According to “The Nation’s Report Card,” more than 60 percent of fourth graders in the United States are not proficient at reading.
Published: July 31, 2018
By: Paige Townley
Many people think that dyslexia is just a problem of “reading backward.” But it’s much more than that. Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that causes difficulty with spelling, writing and pronouncing words.
It also doesn’t just affect boys. Studies show that dyslexia affects both genders in nearly equal numbers. Dyslexia is also not a sign of low intelligence – dyslexic individuals are gifted in many other areas, such as being more intuitive, visual, and artistic. In fact, many successful entrepreneurs are classified as dyslexic.
Dyslexia also is not curable – it’s a lifelong challenge for those who have it. And it’s also extremely common: studies show that it affects one in five people in the United States. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service estimates that approximately 15 percent of the population has dyslexia.
Furthermore, according to “The Nation’s Report Card,” more than 60 percent of fourth graders in the United States aren’t proficient at reading. “So often children are having to fail in the school system before the problem of dyslexia is being recognized,” says Dr. Stephanie Denton, the medical director and co-founder of Alabama Game Changers, a nonprofit organization that exists to help the children and families struggling with dyslexia. “Then, the children are by that time in the third or fourth grade and can’t read well, and there are many problems that stem from the inability to read.”
And that’s precisely why Denton, a pediatrician, and Karen Belcher, a pediatric nurse, started Alabama Game Changers. The organization merges the medical and educational communities with respect to childhood literacy, and it actually supports those with other learning differences/disabilities as well, but the majority of those they see are dyslexic. “Both of us have kids who are dyslexic,” Denton explains. “We realized that schools weren’t really appropriately servicing these kids. Schools do well in some areas with kids who are struggling, but not those classified as dyslexic. We realized that these children really needed more support, proper evaluation, and early intervention.”
That support, evaluation, and intervention should happen sooner rather than later, Denton notes. In fact, often by the end of kindergarten, a child can be diagnosed. “Weaknesses reveal themselves early,” she says. “A lot of people don’t realize that, but you can tell which children are struggling with dyslexia by the end of kindergarten. It used to be that dyslexics had to totally fail and be nonreaders in third or fourth grade before intervention was taken, and that’s too late. You need to catch these children early so that you can teach them to read. If we can capture these children early, we can make a huge difference in their struggles.”
Comprehensive reading evaluations are what Alabama Game Changers provides to children from six years to 24 years old, and through that, they can determine the child’s strengths and weaknesses and where they are on the path to reading. Importantly, as part of that process, they sit down with parents and explain the results. “So often we see parents who are frustrated because perhaps their child has had testing, but they don’t understand what the testing means. So we explain everything and then work with them to develop an educational plan for their child based on his or her strengths and weaknesses.”
In addition to diagnosing a child and encouraging parents to take back the medically-reviewed reading evaluation to their child’s school, Alabama Game Changers also can help parents put together a plan to get their child help outside of school. While the nonprofit doesn’t do actual treatment, they can refer families to organizations that do, such as Child’s Play Therapy Center.
Child’s Play Therapy Center provides comprehensive pediatric therapy services, including treatment for dyslexia. “We typically do testing in-house to determine a child’s reading skills, then tailor our approach to the exact needs of that child,” says Lindsay Vargas, a speech-language pathologist at Child’s Play. “And the earlier we can get started with a child diagnosed with dyslexia, the better.”
Child’s Play utilizes the Orton-Gillingham approach, which was developed by a neurologist, Dr. Samuel T. Orton, and an educator, Anna Gillingham. It was created specifically for children with dyslexia, and it’s multi-sensory, kinesthetic, and phonics based.
Treatment with the Orton-Gillingham method includes things like the child being shown flash cards with letters and getting them to say aloud the name of the letter and sound it makes, writing words and sentences and blending letter sounds and vowel sounds. “We also incorporate touch as we have them use their fingers to write a letter with sand or shaving cream,” Vargas says. “That way they are hearing it, feeling it, touching it, and speaking it aloud. That helps them learn and maintain the skills they are learning.”
In October 2015, the Alabama State Board of Education passed the Dyslexia Amendments, which defined dyslexia in the school system, recognized the significant educational difficulties caused by dyslexia, and acknowledged that certain services needed to be provided to students with dyslexia to encourage their success. “For years schools didn’t recognize dyslexia,” says Angela Fletcher, Alabama Game Changer’s executive director. “In fact, teachers couldn’t say anything about a child being dyslexic in schools until the Dyslexia Amendments.”
The amendments now require that any child reading below benchmark should be screened for dyslexia at their public school, and if they fail the screening, the school should then provide specific reading intervention for dyslexia within the classroom. The hope behind the amendments is that they will help dyslexic children get the assistance they need at an earlier age. “Getting the right diagnosis as early as possible is so important to helping set a child up for success,” Denton says.