Advice and resources for parents, advocated and teachers working to improve the lives of students with dyslexia in Tennessee and across America.
Author: Anna Thorsen
I am a parent, attorney and advocate. I and my middle school daughter both have dyslexia. During the 2015 legislative session I was a tireless advocate to help pass the much needed Dyslexia Legislation in Tennessee and am proud to participate in the 2016 Bill Signing. I now serve on the Decoding Dyslexia TN Leadership Team and serves on the TN Department of Education’s Dyslexia Advisory Council. I have been a presenter for the past two years at the Tennessee Association for Assistive Technology annual conferences. I also does frequent speaking engagements around Middle Tennessee on the topic of dyslexia. My family's dyslexia story has been featured in several articles, including Mindshift's October 15, 2015 article "Why Recognizing Dyslexia at School Can be Difficult."
I was honored to be invited to David Lipscomb University by Professor Lance Forman to be interviewed for a Ed.S-level course called “Systems Thinking” which focuses on the history of inequities in the public school system, the legislative process, and using our voice to be advocates for change. I was asked to speak on a variety of advocacy-related issues, but the heart of the interview is learning how to tell your story and how to use that story to build connections to empower your advocacy. Each of the videos below are about 16 minutes long. Thank you for taking time to watch.
I will be creating more blogs to summarize the advocacy tips in this series. Check back soon!
Having a child with dyslexia in your classroom can be challenging in a normal year. In the virtual setting, it can feel overwhelming to give them the accommodations they need. As a parent of an 8th grader with dyslexia who is beginning her second semester of virtual learning, I have identified our main challenges and some tips with how teachers can address them in a virtual setting.
The first step to helping a child with dyslexia in any setting is to dive in and learn about what dyslexia is and what it isn’t. Visit websites like the understood.org for more information or look to see if your state has a Dyslexia Guide. Dyslexia is a difficultly processing written language and can impact spelling, reading and writing. It has nothing to do with intelligence and many students who struggling with manipulating written language can also excel at oral language tasks. Students with dyslexia will not “get it” if you tell them to do it again or try harder. They are not lazy or careless. They need a teacher who understands their weaknesses and their strengths who knows how to accommodate them so that they can thrive.
Once you have an understanding of what dyslexia is, you can began to address the needs of your students with dyslexia in a virtual setting. Below I outline specific difficulties and provide tips with how to address each one.
Dyslexia Difficultly #1: Lots of reading with no built-in read aloud feature. Across school districts, there is a wide variety of which students are able to use built-in read aloud features. Some districts have it turned on for all children while others only allow access for younger students or students with disabilities. If your district or grade band does not give students with dyslexia access to read aloud technology, it can be very hard to them to keep up. These students can read very slowly and inaccurately. They can easily miss or misunderstand information that they would have understood had the information been read aloud to them.
Teacher Tip #1: Help your students access Snap and Read. Snap and Read can be installed as an app on a tablet or as an extension to Google Chrome. It enables kids to easily click on the text they need read aloud so that they can access information through listening to increase the accuracy and speed at which they can complete work.
Dyslexia Difficulty #2: Lots of writing with no built in speech-to-text or word prediction built in. While some virtual platforms do have a spellcheck option, for students with dyslexia, spelling is often so far off that spellcheck simply cannot recognize the intended word. In a virtual setting where almost all of the writing is done on the computer, this can make children frustrated and can make word very hard to read for teachers. Also, poor spellcheck eats up a lot of time for students who really want all the red squiggly lines under their words to go away.
Teacher Tip #2: If you have a student with dyslexia, encourage them to get Co:Writer. It can be found as an app and as a Chrome extension. Not only does it have spellcheck, but it has a suite of capabilities that empower the writing of students with dyslexia. Co:writer offers word prediction and reads the words to students to help them pick the right word. For example, if a student wants to write the word “soup,” and then types “s-o-“ she will be given options including “soup” and “soap.” Those words are visually similar and can be tricky for kids with dyslexia to know which is the word they mean. Co:Writer solves this by allowing students to click on the two words to hear which one they want. So, if the child clicks “soap” they will hear that is wrong and can move to pick the correct word “soup” instead. Another important capability of Co:writer is that it will also read back what the student has written so they can hear any incorrect words or skipped words. For example, if the child wanted to write “I know my dog will like his bone,” but instead writes “I now my bog will lick done,” he will be able to hear the errors and skipped words. This is so important because in both examples, all the words are spelled correctly but you can see how letting the child hear the words help them catch errors they would have missed visually.
Dyslexia Difficulty #3: Kids with dyslexia need tests read aloud. That is really hard in a virtual setting. Oftentimes students are left to muddle through tests on their own. Since we know they struggle with accuracy and fatigue, the failure to read a test aloud to a child with dyslexia can deeply impact their grade. Imagine a math word problem that says “Which of the following shapes IS NOT a quadrilateral?” A child with dyslexia reading on his own may skip a work and read the question as “Which of the following shapes IS a quadrilateral?” He will get the wrong answer even though he knew what a quadrilateral is. Instead of a math test, the failure to read it aloud to him will turn it into a reading test.
Teacher Tip #3: Reading tests aloud to students with dyslexia can be difficult in both the classroom and the virtual setting. Teachers have a lot of children to manage and finding the time can be tough. I do not recommend relying on text-to-speech technology for tests, because the robotic voice does not read things like multiple choice answers, word boxes, letter matches or word problems in a way that makes sense. In fact, it can be down right confusing for children to muddle through. Have tests read by humans is always the best option. There are several strategies to accommodate this need in the virtual setting. First, if the child has a caregiver or older sibling at home who is willing to read the test, that is a great option, so send an email home to ask the caregiver what would be easiest for the family. Another option is that you can ask the child to come to a Zoom or Teams call with you during your office hours or during an asynchronous time when you can spend time reading that test aloud. If you simply do not have the time, try to engage a special education teacher or another educator to support you in reading the test aloud to the student. Please avoid asking students with dyslexia to “give it a try to see how they do.” Taking a test is especially taxing for these students, so asking them to try the test and then retake is demoralizing. If you don’t see the harm in asking them to retake it, remember that you would not ask a kid with a walker in PE to “give the lap a try” and if they don’t do it fast enough to ask them to do it again. That would be unkind and exhausting for the child. Dyslexia is a disability and should be understood and treated with compassion.
Dyslexia Difficulty #4: Some online quizzes pop up with a large ticking timer that shuts down the quiz if time is exceeded. This is stress inducing and unfair to kids with dyslexia who need extra time.
Teacher Tip #4:As a preface to this tip, remember that many students with dyslexia need tests read aloud, and some students will need quizzes read out loud too. Double check what your students accommodations are. Some timers are built in to online platforms and can be very hard to turn off to grant extended time to students who need it. If you are faced with this technical difficulty, think outside the box. Tell the child to ignore the timer and print the test and email you a picture when she completes it. For children that do not have a printer at home, teach them how to take a screenshot of the quiz and to just send you an email with the answers if possible. Some teachers balk at having online tests emailed them and prefer for students so use the online format to made grading easier, but remember that the goal is to let kids show what they know. If a child can only do that by giving you work in a different format, be open to that even if it creates an extra step for you.
Dyslexia Difficulty #5: Online worksheets that only accept correctly spelled answers. In many formats, if you type in “Pocahanas” on a worksheet about Jamestown, instead of the correct spelling, you will get a zero on that item. Students with dyslexia should not be counted off for spelling. This can be deeply frustrating to children who know the material perfectly, but still get a failing grade in the online worksheet.
Teacher Tip #5: Again, this requires teachers to think outside the box and communicate with children and families of children with dyslexia to find something that works. One simple option here is to have children print the worksheet and complete it by hand and send you a picture. Again, if the child does not have a printer, the can always send you answers in an email. However, this can be cumbersome because students with dyslexia can really struggle copying information from the scree to paper or when moving between screens. A simple bit of assistive technology you can also use here is Easy Spelling Aide that can quickly provide students with access to the correct spelling of a word with the touch of a button.
Dyslexia Difficulty #6: Many teachers ask students to post answers to discussion questions publicly on a classroom message board. This can cause a lot of shame in kids who spell or write poorly since errors are there for all to see and spellcheck is not usually enabled in the chat room. A simple answer to the question can turn into a seriously embarrassing moment. A true life example of this when a math teacher posted the question “What is the probability a face card will be next in the deck? (Respond in a full sentence.)” When a very earnest boy answered “Ther is a 3/13 chance a faccard will be next in the dick,” he was ridiculed and felt so much shame even though his answer of “3/13” was the correct answer and he did not mean to write an inappropriate word. It may seem funny to some, but to those with dyslexia, it feels like more proof that we are stupid.
Teacher Tip #6: Give students with dyslexia the option to send you an email with their answer instead of making them post answers publicly. Please do not make them write publicly if they do not want to. If you are not sure what the child wants, remember that communication is key. Just ask them. They know they have dyslexia. Don’t be afraid to talk to them about it.
Dyslexia Difficulty #7: Some teachers in virtual school say “I’ll give you two minutes to text me your response.” Students with dyslexia may take 5 minutes to even write an answer and will miss class instruction while focused on typing. Additionally, they may be counted off for not turning items in. They also may be seen as not participating in class when the truth is, they just cannot keep up. (If answers are to be posted in a public forum, see tip #5 above.)
Teacher Tip #7: If you are using this trick to encourage participation in class, make sure to let students know they can just give part of an answer if that is all they can get to. Also, make sure kids know that these responses can be causal and do not need to be spelled perfectly or that they can be one word or one number. Lastly, make sure to end the response period. Say “if you did not get to the answer, that is okay, stay with me as we move on.” Then, if students have their camera on, check to see that the child with dyslexia has eyes on you and is not still working. If cameras are off, ask kids to do a verbal check in that they are all ready to move on. You want to make sure that the students with dyslexia is still following along and is not lost still trying to write the answer.
Dyslexia Difficulty #8: By the end of a long day of looking at the screen, all kids are tired. For students with dyslexia, fatigue can be severe and cause mood issues, acting out and more. After virtual school has ended, having extensive homework can be close to impossible to complete. A simple worksheet for a tired child with dyslexia can take hours.
Teacher Tip #8: Make sure that you are not loading students with dyslexia up with hours of homework. Communicate with families to let them know your expectations. Say, “I am expecting you do 30 minutes of this work each night. If it takes longer than that, please just stop after 30 minutes and send me an email.” You do not want to unknowingly give a child hours of homework you did not intend.
This has been an unprecedented year that has been so challenging for students and teachers. This is hard so we all need to give each other grace. If you are struggling to meet the needs of a student in your class with dyslexia, I hope that these tips and technologies help you in your journey. If all else fails, remember that communication, compassion and flexibility go a long way.
In the past weeks, I have spoken with advocates from Chicago to Connecticut who either need help getting started in advocacy or who are looking to take their advocacy to the next level. Since there is such a hunger for this kind of information, I thought I would just compile some of the ideas, advice and templates I have been sharing. Please remember that I have dyslexia and that you will want to spell check all of these before you send them on. If I took time to make sure everything I posted was perfect, I would never post anything.
ADVOCACY IDEAS: HOW TO START
Often, the hardest part of advocating is knowing how to start. Challenging a system can feel daunting and we can feel like we do not have what it takes to advocate. We too often tell ourselves, “I am just a mom” or “There is no way I can make any change.” That is not true. You, armed with your story, your computer and your willpower can move mountains. Trust me. Seasoned advocates know that the work is rarely well organized or done according to a master plan. It can be done in fits and starts and can be done on whatever schedule fits your life. If it takes you two months to write a letter to your school board, that is okay. I am a dyslexia advocate with dyslexia. I do my best, but I do not worry if my work is not as good as it could be. Set down your shame. Remember, the important part is to raise awareness and work for change, not to be perfect.
Now that the pep talk is over, here is a list of some ideas of how you can advocate. It is just a list I brainstormed for a group of parents recently. I have organized the ideas below to start with the easier ideas and progressing to ones that are more advanced. I hope you can find something that interests you. Some of the items I will provide templates for in the template section below while some of them are just ideas to get your brain moving. If you want to tackle something, but need more help than what I provide, feel free to reach out to me. Now go get started and encourage people in your network or friend group to join you. The more of us who start working on this list, the more quickly change will come.
Get on Twitter. (I may do a whole blog post on this in the near future.) Most superintendents, principals, school board members and council people are on Twitter. If you keep your concerns and conversations around dyslexia in a Facebook chat group or at your dinner table, nothing will change. Get on Twitter and tell your story. I do not like Facebook for advocacy. Instagram is a different audience. Most policy makers are not on Instagram. However, I recently spoke with a Teen who wanted to start advocating to other Teens and this is the perfect forum. Depending on your audience target, TikTok advocacy can work if you prefer speaking and are creative with ways to share information.
Ask for 10 minutes to speak at your next PTO meeting. This is a great place to start. Anyone can do it. No need for an elaborate Powerpoint. All you need are 3 slides: Signs and Strengths of Dyslexia, Dyslexia Myths and a list of your favorite videos and articles. (Visit my website or your local Decoding Dyslexia branch for ideas.) I guarantee you will have parents reach out to you afterwards!
Write a Letter to Your School Board Members. (More below.) This can feel easier for some people than speaking aloud. It is a good way to educate, to share your story and to ask for a change to policy or ask them to reconsider a position they have taken. I like to keep the tone collaborative and not angry. Again, people are more likely to help you if they do not feel attacked. If you are not sure how to word that, I used phrases like “As I am sure you are already aware, 47,600 Tennessee students have characteristics of dyslexia” or “I know you are familiar with the Tennessee Dyslexia Resource Guide, but I hope that you can share it with teachers since it is shocking how many are still not aware of it.” Using words like this with authority figures does two things. First, it does not call them out on their ignorance on a subject. Too often, if an authority figure feels shame about their ignorance, they will get mad and communication will end, which is death knell for advocacy. Second, when you assume someone’s expertise and they don’t have it, they will want to read the resource rather than admit they do not know what you are talking about. It is human nature. Point being, as an advocate, tone matters a lot.
Ask to speak at your next school board meeting. Use your five minutes to very briefly share your dyslexia story, to provide your district information about dyslexia and to ask them to provide more supports to these students. Tailor it to issues happening in your district and keep your tone collaborative and informative. Leaders tune out when they feel attacked. Dyslexia Training Institute has some great drafts of school board speeches for you to get ideas.
Take part in your local Disability Day on the Hill. (More below.) Most states have established and active disability organizations that will host events and seminars. Check events on their calendars to see if you can use those events for your advocacy. One I really like is Disability Day on the Hill. It is a great chance to visit your state capital to speak directly with legislators about the disability near to your heart. On these organized days, legislators are open to meeting with parents and advocates and it is a lovely experience. To prepare, print out one page with a short version or your story, some disability facts, your contact information and how you would love your legislator to help. It can be a specific ask like “Please support the Dyslexia Bill” or a broad one like “Please learn more about dyslexia by reading this short article since it affects 1 in 6 of all of us.”
Email your Legislators.(More below.) An email with your story can go a long way. One of the first things I did at the beginning of my dyslexia journey was to send an email to two legislators who had passed an early dyslexia law in my state to let them know how hard things still were for children with dyslexia. I now know that it caused them to call up the Department of Education and they began to discuss internally how to help children with dyslexia more. Five years later we have more robust protections for children because so many Tennessee advocates pushed like this. There are some options on how to proceed with an email to legislators. First, you can just email them and provide them with information about dyslexia and ask that they keep children with dyslexia in mind during future legislation. Second, you can email them about a specific issue such as, “I am in your district and I am a parent of a child with dyslexia, and I am finding that my district is not following the Dyslexia Law that you helped pass in 2015. I think further legislation on XXX topic would really help families.” Third, you can draft sample legislation and ask them to sponsor it or something similar. This takes some work, but of you love what another state has done you can just attach it and ask that they sponsor something similar. Note: To find email addresses of legislators, visit your state legislature website. Emailing your legislator or members of the education committee can be a great place to start.
Reach Out to other groups – especially diverse groups. If you feel like it is just you advocating or just your little group, trust me, it is not. There are tons of people in every state advocating for dyslexia. There are parents of all backgrounds, teachers, superintendents, tutors and policy makers working to make change around reading for all children. We need to all raise our voices together to be heard. I encourage you, whatever your niche is no matter how big or small you feel your voice is, to try to connect with other groups in your area who are working on similar issues. Follow them on Social Media. Make a call to talk with someone. Sit in on an information session they host. Attend a conference they host. There are lots of ways to connect. If you are not sure who to connect with, try your local IDA group, a Decoding Dyslexia group, your local NAACP, parent advisory councils of your city schools, State level disability councils, disability groups, researchers at your local university, a nearby Dyslexia Tutoring Center or an education non-profit. A Google search will go a long way to help you build your network.
Freedom of Information Act Request: Learn what your district is saying behind closed doors.(More below.) This can be a very enlightening tool when you feel like you are not getting the true story from your district. All school documents, records and emails are subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It is an easy request to do and can get you a ton of information about what your district is doing behind closed doors. These requests do need to be specific and for a short time period, but you do NOT need to tell them why you want the records. I have included a template below to work form.
Send an email to your district demanding a dyslexia page be added to there website. (More below.) So many school districts across the country do not Say Dyslexia which means that too many families are teachers are left without accurate information about this very common problem. Let’s demand that schools include this very basic information. To save district leaders time, I suggest you include the information itself in your request. Tie all your information to a known and respected source like your state dyslexia law, the International Dyslexia Association or a local Dyslexia Center. I have a draft of what yours might look like below.
Call the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS.) This is a more advanced step to consider, but one person can do it. OSERS is the federal department committed to improving results and outcomes for people with disabilities of all ages. OSERS supports programs that serve millions of children, youth and adults with disabilities. I strongly encourage you to exhaust communication at the district and state level first, but if you have tried really hard to advocate with your school and your district, but you just cannot get any traction, consider calling or emailing your OSERS state lead. Examples of when this type of advocacy is appropriate is where your district is not screening students for dyslexia (which is under “Specific Learning Disability” in the IDEA) and you feel they are violating their Child Find obligations or if your district is denying parents an evaluation until after it collects weeks and weeks of data points under RTI or MTSS. (See OSEP Letter 11-07.)
Reach out to local journalists and education bloggers to ask them to tell your story or to give comment on an issue in your area. If you have a story that you think is news worthy, then reach out via phone or email to your local journalists. This can be a bigger paper, your public radio, a local education blogger, or a local education paper like Chalkbeat. If you are working with a large group of parents on a systemic issue, reach out to national outlets like Huffington Post, Washington Post or Education Week. Most news organization have an education desk that is always looking for newsworthy stories in education. Also, if there is a issue happening in the news, journalists are always looking to talk to parents about it. For example, if there is a new piece of legislation in your state or a new school board literacy policy that you dislike, reach out to a journalist and offer to share your opinion. It is a great way to Say Dyslexia in a public forum. Plus, I have found all journalists I have enacted with you be kind and supportive even when I was not sure of myself. Remember, set down your shame and speak out.
Write a Letter-to-the-Editor in your local paper or local parent magazine. These letters are usually only 250 words. Make it timely by tying your letter to something in the news like “Dyslexia after a year of Virtual School”, “A Parent’s Concern for a Return to In-Person School for a Child with Dyslexia”, or “What the New District Literacy Policy Means to a Mom of a Child with Dyslexia.” You do not need to be expert on the topic, just share your story, include information about dyslexia and how the issue at hand affects your child. At the end, provide an action step that readers can take to further your message. Like” “Ask your school HOW they are teaching children to read” or “Does your school district Say Dyslexia? Check their website to find out.”
Have a #SayDyslexia Bill Board put up on your local Interstate. This a big idea, but I would love to do it in Tennessee. What a great way to inform tons of people about dyslexia! I have heard that some companies give free space to non-profits, so think about it. I am looking into it, so stay tuned.
These are just my ideas, but advocacy can look so many different ways. The most important thing to do is to just START. You can you do. You can join the voices working to make change for children.
Below are the templates I referenced above. I hope that these will help you along your advocacy journey. If get stuck or need help brainstorming, always feel free to reach out to me. I would also be happy to Zoom with your group to help get you started. Now go make change!
TEMPLATE: LETTER TO YOUR SCHOOL BOARD
This is a modified version of a letter a group of concerned parents sent to a school board in 2016 when they were considering further funding for Reading Recovery. You will see that it clearly states what you are urging them to do, it provides education on the issue and information about why they should reconsider their position.
Dear White County School Board Members,
We, a group of concerned parents, would like to voice our opposition to the School Board’s proposal to invest a large amount of money into the “Reading Recovery” literacy program. Although we are pleased with our district’s focus on literacy, we strongly urge you to consider using a program that is evidence-based that will address the needs of ALL struggling readers. We urge you to fund a multi-sensory, evidence-based literacy program, such as Orton-Gillingham, which is proven to work for ALL students, not just those with dyslexia. Here is why:
1. Science knows that students with dyslexia make up 20% of our student population and 80% of the kids who ultimately end up in special education for learning disabilities. Students with dyslexia are a huge percentage of our struggling readers. Scientists and dyslexia experts also know that students with dyslexia need an evidence-based program, like Orton-Gillingham, to learn to read. Leading dyslexia experts agree that Reading Recovery does not work for students with dyslexia and some, such as Lousia Motts, go as far to say its harmful and that it is “indefensible to keep spending money on this.” Sally Shaywitz, of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity writes “We have come too far and made too much progress to allow anything less than valid scientific evidence to be used in determining if, indeed, a program is effective in improving students’ reading.” We feel that White County should not spend so much money funding a program that is not evidence-based and is known not to work for the very kids (those with dyslexia) who struggle most to read.
2. Tennessee Legislature is about to pass the Say Dyslexia Bill which will require districts to screen students for dyslexia in kindergarten and will require districts to provide dyslexia-specific interventions, like Orton-Gillingham, to be put into general education in the RTI Tiers. Specifically, the Bill says “The LEA shall: provide student with appropriate dyslexia-specific intervention through the RTI framework.” We feel strongly that White County should spend its money training teachers in the Orton-Gillingham method, which will soon be required by law, which has been proven by years of research to teach the most troubled readers how to read.
3. The TN DOE has issued, in January 2016, the “Understanding Dyslexia: a Guide for Parents and Educators” which clearly states that: “It is not necessary for a student to be diagnosed with dyslexia in order to receive appropriate intervention. Once a school identifies that a student shows characteristics of dyslexia, it is important to provide the right interventions…These principles of instruction are often referred to by the following terms: Orton-Gillingham based, a Multisensory Structured Language, or Structured Literacy. Interventions must be aligned to individual students’ needs. For students with dyslexia or for students with the characteristics of dyslexia, the intervention should address the specific phonological deficits identified through targeted assessments.” We strongly feel that White County should heed the guidance of the TNDOE (who worked tirelessly with dyslexia advocates from TN STEP, Decoding Dyslexia – Tennessee, Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia and Tennessee chapter of the International Dyslexia Association to craft this guide) and spend its money on the Orton-Gillingham program contained in the guidance from the State.
4. The United States Congress has recently passed the Research Excellence and Advancements for Dyslexia (READ) Act which instructs the National Science Foundation to create best-practices on evidence-based educational tools for children with dyslexia. To pass the bill, the Congress held extensive testimony from dyslexia experts which, again, highlighted the need for evidence-based interventions for students with dyslexia. We feel strongly that your district should follow the United State Congress’ lead and give students an evidence-based program to help all students read.
We urge you all to look deeply at this issue before dedicating such a large amount of money on something that is not proven to work for ALL students. Our concern is that you will invest heavily in Reading Recovery and will be left in a bad position in the very near future when you are required to also fund teacher training for Orton-Gillingham to address the needs of students with dyslexia. Dr. Michael Hart, an international dyslexia expert of 25 years, is willing to come present to your board on our behalf if you are interested. Thank you for your attention on this most important issue. Thank you further for focusing your attention on literacy, which is hugely important for the success of all our students.
Anna Thorsen (List other parents or members of an organization)
P.S. If you would like more information about the details listed above, here are some resources:
Below is the recent flyer that I brought with me with to Disability Day on the Hill. I left a copy with each legislator I visited along with copies of my favorite articles. I put them all in a red folder labeled “HB229 and SB 2160 Support Children with Dyslexia” so they could find it at the end of the day if they wanted to look at it. Having something to hand to legislators that connects them to your child is a great tool in advocacy. Sometimes, children choose to come along to speak with legislators themselves. That is a wonderful experience for all involved. Remember – ask to get a photo with each legislator at the end!
TEMPLATE: EMAIL TO YOUR LEGISLATOR
OPTION 1: EMAIL TO EDUCATE aNd Encourage Support for Legislation
In this example, you will notice that this email is to all the democrat legislators in a county. This is a good way to reach a larger group. You can send emails to one legislator, a whole committee, a whole delegation, all the sponsors of a past bill or one or two who you think will be open to your issue. Tailor it how you think best. I love how this example (not written by me) really informs legislators on the issue and provides links to learn more.
To our Davidson County delegation members:
I’m a long-time resident of Nashville and a democrat. I live in Sen. Brown’s and Rep. Smith’s districts, and I am an active member of our public school community and have met them both at school events.
I’m writing to you today as a mother and public school advocate to ask you to support the Literacy Succeeds Act. While I am currently a communications consultant by trade, on my son’s dyslexia journey, I have spent a lot of time learning about how our schools are teaching reading. I am now well versed in the type of literacy instruction currently taking place in Metro Schools — and most school districts across the state. Our schools currently use something called “balanced literacy,” but despite the name, it’s anything but balanced. Bottom line: Our schools are not teaching our kids how to read. They are teaching kids how to guess at words when they don’t know how to read, and it’s leaving kids behind.
Reading is not an innate human trait. Humans invented words as a written code for the sounds we make in our spoken language. Children must be explicitly taught how to decipher that code (or “decode”) to be able to read fluently. Research shows that 40% of kids will learn to decode on their own with enough exposure to books, but 60% need to be explicitly taught. Then 20% of kids (1 in 5) are like my son, who has dyslexia. Those children will never become proficient readers without systematic phonics instruction. These numbers bear out when you look at the percentage of children in our city and across our state who are behind in reading. The impact of this is lifelong. One study found that 80% of prison inmates are functionally illiterate — they don’t know how to decode words.Children who are not taught phonics — and are not privileged enough like my son to have parents who know how to fight the school system and pay for private tutoring — are left to a life with limited opportunities for success. Anyone who tries to protect the status quo by saying “balanced literacy” already includes phonics instruction, doesn’t understand what “phonics-based literacy instruction” actually means. Phonics can’t just be one tool. It is THE tool to help children learn how to sound out words, and it has to be taught systematically over a period of years. If you’re interested in learning more about the science of reading and the importance of phonics instruction, I highly encourage you to listen to these two audio documentaries by APM reports. They provide a lot of history, research and context (and frankly, they will blow your mind):
While I often find myself disagreeing with the policies and decisions of our governor, this time, they got something right. We need the Literacy Succeeds Act to fundamentally change how we teach reading in Tennessee, if we want to see real improvement, not just in reading scores, but in making good on the promise of education to be the great equalizer that it should be. Again, I ask you to support this important piece of legislation.
Sincerely and respectfully, Name, Address, Contact Information
Option 2: Email to ask for help from a legislator
This is the actual email I sent to two state legislators the night of my most contentions eligibility meeting. I was livid. I chose these two legislators (I have changed the names below) because they had sponsored previous dyslexia legislation and I wanted to let them know how poorly it was going. This email got some traction and this, paired with a well timed phone call to OSERS (see #10 above) helped make some excellent progress for my daughter and for the state of Tennessee.
Subject: Help with Dyslexia and RTI
Dear Legislators Black and Blanco,
Hello, my name is Anna Thorsen and I need your help. First off, I would like to say a big thank you for your work on the “Dyslexia is Real” law. It was an important first step for our Tennessee children with dyslexia, I am learning first hand.
I will go into more detail below, but I am concerned that Metro Nashville Public School is violating Federal Special Education Law and denying serves to kids who so desperately need them.
I have a daughter who has just been diagnosed with Dyslexia this week. I have been in a three month battle with our school about Dyslexia. First I was told “Tennessee doesn’t recognize dyslexia.” Then our school told us they couldn’t possibly diagnose dyslexia, we had to go to a medical doctor to get testing of her “visual processing.” I knew this was baloney, but they wouldn’t budge, so we went to our neurologist who, of course, doesn’t diagnose, and she referred us to Learning Lab, where we ultimately got the test done at the personal cost of $800.
In our S Team today, our school brought ten people on their side, one of whom was the attorney for Metro Nashville Public Schools. They denied my daughter Clara special education services until she fails through 20 more weeks of Tier II and Tier III intervention despite having been diagnosed with Dyslexia and Specific Learning Disability by an outside evaluator AND having negative Rate of Improvement on her RTI intervention for the last 5 weeks. She met every other single criteria for a Special Ed referral.
When they told us they were denying services, we reminded them about the letter OSEP 11-07 from the federal government which says specifically that States cannot “use the RTI system to deny or delay services.” When we mentioned that, the lawyer from Metro Schools told us “Oh, that. I called Mr. Valdez at the State and he says Tennessee doesn’t follow that.” In other words, the lawyer admitted that the State of Tennessee doesn’t follow the Federal Law.
My question is, how can we make them follow the law? Tennessee lists “dyslexia” right in the definition of Specific Learning Disability but they still say it is medical despite the fact that we paid $800 to get the diagnosis they told us to get?
We are so frustrated and know of many others at our school who have been give the same treatment. I would love some help and advice about what is really going on. My daughter is failing NOW and needs intervention for her dyslexia NOW and not in 20 weeks.
Thank you again for all your work on this important issue.
Anna Thorsen, Nashville, TN, Contact Information
OPTION 3: EMAIL TO PROPOSE LEGISLATION
If you have time to do some research about what laws your state has and what laws other states have, you can draft some proposed legislation, no law degree needed. The purpose of this is to highlight for a legislator the kind of legislation that would help constituents. If you have it drafted, that is one step less they have to do to get the legislation to the committee floor. It does not need to be perfect, it will go through lawyers and editors, so be bold and send an idea out there! Make sure to do research on the legislator you are emailing so that you can thank her for some of her past work in your introduction. That sets a nice tone. Here is an idea of what it might look like.Note: The best time of year to send this type of email is late summer or fall. Legislative session is usually in January and February and legislators are very busy. Send it to them in advance so they have time to consider it.
I am a constituent of yours and I have a daughter with dyslexia in Metro Nashville Public Schools. I appreciate how you always stand up for women and children. I was especially impressed with your recent vote to support the Katie Beckett law to support families of children with severe cognitive disabilities in Tennessee. Thank you.
In my journey to help my daughter get the support she needs for dyslexia in public school, I have been made very aware that Tennessee needs to take the next step to support all learners. I am grateful for the work that our state has done getting laws for learners with dyslexia passed, but I have taken the liberty to prepare the below items that I would appreciate it if you would look at when you get a moment. I know you are very busy, but I believe that my proposed ideas can help the tens of thousand of Tennessee children with Characteristics of Dyslexia.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to discussing these ideas with you at your convenience.
Sincerely, [Include name, address and contact information]
Current Tennessee Dyslexia Laws and Legislation Ideas for 2019
I. Current Tennessee Laws
Tennessee currently has two main dyslexia laws and two other laws that mention or refer to dyslexia. Many states that have comprehensive suites of laws about dyslexia have grown their laws over time. In Tennessee, we have a good base in place but need to keep revising current laws and creating new laws to fully address the needs of students and adults with dyslexia in our state. Below are highlights of current Tennessee laws, their shortcomings and how they could be improved or strengthened. In Section II, I address specifics about how we can address the shortcomings of current laws.
2016 “Say Dyslexia Law”. Calls for Screening, Intervention and Establishment of Dyslexia Advisory Council: TCA 49-1-299.This law has made huge strides in making sure that students are screened for dyslexia, and its creation of a Dyslexia Advisory Council has helped raise state-wide awareness of dyslexia. Despite all the progress it has made, the law needs to continue to be strengthen. First, it needs to be strengthened to address who provides interventions to students. As it stands, the law requires in Section (c)(3) that the LEA “provide the student with appropriate tiered dyslexia-specific intervention.” The law defines “dyslexia-specific intervention” very broadly and does not provide any requirement about who is qualified to provide these interventions. Second, the law is very weak on how Tennessee teachers are to be trained about dyslexia. The law simply states in Section (d) that “The department shall provide appropriate professional development resources for educators in the area of identification of and intervention methods for students with dyslexia.” Students across Tennessee simply are not getting proper interventions by trained teachers and one of the main reasons is that teachers are simply not sure what dyslexia is, what proper interventions are and the vast majority are not qualified to provide interventions to students identified as having “characteristics of dyslexia” under the law. In Section II below I review how we can look to other Tennessee laws and the laws of states like Arkansas who have passed more specific laws to address these issues.
2014 “Dyslexia is Real Law”. Defines dyslexia and added a weak requirement that teachers be trained: TCA 49-6-3004(c)(1). This law requires that the Department of Education “shall, within available resources, collaborate with institutions of higher education to formally address dyslexia and similar reading disorders by providing kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12) educators and teachers web-based or in-person training providing effective instruction for teaching students with dyslexia using appropriate scientific research and brain-based multisensory intervention methods and strategies.” This law was the first official Dyslexia law on the books in Tennessee and is important in that regard. However, this law is very weak and it is unclear if the required teacher training is being done in any meaningful way by the department aside from a posted online course that teachers cannot access without a password and several yearly trainings lightly advertised at MTSU Center for Dyslexia. I will outline below in Section II how this law could be strengthened simply by tracking the language used in the same section of the Tennessee Code for students with behavioral/emotional issues. That portion provides: “The commissioner shall also encourage the use of two (2) of the in-service training days to provide training to teachers, principals and other school personnel, and, to the extent possible, school board members, on issues of prevention and intervention strategies for students in the area of behavioral/emotional disorders. The training shall place an emphasis on understanding the warning signs of early-onset mental illness in children and adolescents and may be conducted by school counseling personnel, such as psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors or health faculty, by mental health clinicians or by approved personnel from mental health advocacy organizations using curricula approved by the departments of education and mental health and substance abuse services.”
2013 Teacher Training on Brain Research. Encourages teacher training programs at institutions of higher learning to offer coursework on brain science and includes excellent language about dyslexia in the WHEREAS clauses of the bill: TCA 49-5-5612. This law is not known to be a dyslexia specific law because it simply states “Teacher training programs at public institutions are authorized and encouraged to offer coursework on neurological or brain research.” However, if you look at the language of the bill, you can see that it targets dyslexia in the WHEREAS clauses. I will discuss below in Section II how this existing law can be edited to strengthen the requirement that Teacher Training Programs include dyslexia. The WHEREAS clauses are as follows:
“WHEREAS, leading education experts agree that understanding the brain’s learning systems should be a prerequisite for educators at all levels as it is vitally important that every teacher comprehend the basics of how people learn; and
WHEREAS, understanding the brain, its functions and its effects on the classroom is not a required component within most teacher preparation programs but its inclusion would give teachers the opportunity to incorporate appropriate teaching methods for the variety of learners found within each classroom setting and thus increase student attainment; and
WHEREAS, neuroscience research suggests that learning outcomes are not solely determined by the environment. Biological factors play an important role in accounting for differences in learning ability between individuals; and
WHEREAS, by considering biological factors, research has advanced the understanding of specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia and dyscalculia. Likewise, neuroscience is uncovering why certain types of learning are more rewarding than others; and
WHEREAS, some insights from neuroscience are relevant for the development and use of adaptive digital technologies. These technologies have the potential to create more learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom, and throughout life; and
WHEREAS, the emerging field of educational neuroscience presents opportunities as well as challenges for education. It provides means to develop a common language and bridge the gulf between educators, psychologists and neuroscientists; and
WHEREAS,it is vitally important to the children of the State of Tennessee that neuroscience be part of teacher training;”
1984 Law about Proficiency Tests for Teacher Certification. Provides accommodations for teaching candidates with dyslexia who take the Tennessee teacher certification test: TCA 49-5-5605(b)(3). This law about teaching certification specifically allows teaching candidates with “a handicapping condition, such as dyslexia, that adversely affects the applicant’s ability to successfully complete the test” to be allowed “an extra year for the applicant to be administered the state teachers certification test” and shall be allowed “special accommodation in administration of the test.” I looked at the legislative history available electronically, and it looks like this reference to dyslexia was added before 1996, perhaps with the original law was created in 1984 which is remarkable.This law is significant because it shows that accommodations and extended time can be made to adult professional candidates with dyslexia. Given the fact that up to 20% of the adult population is also affected by dyslexia, it is important that adults taking certification tests for any area of practice be granted the same accommodations and extended time as teachers are. I will discuss this further in Section II below.
II. Legislation Ideas for 2019. I have spoken with leaders from Decoding Dyslexia, the Tennessee chapter of the International Dyslexia Association and the MTSU Center for Dyslexia. Many of us agree that the most pressing legislative need is for existing teachers and teaching students to be trained and taught about what dyslexia is and the science of teaching reading to all students including students with dyslexia. We especially need to ensure that teachers who are providing dyslexia-specific interventions to students with “characteristics of dyslexia” are actually trained in that intervention. There is still a significant spilt in Tennessee between whole language and phonics that has continued since the 1980s. Many programs, such as Reading Recovery, are used heavily by districts but do not work for students with dyslexia. We need strong laws to steer teachers, administrators, school boards and teacher training institutions to move towards science. We also must ensure that teachers providing interventions under the current laws are actually trained in what they are doing. With that in mind, here are the top four needs for new legislation.
Improve 2016 “Say Dyslexia” law to include specificity about who provides interventions and to provide that there are trained dyslexia interventionists at every level of Tennessee education. We need to ensure that teachers working with students with “characteristics of dyslexia” are actually trained in the interventions they are teaching. Arkansas can be a good model for us on how to accomplish this. Arkansas has a fulsome suite of dyslexia laws which include a dyslexia expert at the department of state, dyslexia experts in each district and trained dyslexia educators teaching students interventions. We could revise several sections to the existing 2016 “Say Dyslexia” law to track some important language from Arkansas.
Edit the existing language of our law 49-1-299(c)(3) to say “Provide the student wth appropriate tiered dyslexia-specific intervention [taught by a Dyslexia Interventionist.]”
Add a new definition of “Dyslexia Interventionist” to track language that Tennessee Department of Education already uses for Teaching Personnel in Gifted Education from 0520-01-02-.03(7):
Teaching Personnel in [Dyslexia Intervention]
(a) A classroom teacher in special or general education providing direct instruction to students identified [by TCA 49-1-229 as being students with “characteristics of dyslexia”] shall meet the following employment standards:
1. The teacher shall be endorsed in the appropriate general education area or must hold the appropriate special education endorsement; and
2. The teacher shall meet one of the following standards:
(i) The teacher shall have completed six (6) semester hours of college or university course work or the equivalent contact hours in teaching [students with dyslexia] approved by the Department of Education; or
(ii) The teacher shall [have completed six (6) hours of professional development about evidence-based interventions and accommodations for dyslexia.]
Add a new section to the current Say Dyslexia law to require the Department of Education to hire a Dyslexia Specialist to track Arkansas’ language. “No later that the 2020 fiscal year, the Department of Education shall employ at least one (1) dyslexia specialist with a minimum of three (3) years of field experience in screening, identifying, and treating dyslexia and related disorders to provide technical assistance to dyslexia and related disorders to school districts across the state.”
Add a new section to the current Say Dyslexia law to require each school have at least one (1) Dyslexia Interventionist. “No later thats the 2020-2021 academic year, each school K-12 shall have at least one individual trained to serve as a dyslexia interventionist.”
Improve 2016 Say Dyslexia Law to include specificity about how to provide teacher training for existing general education teachers. We need strong language that requires the Department of Education to train existing general education teachers (not just special education teachers) about what dyslexia is and how to teach students with evidence-based interventions. Currently, we have very weak language in our laws regarding teacher training. The simplest thing to do would be to rework the language of both the 2016 “Say Dyslexia” law in TCA 49-1-299(d) and the portion of the 2014 “Dyslexia Is Real” law found in TCA 49-6-3004(c)(1). Both laws refer to teacher training, but neither do it well. It would be easy to edit the existing language of the 2016 law 49-1-299(d) to mirror the language that TCA Section 49-6-3004(1) uses related tostudents with behavioral/emotional issues. The new Section 49-1-299 (d) could read “The department shall provide appropriate professional development resources for educators in the area of identification of and intervention methods for students with dyslexia [each school year by requiring that in-service training include at least six (6) of the in-service training hours to provide training to all teachers, principals and other school personnel, and, to the extent possible, school board members, on issues of the characteristics of dyslexia, early detection and intervention strategies for students who identified as having Characteristics of Dyslexia under Section 49-1-229. The training shall place an emphasis on evidence-based interventions and accommodations for students with characteristics of dyslexia and must be conducted by school personnel, such as reading interventionists trained in dyslexia specific interventions, teachers who work directly with students with characteristics of dyslexia, or by approved personnel from dyslexia advocacy organizations using curricula approved by the departments of education and/or Dyslexia Advisory Council.”
Require teacher training institutions to add dyslexia to their curriculum by including dyslexia in the certification requirements for Tennessee. Dr. Odegard at the MTSU Center for Dyslexia feels that this is the most important way to make teacher training institutions teach the science of reading and dyslexia. He suggests that Tennessee follow laws such as those in Connecticut which clearly require teachers to understand dyslexia before being certified.
We already have a base for this law in the 2013 Teacher Training on Brain Research mentioned above in Section I.C. This law could be strengthened to say something like “Teacher training programs are required to offer coursework on 1) neurobiology of how people learn, specifically on the science reading, 2) detection and recognition of characteristics of dyslexia and 3) evidence-based structured literacy interventions for students with dyslexia.”
Or we could look to Connecticut law that codifies certification requirements:
Connecticut Public Act No. 15-97(2)(f) states that “Any program of teacher preparation leading to professional certification shall include not fewer than twelve clock hours of instruction in the detection and recognition and evidence-based structured literacy interventions for students with dyslexia.”
Connecticut Public Act 17-3 requires that 1) certified employees applying for readings endorsements or special education endorsements and 2) applicants for initial professional educator certificate with a reading or special education certificate both “have completed a program of study in the diagnosis and remediation of reading and language arts that includes supervised practicum hours and instruction in the detection and recognition of, and evidence -based structured literacy interventions for students with dyslexia.”
Adult Testing Accommodations for all State Occupational Testing. In addition to the important changes to how we teach and train teachers in Tennessee, another important piece of legislation would target adults with dyslexia. Dyslexia does not only affect students. Adults need laws addressed at them too. One easy place to start is to expand upon the current Tennessee law (see Section 1.D. above) that allows for teaching candidates to have extra time and accommodations on taking the teacher certification tests. Texas has amended its Occupations Code to include a section called “Examination Accommodations for Persons with Dyslexia.” It links the definition of dyslexia to its dyslexia law and provides “1) for each licensing examination administered by a state agency, the agency shall provide reasonable examination accommodations to an examinee diagnosed as having dyslexia and 2) each state agency shall adopt rules necessary to implement this section including rules to establish the eligibility criteria an examinee must meet for accommodation under this section.” A law like this would help many Tennesseans with dyslexia who struggle to find work because the cannot pass state occupational examinations for their chosen field of work.
Funding for the 2016 “Say Dyslexia” law. This is obviously a huge part of the conversations around public education today so I will only discuss it briefly here. The 2016 “Say Dyslexia” law is wrapped into Tennessee’s Response to Intervention Framework. As we know, that is an unfunded mandate. Therefore, under the law, districts and principals are required to provide dyslexia-specific interventions to many students and they are required to use dyslexia-specific programs, none of which they are given any budget to afford. By way of example, Metro Nashville Public Schools uses Wilson Reading and SPIRE to teach their special educations students with IEPs for Specific Learning Disability/Dyslexia. These are both excellent programs that are intense, taught daily for 45 minutes in a very small group setting. It often takes years for students to complete the entire program. Training for these programs are expensive and take about a week to complete. Flash cards, books and worksheets for the intervention systems are pricey. I have spoken with more than one principal who is dedicated to helping students with dyslexia, but who just couldn’t find money in his budget to pay for the training or programs. Now, instead of complying with the law and giving students dyslexia-specific intervention, the school is using a non-compliant program with a non-trained teacher because it is all the school could afford. The best laws will fail if we don’t fund them. Even Mississippi (House Bill 1419, 2012) has added money into its budget to pay for dyslexia related expenses. If we are serious about literacy and helping students read, then we will fund the “Say Dyslexia” mandate.
TEMPLATE: FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT REQUEST (FOIA)
This is a sample FOIA (also known as a Public Records Request) to send to your district. Google your state for specific requirements. In Tennessee, you must include a copy of your drivers license and you do not need to fill out a specific form. Make sure you know what requests in your state require. Remember, you are NOT REQUIRED to tell them why you want the records. They must reply to you or ask for an extension within 7 days.
The template below is only an example. Do keep your search terms and time periods specific. Also try to include some ideas of whose emails to search. If you do “all references to ‘dyslexia’ between 2018-2021” they will not complete it because it is too broad.
**Please make sure to fill in all the items in bold and brackets in the template before sending.**
Dear Public Records,
I am [your name] and I am the mother of a student at [school name].A copy of my [your state] Drivers License is attached hereto.I would like to request copies of the following public records under the [your state] Public Records Act. I would like results delivered to me electronically at [your email address]. Please let me know if you need any further information. Thank you.
1. All documents, memos, minutes, correspondence and/or emails regarding, relating to, or evidencing discussions of dyslexia (see #4 Boolean search terms below) during the week of [add a week or month you want to search, maybe around your IEP meeting or another meeting you are aware of. Example August 1, 2018 – August 10, 2018.],including specifically any such items between or including any of the following persons:
[Below add anyone at your school or district level you would like to search. Include title and email where you can. The more higher ups you can include the better. The names of the titles will be different in every district.]
The District Office of Exceptional Education including [director name and email].
The Office of Research, Assessment and Evaluation including [director name and email.]
The Director of Schools, [Director name and email.]
The Chief Operating Officer, [Name and email.]
The Chief of Schools, [Name and email.]
The principal of [school name], [Name and email.]
2. All documents, memos, minutes, correspondence and/or emails regarding, relating to, or evidencing discussions of dyslexia (see #4 Boolean search terms below) during the week of [use a different set of dates from above. You can include up to 3 date sets per request. Keep them on the short side and not a whole year.] including specifically any of such items between or including any of the following persons:
[You can use the same emails as above, or different if you like.For example, if you know a meeting happened on a certain date between your principal and teacher, you can add their names here instead.]
The District Office of Exceptional Education including [director name and email].
The Office of Research, Assessment and Evaluation including [director name and email.]
The Director of Schools, [Director name and email.]
The Chief Operating Officer, [Name and email.]
The Chief of Schools, [Name and email.]
The principal of [school name], [Name and email.]
3. All documents, memos, minutes, correspondence and/or emails regarding, relating to, or evidencing discussions of dyslexia (see #4 Boolean search terms below) specifically including any such information relating to, occurring at or regarding a meeting between any of the following persons on [use a different set of dates from above. You can include up to 3 date sets per request. Keep them on the short side and not a whole year.]:
[You can use the same emails as above, or different if you like.For example, if you know a meeting happened on a certain date between your principal and teacher, you can add their names here instead.]
The District Office of Exceptional Education including [director name and email].
The Office of Research, Assessment and Evaluation including [director name and email.]
The Director of Schools, [Director name and email.]
The Chief Operating Officer, [Name and email.]
The Chief of Schools, [Name and email.]
The principal of [school name], [Name and email.]
4. I request that the follow Boolen search terms be used to in the above searches:
[Think of what you really want to search. Are you having an issue with the district using RTI to delay or deny? Then you will want to search the first four below to try to get all the words the might use.Try to only use those that apply to your concern. Overboard requests don’t get good results. Note, the “!”is used to symbolize an unfitted word such that “dyslex!” will search both “dyslexia” AND “dyslexic” while “eligibl!” will search both “eligibility” AND “eligible.” Note that the w/35 means”within 35 words” so that if you only care about dyslexia as it relates to eligibility you can catch where those terms are mentioned in proximity to each other, not just when they are used right next to each other.]
Dyslex! w/35 of RTI
Dyslex! w/35 of “Response”
Dyslex! w/35 of MTSS
Dyslexi! w/35 of word
Dyslexi! w/35 of law
Dyslexi! w/35 of SLD
Dyslexi! w/35 of Specific!
Dyslexi! w/35 of interve!
Dyslexi! w/35 of Tier
Dyslexi! w/35 of Specific!
I look forward to receiving these items within the next 7 days.
[Your name, address, email and phone number.]
TEMPLATE: REQUEST TO INCLUDE DYSLEXIA ON DISTRICT WEBSITE
This is a sample of what I wrote to my district in Tennessee. You can simply write a letter asking that they include something about dyslexia, or you can actually draft for they what to include. I strongly urge that you pull all of your definitions from a known and respected source like your state dyslexia law, the International Dyslexia Association or a local Dyslexia Center. The first step is to look at your district’s website and to see where links and dyslexia could be added. Then provide your comments accordingly. If you really are not sure, just provide the information in #3 in the template below and ask them to link so that parents and teachers can access it.
Dear [District Leader],
According to our Tennessee Department of Education, 44,600 students in our state, 4.4%, are currently identified as having “Characteristics of Dyslexia.” They believe the number is actually closer to 10% are are working to educate districts on how to identify and intervene appropriated for these children. Dyslexia is codified in the 2016 Say Dyslexia Law and additionally in the newly signed “Literacy Success Act.” It is included in the RTI II manual and in most of Tennessee’s literacy training materials. It is a key component to understand literacy struggles for parents and teachers, and I believe that it is time that Metro Nashville Public Schools begin to finally talk about dyslexia in a robust way to general education parents. Currently, if you search the term “Dyslexia” on the Metro Nashville Public Schools website, all you get is one article about assistive technology from 2016, actually featuring my daughter.All of the information below is taken directly from the Tennessee Department of Education’s Dyslexia Advisory Council website and from the resources and statistics provided therein.I hope that you will consider including these resources for families in the general education literacy portions of your website. Thank you.
If your K-1 child exhibits the signs and strengths listed below, please visit our Characteristics of Dyslexia page. The characteristics of dyslexia can be detected as early as kindergarten.
Reading errors exhibit no connection to the sounds of the letters on the page (e.g., will say “puppy” instead of the written word “dog” on an illustrated page with a dog shown)
Does not understand that words come apart
Complains about how hard reading is, or “disappears” when it is time to read
A familial history of reading problems
Cannot sound out simple words like cat, map, nap
Does not associate letters with sounds, such as the letter b with the “b” sound
The ability to figure things out
Eager embrace of new ideas
Gets “the gist” of things
A good understanding of new concepts
A large vocabulary for the age group
Excellent comprehension of stories read aloud (i.e., listening comprehension)
3. Please add a stand alone “Characteristics of Dyslexia Page” in the General Education Section of the Website that includes the following information: (All information is pulled directly from the TN Department of Education’s Dyslexia Advisory Council website.)
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin and is characterized by difficulties with accurate and fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.
Dyslexia is a language-based condition rather than a vision-based condition. Students with dyslexia struggle with the relationship between letters and sounds. Because of this, they have a hard time decoding, or sounding out, unfamiliar words, and instead often misread them based on an over-reliance on their sight-word memory. Deficits are unexpected relative to cognitive abilities in that the student’s skills are lower than their overall ability and are not due to a lack of intelligence.
Students with dyslexia share some common characteristics, but it is important to remember that it manifests differently depending on the individual, their age, and other factors affecting his/her foundational reading skill development. In addition, students may have co-occurring disabilities/disorders, including twice exceptionality (i.e., gifted and dyslexia). Comorbid symptoms may mask characteristics of dyslexia (e.g., inattention and behavioral issues are more apparent or gifted students may compensate well); on the other hand, a student’s disability may impair participation in grade-level instruction, creating deficits that may be misinterpreted as characteristics of dyslexia.
The Tennessee “Say Dyslexia” law was passed in 2016. The law requires school districts to screen all students for characteristics of dyslexia through their existing Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI2) procedures. School teams will use screening information to determine the need for dyslexia-specific intervention.
Parents will receive a letter if their child demonstrates characteristics of dyslexia and needs intervention. Receiving a letter does NOT mean your child has dyslexia, it does mean that your child is struggling with one or more foundations aspects of reading, such as sounding out words, spelling or reading accurately. Your child will receive additional small group intervention using interventions that are affective in building foundational skills. Under the Say Dyslexia law, school must provide your child with evidence-based interventions that are:
● Explicit – skills explained, directly taught, and modeled by the teacher
● Systematic and cumulative – introduces concepts in a definite, logical sequence; concepts are ordered from simple to more complex
● Multi-sensory – links listening, speaking, reading, and writing together; involves movement and “hands-on” learning
● Language-based – addresses all levels of language, including sounds (phonemes), symbols (graphemes), meaningful word parts (morphemes), word and phrase meanings (semantics), and sentence formation (syntax)
● Aligned to individual student need – should address the skill deficit(s) identified through targeted assessments.
Receiving a letter that your child has characteristics of dyslexia also means schools have additional obligations:
School teams will review your child’s progress data regularly to determine if interventions are effective.
Schools teams will change interventions as needed.
The school will send home updates about your child’s progress approximately every 4.5 weeks.
School teams may consider accommodations for assistive technology (see Assistive Technology below)
Schools teams may make referrals for evaluations as needed (see Tennessee Dyslexia Resource Guide for more information.)
In order to address the individual needs of the students, a continuum of support may include: Tiered interventions through RTI2, accommodations provided for thought Sections 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and/or special education interventions and accommodations. (Please see the Tennessee Dyslexia Resource Guide for More information.)
Important Note regarding RTI2 and Special Education Evaluations: (This language is taken directly from the TNEDU memo of Dec. 9, 2020.) It is the longstanding position of both the U.S. and Tennessee Departments of Education that Response to Intervention strategies may not be used to delay or deny timely initial evaluations to children suspected having a disability. TheTennessee Department of Education has recently updated the language in its Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI2) Framework (see pages 92 and 95)) and all other department guidance to make sure this guidance is clear. In particular, the new language specifies thata special education referral for a student suspected of a specific learning disability may be initiated at any time.
As a parent, if you have a concern about your child, you have the right to request a dyslexia screening at any time. The screening process to determine if your child has characteristics of dyslexia must include:
What kind of Accommodations can help Children with Characteristics of Dyslexia?
It is important to consider a student’s access to the general education curriculum. Access is the opportunity and ability for an individual to participate in the instruction, discussions, activities, products, and assessments that are provided to all students within a public school. Accommodations are provided to “level the playing field.” They are intended to offset the effects of a disability and to provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate knowledge and skills. Assistive technology (e.g., any equipment or product such as audio books, word processors, word prediction software) is a type of accommodation intended to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of children with disabilities.
Accommodations must be determined on an individual basis and specific to task and/or content area. Accommodations may require eligibility for Section 504 or an Individual Education Program (IEP); for a list of accommodations available for state testing, visit the department’s accessibility and accommodations webpage.
The following accommodations are provided as examples and may not be appropriate for all students with characteristics of dyslexia:
Provide text-to-speech technology, allowing the student to hear digital text. This allows for digit textbooks and digital books to be read to the student in part or whole as the student follows along in the text.
Provide audio books for literature and grade-level text. The student should have a copy of the text in front of him/her while listening to help focus his/her attention, to increase his/her visual memory of words, and so that he/she may take advantage of graphics within the text. (See http://www.learningally.org or http://www.bookshare.org for low cost and free audiobooks for schools and families; ebooks, which can be converted to audiofile, are another good option.)
Oral testing or prompting upon request (i.e., allowing a student to request that certain words or text be read to him/her) when allowable.
Spelling and Writing
Allow use of a personal ‘vocabulary’ notebook, a dictionary, a speller’s dictionary, a Franklin Speller, or similar device for in-class assignments and to assist with correct spelling. (His/her spelling skills will need to be at a fifth to sixth grade level for this device to be helpful.)
Allow Access to a computer for written assignments. A program, such as Kurzweil or Dragon, with word prediction and text-to-speech to compose writing assignments may be helpful as s/he gets older.
Use of a recorder to record lectures or directions, especially as s/he gets older (e.g., Livescribe Pen, http://www.livescribe.com).
Tips for Parents of Children with Characteristics of Dyslexia:
Ask your child’s school:
Who is the best person to speak with about my child’s current reading program and progress?
Who should I contact if I believe my child has a disability requiring 504 or special education services?
Other things you can do:
Read to and with your child and listen to audiobooks together.
Always praise your child’s reading and spelling efforts and never criticize them.
Celebrate all reading and spelling progress and realize improvements take time.
Create an organized space for schoolwork and a comfortable place for reading.
Work with the school to and simple, easy to use tools to help with reading and writing.
Parent and Educator Resources about Characteristics of Dyslexia:
Advocating for your child with a disability is really hard. I was contacted this week by a mom whose child with dyslexia is starting a new school this semester. She needed advice about how to reach out to teachers to help them get to know her daughter, which is especially complex in this time of virtual school. I wanted to share the advice I gave her with you. Most likely it will help you in the next school year when you have new teachers, but it is never a bad time to send teachers information about your child with a disability.
As a parent, oftentimes there is so much information you want to pass on to your child’s teachers, but it can feel really hard to figure out a way to do that in a succinct and meaningful way. Sure, teachers get an IEP-at-a-glance before the first day of school, but that doesn’t tell teachers who your daughter is, what she is good at and how her disability affects her in real time the classroom. One excellent tip I learned from our local Exceptional Education Family Advisory Council in Nashville, is how to make your child a disability brochure. Now I do it each year or whenever my child has a new teacher.
The brochure is just a quick way for teachers to get a glimpse about your child and her disability. Here is what to include:
A Photo. This helps teachers connect a name with a face. This helps teachers connect with your child as a real person and not a complex student who has a lot of needs.
About Me. Start your brochure with non-disability information about your child. Include a short blurb about her personality and what she loves to do in her free time. This helps teachers see your child as more than her disability and gives them insight about how to connect with her.
Medical Information. Many children with disabilities have more than one issue they deal with. In the sample below, I use one side of the brochure to provide an overview of Sarah’s medical condition and first aid for that condition. Structure your brochure in a way that fits your child.
Assistive Technology. If your child relies on some assistive technology, it is great to include that information in the brochure and make sure to include the skills that helps your child with. If the technology is app-based, I like to include the app logo so the teachers can easily find the app on the student’s laptop, tablet or other device.
A Definition of the Disability. Oftentimes classroom teachers are not familiar with the totality of what each disability involves. I like to include information defining how a child’s disability presents itself in case her teacher is not sure.
A List of Subjects Affected by the Disability. I like to break down subject by subject how a child’s disability expresses itself. For children with dyslexia, a teacher may not know that her math is impacted. It is important to explicitly tell them. Your child may struggle interacting with peers. Describe that, too. Use this as a place to help teachers really glimpse inside what is hard for your child in each classroom and what has or has not worked in the past.
As you tailor this disability brochure for your child, make sure to keep it short, easy to read and informative. I would not have it be more than 1 page front and back unless your child has multiple complex disabilities. Remember, this is not the only information the teacher will get about your child, but simply a helpful overview.
I hope this helps you advocate for your child. It is such a hard journey – we cannot do it alone. I am so thankful for all the parents and experts I have met along the way that have helped me learn how to advocate more effectively for my child. It is an honor to share what I have learned with you. It certainly takes a village.
A published author reached out to me on Twitter this week wanting to learn more about how to teach creative writing to kids with dyslexia. (Love that!) My daughter, Clara, is 13 and wants to be an author when she grows up, so I knew that she would have lots of great advice to share with the author. This afternoon, we sat on the porch and together we brainstormed ideas about how to encourage kids with dyslexia to be creative writers. I was so impressed by the candor and depth of what Clara shared. Below is what we come up with. We start with tips for teachers and below we share tips for parents for students who want to write at home.
Tips for Writing Teachers:
Take time to learn about what dyslexia is, and what it isn’t. Even those teachers who think the know all about dyslexia, might be surprised to learn that some of what they “know” are actually outdated myths. (No, colored overlays are not helpful and no, we can’t magically read backwards.) Educate yourself about the signs and strengths of dyslexia. Also, read up on the myths of dyslexia. Lastly, look at this dyslexia mind map to see all the ways that dyslexia impacts life and learning. Not only do we struggle with reading, writing and spelling, but we often can’t tell our right from our left and we may not be able to read a clock. The struggle is real.
Let them write unbound. Make sure students with dyslexia know that the creative part is the most important part of the process and tell them that your class is a safe space for their creativity to go wild. While it is very appropriate to discuss the structural elements of a good writing like character development, setting, rising action, climax, etc., make it clear that they do not have to spell well, punctuate correctly or use perfect grammar in the first step of writing. If students with dyslexia feel that they have to spell well or write quickly, they may easily feel overwhelmed.
Let them explore their skills. It is okay to encourage them to use dialogue, bigger vocabulary words and to push themselves, but it is important to reiterate frequently that they are in a safe place to explore, risk take and stretch without perfection or judgement. Understand that students with dyslexia may want to write a great sentence like “The book magically reappeared on her desk, and the librarian said ‘how can this possibly be?'” but, since a students with dyslexia may not know how to spell any of those words, they may just write “The book came back and the man said ‘wow’.” If they feel free to write without fear or shame, you might just be surprised by what they can produce.
Don’t be surprised if they write well one week and poorly the next. Dyslexia can be unexpected and frustrating to teachers who don’t understand it. What do you do if you have a student who wrote and amazing story about dinosaurs last week, but then this week she totally freezes up when you ask her to write a Halloween story? It can feel confusing, but people with dyslexia often have an area or two that they feel much more comfortable writing and reading in. Usually it is an area that holds a lot of interest from them. In the dinosaur example, a student may have always loved dinosaurs and may have a lot of background knowledge and have listened to a lot of stories in that genre, so she may feel very confident writing and spelling even very complicated words. When she writes outside her comfort area, the difference might be stark.
Provide easy-to-read lists of helpful words for the type of story you are writing this week. If you are writing, say, a Halloween story this week, students with dyslexia might feel intimidated if they can’t spell infrequently used words like “ghost,” “vampire” or “werewolf.” If you have a writing subject that you know you will use in a class, provide students with a list of words that might go along with that type of story. Using pictures next to the word can be helpful, especially for younger writers. This will give them confidence to incorporate some of those bigger vocabulary words in their story that they might not have been able to spell on their own.
Don’t get frustrated if you have to give the same reminders day after day. People with dyslexia have a really hard time retaining information about written language from one day to the next. I am a bright 45 year old woman, but I cannot for the life of me remember how to spell the vegetable word “brocli.” You can tell me today, but tomorrow I will go back to having no idea how to spell it. The same thing can hold true for grammar, punctuation and spelling rules. If you notice this in a student with dyslexia, validate it, because it is part of their disability. Be patient with them. Saying, “I just told you this yesterday!” is not helpful and actually makes them feel shame for their disability which is counter productive.
Give feedback on the storyline as they write, not on spelling, punctuation and/or grammar. Feel free to give constructive criticism about plot, characterization and setting as students are writing. Things like “you need describe that witch more” or “the dialogue is flat, how would the boy talk to his puppy?” are great constructive criticism that will help build them as writers. Avoid criticizing or correcting spelling, punctuation and/or grammar in the middle of the writing process because most students have built up a lot of shame around those things. They will often feel daunted and paralyzed if they are asked to keep up with these details during the often-enjoyable exercise of being creative. Save spelling, punctuation and grammar at the end of the writing process. When it is time for the red pen, follow them next tips.
Provide students with a editing checklist and let them try self-editing first, one item at a time. We have already established that students with dyslexia can really struggle with writing creatively while also working on spelling, punctuation and grammar. For many, that will be impossible. So, once a student has finished his story, let him practice self-editing. Students with dyslexia will not be able to tackle editing spelling, grammar and punctuation all at once. They will need to edit in steps – one type of edit at a time. The best way to do this might be to give them a checklist. For younger students, include some visual cues. Make sure this is easily accessible at all times. Ask them to print out the checklist and keep it my their computer as they write. When you let them self-edit, give them plenty of time and let them know that you can help them edit if there is a deadline and they get fatigued or feel overwhelmed.
Before providing teacher edits on the work of a student with dyslexia , make sure to tell them that ALL professional writers go through lots of edits to help them understand that they are not the only one who needs lots of edits. To help combat the shame that many students with dyslexia feel when getting their work edited, normalize making mistakes and tell them that all writers get severe edits and that sometimes it can hurt your feelings. Be vulnerable and be open about your mistakes and a time when you got lots of corrections and how it made you feel. Model resilience for them. Show students a mark up of your writing with lots of red marks to show them it is part of the process, not a mark on them of their stupidity.
If you are reading the written work of a student with dyslexia, and you legitimately cannot read it, don’t be shy – ask them what it says in a kind way. As you get used to reading the writing of a student with dyslexia (or a blogger with dyslexia, ahem), you will get pretty good at deciphering it to get to the great creative story beyond the crazy spelling and haphazard punctuation. However, sometimes you will come across a word that is so poorly spelled, you just cannot figure it out. Don’t be shy, it is okay to ask them to just tell you. They know they have dyslexia. It is not a secret and it is far worse if you don’t mention it. Be kind and acknowledge their dyslexia. Say something like “I was reading your story, and I am really impressed that at your use of foreshadowing in the second chapter – that really had me on edge. I do have a couple of questions. I know you have dyslexia, and I am really proud that you chose some great vocabulary, but can you help me read these two words? Spellcheck can be the worst sometimes.”
Teach students the editing symbols. This will get them familiar with common editing marks and help them understand that edits are so common, there are universal marks to help all people write better. Plus, these are really important tips to know as a writer and may help them edit their own work in the future.
Do not tell them to rewrite what they have written. Handwriting and typing are a very slow process for kids with dyslexia. Asking them to start over feels totally overwhelming. Ask them to edit or rewrite small bits at a time. Give them plenty of time and a clear reason they need to redo something. Clara told me recently that a teacher asked her to rewrite something and she thought to herself “Why, I will just make the same mistakes again!” If you ask for big rewrites too often, your students with dyslexia might very well check out.
Use Assistive Technology! I should have started with assistive technology. It is a crucial part of writing success for students with dyslexia. Extensions for Google Chrome like Co:Writer, Grammarly, Snap and Read and Natural Reader are all great tools to empower student writers with dyslexia. In my last blog post, Dyslexia in the Time of Virtual School, I share a video on how to install these on your student’s computer.
If students use Dyslexia as an excuse. Yes, dyslexia is absolutely real, but sometimes those of us with dyslexia (me included) can use it as an excuse. We have learned that if we say “I can’t because I have dyslexia,” there is a pretty good chance that a teacher is going to back off something we don’t want to do that feels hard. As a teacher, it is important to both embrace dyslexia as a real thing, but also to push kids in the right ways to help them grow. My advice if you have a student with dyslexia who is saying “I can’t” is likely because they are stuck in shame and feeling embarrassed. Learning when to tell a student “Thank you for reminding me” and letting it go versus learning when to push can take some figuring out. First, there are somethings that are usually off limits for students with dyslexia. These include asking them: to read a story aloud, to read their work aloud, to write on the board or in a public forum, or to share their unedited written work publicly, and to read or write in a short time. These really are things that are hard or shaming for a student to do. However, if you are asking a student to write a story on a certain subject and they say they can’t, you need to talk with them after class to learn more behind the “why.” By using some of the tips above, odds are that you will be equipped to help them verbalize what is feeling hard in what you have assigned.
Encourage students to self-advocate. Make your class a safe space for students to practice self-advocacy. I tell teachers to remind students frequently that their feedback is important and that they can do it in writing via email or in person via zoom or after-school meeting. Include things like “remember, when you email me, it does not have to be spelled or written perfectly, that is a safe space for you to just communicate with me.” If a student reaches out to you, help him to verbalize his struggle. Ask him: What task is hard? How does that task make you feel? Does that have to do with your dyslexia? How can we fix it to make you more comfortable? If you get a kid who just says “all of it!” Be ready to dig in. Read up on dyslexia (which you should have already done if you followed the first tip) and follow up with something like “I hear you saying it all feels hard, but two weeks ago you wrote an amazing story about dinosaurs, but this week you struggled with your Halloween story and got upset when you were trying to spell ‘ghost’. I just learned that offering a list of words for new subjects might be helpful, can we try that next week?” If you are kind and understanding, with time, kids can learn the skills to self-advocate.
Challenge young writers with dyslexia! Now that you have all the tips above, my last tip is to remember that students with dyslexia are bright and need to be challenged in the right ways. It is true they struggle with the technical issues around writing, but they are often highly creative and extremely bright. So while they do need to be understood and accommodated, the also need to be pushed and believed in. There is a world of success for writers with dyslexia if they have caring teachers to empower them along the way!
Tips for Parents and Caregivers
Writing at home can be less formal. While the teacher tips above can certainly be helpful for parents and caregivers encouraging a young writer at home, I recommend to keep the process less formal at home. Let home be a space for kids to create and write stories without the burden of having to have it be perfect.
Audiobook your kids like crazy! If kids only ever read books on their own reading level, they are going to miss out on lots of the things they need to be successful writers. They need to read books above their level to be exposed to great stories, rich dialog and vocabulary and complex sentence structure. While some parents enjoy reading aloud to their children, the fact is that a lot of us don’t. We may be poor reader ourselves, or we are so stressed out that reading time is not a positive experience for us to do together as a family. While I always encourage reading and modeling reading, it is okay to be honest that it is too much for your household. In that case, to help even very low readers access great books, I recommend giving your children unfettered access to audiobooks. Reading audiobooks (or listening to books you read to them) is NOT cheating, so let them do it as much as they can. Let them read and explore any books they want. If they want to only read books about astronauts, let them do it. Often, once children with dyslexia realize they have a way to access the joy and escape of a story, they will get hooked on books. Don’t worry, they will not only read “Captain Underpants” forever, so don’t force them to try to read things you liked as a kid. Keep the Where the Red Fern Grows to yourself. Audiobooks are available in a lot of formats at a lot of different price points. Explore Audible, Overdrive, Play-a-ways, Learning Ally and apps that read story books out loud to younger students like Reading Rainbow.
Listen to the stories your child tells you. Great ideas often don’t come first on paper. If your child likes to tell stories, listen. Ask leading questions like “what does the dragon look like?” “What does the voice of the talking cake sound like?” “How does the super hero feel when he is flying?” Once they seem to really be talking a lot about one story, encourage them to write it down. If this feels daunting for them, especially for younger kids, maybe ask if you can scribe some of the ideas for them so they can remember the story to tell again. They can also just write some bullet points of the most important scenes. Starting small and letting them feel safe in their creativity will empower them to try more. Don’t push.
Start with a picture. Clara often starts a story by drawing pictures of the main characters. She writes down what they look like and what their characteristics are. Oftentimes, incorporating pictures as a first step can be really engaging to children with dyslexia and can help them build the idea of their story and give them the excitement and courage to continue.
Give your child assistive technology if they want it. Once your child decides they want to try writing, ask them how they want to write. Clara usually will hand write in a journal for a while and then will switch to her Grammarly on her computer once her story is more advanced. Let your child write how and when they want. The goal is to let your child write however seems easiest to your child, not to you. If they show you the story and you really cannot read it, that is okay. Have them help you with words you can’t read. Don’t pretend to read it if you don’t understand it. They will learn not to trust you. If they want to start using assistive technology, as I mention in the teacher tips above, I always recommend the affordable apps and Chrome extensions Co:writer and Grammarly.
Put down the red pen, Dad! For some parents, it is really hard not to edit. Stop. There is nothing that will kill your child’s love of writing more than a parent who makes unwelcome corrections and makes their child feel shame. Only correct for-fun creative writing if your child asks for it. Who cares if they have multiple stories laying around the house that are poorly capitalized and have awful spelling? Taking a red pen to it will not help them, or your relationship with them. Take it easy and say things like “I would love to share this with grandma, but we might need to spellcheck it before we give it to her? Can I spellcheck it for you or can we go through it together?” If your child says, “no.” Respect it. Children are often on their own journey with their dyslexia, and they want to feel safe with you. Remember, they will learn to improve spelling and grammar through school and intervention. Your job is to help them learn to live and succeed with dyslexia. Be an ally, not a critic.
What to do when your child asks you to edit their writing for spelling, grammar and punctuation. It is okay to edit when your child asks you to. While I recommend for teachers to encourage kids to self-edit, after Clara writes a story, I just ask her which edits she wants me to do and I make them without her. Yes, we want our children to learn the skill of editing, and they will, but at home, I am much more concerned with her learning to love to write, so I do the edits to save her hours and hours of really hard work. After she wrote an early draft of her short book The Chronicles of Nova Black, she checked it on Grammarly and laughed as she announced “I have 187 misspelled words and it doesn’t recognize most of them!” I was able to zip through and fix it much more quickly than she could. That said, I also have dyslexia, so when Clara entered her book into a recent contest, my husband had to follow up my edits with his….and he might have caught a whole lot I missed. (The struggle is real, y’all.)
How to edit your child’s work for content. While in my own house, spelling and grammar edits are an easy sell, making edits to other aspects of my daughter’s writing can be a challenge. As a young author and a strong personality, she knows what she wants to write and does not like me to change substantive things without her approval. What we have learned to do is that once she has seen the grammar and spelling edits, she reads back over it for a couple of days. Then we sit down and go over it together. If I find something that needs to change, we talk about. Sometimes she agrees to change it. Sometimes she does not. I try to let her be the boss, but sometimes it can be hard since I can also be bossy and we do butt heads. That is bound to happen, so have grace with yourself and your child. Apologize if (okay, when) you get in a huff, but keep your eye on the prize: a child with dyslexia who loves to write stories!
Make it a family affair. If you and your child don’t work well together, engage family members to provide feedback on the book if your child is open to it. First make sure to ask your child what kind of feedback she wants from a certain family member. She might not want a younger sister fixing her spelling or a grumpy grandpa refuse to read it and hurt her feelings. Try something like “Lets ask your sister to read it to see if there is anything in the plot she thinks we missed since we have read it so many times.” Then, give the family member clear parameters on the feedback your young author is looking for. If your child just wants grandma to read it to say she loves it, make sure grandma is on the same page.
When the story is done. While most of our children’s stories won’t get published or submitted into contests, I still like to print them out like they are a complete book. Clara draws cover art, we make an “About the Author” page and then we print it on nice paper and put it in a folder so she can keep it on her shelf so she can feel proud of it. Sometime she choses to email it to teachers or friends, (or sometimes mom will include it in her blog) and that is fun, but I don’t like when a story she worked so hard on just gets lost in the computer. Celebrate your child’s work. Who knows – your child may be a famous author someday!
Find a writing class for your child. As they progress with their writing, it may be worth exploring a creative writing class for your child. We are at the beginning of this process in our house, and have found a couple online and a couple of local possibilities. SLANT, in Nashville, is for young writers and meets at the public library usually, but has been having meeting online during Covid. Clara has taken one class there and has liked it. We are just looking into online forums, like Wattpad, but I am wary and in the process of educating myself. The book website Brightly.com has a page focused on “6 Great Websites for Teen Writers” that you might like to explore. Make sure to research the place you choose to make sure that it will be a safe space for your young writer with dyslexia.
Encourage their dreams. If they say they want to be an author when they grow up – say YES! They can do anything with dyslexia, even be an author. Your job is to help them dream and to know that dyslexia need not limit their potential.
I hope this was helpful information for you. Below is Clara’s most recent story. She wrote it feverishly during quarantine from March through July. When a book contest suddenly came open on August 1, she raced like crazy to finish it and it was a team effort to get it edited. But she did it and I am so proud and impressed with what she created. She may read at the 12th percentile and be a very poor speller, but she wants to be an author and I know she can do it. Some of us can struggle and thrive at the same time. I hope you enjoy her creative writing. If you do, please comment below or follow her on Instagram at @chroniclesofnovablack. Thank you.
“Daddy, Daddy, what’s your favorite animal?” The little girl went up to her father and held up a small piece of paper and a blue crayon.
“Well, I have always loved wolves,” the father said as he sat down. The girl climbed on to his lap and started to ask him more questions. A knock on the door startled them both.
“I’ll get it!” The mother sang as she walked to the front of the house and opened the door, expecting a neighbor.
A tall stranger barged in and walked straight to the father and grabbed his shirt. “Where is the money?” the stranger demanded in a raspy tone.
“I will not give you that information!” answered the father, lifting the girl off his lap.
The tall stranger looked deviously at the little girl. He strolled over to her and smiled eerily, “Mark, I had no idea you had a daughter.” He knelt, forcefully grabbed the little girl, and pulled out a large knife. The mother screamed and begged him to leave her daughter alone as he slowly dragged the blade down the side of the little girl’s face, making a deep cut. His daughter’s cries, mixed with the shrieks of his wife, made the father flinch.
“I don’t know where it is, I swear!” the father shouted desperately.
The tall stranger pulled his knife off the girl’s face, letting the girl fall limp to the ground. He slowly made his way to the father. “Well, if you don’t know, then I should just get rid of you so you never find out.” The stranger quickly took the knife and sliced upwards; the thud of the father’s head made the stranger smile.
The mother held up a gun steadily. She had done this many times before, and said in a firm voice, “Move, or I will shoot.” The stranger smiled again.
“Oh, you wouldn’t dare.” He ran to the door and slammed it with a bang.
“Oh my god! What did he do to you?” The mother dropped the gun and ran to her daughter, who laid on the floor motionless.
Nova – 10 Years Later
“Ambassador Lana has officially given up her seat,” the news reporter stated as she stood in the blue silk of the hologram, which cast blue shadows on her face. I turned the projection up so Mom could hear it from the kitchen. The news reporter continued, “the new Ambassador’s name is Thomas. B. Hersire.”
I looked at Mom and shook my head, confused. “Mom, why is our Ambassador stepping down?”
Mom checked her watch. She loved avoiding my questions every chance she got. “I have to go to work,” she said dismissively, pulling her purse from its place on the shelf in the foyer. She was out the door before I knew it, leaving me standing there to look at my reflection in the entryway mirror. My hair, red and frizzy, was up in a ponytail. My face had a birthmark running down one side; the large scar made the red of my birthmark appear even redder. The other side of my face was one you might see on a supermodel. The smooth, tan skin, and red lips made the other side of my face look garish. My sad, hazel eyes made me seem forty, not seventeen. I got up and went to the shelf where Mom’s purse once sat, pulled a book bag off the hook that was just below it, and grabbed my water bottle off the entryway stand. My book bag in hand, I walked out of my house and down the steps.
At the bottom, I closed my eyes and took a breath. As I exhaled, the wind brushed my face making the loose curls of my hair dance gracefully. I could smell rain in the air. I opened my eyes and walked down onto the sidewalks that crisscrossed my neighborhood. I remembered it was going to rain, and I needed to hurry to get to my tutor’s house so I turned to cut through the dirt path between the houses that had been worn away by my footstep
As I walked and thought about how our cluster had banned cars a century ago and the fact that people from before the Outbreak did such awful things to our environment, a boy about my age, brought me back to the present. He jumped over a low metal fence. I glanced back, careful not to let him see my scar. He turned his head, looked in my direction, and smiled. Usually, when boys look at my left side, they want something they can’t have. Then, when I turn towards them, and they see my birthmark and angry scar, they turn away. It is satisfying to capture a cute boy’s attention, even if only for a few seconds.
I heard footsteps, and before I knew it, the boy was walking next to me. His bronze skin glinted in the morning sun. The wind played with his hair, making a black halo around his face. He was beautiful, that was certain.
“What’s your name?” I asked him, keeping my eyes on the path so he wouldn’t see my birthmark. After my dad died, my mom’s temper got explosive. In one of her outbursts, around the time I was ten years old, she commanded me never to show my face in public. I rarely followed her advice, but its always in the back of my mind.
He looked at me with his soft eyes. “Will. My name is Will.”
I kept walking, determined not to be late. I had never been late, and this boy was not going to make this a first. “I really should get going,” I said as I began to walk a little faster.
“Wait!” he exclaimed in a desperate tone. I instinctively turned to face him, and before I could even realize my mistake, Will took a step back, his face unreadable. This Will is just another guy who will walk away from me. But then, he smiled. “You dropped your water bottle….” he said as he handed it to me, our hands brushed.
“What is your name? You never said,” he asked.
I found myself smiling. I have barely smiled since my dad died, all those years ago. “Nova. The name’s Nova.” I turned my back on him and walked up to my tutor’s house.
As he kept walking down the path, he shouted, a laugh in his voice, “Nice to meet you, Nova!” I felt a rush of happiness. I was not expecting to feel that way.
When I got to my tutor’s house, a group of my classmates was already gathered, looking at something on the door. I maneuvered my way to the middle of the circle and saw what they were all staring at. Hung on the door were the words. “Get Well Soon!” in bright bubble letters. I gasped! This was an old code from the time of the Outbreak that everyone in my cluster knew, a distress signal passed down in hushed tones for generations. We’re not allowed to put it up except in emergencies. I had never actually heard of it being used in my lifetime. As the panic rose in the other students, I left the scene, knowing there was no class and that I needed my mom to finally answer all of my questions.
Night had fallen by the time I heard Mom’s key in the door. I sat at the kitchen table, piles of papers from her desk scattered in front of me. I heard her quickly lock the door, her breath fast as she hurried into the kitchen. She didn’t even notice the papers or my angry face. She looked ten times older than she was; her blue eyes looked scared. “Honey, whatever happens, just know that I love you and that I’m…” A loud bang at the back door cut her off. My mom shrieked.
“Mom! What is going on?” I demanded, getting out of my chair. Mom bounded through the hallway to the back door, going out of sight. A shot rattled the house, making me jump. I ran down the hall, over to the door, and saw the tall stranger that had visited us ten years before. One more bang and everything went black.
Last week, former Ambassador Lana had Holoed me out of the blue late at night. The day prior, all of the tutors in our cluster had put up their “Get Well Soon” signs on small hooks on their doors, making everyone panic. I had been in the kitchen when her Holo came. Her blue mesh-like image appeared out of my disc. “Is this the house of Will Smith?” she had asked.
I didn’t know what to say because I was instantly nervous, so all that came out was, “Wow, oh my gosh, hi! I mean, yes, your Ambassadorship…I mean former Ambassadorship, I mean yes. This is Will Smith.”
Without wasting a moment, Ambassador Lana proceeded to tell me that a girl by the name of Nova Black had been shot, and since I was a cluster medic, she needed my help.
She gave me directions to her house, “things aren’t safe right now, so I brought her here with me, please come immediately. Oh, and, Will, be careful out there.”
Her hologram vanished. I was shocked, I had always thought that our cluster was a safe place, but now I was starting to wonder. Of course, I gathered my things and biked to the address as quickly as I could. When I arrived at the mansion, I realized that Nova was the girl I had met only the morning before. She was lying on a bed in a minimalistic room. Her face was pale and covered in blood. I cleaned her and placed a bandage on her eye. She was in a coma, and with a coma, there wasn’t anything else I could do as a medic, except wait.
***One week later***
Nova was lying down in front of me; her legs barely hung off the edge of the small airplane bed. I analyzed her face, the one I had memorized when we met just a week before. One side was spotless, beautiful: full lips and a small nose. I remembered her sad, pale hazel eyes and the way the loose pieces of her hair had spilled in little curls around her face. I looked over at the other side of her face. Her eye was swollen and purple. It looked like she just had a black eye, not a gunshot wound. A large birthmark that crept down her neck like spilled wine disappeared into her hospital gown. A long scar barely visible against the red of her skin.
I grabbed a towelette from the first add kit I had brought with me the week before. I began to clean and re-bandage her eye with a big section of gauze. I had done this many times before, so my hands worked without my brain having to say anything. The damage wasn’t as bad as I had first believed. The bullet had only grazed her eye but thankfully didn’t kill her.
As I was finishing, Nova’s good eye fluttered open. “Will?” she asked groggily as she sat up. I could tell she regretted her movement by the grimace on her face.
“Ah, good you are awake, I need to talk to you,” Ambassador Lana jumped right in. “I am Ambassador Lana, and I need your help. Your mother was one of the best spies I have ever known, and I was wondering if you will be willing to help me defeat Thomas B. Hersire, that rascal who stole my power and made a fool of me in front of my entire cluster.”
I looked at Nova, expecting her to do a double-take when Ambassador Lana mentioned ‘spy,’ but to my surprise, Nova nodded, simply considering her answer. Ambassador Lana moved closer to look Nova in her good eye and placed her hand on Nova’s shoulder, her tone softened. “Honey, I am sorry to say this, but your mother has died.”
Nova stopped nodding, and all the color went out of her face. I glared at Ambassador Lana.
I tuned to Nova. ”Nova, are you ok?” I asked. She nodded, but her face said otherwise.
The former ambassador went on, “Thomas B. Hersire is trying to take over all the clusters. I need you to help me stop him, and to do that we have to gain allies.” Nova turned and looked out the small window, the lights of a town twinkling 30,000 feet below. “Nova, your mother was the one working on Hersire when she died. One of the last things she told me was she wanted you to save the Eight Clusters. Can you do that for me?”
Nova lifted her face, determined, and nodded.
“Great. Will, tell her everything.”
“A party? I have to go to a party!?” I yelled angrily. I’d only been awake for 10 minutes, and I felt like I had done a marathon through hell and back. I was on a plane to nowhere, and I was supposed to save the Clusters at a party?
“I am guessing you don’t like parties?” Will asked.
I glared, he smiled. There was a small gap in his teeth, but other than that, he was perfect. “I have never been to a party in my life,” I said, grabbing his shirt. “I can’t do this.”
Only then did I realize how close we were, my nose almost touched his. I pulled away, muttering an apology.
“You’ve never been to a party. Why?” He looked down at me. He was at least a foot taller than me, which is not saying much because I am 5ft: no more, no less.
“My mom was ashamed because she couldn’t have a normal life, I guess, I don’t know,” I said with a shrug.
“Do you have any people skills?” he questioned, leaning closer.
I thought about it even though I knew the answer. “No,” I said bluntly.
Will suddenly remembered something. “Oh, do you want some medicine for the pain?”
I just looked at him, “And why didn’t you ask me this earlier?”
The former Ambassador strode in and snapped her fingers. A sliding door opened, and I was surprised to see another human -being on the plane. “Yes, ma’am!” The women looked about 24 with wild pink hair and long eyelashes.
“I need you to get her fitted for a dress.”
I looked at the former ambassador. “Can’t we do some pants and a shirt? Do we have to do a dress?” She gave me a hard glare, and I let the women lead me back through the sliding doors. I kept one hand on my forehead so the pain in my eye did not make me collapse.
The other half of the plane was a bedroom with clothes from all the eight different clusters strewn around the room, making it look like a tornado of clothes had swept through. She walked me to the bathroom door and said, “Girl, you need a shower!” I did as I was told. I took off my itchy hospital gown and stepped carefully into the small shower. I turned on the water, and it rained hot as the sun. I gave myself time to breathe. My mom is gone. Breathe in. Breathe out. I’m supposed to save the world.
When I got out of the shower, my gown was gone, and a towel was in its place. When I walked back into the bedroom, the pink-haired woman was there working, laying out clothes on the bed. “We have picked out your dress for the party based on your personality.”
“Why do I have to wear a dress?” I whined.
The pink-haired woman looked at me, “You are wearing a dress because this is a fancy occasion, and we feel like you need an upgrade.”
I was hurt, but then I looked down at the towel and saw their point. “Fine.”
She looked down at a cosmetic bag she was holding. “We have a lot to do in one hour, so let’s get started.”
When she finally let me look at my reflection, I gasped. “How did you do that?” I looked like a real supermodel. My hair was flipped to one side, mostly covering up the right side of my face. A black eye patch with a gold rim covered my bad eye. The left side of my face was glamorous with the gold eye shadow and red lipstick. I never thought I could look so beautiful.
I put on my suit and pulled my curly hair into a low ponytail. I walked out of the bathroom and stopped in my tracks. The sliding door opened and the pink-haired woman stepped out, followed closely by Nova. Nova looked like Aphrodite with her red hair flipped to one side and her red lips. I let my eyes stray to the dress. The dress reflected her personality perfectly. It was black with a gold neckline, a cutout of the dress showed her tan skin, another showed her leg, and her golden high heels. A black-and-gold bomber jacket was added to keep Cluster Two’s cold out. There was not a trace of the wires that had been attached to her for the last week.
“Well, according to the male in the room, we did a good job,” the pink-haired woman said. I felt my face go red, and Nova smiled.
“Please find a seat immediately. We are landing,” A robotic voice said, and we all found a spot to sit. I could tell Nova had gotten some etiquette instruction because she crossed her legs and put her hands in her lap.
“So. Your goal at this party is to get Ambassador Cleo’s agreement to be our ally against the enemy. Stick to the plan,” Ambassador Lana said, looking at her Holo.
I nodded, and Nova said, “Got it.” When Nova spoke, I felt my heart beat faster. I silently cursed my heart for feeling. I looked out the window and saw the ground getting closer. Before I knew it, we had touched down in a snowy wonderland.
I had been to Cluster Two only once before, but I still was not ready for cold that hit me as frigid air blew in my face. I looked around and saw twinkling lights everywhere and trees decorated with small ornaments. I realized they must have been celebrating Winterfest; I never knew people in the different clusters celebrated the same holiday. We walked up to a large snow-covered gate. The bronze metal glinted in the twilight. It opened as we approached, making me wonder what we would see on the other side.
The driveway was made out of cobblestone, and I felt like I was stepping back in time. Nova reached out and took my gloved hand. Despite the cold and my nerves, I felt warm inside. I tried to tell myself that I am just going to a party. I like parties; my parents had parties every Sunday. This is just the same. But who am I kidding? I am going to a party that will determine the fate of the world!
The driveway curved, and I stopped. I was not expecting what I saw. The building was made entirely out of glass, it was just like one of the skyscrapers back home, but more like a modern castle with plants spilling over each balcony, even though it was below freezing outside.
“Well, that is unexpected,” Nova said with a note of awe in her voice.
As we moved closer, I saw a tree lit up in each room for Winterfest. We walked to the door, and a man in a black suit stopped us. “State your name,” the man demanded. He was buff with black sunglasses covering his eyes; his blond hair was cut short, and his thin lips drew into a hard line.
My hands began to sweat, “Will Smith and Nova Black.”
“You may enter.”
The lobby looked like the set of an old movie from 2019. A large white fireplace lit up the room. People sat in leather couches facing towering windows that looked out over Cluster Two’s snow-covered red roofs. Plants were everywhere – on the small coffee tables and hanging on the walls. I could not believe how many people there were. There were at least 1000 people there – my worst nightmare. “Will, I don’t like this,” I said, pressing closer to him. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him smiling. He seemed more relaxed that that we were inside.
“I am going to get some drinks. You are going to be fine. You know what to do, look around to see if you can see Ambassador Cleo. I will be right back.” I looked at him, shocked that he would leave me at a time like this. He walked away, weaving through people like he had done this a million times.
I looked at my hands, which were covered in black leather gloves. I pulled one out and saw that it was still red from the cold. I felt vulnerable.
“What are you thinking?” a woman’s voice said sternly behind me, making me drop my glove.
I looked up with my good eye and saw a tall, spindly woman with pale white skin and white-blond hair. “Oh, you scared me!” I squeaked. I had never felt small before, but under her gaze, I felt minuscule.
“I know,” said the woman snidely, bending down and picking up my glove. Instead of handing it to me, she tucked it into a hidden pocket in her gown. “I know why you are here, and my answer is ‘no.'”
I looked at her, annoyed. Where was Will? This was not a part of the plan, she was not supposed to just walk up to me! I tried to get back on track. I took a deep breath and stated, “So, I am guessing you are Ambassador Cleo.” She nodded, checking her nails like she had much better things to do. I continued, “Thomas B. Hersire overthrew Ambassador Lana in Cluster One and is making it sound like she stepped down, but he is trying to take over the world, and we need your help to stop him.”
She looked at me questioningly, something in her eyes I couldn’t read. “Cluster One’s issues are not my problem. She turned to walk away, “Oh, and Nova, here’s your glove.” She threw it to the floor, leaving me to pick it up.
Right that second, Will came up to me looking happy. “Nova, check out these drinks! Look at this! There are… Nova, what’s wrong?” He looked at me with concern and set down the flaming drinks.
I looked at him. “The Ambassador of Cluster Two has just visited me, and she refused to help.”
Will’s face darkened. “You can’t be serious!” Will raked a hand through his dark curly hair.
“What are we gonna do now?” I said. I felt like I was about to throw up. I felt nervous. I have never really felt that way before.
Will jumped like something hit him on the head. “Nova, I have an idea! Which way did she go?” I pointed, and Will walked smoothly over to her like he didn’t have a care in the world.
Ambassador Cleo looked like an evil, tall elf who had accidentally walked out of a children’s book. “Excuse me, Madam Ambassador,” I said, trying to be polite.
She turned her head over to me and smiled cooly. “What do you want?”
I looked back and saw Nova staring at me from across the room with confusion on her face. I turned back. “We need your help defeating Hersire. He is evil. He is coming for all of the clusters, not just Cluster One. I know your cluster has been isolated since the Outbreak, and you have done nothing to change that, but if you help us, you will be considered a hero, and everyone will praise you. If you refuse to help us, your cluster will be destroyed, and you will go down in history as a narcissistic failure.”
She looked at me, her eyes indecipherable, but almost apologetic. Ambassador Cleo snapped her fingers and hollered, “Guards!”
Two women in black suits ran up and grabbed my arms and dragged me away. One reached for her gun, but it wasn’t there. I looked over my shoulder and saw Nova firing at one of the guards. She missed me by inches, and I shouted: “What the…!” wondering where the hell she had gotten such skills. In an instant, both guards holding me were in a heap on the floor. Nova grabbed my hand and pulled me through the set of double doors we had entered earlier. The cold air hit me, making my nose turn red as we ran.
“Gee, that plan worked great,” I said.
Will, sitting in a plane seat, looked up at me confused “What do you mean? We failed.”
“I know. I was being sarcastic.” I plopped down beside him, kicked off my heels, and flipped off my eye patch. I put my hands inside my bomber jacket and pulled out my gloves. One of the gloves made a crinkly noise. When I reached in, I pulled out a small note with hurried handwriting. It read:
Sorry about the guards, I cannot afford to blow my cover yet. I was so glad to see you alive. I should explain. You see, your mother was one of my closest friends. We worked together in her final months on a critically important project. To eliminate the power of Thomas B. Hersire, my son. Obviously, we failed. Thomas is very powerful, but I cannot oppose him openly, so I tipped off the tutors in Cluster One to try to warn your mother that he was about to overthrow her cluster. I am so very sorry she died, and my effort was in vain. I want you to know that I will do everything in my power to help you.
You are in danger. My son is a very smart man. He knew of your father’s death ten years prior and hired the same man to kill your mother. Thomas began to suspect me, but he did not want to kill his own mother, so he killed yours instead. I don’t know why your dad died, but I think you might find that information in your travels. Sorry, there is no time to explain more. Our world needs you, Nova. Please use the training your mother gave you to save us. – Cleo
I got up and leaned against the back wall, reading and rereading the note. She had worked with Mom?
“Everything ok?” Will asked
“She’s in,” I said, smiling. “Will, we did it.”
Will was smiling too, he got up and walked over to me, he smiled. “Remember the day you dropped your water bottle?”
I looked at him, “Yea, what about it?”
He leaned closer, “There is something I’ve wanted to do ever since that day…”
I smiled, “And what’s that?”
He slid a hand to my face gently, carefully avoiding my bandaged eye. We were so close I could feel his heart beating as fast as mine. He placed his lips on mine and kissed me. His breath tasted like peppermint. I had never liked peppermint before, but now that was all I wanted to taste. I closed my eye and let go of my doubts. I am Nova, and I am on a journey to save the Clusters. With Will’s arms wrapped around my body, I felt like I could do anything.
TO BE CONTINUED…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Clara Thorsen is a thirteen-year-old author and artist. Although she has severe dyslexia which makes it challenging for her to read quickly or spell well, she has loved books and stories her whole life. When she is not reading, writing or researching her next story, she spends time drawing portraits of women. Her other interests are women’s history and historic homes. Clara lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her mom, dad, sister and dog, Odie. Visit her on Instagram @ChroniclesOfNovaBlack.
Blog Disclaimer: I have dyslexia, so please forgive my spelling and writing errors. If I focused more on editing and perfection, I would never be able to write. I know this is a safe space.
The beginning of a normal school year for a child with dyselixa is hard. In the viritual setting, it can feel impossible. I have an 8th grader with dyslexia who is in her 8th week of virtual learning and these are the challaneges and tips that I have compiled so far.
First, what aspects of virtual school are particularly difficult for students with dyslexia? There are a lot. Here are some of them we have encountered so far:
Lots of reading with no built-in read aloud feature. Our district uses Florida Virtual School and upper grades have no read aloud, although the younger grades do have limited read aloud options.
Lots of writing with no built in speech-to-text or word prediction built in. Some virtual programs do have a spellcheck option, but as those with dysleixa know, very often spelling is so far off that spellcheck simply cannot recognize the intended word. My daughter has an elaborate system where she downloads assignments into Co:wrtier, types her paragraph in Co:Writer, then cuts/pastes into Word & uploads it into Schoology. It is slow and multi-step process that is confusing and is not feasible for younger kids.
Kids with dyslexia need tests and quizes read aloud. That is really hard in a virtual setting. If a parent or caregiver is not available to read, then oftentimes students will be left to struggle through on their own.
Some online quizes pop up with a large ticking timer that shuts down the quiz if time is exceeded. This is stress inducing and unfair to kids with dyslexia who need extra time.
Online worksheets that only accept correctly spelled answers. In many formats, if you type in “Pocahanas” instead of the correct spelling, you will get a zero on that item. Students with dyslexia should not be counted off for spelling.
Many teachers ask students to post answers to discussion questions publically. This can cause a lot of shame in kids who spell or write poorly since errors are there for all to see.
Some teachers say “I’ll give you two minutes to send me your response.” Students with dyslexia may take 5 minutes to write an answer and can miss class instruction while focused on typing or may be counted off for not turning items in.
By the end of a long day of looking at the screen, all kids are tired. For students with dyslexia, fatigue can be severe and cause mood issues, acting out and more. Frustrated & stressed kids can affect the whole family.
The good news is that there are some solutions that can really help with most of these virtual school stressors. Here are some tips that can help:
Tip 1. Introduce and Educate.
At the beginning of the year, I always send teachers a quick snap shot of my child along with my favorite easy-to-read dyslexia info. Usually, I do this over coffee before school, but in the virtual setting, it can just be a well crafted email introducing yourself and your child.
I like to include a picture of my daughter with her likes and talents before diving into information about her dyslexia. In a virtual setting, this can be even more important since there is less opportunies for teachers to get to know the personalities of students. I also include subject-by-subject information of her struggles so that teachers can really hone in on how to support her.
In addition to providing teachers with information about my child, I also like to include information about dyslexia in general. I never assume that a teacher has an understanding about what dyslexia is or what it looks like. I avoid sending long articles, but rather send easy-to-read infographics that teachers can quicky glance at. Understood.org has some great ones, and in Tennessee, so does the MTSU Center for Dyslexia at https://www.mtsu.edu/dyslexia/.
Tip 2. Communicate.
It is harder to build relationships in a virtual setting, so thoughtful communication is key. Teachers, parents and kids are all stressed out in this year of Covid. It is important to grant other people grace while also being assertive to get your child what he needs. When you run into an issue that needs to be addressed, email teachers in a kind way to remind them what is feeling challenging and how to easily accommodate the need. In my experience, teachers don’t want children to be totally stressed out, crying and working until 10pm. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Saying, “Math is taking my son 3 hours, which I know is not your intent, so I am going to have him do 2 of each type of problem, and stop working after an hour.” usually is well reciveved by a teacher. Please remember to make sure to email your child’s teacher with things that are going well, too. The are human and need to hear they are doing a good job, too. Several examples of the types of emails that you and your student can send are below.
Remember that older children (usually 4th grade and above) should be learning to do some of the advocacy on their own. Encourage students to reach out to teachers via email, REMIND, text message, office hours Zoom or other teacher-approved method to share with the teacher what they need and what they are struggling with. My daughter was really hating posting in-class commets that could be seen by peers. When she told her science teacher, he gave her his cell number and now she just texts him the answers and she feels so much better about particpating in class. That said, even with older children, if things go unresolved, it is appropraite for you to send an email to the teaching team as well.
Tip 3. Accommodate at Home.
Virtual learning is hard & a lot of accommodations are hard to access, so parents and caregivers need to step in to fill that role. When possible, I set aside an hour each night when she is fatigued & working slowly to read quizzes, scribe worksheets/essays & to help keep organized. It can feel like a lot, but in this Covid environment, we all need to pitch in. This can feel less daunting after you have taken steps 1 and 2 above and teachers have helped to tailor a work load and time table that is manageable. For some famillies with multiple children and busy jobs, this simply is not feasible. That is okay. Communicate with the teacher. Do your best. This is really hard.
Tip 4. Find Assistive Technology!
So much reading and writing in a virtual setting can be next to impossible for student’s with dyslexia, as outlined above. Find assistive tech tools that work to help read, spell & write. Reach out to your child’s exceptional education teacher or district assistive techonology expert for tips on what tech is available in your area.
Here are some of my brand new assistive tech favorites for virtual school that my school and district shared with me. They are extensions for the Google Chrome browser that can be used on any computer. You may have others that you like better.
First, open the Google Chrome search engine. (It can be downloaded on to any computer.) Then, in the search bar, search for “Natural Reader Chrome Extension.” It will take you to a page that shows that you can “Add Natural Reader.” Once you click that, go to the small puzzle piece at the top right of your screen. That will show all your extensions. Click the push-pin icon for Natural Reader and an “N” will show upon the tool bar! From there, you can access the read aloud tool. I prepared this video to show how to get the extension and how to use both Snap and Read and Natural Reader. I may do a video in the future on how to use Co:Writer and Grammarly. Stay tuned!
Tip 5. Give and Get Support.
This is HARD y’all. Talk to your child about her stress and your stress. Normalize it for them, but in a solution-oriented way. Say things like “Virtual school is hard for everyone but especially for kids like you with dyslexia. The best thing we can do is to keep communicating with your teachers to help them know what you need. We will figure this out together.” I avoid saying things are untrue like “this will get easier” or “you are going to do great.” I focus on the fact that my child is loved, safe and can talk about their fears and frustrations with me. When I lose my cool, as we all are doing more these days, I come back and do some repair with my child. I say things like “I am sorry I was short with you when I was trying to help with you english essay. This is really stressful and I got angry, but not at you. We all feel angry sometimes. Lets take 10 minutes to get a snack and come back to this, okay? I love you. We can do this!”
Find other parents with struggling learners and talk to them. The best place to find other parents like you is in your local Decoding Dyslexia chapter. Reach out to get tips and help. You can always feel free to reach out to me.
That is a wrap on this blog. Follow me on Twitter at @athorsen16 for more dyslexia related information. Take care.
Note: I have dyslexia and did not take too much time to spellcheck this blog because it is exhausting. I know this is a safe space.
My daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia in the 2nd grade. She read slowly. She spelled poorly. Over the last 5 years she received good interventions and accommodations from her caring and supportive Nashville public schools. Today she is in 7th grade. She reads slowly. She spells poorly. But you know what? She is THRIVING and I am not worried about her one bit.
What I have learned from watching her journey and advocating for her for 5 years is that even with great interventions and accommodations, many children like her with severe dyslexia may never read quickly or spell well. That does not mean they cannot learn, read, write or love books.
Yesterday was my daughter’s IEP meeting. As I reviewed her data, I noticed that her oral reading fluency is only at the 12th percentile. On paper, she is a highly at risk student, but I know better. In reality, she is a girl who LOVES books. If she has free time, odds are she is listening to an audiobook or reading a graphic novel. She recently got big check from her grandma and immediately after she opened it she shouted “I AM GOING TO SPEND IT ALL ON BOOKS! BOOKS ARE MY LIFE!” Each holiday or birthday by far her favorite gift is a gift card to our local independent bookstore, Parnassus. On the top of her bucket list is to visit Powell’s book store in Portland, Oregon – the biggest bookstore in the world.
Her IEP also says that she has “severe struggles with spelling and grammar” such that she has a disability in written expression. It is true that she spells very poorly, rarely capitalizes proper names and is very unclear on the purpose of commas. Does she have a disability in written expression? No way. She can express herself in writing in the most amazing ways. In fact, she has spent the last month writing an amazing and empowering 34-page book that she dreams of getting published. When she comes home after school she goes right to editing and adding. We spend dinnertimes talking about how to make a pivotal less “flat.” The writing in the book is fantastic. I could not be more proud of her.
So let’s all be very careful when we look at struggling readers as “unteachable” or “uninterested in literacy.”
Some of us can struggle and thrive at the same time…
*Thanks to the over 1.2K who have liked and shared my Struggle and Thrive tweet. I have loved the stories you have shared with me and the well wishes you have sent. Please keep sharing. If you want to support Decoding Dyslexia TN, I would love it if you bought a Struggle and Thrive T Shirt. Thanks so much.
As I continue to push my city and my state on reading reform for students with dyslexia, the voices attacking me will get louder. They will mock me. Threaten to shoot me (like Richard Allington did). They will accuse me of being a puppet or convert agent for the rich and private companies. That is okay. I will just keep doing my work. If you want to know my story, it is below.
I am a parent with dyslexia. All the work I do, I do for free. I don’t work for anyone. I never get paid. (But sometimes a parent I speak with buys me a coffee or a muffin. ☕️) I have no affilations to any billionaires or curriculum companies.
I volunteer for @DDTN13 to help parents who are struggling to navigate dyslexia like I did.
I volunteer on the @TNedu Dyslexia Advisory Council to represent parents.
I volunteer with my sweet public school because community and public ed matter deeply to me.
I mentor a boy I have known for years who struggles with trauma and disabilities.
I volunteer with @EERocks_MNPS to be in IEP meetings with homeless youth and children in foster care.
My past work and background? Any shady connections there?
After attending Vanderbilt law school I went to work at a big law firm in Nashville. I worked for four years and I was really struggling. When I was 29, I finally was diagnosed with having dyslexia which explained so much about my failings in writing and reading lengthy mergers and acquisitions contracts. Once I was diagnosed, I quickly realized that I had picked a terrible profession for my skill set. I knew that I needed to get out of the law. When I got pregnant with my first daughter, I thought it was my ticket to exit gracefully. I was so excited for my life as a new mom. Then, tragedy struck when my first born, Madeline, died. I quit work and took time to grieve. I was also having significant medical issues at the time and knew that if I wanted to get pregnant, my window was short. Seventeen months later, Ava was born – typical and healthy. My life took another devastating turn another 16 months later when Clara was born. Right after birth, she crashed hard and was in the hospital for 3 months fighting for her life. It was absolute hell. Turned out, she shares a rare medical conditions with her oldest sister. B6 Dependent Epilepsy.
My life had suffered several huge blows and I was left unmoored in my own life for a couple of years. I suffered so much grief and was stricken with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome from Madeline’s death and all the times in the hospital when Clara would code and have to be resuscitated and times she would have seizures and we would race her to the hospital in the back of an ambulance.
Life was stressful for those years. I had two toddlers at home, one of whom was very medically fragile and prone to seizures. What helped me the most was connecting with other moms who had suffered like me. In those dark days of my life, I came painfully and vividly aware of what it means to be a mother and how hard it is. The loss. The pain. The heartbreak. I knew I needed help and I need connection to other women who had been through what I had been through.
When I was emotionally able, when Clara was about 2 years old, I began to dip my toe into advocacy. I was invited to be on the Family Advisory Council at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. We helped change policies to make the hospital to improve families’ experiences. It was hard working in the place that held so many of my PTSD triggers, but I did it somehow. Once my 3-year term there ended, I searched for a new cause to take up.
A natural fit for me seemed to be the Epilepsy Foundation of Middle Tennessee. I worked there for a year as an Education Coordinator getting out into the community talking to schools, students and organizations about Epilepsy. I really enjoyed the work, but for several reasons, I knew I needed to move on. By this point, both my girls had started Elementary School and I naturally was drawn to that community. I gave up my work at the Epilepsy Foundation and jumped all-in to our school PTO. I served there as Fundraiser and eventually PTO-President for two years. I loved supporting teachers and students and building community to help get families engaged in our schools.
During my time serving our school as PTO president, Clara was diagnosed with dyslexia. Although I love our school dearly, our journey to get the school and the district to recognize her diagnosis was not an easy one. In fact, it was contentious and hard. Eventually, with a lot of advocacy, a lot of emails to legislators and one fated phone call to the Office of Special Education Programs in Washington, D.C., Clara got what she needed.
Through that process, I began to learn just how many students suffer from dyslexia and just how prevalent it is. I knew personally the shame of growing up undiagnosed. I began to spend most of my time advocating and connecting with parents to get the message out. Through an effort of many, things have improved for students with dyslexia in Tennessee. The stakes simply could not be higher for our society and there is still so much work to do so that all children can be taught to read by a method of how brains learn (known as the Science of Reading.)
My favorite part of advocacy is sitting and listening to stories. I love giving people hope one on one. I love connecting with other mothers who are in pain and telling them “I have been there. I hear you. You are not invisible to me.” I love connecting with kids who are having a hard time and telling them “I believe in you. I see you.”
I guess, looking back on it, I learned all the tools I need to be an effective advocate from my daughters, living and dead. The greatest gift that my daughter, Madeline, taught me when she died is that by sharing your story, you can heal yourself and help others who are hurting too. We are often so alone in grief and fear, we cannot pull ourselves out. We feel invisible and powerless. I learned that there is a beauty and a power to sharing your pain and connecting on a human level with others. I learned that we simply cannot make the journey of life alone. At times, we need others to be our voice to help us. And, in our turn, we need to be the voice for others. We need to look deeply at those around us who are struggling and tell them: “You are not invisible to me.”
My Clara taught me how to advocate under fire. Her medical situation was so precarious that I sat a bedside vigil for 3 horrific months. I was constantly on high alert. I was advocating for her 24 hours a day. If I had not been there – she would have been dead 100 times over. In those dark days and hours, I learned that advocating can, quite literally, save a life. Today Clara is fierce. Artistic. She teaches me the power of hope and how to keep going against the odds. She has aT Shirt she wears that says “Not fragile like a flower. Fragile like a bomb.” Power in fragility. Yes.
My Ava has taught me how to humbly show my vast skills while also finding my power through introspection. Ava had a mother who was terrified, trauma filled and viligent waiting for the next horrible thing to happen. She was left with grandparents at 17 months old while I lived in the hospital with Clara. She learned to care for herself. I deeply regret I could not be there for her more. I still apologize. Ava is highly gifted and creative but thoughtful. A deep ocean who I admire greatly and try to emulate.
The last two years have mostly been about my husband and I coming to terms with the huge traumas in our married life and in our childhoods. We have done EMDR Therapy for our PTSD. We are working through childhood trauma and attachment issues. In that time we have also dealt with the death of a parent and I have had 16 surgeries. We are healing in so many ways.
Today, it is my honor and my privilege to spend my days advocating. I don’t charge a dime. I do it because I can. I do it because I have one daughter who never had a voice. I do it because all those mothers are not invisible to me. I do it because I have been there. I have a voice and I have learned, through strife, how to use it to help others. I am proud to do so.
That to say that what I do & say on social media and in my advocacy is just me trying to do what I think is best. I try to educate myself on issues as much as I can. I am imperfect but trying. I still have a lot to learn.
I have no billionaires. No secret backing. I have no plotting secret agenda. It is just me. Working hard because my life has taught me that parents hurt and need to be seen.
What else do I do outside of what you see of me on social media?
– I garden.
– I read.
– I have a crap ton of surgeries.
– I work to heal my brokeness from childhood sexual trauma, death of a child and medical complexities.
Brene Brown says we each have a story that can bring others to their knees. It’s true. Our stories have the power to connect us- to help us heal our own pain.
I know much of this work is me battling my demons to prove I am worthy of love, but that is me and it is ok. We all do what we can to try to heal.
So. Listen to me if you will. It is just me. Thank you. 🌱
Today I added a feather to my cap. I have been volunteering my time tirelessly for almost 5 years to promote dyslexia awareness in Tennessee and today I learned that the notorious dyslexia-denier Richard L. Allington has mentioned me (this website really) by name (that he got a little bit wrong if I am being nit-picky, but I am not since I rarely spell things right myself due to my real, not imagined, dyslexia) on the first page of a 14-page anti-dyslexia tirade in a literacy journal (in which he mostly just quotes his own research in the third person which is sad but almost endearing). Now there can be no doubt that my work, a small piece of the much larger work of the amazing volunteers of Decoding Dyslexia TN and TNIDA, is having its intended effect: to upset the status quo. If he is mentioning us, we are definitely making huge gains.
Well done us.
Let’s keep adding feathers to our caps until every child can read.
PS – For what it is worth, (and this one is kind of embarrassing for Richard), when he writes “On the website of Decoding Dyslexia – Tennessee you will see lots of photos of members in action at conferences and meeting with state legislators. There are also numerous photos of many with [sic] children wearing bright red sweatshirts emblazoned with Dyslexia Untie“…he was actually on my personal website and not the Decoding Dyslexia-Tennessee website at all (oops, Richard.) I know because, well, I created the DDTN website and there are virtually no photos on it, but there are lots of photos exactly as he describes on this, my personal website. So all those numerous members and children he mentions? They are really all just me and my daughter. On my personal website. In T Shirts. That say “Dyslexics Untie!“ (Yikes, Richard, that is a whole lot of careless errors.) Maybe next time, Richard, have someone proofread your writing. As a person with dyslexia, I find it to be very helpful…
PPS – The red T-Shirts he mentions are super cute! I bought them off the internet two years before I started this website. They still sell them so get yours here!
PPS – I also really like that he quotes the link to the Tennessee law from my website instead of going to the official TN.gov website here. (Come on now, Richard, that one is just downright lazy. My writing and websites have plenty of errors, but I am not publishing in a research journal…yikes!)
Tonight I will be part of an important forum on Reading and the School to Prison Pipeline in Nashville, TN. As I prepare, I feel a hair-on-fire urgency about how our current system is teaching reading and how crucial it is that we ALL engage on this topic.
To prepare, I am looking anew at the statistics around dyslexia and prison. A highly disproportionate number of students with learning disabilities end up in prison because we never teach them to read and they learn early that they cannot succeed in school. (For more statistics and information click Why We Should All Care About Dyslexia.)
85% of youth in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, yet only 37% receive these services while in school. – National Council on Disabilities. June 18, 2015. Breaking the School-to- Prison Pipeline For Students with Disabilities.
80% of prison inmates in Texas are functionally illiterate. 48% have dyslexia. – Prevalence of Dyslexia Among Texas Prison Inmates. Moody KC, et al Tex Med 2000.
49% of Prisoners do not have a high school diploma. – National Center for Education Statistics, Literacy Behind Prison Walls, October 1994.
In 2019 in Tennessee, only 28.8% of all 3rd graders were On Track in Literacy and only 15.2% of economically disadvantaged 3rd graders were On Track. – http://www.scarlettfoundation.org
97.6% of Tennessee students with “Characteristics of Dyslexia” scored “Below” or “Approaching” on ELA 3-8 assessments. – Tennessee Dyslexia Advisory Council Annual Report 20017-2018.
If we look at all these statistics, it is so clear that we simply are not teaching all students to read. There are huge groups of students who are falling through the cracks of our system. There are many complex factors that all can add to this systemic failure including race, poverty, trauma, teacher shortages and funding. But my view is that one thing that is very much in our power to change is literacy and specifically how we teach reading.
Despite the passage of our #SayDyslexia law in Tennessee in 2016 and the creation of a 44 page Tennessee Dyslexia Resource Guide, we still are only haphazardly screening students for dyslexia and rarely giving students the explicit, systematic phonics RTI2 interventions which they are guaranteed by the law . Our Department of Education estimates that 10% (around 97,000) of Tennessee students have characteristics of dyslexia, which means that we are currently failing to identify and educate a large group of our most struggling readers.
When I tell groups this, people get upset and can feel overwhelmed that change will never come and that we are doomed to a failed system where huge numbers of our children are never taught to read and too many end up in prison. But there is good news in this sky-is-falling story. There is hope. We can fix our system and we know exactly how to do it. We just all need to band together to push for change for all children. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
Without going into too much detail here, the way we currently teach reading is called “Balanced” literacy. It has a lovely name but don’t be fooled. It is not really balanced at all. It teaches students to “read” by using picture clues to guess at words. This is sometimes called “3 – Cueing.” It has some phonics sprinkled in, but guessing does the heavy lifting. Under “Balanced” literacy children are not taught to sound out the 44 letter sounds of our beautiful language. Instead the underlying belief is that surrounding kids with books will make them love to read and once they love reading they will then read more and get practice an thereby become better readers. The problem is that for students with #dyslexia, this system will never teach them to read. Instead it teaches strategies that students with dyslexia already use quite well. When they don’t know a word – they guess. They look at pictures. The try to solve the sentence with context clues. This is a coping mechanism they use when they can’t break the code of our language. It is not something we should be teaching. We cannot just teach children to love reading. That is not enough. We must give them the skills to do it. Instead, we need to move to a system called Structured Literacy that teaches all children explicitly and systematically the word sounds of our language in a way that builds on prior word and letter knowledge so that children can stop guessing. So they can stop looking at pictures but rather decode the word. We know this method works for ALL children, but is crucial for students with dyslexia. But the only place the students can access this type of intense intervention is in Special Education. Structured Literacy is simply not taught in the general education classrooms of Tennessee.
In Nashville, we have used “Balanced” literacy for years, and our students are failing. As shown in the statistics above, only 28.8% of all 3rd graders are “On Track” in reading and 97.6% of students with characteristics of dyslexia are reading far below “On Track.” If you look at the chart above that makes perfect sense. Only about 40% of students can learn to read no matter how they are taught but 60% of them need a Structured Literacy to read. So, putting all of it together, in Nashville, we are currently failing to teach the majority of kids to read. Period.
The problem is that certain members of our school board and of our district administrations are bound and determined to KEEP DOING WHAT WE ARE DOING. They look at all the information above, and as of last week, they CHOSE to keep using “Balanced” literacy. It is my belief, and the belief of millions of educators, experts and advocates that we need to shift how we teach reading in America. We can do it. We have all the resources we need and experts on hand to help. We just need the support of the public, districts and schools boards to make this important change. Here is how we end this cycle:
1. Require all teaching colleges to ensure new teachers know how to teach Structured Literacy and the science behind how our brains learn to read.
2. Give current K-3 teachers professional development on how to teach Structured Literacy and the science behind how our brains learn to read.
3. Educate all teachers on common learning disabilities.
If we don’t make this change soon, our students will keep failing. Our students with dyslexia will still be left to struggle. Too many students will end up in prison, dropping out of school or committing suicide.
85% of youth in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, yet only 37% receive these services while in school. – National Council on Disabilities. June 18, 2015. Breaking the School-to- Prison Pipeline For Students with Disabilities
Only 68% of students with Learning Disabilities leave high school with a regular diploma while 19% drop out and 12% receive a certificate of completion. – “The State of Learning Disabilities.” Third Edition, 2014. Pgs. 16-17. National Center for Learning Disabilities.
Students with learning disabilities like dyslexia have a three times higher risk of attempting suicide. – Suicidality, School Dropout and Reading Problems Among Adolescents. Journal of Learning Disabilities, vol. 39,6: pp 507-514. First published Nov. 1 2006.
I hope that all of you who come to the event tonight or read this post feel empowered to engage on this issue. Start talking about literacy, dyslexia and the school to prison pipeline. Talk about it to co workers. At PTO meetings. At church. Tweet about it. Post some of the articles referenced above to your Facebook page. Email your school board member to encourage them to teach ALL students to read using Structured Literacy. If we all work together, we can make real change for all children and for our city. Join us. Thank you.
If you are a parent who read the information above and wants to learn more about how your child is reading, here are some questions you can take. If you are worried, DO NOT WAIT.
Q1. Teacher, do you use cueing (use of picture clues & guessing new words) to teach my child to read? A majority of teachers use guessing or “cueing” strategies. “Good Readers” do NOT use them. If your teachers uses these, this should be a read flag.
Q2. Teacher, you say you teach decoding & phonics. Is it taught explicitly & systematically? Teachers may teach decoding or phonics, but it is done randomly. Kids need to learn letters & sounds in small groups in a way that builds easy to hard. Make sure to look closely at HOW phonics are taught.
Q3. May I please have a copy of my child’s MAP scores? Students are tested 3 times a year on reading fluency and places in RTI tiers accordingly. You have a right to see their scores. If the score is low (under 30%) you need to ask WHY.
Q4. My child has a low MAP score but she is getting A’s and B’s on her report card. What is the discrepancy? Many low readers get good grades so parents don’t worry. We think “My kid gets A/Bs so she can read, right?” Wrong. Report cards are deceiving. Dig deeper.
If you look at all the above information and are worried about your child’s reading, DO NOT wait. Gather the info above and then demand he/she gets tested for a learning disability like dyslexia. Here are some great places to start to learn more about dyslexia:
These resources include links to many resources including Signs of Dyslexia, Federal Laws about Learning Disabilities, Tennessee Dyslexia Laws, advice on how to advocate for your child, assistive technology and so much more.
If your group needs a speaker, please contact me here.