Help is increasing for teachers and students to overcome dyslexia, but resources remain limited, education experts say.
A teachers’ association, the Professional Educators of Tennessee, has advocated for increasing help for dyslexic students. Its executive director, JC Bowman, wrote a February blog post saying, “One of the key items missing across the state has been identifying teachers who are trained in dyslexia intervention.”
The association provides access to its members to participate in professional development online with Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia. Bowman says the center is one of the leading institutes in the nation. Locally, the center is working to address that missing piece, he said.
Several years ago, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law requiring students in grades K-2 to be screened for characteristics of dyslexia. Students who show those signs receive dyslexia-specific assistance through the Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI²) program, said Dr. Jennifer L. Flipse, director of MTSU’s Center for Dyslexia.
Conservative research shows 5 percent of students have dyslexia, Odegard said. The most liberal estimate is 17 percent to 20 percent. However, high-stakes testing like the National Assessment of Educational Progress for decades has shown that 60 percent of the country’s students in fourth and eighth grades are not proficient readers, said Dr. Timothy N. Odegard, holder of MTSU’s Chair of Excellence in Dyslexic Studies.
The Center for Dyslexia provides training to teachers, both at their schools or at MTSU, said Dr. Melinda M. Hirschmann, assistant director for educational services and school outreach. However, the center has limited resources and staff, so it does not reach every teacher.
The center may provide evaluations of students in very limited cases – again, due to limited resources, Flipse said. Evaluation, however, is ultimately each school district’s responsibility, said Erin Alexander, the center’s assistant director of clinical services.
The center’s other mandate is to conduct research.
The center is publishing research in “The Journal of Learning Disabilities” comparing rates of dyslexia identification among students in Arkansas and Tennessee, Odegard said. Arkansas has doubled the rate of identification of students with dyslexic characteristics in grades 3-7 compared to Tennessee’s rate. The reason is Arkansas has done screenings longer and has a dyslexia services coordinator at the state level, while Tennessee does not; Tennessee has an advisory council.
“Tennessee is improving, and last year’s numbers were better,” Odegard said. “Schools are getting better at helping.”
While some may say that every teacher should be trained on providing dyslexia services, that’s not possible, Bowman said. While teachers have professional development days, those hours are increasingly crammed with other mandated training programs. That’s where MTSU is trying to fill the gap.
Children with dyslexic characteristics need sustained intervention for reading, Odegard said. He suggests the problem is best handled by providing ongoing support for teachers.
Odegard said it took him two years of training to be certified in providing dyslexia intervention training. Others at the center took a similar amount of training. All that is in addition to their other education training.
Educators in middle and high school are “content area experts” in subjects like science or math, not reading instruction, Flipse said.
College training can only do so much for preparing teachers, Odegard said, but there is always room for improvement.
“It means continuing to support the educators in the field,” Odegard said.
Not a vision problem
The center’s staff provided these nuggets about dyslexia:
Use the word “identification” instead of “diagnosis” to talk about screening. Federal law empowers schools to identify, not diagnose. It’s more of a civil liberty issue rather than a medical issue under the law.
Dyslexia is not a function of intelligence.
People with dyslexia can learn to read.
Dyslexia is not a matter of seeing letters or words backwards – that’s a myth. It is not a vision problem, so vision therapy does not help.
People with dyslexia have trouble with the way they hear and process language.
RESOURCES FOR PARENTS
MTSU Center for Dyslexia: mtsu.edu/dyslexia
Tennessee Branch of the International Dyslexia Association: tn.dyslexiaida.org
Dyslexia is a neurobiological learning disability marked by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. Source: mtsu.edu/dyslexia/definition.php.