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Bellingham schools identify reading difficulties early, then offer effective instruction

Educators in Action

Students who show dyslexic tendencies are at risk of falling behind in reading and learning. That’s why Bellingham schools take the important step at the beginning of the school year to test kindergartners’ “phonological awareness” — their ability to identify the sounds of letters, and to combine the sounds of letters to form words. These tests are repeated through first grade to make sure these students are getting the reading instruction they need.

“Early intervention with kids with dyslexic tendencies is critical,” said Dawn Christiana, director of teaching and learning at Bellingham Public Schools. “If we find kids early enough, and we give the right instruction, we can mitigate the effects of dyslexia.”

Dyslexia is a neurological condition, meaning that people with this learning disability have brains that are wired differently, according to the International Dyslexia Association. Dyslexia is common, affecting an estimated 20 percent of the population. If teachers or parents are unfamiliar with dyslexia, they may mistake a student’s reading difficulty as laziness or a lack of intelligence. In fact, people with dyslexia have difficulty making a connection between the written word and the associated speech sounds, or phonics.

“Most students with dyslexic tendencies have fabulous comprehension but just have difficulty with print,” Christiana said.

Effective instruction involves more than just getting students to see and hear letters and words. Teachers also have students use body movements and the sense of touch to learn how to read words. Educators such as Christiana refer to this as a “multi-sensory approach to phonics instruction,” and the gold standard for this type of teaching is the Orton-Gillingham approach.

All Bellingham students in kindergarten and first grade get some reading instruction based on Orton-Gillingham methods: writing letters with their fingers in colored sand, or dancing in ways that associate specific motions with certain letters of the alphabet. While this type of instruction is designed to help students who show dyslexic tendencies, all students benefit from learning how to read this way, Christiana said.

Bellingham’s elementary schools have literacy intervention teachers who work with students one-on-one or in small groups to develop their reading skills. Much of the Orton-Gillingham approach envisions one-on-one instruction. Bellingham’s kindergarten and first-grade teachers, who generally are the experts on making any technique more efficient, are able to bring these methods to the whole class.

Community member Sara Buetow said the extra effort devoted to teaching children with reading difficulties is necessary. Buetow is with Decoding Dyslexia Washington, part of a national education and advocacy organization. She provides training to Bellingham teachers during staff learning Fridays.

“It’s labor intensive, but if you look at the societal cost of children not learning to read, we really need to do it,” Buetow said.

Buetow said families with the financial means will find specialized instruction for their dyslexic children, even if it means paying a tutor $50 to $150 an hour. Public schools have an obligation, Buetow said, to meet this need for all students.

It starts with recognizing behaviors in the first years of school that indicate a student might be having reading difficulties. Some students become quiet and shun participation during reading lessons, while others act out — “they would rather get in trouble than read,” Buetow said.

“There are teachers who get it,” Buetow said. “Bellingham School District is making strides to make that instruction available to everyone, regardless of resources.”

Teachers are supported in reading instruction by the technology now available to students. Audiobooks provided by Learning Ally and speech-to-text apps help students learn how to read or complete their assignments more efficiently and with more comprehension. Education technology coaches in the Bellingham schools, who are funded by the technology levy approved by voters in February 2016, make sure students have access to these tools. The levy also funds Bellingham Public Schools’ 1:1 initiative, which will put a digital device in the hands of every student in grades 3 through 12 by 2020-21.

“The 1:1 initiative is going to be a game changer for kids,” Christiana said.

Buetow said she is “thrilled” Bellingham schools are using Learning Ally in particular, as this software really helps middle- and high school students complete reading assignments on time and with strong comprehension. She echoed Christiana, calling technology a “game changer” for students who need help reading.

Parents of children with dyslexic tendencies are encouraged to work with teachers and other school staff to make sure that child is supported in his or her learning. They can also find resources online, including the website of the International Dyslexia Association and the Decoding Dyslexia Washington Facebook page.

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