Parent-led movement Decoding Dyslexia partnered with Representative Michelle Strinden to pass House Bill 1461, which makes steps towards better educating students with dyslexia.
Dyslexia is a learning disorder that makes it harder for a child to learn how to read from a difficulty of identifying speech sounds and understanding how they relate to letters and words.
"About 15-20% of the population has dyslexia, so it’s a very common thing that we see. One of the key things about this is that they ... learn to read differently than just the average reader, but they have average to above average intelligence. They’re a normal child that needs to learn how to read differently," Strinden said.
The group Decoding Dyslexia is nationwide and run by parents. Justine Gibbon, president of the North Dakota branch, said its goal is to raise awareness, empower families and inform policy makers of best practices for teaching students with dyslexia.
One of Strinden's sons has dyslexia, and through her experience with him, she started to see a flaw in the way we tend to teach students with dyslexia in North Dakota — a lack of early intervention.
"The problem that many parents face is that the school systems are unwilling to test or act on that. They want to give children time to just develop, because some may just be developmentally not ready to read, which is totally normal," she said. "What I found is if you do have a dyslexic child, we take a wait and see approach in the school system, but the problem with the wait and see approach is that by the time there’s a transition in elementary school where in the primary grades (in K-2 primarily), you’re learning to read, and then there’s a shift that takes place in 3rd grade where you read to learn. It’s in that 3rd and 4th grade year(s) that we really see a dramatic issue and problem coming from our dyslexic children who have not learned to read."
The problem with waiting to see, Strinden explained, is that children with dyslexia tend to fall behind their peers.
"By the time the child is in 3rd or 4th grade, they’re already 2 or 3 years behind their peers in reading," she said.
Gibbon is a Title I reading teacher in Kindred, North Dakota.
"North Dakota schools are actually really good about assessment, but I think where’s there’s a big gap is using those assessments to pinpoint those kids that do need direct phonetic instruction, that explicit intervention, like the dyslexic children, versus some that just need more exposure to vocabulary versus some that just have fluency problems," she said.
Gibbon has a son with dyslexia.
"My older son, he’s profoundly dyslexic. As a reading teacher, it was very frustrating for me, and I’m still kind of getting over that. Not being able to help my own child was very challenging, but I did learn a lot from him," she said. "I’m kind of able to pinpoint what exactly is the issue. I use those assessments a little more directly. I can look and see is it more fluency cause then I use different interventions."
Anna Hoover, outreach coordinator for Decoding Dyslexia, has the disorder herself.
"I was diagnosed at 4 years old, and it was only because I had ADD, and I had difficulty sitting still at preschool. My mom kept getting phone calls from the teacher saying 'Something’s wrong with Anna. She’s not doing like the other kids are,' Hoover said. "When I was in Kindergarten, my Kindergarten teacher … wanted me on Adderall."
Hoover went to public school in Baltimore, Maryland, where she experienced difficulty learning to read.
"I had gone to the reading interventionist; I had gone to the special ed teacher, but for some reason, it wasn’t working," she said. "I wasn’t getting it. I was frustrated. I didn’t want to go to school anymore ... I could write my name; I knew my last name, but anything you wanted me to sound out or spell, it wasn’t going to happen."
Then Hoover's parents put her in a school in Baltimore for dyslexic children, Odyssey School.
"I used the Orton-Gillingham process. Everyday, we had a bout 90 minutes of one on one tutoring where i sat with a teacher and we sounded out words over and over and over again. We read little readers. By third grade, I finally could read, and that was a big deal," she said.
The Orton-Gillingham approach is a direct, multi-sensory, diagnostic way to teach children with dyslexia that teaches them the connections between letters and sounds. It breaks down reading and spelling into smaller skills with letters and sounds and employs sight, hearing, touch and movement to help connect sounds with letters and words.
Hoover's experiences in school helped inspire her to become a teacher. Last year, she taught Kindergarten at St. Joseph Parish School.
"Being a school teacher, I think I have so much more empathy for kids in my class who are different, who learn differently. I think the biggest thing teachers can tell their students is let them know that they’re smart. Growing up, I didn’t hear that word until I was in 3rd grade, and it hurt," she said.
Hoover said she has chosen to share her story with a few parents of children with dyslexia, but she has been selective with who because of the stigma associated with dyslexia.
"I feel that kids … need to see somebody that’s like that, because not everyone is a Harvard MBA 4.0 that’s never had an educational struggle," she said. "I want kids to see that they can make it. You can have some kind of disability or life challenge, and you can still work through it and go for your goals. When I was little, I had a school psychologist tell my parents I would never go to college ... Well, I’ve gone to college. I'm working on my teacher license."
She wants to support her students and advises them not to "let the world tell you no."
Strinden's bill has created a pilot program, for which $250,000 will be allocated, that aims to promote early intervention.
It states "Each public elementary school shall include in the developing and processing of assessments and screening of reading, the core components of phonetic awareness, decoding and spelling. The screening must be offered if requested by a parent, legal guardian or teacher."