Shantell Thaxton Berrett explains why teachers need targeted professional development and resources to best serve students with language-based learning disabilities
The beginning of a new year always brings new education policies and strategies. U.S. educators currently find themselves in a rapidly changing time for dyslexia legislation, and many schools are in the process of transforming the type and level of support they offer to these students. In 2015, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services created a policy identifying dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia as specific language disabilities.
Today, 39 states have statewide dyslexia laws, and many others have handbooks or resource guides. Although schools are taking steps to help dyslexic students, change does not happen overnight. State mandates, unfortunately, are not always funded, which makes it difficult for schools to obtain the resources they need to help this group of students.
As a literacy specialist and a parent of a child with dyslexia and dysgraphia, what I have found most successful to help my child succeed has been a solid relationship with the school and learning as much as I possibly could about the language disability. For teachers, too, knowledge is key. The results from state-mandated screening provide schools the information they need to identify gaps in phonological awareness and decoding, allowing districts to identify what type of intervention will be the most effective to help students with dyslexia succeed.
The Necessity of Dyslexia PD
One in five students has a language-based learning disability, the most common of which is dyslexia. Students with dyslexia are often not identified until they are older, so they are not offered proper services and intervention until after the ideal time for intervention (kindergarten and first grade) has passed. This is called the dyslexia paradox.
There is a very strong connection between pre-literacy skills and reading skills like emergent literacy skills, phonological processing, alphabetic knowledge, print concepts, rapid automatized naming, and language skills. To be truly effective, teachers should be measuring these skills when students are in K–1, during an early screening assessment, which is part of the mandates that some schools are working to implement.
Even at this young age, students will begin to demonstrate signs of dyslexia, which teachers can be trained to identify.
Some indicators may be:
difficulty in learning the alphabet, including the names and sounds of letters;
difficulty recognizing rhymes;
difficulty telling left from right; and
not being able to remember instructions they have been given in class.
However, no two people with dyslexia are exactly the same, and each student may manifest different combinations of signs. This is why it is important for teachers to have comprehensive preparation in identifying these students, so they can provide them with the best instruction possible.
Instruction: What, How, and Who
In 2000, the National Reading Panel established five core components for literacy instruction. Many mainstream classrooms and schools are trying to follow these but are using phonics instruction that is more implicit, is part of a core reading program that addresses it more incidentally, or is not necessarily aligned with science-based reading research.
Phonics instruction needs to be explicit, systematic, and sequential. Educators may think they are covering phonics, but may not be aware that the way the phonics is instructed is what determines the level of success for students, particularly those with processing deficits such as dyslexia. Because of this, students are still at risk of not developing core language and literacy skills and falling behind as they move up grade levels.
The good news is that some new laws come with funding for certain specialists. In the past, if teachers wanted to seek dyslexia certification, they had to find their own funding. With the recognition of dyslexia as a language disability, more schools are providing professional development through short seminars.
Resources for Teachers
District-level administrators are supposed to be the ones enforcing and implementing these new mandates to support dyslexic students, but they sometimes struggle due to lack of government support and funding—as well as lack of knowledge. Some administrators I have worked with are hungry for “the right answer” in supporting these students to meet the mandate, but there is no one action schools can take to support these students. While research has shown that the one thing that does need to happen is explicit, systematic, sequential phonics instruction, there are also other elements that need to be in place. Teachers’ knowledge about the disability is key for students’ success.
One resource that has been extremely helpful for administrators is the Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading, created by the International Dyslexia Association. It is a very specific guideline for K–3 educators, providing a standard of what students need to know and how teachers can support them. The research shows a high correlation between teachers’ knowledge and students’ outcomes, which should be a huge motivator for districts to provide sufficient professional development to all educators.
I have committed my career to helping students with dyslexia succeed.
After my child was diagnosed, I recognized my own need for more understanding to better help those individuals with dyslexia, which led to me completing my MA in education for reading science, as well as earning a dyslexia certification. I now serve as the dyslexia specialist for Reading Horizons. For teachers to support dyslexic students, they need in-depth professional development on teaching core reading skills including phonological awareness, decoding, an understanding of structured language, and literacy in general.
To provide the professional development that teachers need, we created new online training modules that are spread out over an entire year.
The online modules provide flexibility so educators can complete the courses on their own time and deepen their knowledge around general literacy and research to support students with dyslexia.
Administrators, educators, and parents can all contribute to supporting these students and ensuring their success both at home and at school. Knowing that there are support, resources, and new mandates for students with dyslexia and other language disabilities gives me hope that change within the educational system is possible.
Shantell Thaxton Berrett is the lead professional development and dyslexia specialist for Reading Horizons. She has a BA in English teaching and an MA in education with a reading science concentration and dyslexia certification. She is trained in LETRS, CERI, and both basic and advanced training/certification in Orton-Gillingham. She is a featured speaker at dyslexia conferences, sharing effective reading strategies for every learner. She is passionate about raising awareness about the importance of effective reading instruction for every student, especially for individuals with dyslexia.