SB 1318, a bill which expands requirements for identifying students with dyslexia and training teachers to help them, has been passed in the Arizona Senate and assigned to committee in the House of Representatives. It was developed by a group of key stakeholders, and sponsored by Senators Paul Boyer (R- District 20) and Sonny Borrelli (R- District 5). The bill has received quite a bit of attention in some of the popular discussion hubs focused on education policy, so I interviewed Sharon Hanna, Dyslexia Specialist in the Kyrene district, and Lauren Cluff, NBCT, a reading specialist at Hughes Elementary in Mesa Public Schools to explore their thoughts on the bill.
Conversation with Sharon Hanna, Dyslexia Specialist
AHS: What is the significance of this bill if it passes?
SH: It’s significant because early intervention is essential so that children never have to wait until they are two years behind in reading to get any kind of support. If we wait until 3rd or 4th grade or higher to remediate, a child with dyslexia will take four times longer to even hope to catch up. If reading fluency is not addressed by 2nd grade, their reading speed will never catch up. They may learn to decode and read successfully, but it will never be fast.
The other significant change is that the Arizona Department of Education will hire a dyslexia expert to create coursework to train teachers to identify students who are at risk for dyslexia, and correctly implement a proven method for remediation.
AHS: Many teachers have chimed in on the bill worried that this is yet another unfunded accountability measure on schools. What do you think about that?
SH: That’s a hard one, because I know how thin our schools are spread as it is, but we spend more money by not addressing this at an appropriate time. In our schools, in our juvenile justice system and in our prisons, the state spends more money by not addressing dyslexia. Approximately 48% of prisoners in a Texas study were shown to be dyslexic. In Arizona, 80% of juvenile offenders do not read above a fourth grade level. The social-emotional trauma on a child who feels inferior because he cannot keep up with his peers in reading can lead to a socioeconomic impact down the road, which will be a burden to all taxpayers.
AHS: So, for now, it really is an unfunded initiative. What do you see happening in the future to redistribute resources in order to provide interventions for the students who would be identified as at risk?
SH: I know the legislature is going to work on funding. Paul Boyer has pledged to get together with key stakeholders to work on it. He realizes that money will be an issue.
(Sharon also wanted me to pass along this great video about why we need to identify Dyslexia)
Conversation with Lauren Cluff, Reading Specialist
AHS: What are your thoughts knowing that this bill may be passed out of the house and be signed into law?
LC: I am really excited that the state is taking seriously the issue of dyslexia. I think we’ve been living with the idea that somewhere we will find a program that will fix everyone’s reading. We are beginning to understand that dyslexia is a disorder, and it’s not just that students haven’t been taught to read or need to read each night with their parents.
I like the idea of screening students early. If we really had the technology and could get kids identified even earlier, we would really want to intervene when children were much younger, such as preschool age. We could provide resources for parents and the problems could be less severe by the time the students get to kindergarten. We should really push the screening down to earlier ages.
AH: How do you see this potential law changing reading intervention in elementary school?
LC: In terms of looking at identifying students in elementary school, I would like to see the state expand the Dyslexia Handbook to include information for teachers. The teaching strategies aren’t really new to most primary teachers, but teachers aren’t necessarily trained how to use them more strategically and intensively to remediate for students with dyslexia. We spend a lot of time learning the letter names and sounds, but we don’t spend enough time learning those prerequisite skills such as early phonological awareness, at least for children with dyslexia (for example, being able to rhyme, being able to hear the sounds in words, hearing the rhythm in language, etc).
Screening for signs of dyslexia would help us better determine who simply needs more practice reading, and who needs more targeted interventions.
AH: What seems problematic about screening students for this specific disorder?
LC: A caution is there is not a one size fits all approach. There will be some kids at a high risk, and others at a more mild level of disadvantage. For the students at high risk, further resources and more intensive interventions would likely be necessary. Eventually there would need to be more district or school-level specialists hired and trained, and that’s where significantly increased funding will be necessary.
We also need to define dyslexia in a way that parents and teachers can understand. There are a lot of misconceptions. As teachers we need to look at our assessment practices and what defines growth in reading skills. Most current assessments are based on reading speed, and that needs to change.
I would also hate to see kids labeled and for teachers to lower their expectations of students with dyslexia. The students are certainly capable of learning and comprehending; they would simply need services and accommodations. I have some students who are in our school’s gifted program and in my reading lab. I would hate to see them written off.
For Further Thoughts see my previous blogs on the topic of dyslexia and education policy in Arizona.