Dyslexia and individual learning styles

Each person has a unique learning style that goes beyond a hands-on versus a classroom setting. Often times individuals with uncommon methods of learning are considered less intelligent, but that simply isn’t the case.

“All brains are good brains, sometime it just takes a little bit of elbow grease to find out how each brain leans best,” said speech-language pathologist Sarah Carlson, MA, CCC-SLP.

Dyslexia, for example, is a neurologically based learning disability that involves difficulty reading, spelling and occasionally writing. Dyslexia is also often genetic. Each classroom has approximately three dyslexic students, according to Carlson. With 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 individuals with dyslexia have average to above average intelligence. Every dyslexic person I have ever worked with has remarkable strengths in at least one area,” Carlson said. “Having difficulty reading doesn’t mean you aren’t smart, it simply means your brain is wired differently.”

Eleven-year-old Nolan Wall was diagnosed with dyslexia, and he seconded Carlson’s assessment. “Don’t tell yourself you’re dumb, you are smarter in other ways. I have three or four friends who are also dyslexic and they are really smart in other ways,” Wall responded when asked what advice he would give someone struggling with the disability.

Wall attended Friday Harbor Elementary School but found it increasingly difficult. This year he and his parents opted for home-schooling.

“Like all things parenting, you don’t know how it’s going to work. We are trying our best to teach our kids to be readers and writers, and trying different programs to see what works,” Lauren Wall said. For Nolan, that means a hands-on style, and relying on phonics-based reading rather than guessing, which Balanced Literacy, the curriculum the San Juan Island School district uses, encourages.

“With [Balanced Literacy], you see the first letter and guess the rest. I learned to do that but it got confusing. It’s insanely hard to learn,” Nolan said.

Carlson said she uses a structured and systematic method of reading in tandem with strengthening phonological awareness skills are a few tools she uses when teaching children with dyslexia.

“Research strongly suggests that using a systematic and structured approach to reading, such as any Orton-Gillingham based approach, is the most efficient and effective way to teach reading to dyslexia individuals,” Carlson explained. Teaching a “science of reading” and systematically teach the rules are most effective because it provides the student with strong word-attack strategies rather than allowing the students to default to guessing or using context to decipher text, she added.

“Reading has always been a struggle. When I’m reading I will recognize the word and memorize it instead of spelling it out,” Nolan explained. Phonics works well, however, Lauren pointed out, phonics is just a small portion of the school’s curriculum. The school, according to San Juan Island School District Superintendent Fred Woods, bases its reading curriculum on Balanced Literacy and supplements the program with phonics and other tools to meet individual students’ needs.

“Of all subjects, reading is so critical. It sets the stage for success in all disciplines,” Woods said. The importance of reading is reflected, he added, by the fact that each school develops a School Improvement Plan, and approximately 90 percent of the time improving reading skills is the primary objective. “They always put the emphasis on making an impact there,” Woods said.

“In the cases where someone is found through school-based special education evaluations to have a specific learning disability in reading, having a parent provide documentation of a diagnosis of dyslexia may not necessarily alter or change the services we provide” Becky Bell, special services director said. Specific learning disabilities such as in reading and math are more common than other issues like developmental delays, and physical or intellectual impairments.

While one in five may have attention and or reading difficulties, according to Bell, the statistics are muddled because researchers have different projections on how many have dyslexia, as not every person has been tested, and having reading or attention difficulty doesn’t necessarily indicate a disability such as dyslexia, or a specific learning disability for example. For the district, the numbers are even more muddled because they are not looking specifically at diagnosing dyslexia, instead, they look for indications of below-grade-level literacy development (areas that are also often associated with dyslexia) then provide interventions to fill in their learning gaps. Teachers try a variety of tools tailored in a way that ideally works for that particular student.

According to Woods, if the school sees what they think is a weakness, they work to identify and improve that area.

Lauren and Nolan Wall consider reliance on Balanced Literacy an area that the school could improve. At the Oct 26 board meeting, Lauren spoke to encourage the district to amend its reading curriculum away from Balanced Literacy.

“It is outstanding that our district is utilizing Wilson Fundations as well as a variety of programs in Title I that draw from the science of reading. I want to see that same value brought to the complete ELA Program,” Lauren said.

“I am here today to ask the board to modify the school improvement plan for elementary school reading to reflect discontinuation of Lucy Calkins Units of Study, an investment in our educators by offering Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling and a move towards adopting a structured literacy program.”

Lauren explained that The Reading League’s definition of the science of reading is a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research regarding reading and issues related to reading and writing.

The research, according to Lauren, has been conducted over the last five decades across the world, and it is derived from thousands of studies conducted in multiple languages. The science of reading has culminated in a preponderance of evidence to inform how proficient reading and writing develop; why some have difficulty; and ways to most effectively assess and teach and improve student outcomes through prevention of and intervention for reading difficulties.

The Balanced Literacy Program, Lucy Calkins, does not align with the science of reading, Lauren said. Lucy Calkins, herself, has stated that the leveled readers and cueing used in her curriculum, are inappropriate for children with dyslexia, and multi-language learners struggle with it as well. Since 2013, over 30 states have passed legislation or implemented new policies related to the science of reading. In 2016, Lauren pointed out, 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 in the science of reading. “Lucy Calkin’s Units of Study was implemented in our district in 2017 due to low reading scores. Currently, and pre-covid, our scores have failed to exceed the pre-intervention levels,” Lauren said. “We can no longer stand by a curriculum that is not based in science, nor has provided adequate growth in our students.”

The school board voted to continue with an updated version of Balanced Literacy. Woods noted high school students’ high reading levels, saying that the school’s library circulation rates exceed other districts.

Woods explained curriculum adoption varies from district to district. Some have chosen Balanced Literacy, while others have gone in a different direction.

“We continually reevaluate it. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t have holes, or that we can’t improve and supplement it,” he said. “There is always a discussion about the curriculum. We don’t let the curriculum be the only thing we do.”

Bell reiterated that the district screens for literacy issues.

“When a student has reading or math difficulties, we provide interventions and support, and if that is not effective, we may look to see if they are eligible for special services such as special education,” Bell said. “If they are eligible, we write an individual plan and provide goals special instruction. It depends on the individual needs of that child. We look at the reading needs, look at a target area.”

For some, a structured reading approach, like the science of reading, may prove useful.

“There is never one solution which is why changing curriculums isn’t always the best answer,” Bell said. Instead, the school is constantly looking at the bigger broader picture.

“This is a constant philosophical and practical conversation. What worked, what was the data,’ Woods said.

Bell added that how are students doing is something teachers and staff are constantly asking. “That means socially and emotionally too.”

As students return to school after COVID, for example, they were so excited to see each other and needed face-to-face interaction. Teachers decided to also focus on social-emotional learning because the impact of social isolation needed to be taken into account.

“I want teachers to know we think they are doing a wonderful job. It’s a big task teaching a child to read,” Lauren said, adding that Nolan is currently working to unlearn the Balanced Literacy approach and refrain from guessing. “The science of reading and neuroscience has really evolved.”