then teaching each of these rules to a child one by one in a structured, sequential way. Parents might also frequently hear the term “multisensory.” To retain the language rules necessary for mastering reading, students with dyslexia often need to be taught in creative ways using sight, sound, touch, and movement.
Individuals fully trained in the entire Orton-Gillingham approach spend many hours learning each of these component rules themselves. They then spend many more hours learning how to teach children these rules, and how to appropriately correct the errors the students may make. Because these tutors know every rule and exception, they can meet a child exactly at the student’s level – gaps, strengths, and all. There are also many “prepackaged” programs based on the Orton-Gillingham approach. (The Wilson program is one with which many parents may be familiar). These prepackaged programs use teacher handbooks and premade materials to guide the teacher and student in progressing through the Orton-Gillingham approach.
There are three main concerns when a school district offers an Orton-Gillingham-based program. First, is the program really based on the fundamentals of Orton-Gillingham? Second, is the teacher who is offering the program actually certified? Many programs offer teachers simplistic “training” workshops over several days, whereas a fully certified tutor has completed many hours of classroom work along with a multitude of observed hours working with students, culminating with an application process before becoming formally certified. Third, is the offered Orton-Gillingham program being offered with fidelity? In other words, is the student receiving the program with the frequency and duration recommended by that program to be effective?
It can be hard to know when to reach out for assistance. Ask for an evaluation if a child is struggling with reading, or if the offered reading supports are not helping. If a student is developing anxiety or challenging behaviors because school has become overwhelming, and if appropriate support from the district is not forthcoming, parents should reach out for legal advice and guidance. Students with language-based learning differences can be creative, dynamic thinkers and learners. Finding an appropriate reading program is the first step.
Alexis Greenberg began her legal career in the litigation department of a major Manhattan firm and currently practices in the area of special education law. Ms. Greenberg first encountered the Orton-Gillingham literacy method for students with dyslexia while teaching in New England. The accomplishments of these students sparked Ms. Greenberg's enduring interest in students with learning differences and in special education law. Ms. Greenberg is an alumna of New York University School of Law and a magna cum laude graduate of Brown University, where she studied the cognitive development of language in children. She has also completed the 60-hour classroom portion of the Associate Level Orton-Gillingham training through The Orton-Gillingham Academy (formerly AOGPE) and writes a regular special education law column in the OGA Newsletter. Ms. Greenberg and her husband and young child divide their time between New York City and New Jersey.