Senate Bill 48, which awaits the governor’s signature, would eventually require dyslexia screening for every Georgia student starting in kindergarten.
Photo: HANDOUT/TNS
Photo: HANDOUT/TNS

Opinion:  Mistake to test all Georgia kindergarteners for dyslexia

Educator worries kids will be labeled with brain abnormality before they have chance to learn to read

A bill mandating universal screenings for dyslexia won easy passage in the state Legislature after many parents testified it was essential that Georgia work harder and sooner to identify students with the reading disorder.

Today, educator Mary Kay Bacallao, a former GOP candidate for Georgia school chief and an ex Fayette County school board member, shares her concerns about the bill. Bacallao has taught college education courses and elementary school classes. Her master’s, specialist, and doctorate degrees in education are from Florida Atlantic University.

Senate Bill 48, which awaits the governor’s signature, would eventually require dyslexia screening for every student starting in kindergarten. It also would create teacher training programs to deal with the disorder estimated to affect 10 percent to 20 percent of the population.

While Bacallao agrees dyslexia is a real brain disorder, she fears Georgia will now see overdiagnosis as a result of required universal screenings. She also has concerns about the corporate interests around dyslexia.

By Mary Kay Bacallao

The Georgia General Assembly passed Senate Bill 48, the “dyslexia bill,” which requires universal screening for all kindergarteners for “characteristics of dyslexia.” The bill defines dyslexia using the exact definition supplied by the International Dyslexia Association or IDA, a private corporation, which achieved “consensus” in 2002 with funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Learning Disabilities, a private foundation.

That suggests our federal and state governments, in cooperation with privately run foundations, have ended the dyslexia debate and solved the mystery by defining dyslexia and the solution once and for all. The required solution to dyslexia is to use “structured literacy.”

In reality, there is far less certainty about dyslexia and how it is recognized. Many teachers avoid using the term because it is so vague that it has lost any real value. Teachers have been cautioned not to call their students dyslexic because it is a medical diagnosis, and teachers are not doctors.

Conveniently, “Structured Literacy: A Primer on Effective Reading Instruction” was trademarked years ago by IDA, the private organization that lobbied for the dyslexia bill. Microsoft has also partnered with “Made by Dyslexia” to provide software to meet the needs of the students who will be diagnosed with “characteristics of dyslexia.” Microsoft’s “Immersive Reader” will solve the reading problem by reading the words aloud for the students. The students won’t have to learn to read.

Why am I concerned? Wouldn’t everybody benefit from the increased attention they will get from being identified early for characteristics of dyslexia? After all, IDA estimates that 1 in 5 students has dyslexia.

Here’s why. There’s no objective proof their definition is correct. The only thing we know for sure is that private corporations have enlisted the force of government to expand the definition and the characteristics to include more children and adults than ever before.

There’s also no objective proof any of their programs actually produce results, or that they are better than any of the other programs available.

I am also concerned young children will be labeled with a brain abnormality before they even have a chance to learn how to read. I am concerned parents will be intimidated by the “experts” into accepting a dubious “diagnosis” with absolutely no basis in medical science. And, because they love their children, they will fall victim to an elaborate government-backed marketing scheme to sell dyslexia-based products that are quite possibly the source of the reading difficulty to begin with, including “fluency” timed reading tests that require students to rush the reading process, skipping essential developmental steps, and computers that will make text reading unnecessary.

According to the University of Michigan, dyslexia can be difficult to diagnose, and there is no cure because dyslexia is not a disease. Moreover, there may be no difference at all between a reading disability and dyslexia.

In the United Kingdom, “for example, “Dyslexia is ill-defined and not yet really fully understood.” A psychologist classifies dyslexia as an anxiety disorder, while others see it as a result of whole language teaching. A long-time pediatrician here in my county recommended a reading tutor for dyslexia cases because most children respond well to that kind of treatment.

Reading involves decoding symbols and translating them into sounds, a developmental process that happens in stages. Students need to be able to hear sounds and see symbols associated with those sounds. Next, students identify patterns of sounds that associate with groups of symbols.

What happens when students skip the sound-symbol association step and move right into seeing the whole word instead of its parts? Some students try to memorize the entire word instead of seeing the individual letters. If this happens, it is harder to go back and learn how to sound out words by associating the sounds and the symbols because the word is already known.

In the future, when students see words they don't recognize, they will have a hard time sounding them out. This can serve as a limiting factor, reducing a student's reading vocabulary to words already memorized. This method will make it harder to figure out new material as they read on their own.

In reading development, as students practice associating the sounds and symbols, they learn the many patterns, rules, and exceptions in our language. As these sound-symbol relationships develop sequentially, students will begin to recognize common whole words. With most common words, at this point, they no longer need to use the sound-symbol approach, but retain sound-symbol association skills and apply them when they encounter new words as they read on their own.

When students have difficulties, parents and teachers often wonder if there is a hearing or vision problem that is contributing to an inability to associate sounds and symbols. Schools have hearing and vision screenings to detect these types of issues early on. They also wonder if the difficulty comes from inattention to the reading process. After all, a parent or teacher may certainly read to children, but they cannot read for them. Some of these students could be characterized as active or distracted. Effort on the part of the student is also important for success.

After all these other factors are considered, is a dyslexia diagnosis a possibility? Will students grow and develop as they continue to practice reading with proper instruction or is a diagnosis necessary to provide students with proper instruction? 

Does dyslexia cause poor reading performance or is dyslexia caused by poor reading instruction?

Given all this uncertainty, I intend to contact Gov. Brian Kemp and ask him to preserve educational freedom in reading by vetoing SB 48 before it is too late. 

For parents and teachers, I recommend reading “Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About It,” written by Rudolf Flesch in 1955. I read it as an elementary education major in 1987. That book made me a better teacher, capable of navigating through the educational fads and pitfalls of the last 31 years.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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