Georgia weighs universal screenings to ‘take shame and shadow away from dyslexia’

Senate Bill 48 in the state Legislature would require a universal dyslexia screening in kindergarten

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Senate Bill 48 in the state Legislature would require a universal dyslexia screening in kindergarten

A vivid and still distressing memory from fourth grade at my Catholic elementary school: Sister Joan called on my neighbor and playmate Patrick to read a passage on the board. He couldn't. Sister Joan would not relent. "Sound out the words," she told him. Minutes passed. There were 39 students in that room, and none of us said anything, silently willing Patrick to end his ordeal and just read the sentence. Patrick flushed, he fidgeted and, finally, he cried. The teacher told him to sit down where he put his head down on his desk and wept quietly.

Years later, covering a school board meeting as a young reporter, I heard a presentation on dyslexia, a language processing disorder. Preschoolers with dyslexia can lag in language skills, mix up letters and words or fail to recognize rhyming patterns. In elementary school, affected kids can find themselves unable to discern certain letters or words or connect letters with the sounds they make. So, they can flounder in sounding out words or decoding what they just read. I realized dyslexia could explain why Patrick could not make sense of the words on board. I knew he didn't like to read, but it never dawned on me he couldn't read.

Many states now screen for dyslexia, the most common learning disorder in the United States and one that can be mitigated with early identification and intervention. Georgia is not among the states that mandate screening, but legislation is under consideration that could change that.

Senate Bill 48 requires a universal dyslexia screening in kindergarten and would provide for training for teachers already in schools and those in pre-service.

On Wednesday, the Senate Education and Youth Committee heard from parents and advocates on why the bill is vital.

"Without identification, not only can a child not receive help, they feel inadequate, not smart and even stupid," said Tina Engberg, a state leader of Decoding Dyslexia Georgia and parent of a 13-year-old son with dyslexia. "We need to acknowledge there are kids who have this issue. My elementary school principal didn't believe she had dyslexics in her building; she had many. We have to address this as a state as it's holding the reading scores way down."

Decades ago, when I watched my classmate suffer, the assumption was that he and other poor readers needed glasses or were lazy or dumb. Even as dyslexia became more widely understood, misperceptions abounded, including a belief people would outgrow the disorder. It's also often assumed dyslexia affects intelligence. While dyslexia may give children challenges in their reading, it does not mean they have challenges in their thinking.

In fact, dyslexia is often missed in the early grades because children find creative work-arounds, relying on memorization and context to figure out words. However, in fourth and fifth grade, a shift occurs from learning to read to reading to learn, and the kids can no longer keep up.

An estimated 5-10 percent of the population has dyslexia, although some studies suggest the rate could be as high as 17 percent. Yet, despite that frequency, parents often find districts reluctant to diagnose dyslexia.

Parent Peter Isbister of Decatur told the committee even well-resourced and well-intentioned school districts are reluctant to diagnose a learning disability.

"We were met with sort of a wall of blank stares, even from the pre-K moment when my wife and I began to detect things, like the lack of rhyming and other things that cued us there was a problem," he said.

Isbister said the willingness of the state Senate to address the problem "takes the shame and the shadow away from dyslexia. One of the roles of the Legislature is to not only provide good laws, but to de-stigmatize and put these kinds of issues in the public discourse. By taking this first step, my hope is school districts can talk more frankly and easily with students and families."

"I like to think of dyslexic kids as being our educational rock stars," said Engberg. "My son has to put in tremendous effort to achieve very little. He would come home exhausted from a long day at kindergarten. He wasn't having fun, and I knew that. These are kids who have so many other talents to offer the world that education doesn't measure...It's just that I always thought my child's education would be a foundation for him to work off of, and not for him to feel bad about."