Specific Learning Disabilities / Dyslexia and the Science of Reading

Twenty-six years ago, I opened the Child and Family Law Center of the North Shore, now a division of Grund & Leavitt). Some of you who have known me well are aware that one of the inspirations for this law practice was my journey with my own dyslexic son. We lived in one of the most affluent and well-funded school districts in Illinois. Despite these demographics my son was not learning to read. He disliked school in first and second grades and there was little if any progress in his ability to read. He was still struggling with letter recognition and misspelled his name.  All of the experts we saw recommended the Orton -Gillingham method for dealing with his dyslexia. [1]*Schools were then as they are now reluctant to use the word dyslexia in describing a student with a reading disorder. I was fortunate that I was able to find (after a number of months on a waiting list) a skilled O-G reading tutor. Five days a week I drove 45 minutes each way to allow my son to receive an hour of instruction.

He did learn to read but not until late 5th grade at great expense to his self-esteem but with his love of learning intact. Today he is an avid reader, loved college and all things to do with learning. However, in my naiveté, I assumed that once schools understood the need for research-based interventions and the importance of early intervention for all readers this would result in massive curriculum reform. I also saw that at least this aspect of my special education practice would be a non-issue, eliminated by the wide-spread recognition of the need for science- based reading instruction.

In the year 2000, the National Reading Panel issued their report and outlined the key elements of reading instruction, notably phonics-based instruction. [2] For a time, I brought this book to IEP meetings where I represented students who were identified as dyslexic. Some educators had not heard of this study, but others had and nodded in recognition across the IEP table. However, the interventions for struggling readers remained unchanged at most school districts.

I filed due process requests for parents who were forced to seek out private schools that offered the interventions they were seeking. This litigation often resulted in a positive change for that family but didn’t usually result in district wide changes. To be clear, litigation is expensive and parents were desperate. They understood that their child’s failure to be a solid reader would have a life long negative impact. Often the choice becomes ,should parents pay for a tutor or pay legal fees for a due process hearing. Like with other disabilities, success in litigation which resulted in enhanced services and support for an individual child did not result in the hoped for system wide reform and it appeared that most school districts took the results of the National Reading Panel as suggestions rather than a call to action that they would ignore.

Several times this school year I have been at IEP meetings where when asked (as I almost always do) what research-based interventions the district was providing or proposing, the answer was often an eclectic mixture of interventions with no discussion of why this would be effective for this student. In a number of meetings the answer has been “we use the Sally Calkins curriculum.” At a recent IEP I asked if they had gotten the “ memo” discrediting this intervention. Expecting to hear that they had not heard this I offered to look up the New York Times article while we were in the meeting. I was told by the administrator in charge of the meeting that they were well- aware of that information but would not be changing the curriculum since a study needed to be undertaken if they were to consider another intervention. I was told the process would take a year or two. This is what they had and was all that was available. These problems are not confined to under-performing or poor districts. Unfortunately, the most resistance to research-based interventions for students can be found in school districts in wealthy areas where change is slow to come.

This is a national emergency. Approximately one in three children in the United States cannot read at a basic level of comprehension. The outcomes are particularly troubling for Black and Native American children. [3]

Steps to take as a Parent:

  • Request a meeting with the school in writing.
  • If you suspect your child is struggling to read request a case study evaluation in writing.
  • If your school will not evaluate or is taking a wait to fail approach, if possible, seek out a private evaluation.
  • Keep track of your child’s work and test scores.
  • Be informed
  • Seek help from an attorney or advocate to assist in securing needed services.

Selected parent resources are listed below.

[1] Rose, Tessie E; Zirkel ( December 7, 2018). “Orton-Gillingham Methodology for Students with Reading Disabilities”. (https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext /EJ1785952.pdf) (PDF)

[2] Langenberg,Ph.D,Daniel. “Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence -Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction”. (https://wwwnichd.nih.gov/publications /pubs/nrp/documents/documents/report.pdf) (PDF)National Reading Panel

[3] https://www.newyorktimes.com/2023/04/16/us/science-of-reading-literacy -parents.html

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About MickiMoran

Micki Moran is the founding partner of The Child and Family Law Center, Ltd. She dedicates her practice to providing legal assistance to children and families who are in need of representation in the areas of special education, disability law, juvenile and young adult criminal law, abuse and neglect, guardianship and mental health issues. Micki's practice is founded on the principle that children and their families require and deserve excellent legal representation with a multidisciplinary approach that works with multiple systems of care and creates communities that support and improve the quality of all peoples' lives.
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