Georgia Senate to study dyslexia

With one in five Georgia students affected by dyslexia—a higher percentage than any other learning disability—the state of Georgia has created a Senate Study Committee on Dyslexia.  The purpose of the Study Committee is to study and publicize the  impact of dyslexia on Georgia residents, and to recommend  appropriate action or legislation.

Two students taking reading tests on portable NEO computers.

That committee will have its first meeting on Friday, August 17 and will end its meetings by December 1.  The purpose of the first meeting is to gain information about what the Georgia Department of Education is already doing to help students with dyslexia and their teachers.  Later meetings will gather information about how state agencies are affected by people with this learning disability.  Experts from across the country are expected to testify at later meetings.  Members of the public are also welcome to speak to the committee.

Addressing the committee at its first meeting will be Dr. Leslie Stuart, a psychologist, who will speak on “identifying and clarifying the definition of dyslexia”; Dr. Caitlyn Dooley, a deputy superintendent from the Georgia DOE, who will speak on “dyslexia identification and services in Georgia”; and Dr. Jennifer Lindstrom of UGA, who will speak on the causes and treatment of dyslexia,” including teacher training.

Chairing the committee is Sen. Fran Millar.  Also appointed to the committee  are Sen. Matt Brass, Sen .Gloria Butler,  Dr. Leslie Stuart (a clinical psychologist), and Dr. Garry McGiboney (from the Georgia Department of Education).

According to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, “Evidence shows if we can identify and address dyslexia at an early age – before students reach the 3rd grade – we can significantly improve reading comprehension and overall academic outcomes. Unfortunately, on average, only 1 in 10 dyslexic students are identified by standard screenings.”

According to Donna Nealy, Sen. Millar’s assistant, Kentucky has put into effect a new law relating to dyslexia this summer.  Georgia is studying Kentucky’s law, perhaps the most comprehensive in the nation, in hopes of learning from Kentucky’s effort.  (More about Kentucky’s new law in the next blog.)

If you are not able to attend, but would like to listen to the committee meeting as it happens, go to the following livestream at the time of the meeting:  https://livestream.com/accounts/25225500/events/8321724.

The challenges of teaching an autistic child to read

One of my students is a primary grades student with autism.  She speaks in single words, much like a toddler.  Sitting still for her is hard , so she eats an apple or some Cheerios while we work.  But that diverts her attention.

Through previous years of schooling, she has learned her letter sounds and many CVC words.  After working with her on how to pronounce blends with CVC words and observing her for many lessons, I have concluded that my phonics work may be in vain.  She seems to have memorized all the words she recognizes.

So now I am bringing flash cards with pictures of items and their names on one side, and just the names on the other side.  I am attempting to increase her reading vocabulary using a few sight words during each lesson, a method which I know is less effective than phonics.

Working with her is discouraging because she cannot tell me what works and what doesn’t.  I must observe her behavior, and based on my findings, figure out how to proceed.

Although I have taught several children with autism who are less impaired than this student, I have not taken courses in this field of special education.  On my own I have researched how to teach reading to a child with autism.  I have found that

  • Some children with autism cannot learn to read using phonics, but some can.
  • Teaching nouns is easier than teaching any other part of speech.
  • If you are teaching action verbs, it helps if you “perform” the verb—jumping, waving, singing.
  • Reading factual information—nonfiction—works much better than reading fiction.
  • Reading about a child’s interests helps motivate a child for a reading lesson.
  • Forget inferences. A child with autism cannot pick up subtle clues.
  • Expect no questions.

With my young student, I have made some inroads.  She accepts me as a teacher, as someone who interacts with her weekly.  She enjoys reading words she knows and receiving compliments and high-fives from me.  She willingly starts each lesson though she says “all done” many times throughout.  She scatters my materials with a brush of her arm less frequently now.  She no longer screams during our lessons.

But have I taught her any reading?  I honestly don’t know.

Is learning to read a right in the US?

Nothing in the US Constitution talks about a right to read.  A right to speak, a right to worship, a right not to be locked up and forgotten, but no right to read.  So, by default, a right to read—if it exists—must be the responsibility of the states to protect.

If so, then why these?

–Parents, teachers and students filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court in December claiming students in three California schools are not learning how to read.  The lawsuit said literacy experts hired by the state had reported a “critical need” for better teaching in certain schools and among certain student groups.  But the state, said the lawsuit, had ignored the experts and failed those students.

This lawsuit claims to be the first to say students have a constitutional right to literacy.

In one of those schools, La Salle Elementary, 171 out of 179 students were not proficient in reading, meaning 96% of the students failed to meet minimum reading requirements set by the state.  At another school, Van Buren, 94% of students were not proficient in reading.  At another school, Children of Promise, 89% of students were not proficient in reading.

–Then, less than a month ago, a federal judge in Michigan dismissed a class action lawsuit brought by students in Detroit.  The students’ lawsuit claimed they have been denied “access to literacy” because of underfunding by the state, mismanagement of their schools by the state and school district, and discrimination.  The students said their schools were overcrowded, lacked teachers, books, pencils and paper, and were not heated properly in winter nor cooled in hot months.  All this has led to terrible test scores, including in reading.

The judge, in dismissing this lawsuit, said that “access to literacy,” or as he defined it, “a minimally adequate education,” is not a fundamental right of Americans.  The judge said giving students the right to read was “of incalculable importance,” and state officials are partly responsible for that.

“But those points do not necessarily make access to literacy a fundamental right,” the judge said.

So is learning to read a right in the US?  Guess not.  Our Constitution guarantees a right to an attorney to the lowest scum arrested by the police. Think Al Capone.  Think Ted Bundy.  Think Charles Manson.  But our Constitution does not guarantee a reading teacher to a first grader.

Books on Bikes blocks summer slide

The Summer Slide—the slide back in achievement when kids take the summer off from reading—has plenty of research to back it up.  What can adults do to overcome the slide?

In Charlottesville, VA, several librarians and teachers bring books to children.  Using specially outfitted bicycles, the librarians and teachers peddle around neighborhoods, ringing bells on their bikes and calling out to children for free books and popsicles.  When the children run out, the adults offer children time to browse through the offerings and sometimes read to the children before moving on to another street.

Begun in 2011, Books on Bikes is reaching hundreds of students every summer.  The program started out small, with librarians pulling a little red wagon full of books.  But through fundraising and volunteer help, Books on Bikes now includes six cargo bikes (worth about $1300 each), specially constructed book cases that fit over the back wheels, and a dedicated team of peddling librarians and teachers.

The program has a two-fold mission:  to get books into the hands of children and to create friendly relationships between the libraries, schools and the Charlottesville community.  Books on Bikes raises funds through grants, business contributions and jars on the countertops of local businesses.

Books on Bikes posts its itinerary online so parents know when to expect the team of book-carrying bikers to arrive in their neighborhood.  Biking hours are from 5:30 to 7 so that children in summer camps during the day are home when the librarians and teachers bike nearby.

The team includes four librarians (Mary Craig and Rebecca Flowers—the founders of the program—and Sarah Fitzhenry and Katie Plunkett) and two teachers (Kellie Keyser and Stacy Diaz).  Now it also includes three therapy dogs.

For more information on the Charlottesville program, or to find out how to start your own Books on Bikes program, go to http://www.booksonbikescville.org/.

Take a book. Leave a book.

Are you trying to encourage a child to read more this summer in order to avoid the “summer slide”?  Here’s a suggestion I learned about while driving around Orlando a few weeks ago.

This Little Free Library is located in Arlington, VA.

I saw what looked like a bird house on someone’s front lawn near the sidewalk.  “That’s too low to be a safe house for a bird,” I thought, so I investigated.  The structure, made of wood with a glass front which opened and closed, contained about a dozen books.

It was a lending library on a private citizen’s lawn.

Perhaps you have a Little Free Library in your neighborhood too?  They were started in 2009 by Todd Bol who constructed a single box, but the idea has spread across the US, Canada, and Mexico to 70 other countries.  There are close to 100,000 registered Little Free Libraries, part of a nonprofit organization started by Bol.

This Little Free Library is located in Peachtree Corners, GA.

The idea is that anyone is free to take a book or leave a book from the Little Free Library.  Usually the family who establishes the Little Free Library takes care of it.

If you want to start a Little Free Library of your own, you can order your own library box fully made.  Or you can order construction plans to create your own.  Or if you have a flair for building, you can create your own.  Pictures I’ve seen include light house inspired boxes, phone booth inspired boxes, and simple wooden crates.

Some people add personal touches to their Little Free Libraries such as benches, a guest book (as simple as a spiral notebook), a handle to which you can attach your dog’s leach while you browse, bookmarks, pencils, crayons and solar lights.  But all that is really necessary is a weather-protected box and some books.

What kinds of books?  Whatever you think your neighbors will enjoy.  Picture books, graphic novels, biographies, decorating magazines, sci fi, thrillers—any kind which you think your neighbors will appreciate.

The Little Free Library has its own website with an interactive map that makes it possible for you to find a Little Free Library near your home.  When I checked, I found two within two miles of where I live in Georgia.

For more information, go to https://littlefreelibrary.org.

Which comes first—reading or writing?

For many little kids, writing comes first.  Not writing words but writing pictures to tell stories.

I was with a four-year-old recently, and listened as he explained his drawing on a white board in his house.  On the left were three smiling stick figures—a tall one who was waving, a medium-sized one with long hair, and a short one.  “That’s my dad, that’s my mom, and that’s me,” he said.

Next was what looked like a rocket ship in motion.  “We are flying,” he explained.

Farther along in the drawing was a circular object.  “That’s the moon,” he said.

“Are you going to the moon?” I asked.

“No!” he said, rather disgusted with my reasoning.  “We are going to Brazil.”

At the far right of the white board were the long-haired stick figure and the short stick figure, almost falling off the edge of the white board.  “Now me and Mom are in Brazil.”

This story’s ideas came from the child’s head—he will be traveling to Brazil soon with his mother—but also from the many books his parents have read to him (and the many cartoons he has watched).  From those sources he has unconsciously learned that stories are written in English from left to right; that they have a beginning, middle and end; that they are told in chronological order; and that they contain characters who do something.

This child can write his name.  He knows the alphabet in English and in Portuguese.  He can read some sight words in English.  But he cannot write a story in words.

Yet he can write a story in pictures, incorporating many of the fundamental aspects of story-telling.

So which comes first—reading or writing?

Is copying words the best way to learn spelling?

A typical elementary grade spelling homework assignment goes like this:

  • Monday night: Copy each word correctly five times.
  • Tuesday night: Arrange the words in alphabetical order.
  • Wednesday night: Write each word in a sentence.
  • Thursday night: Take a practice spelling test.
  • Friday day: Take a spelling test in school.

Child Browsing the Web

The theory behind these homework assignments is that the more children write words, the more likely they remember the word’s spelling.  But will they?

According to Marie Ripple*, author of a book on how to teach spelling, here are some things to consider if you hope this type of writing and rewriting of spelling words will help a child to learn to spell.

  • Copying is a visual process. See the word, write the word the same way.  But with so many young children being primarily kinesthetic learners, copying is a method of learning which does not tap into many children’s natural way of learning.
  • Copying is a memory process. Research has shown that in learning to read, memorizing words is a far less effective method than using phonics.  Reading and spelling are closely related.  So using phonics to show how letter sounds are combined to make certain sounds is a better way for most kids to learn spelling.
  • Copying can be an “automatic pilot” situation for children. They write words over and over while thinking about something else.  When they are done, they have retained little.

Instead of copying, Ripple recommends a variety of approaches to teaching kids spelling.

  • Combine visual, auditory and kinesthetic processes when you teach spelling. Don’t rely on one sensory process.
  • Use the Orton-Gillingham approach, used to treat dyslexia.  It explains why words are spelled the way they are and how certain letter pairings lead to certain sounds.
  • Teach a child based on what he or she already knows, ignoring what grade the child is in.
  • Teach the logic of English spelling. According to Ripple, 97% of English words follow predictable spelling patterns which can be learned.
  • Customize teaching spelling to a particular child based on that child’s preferred learning style and speed. Some kids need little review; some need constant review.

*For more information of Ripple’s book, go to http://info.allaboutlearningpress.com/6-ways-spelling-easy-thank-you?submissionGuid=18c9c079-27d3-4d1e-8965-917681da5d93