Each person has a unique learning style that goes beyond a practical and classroom setting. Often people with unusual learning styles are seen as less intelligent, but that’s just not the case.
“All brains are good brains, sometimes it just takes a little elbow grease to figure out how each brain is best tilted,” said speech-language pathologist Sarah Carlson, MA, CCC-SLP.
Dyslexia, for example, is a neurological learning disability that involves difficulties with reading, spelling, and occasionally writing. Dyslexia is also often genetic. Each classroom has about three students with dyslexia, according to Carlson. Affecting an estimated one in five people, or twenty percent of the population, dyslexia is one of the most common learning disabilities. Of the 33 students Carlson works with, six have been diagnosed with dyslexia.
“Most people with dyslexia have average to above average intelligence. Every person with dyslexia I’ve ever worked with has remarkable strengths in at least one area,” said Carlson. “Having trouble reading doesn’t mean you’re not smart, it just means your brain is wired differently.”
Eleven-year-old Nolan Wall was diagnosed with dyslexia and echoed Carlson’s assessment. “Don’t tell yourself you’re stupid, you’re smarter in other ways. I have three or four friends who are also dyslexic and are really smart in other ways,” Wall replied when asked what advice he would give to someone struggling with the disability.
Wall attended Friday Harbor Elementary School but found it increasingly difficult. That year he and his parents decided to homeschool.
“As with all things parenting, you never know how it’s going to work. We try our best to teach our kids how to read and write and try different programs to see what works,” said Lauren Wall. For Nolan, that means adopting a hands-on style and relying on phonics-based reading rather than guessing, which the San Juan Island School District’s curriculum promotes Balanced Literacy.
“With [Balanced Literacy], you see the first letter and guess the rest. I learned to do this, but it got confusing. It’s insanely difficult to learn,” Nolan said.
Carlson said that using a structured and systematic approach to reading along with strengthening phonological awareness skills are some of the tools she uses when teaching children with dyslexia.
“Research strongly suggests that using a systematic and structured approach to reading, such as B. an Orton-Gillingham-based approach is the most efficient and effective way to teach dyslexic people to read,” explained Carlson. Teaching a “science of reading” and teaching the rules systematically is most effective because it provides the student with powerful word attack strategies, rather than allowing students to guess by default or use context to decode text, he added she added.
“Reading has always been a struggle. When I read, I recognize the word and memorize it instead of spelling it,” Nolan explained. Phonetics works well, but Lauren emphasized that phonetics is only a small part of the school’s curriculum. According to San Juan Island School District Superintendent Fred Woods, the school bases its reading curriculum on Balanced Literacy and supplements the program with phonics and other resources to meet the needs of individual students.
“Of all subjects, reading is so important. It sets the stage for success in all disciplines,” Woods said. The importance of reading is demonstrated, he added, by the fact that every school develops a school improvement plan and about 90 percent of the time, improving reading skills is the primary goal. “You’ve always had a focus on making a difference there,” Woods said.
“In those cases where school-based special education evaluations determine that someone has a specific learning disability in reading, a parent’s documentation of a dyslexia diagnosis does not necessarily alter or alter the services we provide” Becky Bell, Special Services Director said. Specific learning disabilities such as reading and arithmetic are more common than other problems such as developmental delays and physical or mental impairments.
While one in five may have attention and/or reading difficulties, Bell says the statistics are muddled because researchers have different predictions about how many people have dyslexia, since not every person has been tested and reading or attention difficulties don’t necessarily indicate one disability such as dyslexia or a specific learning disability. For the district, the numbers are still muddled because they don’t look specifically at the diagnosis of dyslexia, but look for clues to the development of literacy skills at the underschool level (areas also often associated with dyslexia) and then Interventions to fill provide their learning gaps. Teachers try a variety of tools tailored to work best for each student.
According to Woods, when the school sees what it considers a weakness, it works to identify and improve that area.
Lauren and Nolan Wall see confidence in balanced literacy as an area the school could improve. At the October 26 board meeting, Lauren spoke to encourage the district to change its reading curriculum away from Balanced Literacy.
“It is outstanding that our district utilizes Wilson Foundations and a variety of Title I programs that are based on the science of reading. I want that same value to be brought to the entire ELA program,” Lauren said.
“I’m here today to ask the Board to change the school improvement plan for primary reading, to discontinue the Lucy Calkins study units, to make an investment in our educators by offering Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spell and a step toward introducing a structured literacy program.”
Lauren explained that The Reading League’s definition of the science of reading is a vast, interdisciplinary collection of science-based research on reading and issues related to reading and writing.
According to Lauren, research has been conducted around the world over the past five decades and is based on thousands of studies conducted in multiple languages. The science of reading has resulted in a preponderance of evidence informing how proficient reading and writing develops; why some have difficulties; and ways to most effectively assess, teach, and improve student outcomes through prevention and intervention in reading difficulties.
The Balanced Literacy Program, Lucy Calkins, is inconsistent with the science of reading, Lauren said. Lucy Calkins herself has stated that the graded readers and cueing used in her curriculum are unsuitable for children with dyslexia and that multilingual learners struggle with them too. Since 2013, over 30 states have passed legislation or introduced new policies related to the science of reading. In 2016, Lauren said, Seattle Public Schools stopped using Lucy Calkins in K-5. In 2020, Anacortes stopped using Lucy Calkins, and in 2021, Orcas implemented CKLA, a curriculum based on the science of reading. “Lucy Calkin’s Units of Study was introduced in our district in 2017 due to low readings. Currently and pre-Covid, our results have not exceeded pre-intervention levels,” Lauren said. “We can no longer hold on to a curriculum that is not science-based and has not provided adequate growth for our students.”
The school board voted to proceed with an updated version of Balanced Literacy. Noting the high reading levels of high school students, Woods said the school’s library borrowing rates exceed other counties.
Woods explained that adoption of the curriculum varies from district to district. Some have chosen Balanced Literacy, while others have gone in a different direction.
“We’re always re-evaluating it. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have holes or that we can’t improve and add to it,” he said. “There are always discussions about the curriculum. We don’t let the curriculum be the only thing we do.”
Bell reiterated that the district is looking for literacy issues.
“If a student has literacy or numeracy difficulties, we offer interventions and support, and if that’s not effective, we may look into whether they are eligible for special services like special education,” Bell said. “If they are eligible, we write an individual plan and give the targets specific instructions. It depends on the individual needs of the child. We look at reading needs, look at a target area.”
For some, a structured approach to reading, such as the science of reading, can prove useful.
“There’s never a one-size-fits-all solution, so changing curriculum isn’t always the best answer,” Bell said. Instead, the school is constantly looking at the bigger picture.
“This is an ongoing philosophical and practical conversation. What worked, what was the data,” Woods said.
Bell added that teachers and staff are constantly asking how students are doing. “That also means socially and emotionally.”
For example, when students returned to school after COVID, they were so excited to see each other and needed the face-to-face sharing. The teachers decided to also focus on social-emotional learning as the impact of social isolation had to be taken into account.
“I want the teachers to know that we think they’re doing a wonderful job. It’s a big job teaching a kid to read,” Lauren said, adding that Nolan is currently working to unlearn the balanced literacy approach and move away from guessing. “The science of reading and neuroscience has really evolved.”