‘Strengths and weaknesses’
Nord Country School educators learn to better recognize and accommodate dyslexic students
Early in her time as a special education teacher at Nord Country School, Juana Diaz worked with a student who would change not only her professional perspective but also impact the entire campus.
Diaz taught second grade until switching into the resource classroom at the K-8 charter school northwest of Chico. This particular boy was a first-grader when, seven years ago, she began a series of educational interventions to help him catch up to his classmates. Everything she tried that year and the next two yielded “no gains,” she recalls. “In third grade I learned about dyslexia—a little bit, a little bit—and he showed some really strong signs that he was probably a dyslexic individual. So he really inspired me to learn more about it.”
Diaz did learn more. A lot more. Thanks to a grant administered in part by Chico State, she and three others at Nord Country—including Principal Kathy Dahlgren and language arts teacher Monique Dey—received intensive training in testing for dyslexia and how to teach students who have the disorder.
That boy now is in eighth grade, and the school better knows how to identify and respond to students who, like he does, process information differently than others. Those students are common—1 in 5 Americans has some form of language-based learning disability. The most common is dyslexia, which is genetic. If one parent is dyslexic, Dey said, a child has a 50-50 chance of being dyslexic as well. If both parents are dyslexic, “it’s pretty much a 100 percent chance.”
“People often think that people with dyslexia see letters backwards,” Dey said. “It’s not a vision problem; it’s processing. Their brain doesn’t work efficiently with reading, and there are tools that can actually help that.”
Dr. Lisa Benaron, a Chico pediatrician who specializes in developmental disorders, explained that dyslexia involves the establishment of neural pathways.
“It’s all about brain connections, everything we do,” she said. “Whether we’re coordinated or not coordinated, our strengths and weaknesses, all of that has do do with these ‘superhighways’ of our nervous system. So if there aren’t as many of those connections as there should be—or, as in the case of autism, there are too many, so it gets all muddled up—then you have whatever skill set you do or don’t have.”
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has shown dyslexic brains “stuck in this area where beginner language learners are,” Benaron continued. Typical development includes a child “making these pathways that are shortcuts to make this processing path easier.” This does not occur automatically in a dyslexic brain.
“The cool thing is that when they run kids through reading programs designed to help kids with dyslexia, the pattern normalizes,” she said. “The dysfunction really can be helped with appropriate reading interventions.”
Interventions for students with dyslexia should become commonplace under a California law taking effect next year. Assembly Bill 1369, passed in 2015, amends the state code for special education to require dyslexia screening and remediation in public schools.
Benaron appreciates this advance. She serves as medical director at the Far Northern Regional Center, which provides services and support to developmentally disabled individuals, and sees the attention as important “so these kids don’t fall through the cracks.”
Dey endorses the change, too. As an intervention teacher along with teaching language arts, she’s glad for anything that increases awareness (October is National Dyslexia Awareness Month) and benefits students.
Diaz is more wary than outright optimistic. Many teachers, she says, are still behind the learning curve on recognizing dyslexia. “How are they going to be able to screen and know what to look for?” she asked.
Dahlgren, her principal, agrees: “That’s the big thing I’m worried about; that people are trained completely enough and thoroughly enough.” The law does not allocate funding for school districts to implement programs, just for the state superintendent’s office to provide guidelines.
Nord Country School faculty received training thanks to grant funds from Teachers Professional Learning for Inland California, a partnership including Chico State that covers 33 counties.
The group of teachers and principal attended a week-long session in Chicago with internationally recognized expert Susan Barton. The Barton Reading & Spelling System, her tutorials for people with dyslexia, has stood as a gold standard for almost 20 years. Nord Country School has adopted this and other interventions.
They also learned how to use multiple screening tools to determine if a student is dyslexic—a determination that can be made as early as age 5. Since dyslexia long has gone unrecognized, Dahlgren noted, “a lot of parents don’t even know that maybe that’s what their struggles in school were.”
Among students with dyslexia, it’s estimated that up to one-third also have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. That statistic doesn’t surprise Benaron, who sees specific labels as a “handy shorthand” narrowly categorizing a broader condition.
“There are all these patterns … and we’ve subdivided them into diagnostic problems,” she said. “It’s like the blind man and the elephant: educators and reading specialists see dyslexia, and the pediatrician who’s hearing about how hyper the kid is, that part, they’re calling it ADHD.
“The brain of a person with ADHD often works similar to the brain of a person with dyslexia, but we’re just calling it ‘ADHD’ and ‘dyslexia,’” she continued. “It’s just a person with a brain that has strengths and weaknesses.”