A Brief Overview
- Washington passed a law in 2018 requiring schools to screen young children for the indicators of weaknesses associated with dyslexia and support literacy across all grades. The law took effect in the 2021-22 school year.
- Dyslexia is a Specific Learning Disability. Students with learning disabilities are eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) if they demonstrate a need for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). SDI is key when a student isn’t keeping up with grade-level work and standard teaching strategies aren’t working.
- The Revised Code of Washington (RCW 320.260) requires schools to support literacy with “multi-tiered” programming. That means schools provide different levels of help for all students who need it, regardless of special education eligibility.
- The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) supports a library of screening tools and best practices. Included are handouts for families in multiple languages.
- PAVE provides a video: Supporting Literacy for Students with Learning Disabilities.
A child who struggles to read can quickly fall behind in school. Nearly every academic area includes some reading, and children might become confused or frustrated when they don’t get help to make sense of their schoolwork. Behavior challenges can result, and sometimes schools and parents struggle to understand why the student is having a hard time.
Washington State requires dyslexia screenings and interventions. Lawmakers in 2018 passed Senate Bill 6162 to require schools to assess children from kindergarten through second grade using state-recommended literacy screening tools. The law took effect in 2021-22.
In January 2021, Superintendent Chris Reykdal called on the state to “completely overhaul early literacy and teach students using proven strategies that are grounded in the science of reading.” The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) supports a library of screening tools and best practices, with resources for families in multiple languages.
Educators, psychologists, and other professionals in related fields nationwide are participating in a movement called the Science of Reading. The goal is to share research about literacy to shift teaching strategies and improve outcomes for students.
Help with reading may be part of special education services
The federal law that provides special education eligibility and funding is called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). According to theIDEA, Dyslexia is a reading disability—aSpecific Learning Disability. Specific Learning Disability is a category of eligibility for an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Children with Specific Learning Disabilities often struggle to read, write, or do math. If the impact on school is significant enough, they have the right to Specially Designed Instruction (SDI), which is an important part of an IEP. The service minutes listed in the IEP describe the SDI, whose providing it, and when/where the SDI is provided.
Each area of SDI includes at least one IEP goal. IEP goals are built to support learning, and appropriate progress is required as an element of FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education. FAPE is what a student with a disability has the right to.
Here’s a review of this key information:
- IEP Eligibility is based on a student’s needs
- Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) serves the identified needs
- The IEP tracks learning progress with specific goals in each area of SDI
- Appropriate progress is one measure of FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education
Reading supports are schoolwide
Not all students who need reading support have IEPs. The Revised Code of Washington (RCW 320.260) requires schools to support literacy through “multi-tiered” programming. That means schools provide different levels of support for all students who need help, regardless of special education identification.
Some schools have reading programs funded by Title 1, which is part of a federal law called Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Title 1 is funded to close opportunity gaps related to poverty and other measures.
TIP: Ask about all options for reading support at your school. If a student with an IEP participates in a schoolwide reading program, then the IEP can list that program as part of the student’s services. The school is responsible to serve an identified need related to disability.
Dyslexia can be identified and supported without a diagnosis
Students do not need a diagnosis of dyslexia to be evaluated for special education eligibility. If the family has concerns, they can ask the school to evaluate the student. Requests should be in writing. PAVE provides a sample letter to help families request an educational evaluation.
Here’s a sentence to include in the evaluation request letter:
“I need my child tested for a specific learning disability. I believe there is a problem with reading that is disability related.”
Schools have tools to identify “characteristics” of dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities. When those characteristics are present, the school is responsible to serve the student with appropriate interventions and instruction.
Consistent with recommendations of the Dyslexia Advisory Council and RCW 28A.320.260, qualified teachers must use best practice methods to help the student overcome the barriers of their learning disability and show meaningful progress:
“The interventions must be evidence-based multisensory structured literacy interventions and must be provided by an educator trained in instructional methods specifically targeting students’ areas of weakness.”
Structured Literacy is helping in some Washington schools
Structured Literacy comes from educational science and is a specific way of teaching the foundational skills of reading, writing, and speaking to use language effectively. Learning skills in a methodical way is especially important for children with dyslexia and for children using multiple languages.
Wenatchee School District shifted to a structured literacy approach in 2019. Many students, including those with dyslexia-type disabilities, have improved in their reading skills since the switch, according to a Seattle Times article published April 17, 2022: Fed up with lackluster reading scores, Wenatchee schools turned to science.
The article explains how Wenatchee staff got specialized training and describes the primary components of structured literacy:
- Phonological awareness, ability to notice and distinguish different sounds in a word
- Phonics, ability to match sounds to letters
- Orthography, knowledge of how words and sounds are spelled
- Morphology, knowledge of word roots, prefixes and suffixes
In a second article in its Education Lab literacy series, the Times on April 18, 2022, reported about Mercer Island, which also has trained teachers to provide structured literacy: “So far, there are signs of success: Early this year, fewer students were identified as potentially having dyslexia, an indicator that modified instruction is helping.”
TIP: Families can ask whether their school has staff trained in structured literacy. Or ask this: What evidence-based Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is being provided to serve a student who is not learning to read with standard instructional methods?
An outside evaluation may provide additional information
If a school is unable to gather enough information to fully understand the causes and features of a student’s disability, parents have a right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) for more information.
If the family is asking for an IEE because there is disagreement about the quality or conclusions of the school’s evaluation, the family can request an IEE at school district expense. PAVE provides a sample letter for requesting an IEE in this article: Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’. A school district must file Due Process to deny an IEE request.
In some situations, the family might pay for an IEE or seek one using medical insurance. In most cases, testing for dyslexia is done by a licensed educational psychologist. Neurologists and other medical professionals may also be qualified to provide a formal diagnosis.
Schools can call it dyslexia, but they don’t have to
Families and schools sometimes struggle with what to call a learning disability with features/characteristics of dyslexia. That topic was part of one family’s Due Process complaint against a school district in Washington State. In February 2022 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision. The court said schools are not required to name a student’s learning disability dyslexia. Schools can meet federal and state standards by identifying a student as having a Specific Learning Disability.
Some Specific Learning Disabilities that impact students are:
- Dyslexia—a learning disability in reading
- Dysgraphia—a learning disability in writing
- Dyscalculia—a learning disability in math
Although not legally required, use of these terms is allowed. The US Department of Education on October 23, 2015, issued a Dear Colleague letter to encourage schools nationwide to do more to identify and serve students with Specific Learning Disabilities. The letter includes information about federal law—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):
“The purpose of this letter is to clarify that there is nothing in the IDEA that would prohibit the use of the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia in IDEA evaluation, eligibility determinations, or IEP documents.”
Since 2015, nearly all states have passed laws to require schools to assess students and provide support for those who need help in reading because of dyslexia.
On April 25, 2016, the US Department of Education issued guidance about the school’s responsibility to evaluate a student who is having reading difficulties. The department’s guidance is formatted as a Letter to Kelli Unnerstall of Decoding Dyslexia of Missouri. The letter includes information about when a school district (“public agency”) might pay for assessment from a medical provider:
“If the public agency decides that a medical evaluation or any other assessment is necessary to determine whether the child has a disability and his or her educational needs, the entire evaluation must be provided at no cost to the parents.”
TIP: Families can talk about their student as having a Specific Learning Disability with characteristics/features of dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or more than one. Evidence-based instruction from properly trained teachers is required, regardless of how the disability is named.
How might a student with dyslexia keep up with their class?
Schools are responsible to support students at their age, grade, and developmental level. Washington follows Common Core Standards for all students, including those who receive services through an IEP or Section 504 Plan.
OSPI’s Best Practices for Supporting Grades 3 and Above lists evidence-based classroom strategies, social-emotional supports, and how to accommodate a struggling reader at school. The top recommendations:
- Use audiobooks to support access to grade-level curriculum.
- Allow Assistive Technology, including audio features, voice typing/dictation software for writing, or assistive applications for spelling and notetaking.
Learning standards for literacy go beyond the skill of saying or thinking the words on the page. Here’s a way to understand what this means. While reading the Common Core standard below, consider how assistive technology might help students with reading disabilities move closer to these aspirations:
“The Common Core asks students to read stories and literature, as well as more complex texts that provide facts and background knowledge in areas such as science and social studies. Students will be challenged and asked questions that push them to refer back to what they’ve read. This stresses critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills that are required for success in college, career, and life.”
PAVE provides a video: Text-to-Speech: Supporting Literacy for Students with Learning Disabilities
TIP: Schools and families can talk about how children learn to think critically, problem solve and analyze information through schoolwork done by reading or listening.
A student with dyslexia might work on literacy two ways:
- SDI: Student can work on literacy at their level, with help from teachers using evidence-based Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). and…
- Accommodations: Student can use audible formats and text-to-speech and/or speech-to-text to support reading in all subject areas, including literature, nearer grade level.
Here’s a way to talk about this two-part approach from a student rights perspective:
- SDI: A student receiving special education services has the right to FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education. FAPE requires SDI in areas of need to help a student make solid progress. Federal law describes that as “progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances” (Endrew F decision).
- Accommodations: FAPE is required in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), which is general education in the neighborhood school, “to the maximum extent appropriate.” Access to the core curriculum is included. If technology helps the student access grade-level (or adapted grade-level) learning materials, then the school is responsible to accommodate those needs. Accommodations are part of an IEP or a Section 504 Plan.
TIP: Ask the school what audible book service they subscribe to (Bookshare, for example) and how the student can get audible books and curriculum materials. Make sure the student has headphones, a microphone, devices, and spaces to use text-to-speech/speech-to-text and audible books. All can be listed in an IEP or 504 Plan.
What other help can we ask for?
Other state recommended accommodations for students with reading/writing disabilities:
- Provide extended time for reading and writing, especially for testing.
- Provide fewer test/homework problems that work on the same skill.
- Allow modified grading of spelling and grammar (consider the purpose of the task).
- Print or record verbal step-by-step directions or allow student to take a picture or video.
- Offer project-based learning options (oral presentation, multisensory experiences).
- Provide a quiet place for studying and testing.
Students with learning disabilities have the right to accommodations and support to enable them to work successfully toward a high-school diploma. If a student chooses an alternative route through General Educational Development (GED) testing, they may be eligible for accommodations. A website called passged.com lists disability conditions that might make a person eligible for testing supports. Included are dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia.
What options do families have if they disagree with the school?
Special education law supports procedural safeguards for students and families. Included are dispute resolution options when there is disagreement with the school. PAVE provides guidance in a video: Procedural Safeguards: How to File a Special Education Complaint.
Families have the right to attend public meetings of their local school board to make requests and provide feedback.
A group of families in Easten Washington filed a petition with Change.org in February 2022, to ask for literacy improvements from the Richland School District (RSD). Included are statistics showing that the COVID-19 pandemic worsened already poor reading scores.
The petition asks for a more structured approach to literacy and makes this appeal: “As parents of Richland School District students, we are writing you to plead with you to improve our students’ reading proficiency. Every student deserves the opportunity to become a proficient reader! Reading is a foundational skill that affects one’s ability to function within our society.”
More detail about dyslexia
The state’s definition of dyslexia, adopted in 2018, is similar to a definition promoted by the International Dyslexia Association. According to Washington State’s definition:
“Dyslexia is a specific learning disorder that is neurological in origin and that is characterized by unexpected difficulties with accurate or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities that are not consistent with the person’s intelligence, motivation, and sensory capabilities.”
Understood.org provides a video and additional materials to support understanding of dyslexia. Here’s their plain language definition: “Dyslexia is a common condition that makes it hard to work with language.”
Keep in mind that parents and schools don’t need to use the term dyslexia at all. They can talk about a student’s learning disability in reading, writing, or math in broader terms. Specific Learning Disability is defined by the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A-01035):
“Specific learning disability means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia, that adversely affects a student’s educational performance.”
The state’s definition of learning disability excludes “learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disability, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”
The Child Mind Institute offers a Parent Guide to Dyslexia. Included are the following tips.
A young child with dyslexia may have:
- Trouble learning simple rhymes
- Speech delays
- A hard time following directions
- Difficulty reading short words or leave them out
- Trouble understanding the difference between left and right
In school, children with dyslexia are likely to:
- Struggle sounding out new words and counting syllables
- Reverse letters and numbers after most students stop doing that, around age 8
- Struggle taking notes and copying words from the board
- Have a hard time rhyming, connecting sounds and letters, and putting the sounds of words in the right order
- Misspell even familiar words (cmpt instead of camped)
- Read much more slowly than peers
- Avoid reading out loud
- Show signs of fatigue from reading with great effort
National resources include comics and videos
Dyslexia awareness is promoted by the National Center on Improving Literacy (NCIL), which provides resources designed to support parents, teachers, and policy makers. On its website, the agency includes state-specific information, recommends screening tools and interventions and provides research data about early intervention. Through social media, the agency in October promotes a hashtag campaign, #DyslexiaAwareness.
NCIL provides a unique resource in the format of an online or downloadable comic book: Adventures in Reading Comic Books stars Kayla, a girl with dyslexia.
Here are a few video resources: