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Finding Dyslexia in a Sea of Struggling Readers: The Challenges Are Real

Categories: dyslexia, Early Literacy, Education & Teaching, Educators, Learning Disabilities, Reading Strategies for K-12, Student Centric Learning, Teacher Best Practices, The Digital Age, Whole Child Literacy

Struggling readers are a challenge for every educator. How do you identify each child’s reading struggles? Do they need vocabulary building? Do they comprehend what they read? Do they struggle to decode words, a signal they may have a learning disability like dyslexia? Are they demonstrating behavioral problems? How do we effectively identify the characteristics of dyslexia based on screening school age children? Tim Odegard

Helping educators support children with reading barriers is a specialty of Dr. Tim Odegard, Professor of Psychology at Middle Tennessee State University. Dr. Odegard also leads the efforts of the Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia. Here is a recap of his  discussion at last year's 2022 Spotlight on Dyslexia conference. 

Reading is Language – Dyslexia is a Written Language Issue

“I'd like to start by highlighting that reading is language and dyslexia is a written language issue,” says Dr. Odegard. "Reading is the interaction between attentional systems in our brain. In our lives, we are immersed in oral language. It is the primary means of interacting with others. We are born with language processing centers for oral language systems that enable us to learn automatically, as well as process visually. Because of this, we have evolved highly integrated areas in our brains that form clusters of networks. This allows us to both express ourselves orally, as well as to receive and understand spoken language. The system that fires first is receptive. We're born into a world of sounds and pops of lights. We learn the statistical structure through exposure of verbal streams of auditory information that come into our ears and get processed. Those of us with dyslexia struggle to access written language. As an individual with this learning disability, I can tell you that life isn’t fair to insist that we must read, write and spell well automatically and effortlessly to be successful. It’s just not that way for dyslexics. Reading and writing are the modalities that we use to engage the world, and our society demands it of us. It is a non-negotiable expectation for all of us, but truly difficult for dyslexics. 

We Must Be Taught to Read

Public education has the potential to be the great equalizer to establish equality and social justice for every child. Every child has the right to go to school and receive access to information in a modality that works for them. Yet, a stark reality is millions of children are struggling to read simple passages and answer questions about what they read. Children must be taught directly how to read and write words. We do not learn how to do these activities merely by being exposed to written language. Ideally, once we are exposed to reading and writing instruction, our brains should work in a direct and systematic way, but that does not just happen for dyslexics. Reading is not a default mode in our brains. Our ability to hear the internal structures of words and their sound is in response to our learning the alphabetic code of written language. If we are not taught these skill sets, we do not learn how to read. Language development and written language development are symbiotic and relational. They feed off one another. 

Characteristics of Dyslexia

The goal of reading is to have strong oral language development and print skills. We must learn how to put words together to express ourselves. We must learn what the meaning units of words are. This is called morphology. We need vocabulary. We need reading comprehension, and we need background knowledge. Phonological awareness, phonological memory, rapid naming, these skills are all associated with, and predictive of, individuals with dyslexia. 

In your classes, you will have strong readers and poor readers. Dyslexia lies on a continuum of severity. To identify students with dyslexia, look for inaccurate or non-fluent word recognition. The child who fits the characteristics of dyslexia doesn’t decode words or spell well, is inaccurate and less efficient in word reading and decoding abilities, and does not read fluently. They have phonological processing deficits, lack sound symbol correspondence knowledge, and automaticity when reading. They may be persistently slow in their rate of response to instruction. There may be a genetic predisposition as well. Some people are pre-wired to struggle.

Behavioral Profile and Social Determinants

There are also social determinants to brain development caused by environmental factors. The World Health Organization defines social determinants of health as the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, learn, work, and age. How can you begin to mitigate this? We should look for skills, behavior, and social determinants in struggling readers, and implement early identification and intensive and sustained instruction and remediation processes. In Kindergarten, you are identifying print-focused risk in emergent literacy skills. 

Specify how screening for dyslexia relates to universal screening as part of RTI and MTSS, as well as eligibility testing for learning disabilities under IDEA. Get it out in the open, talk about it, hash it out, figure out what works. Measures should be quick and easy to administer with accuracy and pre-literacy constructs. Undertake an audit to find gaps in your existing practices, materials, and personnel to screen for dyslexia. Develop a plan to address the gaps. Perform ongoing assessments. Record the data, aggregate the data, make the data usable and useful at the systems level and at the student level. 

There are forty-nine U.S. states that have dyslexia laws on the books and most call for universal screening to determine if a student is at risk for reading failure or not meeting grade level expectations. Yet analysis of public data in states that require reporting on identification of students with dyslexia in public schools suggests that educators are under-identifying dyslexia. 

These recommendations can be carried out at multiple levels of an educational ecosystem, and at the state department of education, district level, building level, and classroom level. You can learn more and download helpful resources and recommendations from our Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia site.

Learning Ally’s Professional Learning Services are designed to strengthen educator’s instructional capacity so they can deliver a deeper, richer learning experience and promote better academic outcomes. 

About Tim Odegard

Tim Odegard, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and holds the Katherine Davis Murfree Chair of Excellence in Dyslexic Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. He also leads the efforts of the Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia. He also serves as Editor-in-Chief of Annals of Dyslexia. Before joining the faculty at MTSU, Tim served on the faculty at the University of Texas Arlington and UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. In addition to being a research scientist, Tim is a reading therapist, having completed a two-year dyslexia specialist training program at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas during his NIH-funded postdoctoral fellowship.

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