Spelling in third grade was a nightmare for Justin Menard of Ellenwood. He excelled in other subjects, but cried when it came to spelling and writing. In first grade, Cameron Huppertz of Berkeley Lake was placed in the highest math group, but was below grade level in reading. In preschool Maggie Beguiristain of Suwanee, struggled with rhyming, learning letters and writing her name. Ashley Foster of McDonough was an ideal student until 9th grade when she had trouble taking notes in class and her grades suffered.

All four kids were eventually diagnosed with dyslexia. After intensive reading intervention, they all learned to navigate their dyslexia challenges, read on or above grade level and succeed in school.

What is Dyslexia?

  • Dyslexia is a hereditary, language-based learning disability that is neurological in origin.
  • According to the International Dyslexia Association, the disability affects one in five children and adults.
  • Children with dyslexia have trouble learning to read, write and spell.
  • It affects boys and girls in about equal numbers.
  • Without specialized teaching, 74 percent of children who are struggling readers in third grade will remain poor readers in ninth grade and into adulthood.
  • Dyslexia cannot be cured, but children can learn techniques to compensate and read on or above grade level.

Why Dyslexia is Overlooked

Most children with dyslexia are of average or above average intelligence; many are considered gifted. So, dyslexia is often hard to spot in young children who often don’t struggle or stick out at all in preschool, kindergarten or early elementary school. Sometimes children with dyslexia find ways to get by in reading, whether it’s guessing at text, memorizing words or devising their own methods.

Though it’s difficult to diagnose before elementary school, some signs can appear in children as young as age 4. Maggie’s mom, Colleen Beguiristain, who eventually founded the Georgia Chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, noticed her daughter was having trouble rhyming and recognizing letters of the alphabet in preschool, and then also in kindergarten. By second grade, Maggie was still struggling, so Beguiristain opted for testing and learned that Maggie was Dyslexic.

Some children with dyslexia may learn to talk later, or might not speak as clearly as their peers, said Karen Huppertz, the president of the Georgia chapter of the International Dyslexia Association. “They don’t often associate sounds with letters. They will mispronounce words and have trouble memorizing number facts. They have trouble reading quickly enough to comprehend, and spelling is a challenge.”

While natural readers intuitively learn the rules of the English language, children with dyslexia do not because their brains are wired differently to process language, Huppertz said.

Teaching Children with Dyslexia to Read

The approach used to teach reading skills to children with dyslexia is called structured literacy, a systematic form of instruction that uses different components of reading phonics, sound/symbol association, syntax and semantics.

Reading involves five areas: phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension, according to Brenda Fitzgerald, curriculum specialist for the Georgia Educational Training Agency.

“Those five areas have to be taught very explicitly and systematically,” said Fitzgerald, who trains teachers on how to teach reading to children with dyslexia and other language-based disabilities.

A multi-sensory approach is best for children with dyslexia, Fitzgerald said, and teachers should incorporate visual, motor, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic learning opportunities.

The most common – and many say the most successful – method of teaching children with dyslexia is the Orton-Gillingham approach, which was developed in the 1930s to teach children with language-based learning difficulties. It is a phonics-based system that teaches word formation before whole language, Fitzgerald said. Orton-Gillingham uses a structured, sequential and multi-sensory approach.

Fitzgerald said all children can benefit from this type of approach to reading, but many teachers are not trained in this method. Even when schools have reading specialists, the teachers may not be trained in the methods that work best for dyslexic children and the kids suffer. This is when parents must advocate for their children – do research, ask for help, and don’t give up.

Finding Help for Dyslexia

Most schools do not routinely screen children with dyslexia, though they do regularly assess reading level to determine if additional reading help is needed. If parents suspect a reading delay or difficulty, they can ask the school to evaluate their child.

If a child is determined to have a learning difficulty, the school will create an Individualized Education Plan, and determine what services are needed and can be provided. Some schools have reading specialists for dyslexia, while others can offer accommodations.

Though Menard was diagnosed with dyslexia in third grade, he didn’t receive proper reading instruction until after eighth grade. Up until that point, Menard was given accommodations such as extra time on assignments or auditory assignments. That helped him succeed in school, but by eighth grade, he was reading at a fourth grade level, his mother Latondra Jones said.

“I had already known that he was dyslexic, but I wanted to be sure he knew how to read on his own,” Jones said.

Jones sought out a tutor who specializes in teaching children with dyslexia and she found Stephanie Starr, with Ladder Learning Services. Starr used the Orton-Gillingham approach, and started from the beginning with Menard.

“I get a lot of older kids. The kiddos I work with have the same holes they might have in first or second grade,” Starr said. “If they can’t rhyme, if they are struggling with hearing some things, we start with the basics.”

Tutoring is one option, but many parents choose to send their kids to private schools that specialize in children with dyslexia. The goal of these schools is to teach kids to read, fill the gap, and prepare them to return to regular private or public schools after a couple years.

The Schenck School in Atlanta was the first in the metro area specifically founded in 1959 to help dyslexic students. It teaches students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

“Our strategy is the focused, accelerated remediation of dyslexia, and students typically are enrolled for two or three years before returning to a mainstream school,” said Ellen Hill, Director of Community Engagement. “We celebrate when our students leave to further their education elsewhere.”

Other metro schools also specializing in serving children with Dyslexia, include Atlanta Speech School’s Wardlaw School (Atlanta), GRACEPOINT School (Marietta), Sage School (Suwannee) and Swift School (Roswell). The amount of time needed for remediation varies with each student, but typically children attend these schools for only a few years. Upon completion, students are expected to return to public or private schools with the tools they need to succeed.

Gracepoint’s Director of Outplacement and Assessment, Angie Fowler, says a big part of her job is helping parents find the best placement for their child once the student is ready to transition back to a public or private school. “We believe that all students given the right opportunities and techniques can be successful learners. Children with dyslexia are extremely bright and creative,” she said. “We are thrilled when they transition as it validates our mission and celebrates the success of the student.”

Several support groups and organizations help families searching for answers and solutions to dealing with dyslexia, such as Decoding Dyslexia, the Georgia Chapter of the International Dyslexia Association, and the Dyslexia Network of Forsyth and Dyslexia Network of Decatur .

“Knowing what you are up against is important,” said Tina McGinley, president of the Dyslexia Network for Forsyth. “I think having a local group as a resource is so important.”

Possible signs of dyslexia

In preschoolers:

  • Late or delayed speech
  • Poor memory or dislike of nursery rhymes
  • Mixing up sounds and syllables (sketti: spaghetti; hangaber: hamburger)
  • Difficulty learning colors, days of the week, shapes, numbers
  • Difficulty learning how to spell or write one’s name

In K-4:

  • Difficulty learning letter names and sounds
  • Difficulty breaking words into sounds
  • Can’t remember sight words
  • Slow, choppy, word-by-word reading
  • Avoids reading long passages or books
  • Very poor speller
  • Good verbal comprehension; poor reading comprehension

– Johnna Stein

Resources for Dyslexia

Private Schools

Dyslexia is the primarily focus of these metro-Atlanta private schools:

Atlanta Speech School’s Wardlaw School
The Sage School
Schenck School
The Swift School

Learning Centers

Brain Balance Achievement Centers
Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes

Online Resources

International Dyslexia Association (IDA)
The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity
Dyslexia Resource Trust

– Kristy MacKaben

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