Preparing Teachers to Help Struggling Readers

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December 2017

By Brenda Hanson

“McDonald’s” and “my dear” rhyme announced my 10-year-old. Emotions raw with fatigue, I debated an answer that wouldn’t dampen her spirit. How can she keep missing it? That was two years ago; today I offer a simple test, “What rhymes with bell?” “Mall,” is her answer. I’m not surprised. Even at 12, dyslexia makes it hard for Carlie to hear rhyming words.

The local school assured me Carlie didn’t have dyslexia. They said she had ADD and needed medication, so I tried that in the first grade. By the middle of second grade she was still struggling with basic sight words and could not read. She constantly reversed letters and her spelling was terrible. I was still assured that she most definitely did not have dyslexia. By now I was in college seeking a teaching degree with the hope of being able to help her.

However, I couldn’t wait. A staff meeting revealed that “in third grade Carlie would fall further behind, hate school, and drop out.” I took her out of school, ordered first grade curriculum, and went with what I knew. I knew Carlie loved being read to, so I read to her a lot. I knew she loved animals, so we started a hobby farm with goats, chickens, and rabbits. She loved dragon flies so I sent her out to take pictures and helped her find information on the internet.

I was lacking information and was constantly set off course by the professionals who were supposed to be helping.

Yet, what else is required for a child who obviously struggles so much? What could be wrong? I was still searching. Every semester I poured over the course listing with hope that something would come to my aid. Surely, by my junior year there would be help? I was convinced that ADD was not the problem and almost certain that it was dyslexia. What else would cause her to spell room rol and about adot?

However I waited in vain. No classes came up that addressed dyslexia or in-depth reading remediation. I was only more certain that Carlie was not a typical learner despite the claims made by the local school. I was even told at an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting to quit worrying and that she would simply miraculously catch up on her own in 6th or 7th grade. She is almost 13 now, so where is the miracle I was promised?

I can’t change time. No one can go back and heal the tummy aches, headaches, and social trauma. I can’t give Carlie back the advantage that early intervention could have given her. But I wish there were a few things I could change. First, would be required dyslexia screening in kindergarten and first grade with information sent home to parents. Second, would be required courses in dyslexia for all teachers so they could at least recognize the struggles that children with dyslexia face and be able to make reasonable accommodations. Third, would be more disclosure from colleges about the amount of instruction in reading remediation they provide. 

Three Ways to Help Our Kids

If early screening had been provided I’m sure our story could have played out quite differently. There were obvious signs in kindergarten that multiplied in first and second grade. As a parent I saw the struggle yet didn’t have any idea what dyslexia was. I was lacking information and was constantly set off course by the professionals who were supposed to be helping. I feel that when parents are at such a disadvantage there is a higher probability that their children, like Carlie, will continue to suffer.

It should not take belonging to a secret society in order to get recognition and intervention for a child with dyslexia.

The second change relates to obtaining a teaching certificate. A course in Alaska Studies is required for a teaching certificate, and yet nothing specific is required for reading. In comparison, isn’t the ability to read more critical to the success of all Alaskans? There are graduates teaching in our schools that have no more information on dyslexia than I once did. They will continue to misdiagnose students and label them as lazy or ADD. We need teachers who are able to recognize struggling students and offer a plan of support rather than pushing students to “hate school and drop out.”

The third change relates to my college experience. I feel teacher training programs should be required to accurately reflect their program to incoming students. I had an expectation that my college would provide an in-depth knowledge about reading remediation and not just general reading instruction. I was really looking for specific information that was lacking from my program. In contrast, my colleagues had the potential to graduate feeling qualified to teach any child to read, and that is a false assumption based on my experiences with Carlie. 

Our system is hurting struggling readers and creating an opportunity for misunderstandings or worse. It should not take belonging to a secret society in order to get recognition and intervention for a child with dyslexia. (I was told the word dyslexia wasn’t allowed in my local school.) I’m grateful for all the support I am finding, and I’m hopeful that schools and the legal system will continue to change so that every child will have an opportunity for success.

Brenda Hanson is a mother of 12 with an early childhood degree and a K-3 teaching certificate.

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