Dyslexia is a neurobiological learning disability characterized by difficulties with word recognition, spelling and reading. If your child has difficulty with spelling, writing and reading, they may have dyslexia. As these skills are necessary for schooling, this can be challenging for children to overcome. Here’s what you need to know about this unique learning disability and how you can help your dyslexic child remediate and work on their writing, reading and spelling abilities.

Getting Answers: Q&A with Brenda Fitzgerald

Brenda Fitzgerald is the executive director at Georgia Educational Training Agency, where she is also a curriculum and instruction specialist. The Georgia ETA empowers pre-K to twelfth grade public and private school administrators and teachers with skills courses based on scientific research. They also equip parents and families with skills to help their children succeed in and out of the classroom.

Brenda Fitzgerald

What is dyslexia?
It’s a neurobiological learning disability affecting reading, writing and spelling. They have great difficulty learning the phonological model. It’s the child’s inability to process the phonemes of the language. The beautiful thing about dyslexia is it doesn’t affect the thinking and reasoning of a child. Students are extremely bright and gifted in other areas.

What is the diagnosis process like?
This process is different in public schools and private schools. At a public school, as part of the Response to Intervention process, the student will test with a psychologist, who is part of the school system. At a private school, they will collect data observation, do informal assessments and present that information, along with a team of people to the parent. A private school usually does not have a psychologist on campus, so evaluations will usually come from a private practice.

How will Senate Bill 48 change that process?
This law requires all children to have an evaluation for early identification of dyslexia, creating guidance for local school systems on universal screeners, dyslexia and other disorders, reading difficulties and special education services. By the 2024-2025 school year, school systems will screen all kindergarten students.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic and virtual learning affecting those with dyslexia?
The best way to remediate is always face-to-face, and this has forced teachers and students to learn in an alternative manner. There were evidence-based studies on the negative effects of screen time pre-COVID. Online learning makes it more difficult because dyslexic students need ongoing feedback, they fatigue easier around the written language, and they have difficulty with sustaining attention for a long time.

There are things parents can do to support online learning: make sure there’s a set time for instruction; take brain breaks; ask the teacher to provide lessons that need more reinforcement for parent to help with; and get students outside.

What is the Georgia ETA doing during this time?
We’re still holding face-to-face classes. We’ve being very responsible – wearing masks, social distancing, following guidelines. Teachers really appreciate being back in the classroom to learn themselves, and we’re having conversations about virtual learning. I’m observing teachers through Zoom. I was on Zoom for about five hours observing a teacher with her dyslexic students, both the students at home learning and the students in front of her. It’s interesting to watch how a teacher manages that.

What changes in teaching methods have you seen during your career?
What’s needed more than anything is really good teacher training in phonological awareness, encoding and decoding, vocabulary and grammar. I’ve trained thousands of teachers over the last 30 years, and more teachers are being very explicit and systematic in their training, and teachers need layered training. When you layer your training, your teacher performs better.

The first component of layered training would be the Complete Reading Series, which trains teachers to understand the components of reading, writing and spelling and learning disabilities. The second layer would be training and certification in the Orton-Gillingham approach.

What happens if a student has no or limited remediation for dyslexia?
If we don’t remediate early enough, in third or fourth grade, anxiety will present itself, which will be a secondary issue. From the time students walk into school by the time they leave, they must be able to read, write and spell accurately and quickly. As you move from grade to grade, the pace of the curriculum gets faster, and content and concepts get harder. Students know they’re smart, but they just can’t keep up with their peers. We need to identify early and remediate correctly, and for that, we need good teacher training.

What has changed about dyslexia during your career?
There has been a major leap in understanding dyslexia in the last 20 years. We know it’s neurobiological. We know it can be found in multiple chromosomes. It’s a trait; it runs in families. Scientists know where it is on the brain, and they’ve pinpointed it to the phonological model of the brain.

What is your advice for parents with a new diagnosis of dyslexia?
The number one thing that a parent needs to do is educate themselves. Get Dr. Sally Shaywitz’s book “Overcoming Dyslexia.” Find our course “Understanding Dyslexia.” Talk to the child’s teacher and resource teacher about what remediation will look like in your school. Find a tutor for your child. It’s equally as important to find and develop your child’s gift. Develop their strengths, which can be a lifesaver for that child as they get proper remediation. I go to lunches with young adults who are engineers, doctors, entrepreneurs. They had parents or grandparents who found their gift and developed it, which helped them be as successful as they are today.

What options are there for families who can’t afford private education?
If you can, go to a public school that’s had layered training. Find free parenting workshops. If possible, get a full psychological evaluation. If your school is not remediating correctly, find a trained tutor.

Emily Webb

Learn the Lingo

Dyslexia: A specific, neurobiological learning disability characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor encoding (spelling) and decoding (reading) abilities.

Dysgraphia: The condition of impaired letter writing by hand. Impaired handwriting can interfere with learning to spell words in writing and speed of writing text. Children with dysgraphia may have only impaired handwriting, only impaired spelling or both.

Dyspraxia: Refers to trouble with movement, including fine motor skills, gross motor skills, motor planning and coordination.

Dyscalculia: A condition that makes understanding numbers, performing calculations, counting, and basic arithmetic skills difficult.

Neurobiology: The study of cells of the nervous system and the organization of these cells into functional circuits that process information and mediate behavior.

Phoneme: Identifies the smallest unit of sound, such as “b,” “t” or “tch.”

Phonemic Awareness: The ability to manipulate phonemes. Dyslexic students usually lack phonemic awareness and may be unable to identify phonemes within words.

Grapheme: Individual letters and groups of letters that represent single phonemes.

Orton-Gillingham Approach: Orton-Gillingham was the first teaching approach designed to help struggling readers by explicitly teaching the connections between letters and sounds, and it was created in the 1930s by neurologist Dr. Samuel T. Orton and educator and psychologist Anna Gillingham. The approach combines multi-sensory teaching strategies with systematic, sequential lessons focused on phonics.

Wilson Reading System: A structured literacy program based on phonological-coding research and Orton-Gillingham principles that directly and systematically teaches the structure of the English language. Students learn fluent decoding and encoding skills.

Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes: Programs to develop the sensory-cognitive processes that underlie reading and comprehension.

Fast ForWord: An adaptive reading and language program channeling neuroscience to provide results for struggling learners.

Barton Reading & Spelling System: A tutoring system for those who struggle with spelling, reading and writing due to dyslexia.

Adapted from understood.org, disabledworld.com, ldonline.org, dyscalculia.org, dyslexiaresource.org, sciencedaily.com, sess.ie, readingdoctor.com, orton-gillingham.com, wilsonlanguage.com, lindamoodbell.com, bartonreading.com and dyslexiaida.org

Myths versus Facts

MYTH: Dyslexics are not intelligent.
FACT: Dyslexics are usually of average to gifted intelligence.

MYTH: Dyslexia is a visual problem – dyslexics see letters backwards.
FACT: Dyslexia is a neurobiological language-based learning disability. Dyslexics have problems identifying the separate speech sounds within a word and/or learning the letters that represent those sounds.

MYTH: Dyslexia can be cured.
FACT: Dyslexia is a life-long challenge, but with the proper remediation, dyslexics can have academic success.

MYTH: More boys than girls have dyslexia.
FACT: According to Understood.org, dyslexia affects both genders in equal numbers.

MYTH: Dyslexics just need to try harder.
FACT: Practicing more the wrong way can frustrate dyslexics. They usually need intensive, highly structured instruction.

Find a list of schools that support dyslexic students  in Atlanta Parent’s Dyslexia School Directory.

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