Student Voices re: Dyslexia

Last week at the Rhode Island Statehouse I had the opportunity to hear students, teachers, parents, national experts, and others speak in support RI House Bill 5426 designed to improve the education of students with dyslexia in public schools in the state of Rhode Island.   The bill was drafted by Joe Maggiocomo, father of three dyslexic children.  Joe is like any dad.  He wants his children to be happy and to do well in school.

It is strange, but when members of our society have been disenfranchised for years, a tacit acceptance emerges, and even, a rationale why improvement is not possible. Perhaps the solution is just too complicated and therefore nothing can be done about it.  Another common reason expressed about why not to help these children is that it is too expensive to solve.  Some others, relying more on alternative facts, say that the problem is not as significant as the victims profess.  In fact, dyslexia is the most common language-based learning difference that schools face. It can be diagnosed relatively easily and treated successfully with consistent approved methods.  I have never met a person with dyslexia who could not learn to read and write.

img_3589Last Wednesday evening many people spoke, including leading dyslexia experts, teachers, parents, and educational administrators.  For me, it was the student voices that were so powerful.  Over the years I have spent a large amount of time listening to adults recall painful events that happened to them in school while growing up (ie feeling stupid and alone, being bullied, etc.).  I am always struck by how vivid, painful, and persevering those memories are, often haunting these people well into adulthood.

But last Wednesday evening students were not whining or complaining.  Students were proudly and confidently talking about how they initially felt stupid in school because no one told them what was going on with their brain.  When they became convinced that the opposite was true, and that they were, in fact, smart, everything changed because they believed they could be successful.  Amazing that the simple act of believing can help change the educational trajectory of a child.  I think everyone knows this from personal experience.

It does not happen everyday that a class of people who have struggled have the opportunity to speak publically about a systematic policy (not diagnosing and treating) that disenfranchizes them.  It is even more impressive when these people who have failed, are children.

Essentially the Rhode Island House bill 5426 mandates early screening for dyslexia, specifically training and certifying teachers, and ongoing professional development for all teachers so that these children can be well supported in school.  The students that spoke in support of this bill were attending or had attended The Hamilton School at Wheeler.  All of them have been helped by attending a private school specializing in helping dyslexics.  Their dyslexia will not hold them back in life.  But who will speak for the children who have not had the opportunity that the Hamilton students have had?  We can help all children with dyslexia. There is no excuse not to act.

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Creating Positive School Culture

Lately, I have been thinking about positive school culture; how it starts, how it is nurtured, how it is sustained, and what the crucial components are.  What does a positive school culture look like?  Cultures tend to be one of those “I know it when I see it” kind of things, but exactly, what is it?

Schools are dynamic.  A person can feel a good school culture when they walk into a school building or classroom. They feel welcome when they talk with a person who is a member of the culture.  Mutual respect permeates schools that have positive cultures.  It is not only what people say, but how they say it and how people are treated.

The Hamilton School at Wheeler has a specialized mission pertaining to learning differences. We want students to understand their learning differences and to know how to advocate for themselves. A wise person that I work with suggested that it is as though we (students, teachers, parents, and administrators) are all explorers together. img_3119And, while our roles may be different,  we understand that our overall school’s success depends on the individual success of all of our members.  Many of the “explorers” may be at different points on the journey, but we share a common goal.  This goal is discussed regularly and drives decisions that these explorers make.  Being part of a common goal helps build a positive culture among all the members.

The landscape is not always familiar but we know and trust each other.  We think that we can be successful if we believe that we can accomplish the challenge of the moment. We help each other.  It is safe to make mistakes.  People are encouraged to be creative, open, and, even, revealed. People do not hide because they are accepted for who they are. Members of the community are known to each other. Students learn to take chances and try without judgement because adults model this open mindset.

Successful school cultures are complex organisms where adults and children regularly interact positively.  They talk to each other.  They strive to listen better. They are patient with each other. They laugh together.  When the culture is strong people give each other the benefit of the doubt.  There is not a sense of powerlessness, but individual responsibility which also shapes the entire group.  Like the old sitcom, “Cheers” members in a positive school culture feel known and accepted and important.



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Dyslexia can be diagnosed and treated in first grade

Children with dyslexia can be diagnosed and treated in first grade. In fact, current research suggests that children can be identified as at risk before they begin learning how to read. This should not be news to anyone. Dyslexia is the most common language learning difference that challenge elementary schools, and in many ways it is the most treatable.

Why, then, do we continue to meet with parents whose children in third grade, fifth grade, and even seventh grade are not functionally reading. They are not able to read connected text automatically for meaning. Unbelievable. I am not exaggerating. Nice kids. Smart kids. Talented kids. But, they are not reading automatically, or fluently.

When parents complain they are told that their children are making progress. This may be true, but if a child is not making a year’s worth of progress in a year’s time the child is losing ground. And, over time, this relatively small problem will become much much larger. I have never met a person with dyslexia who could not learn to read, but for some of them, it is a struggle. If a reputable phonics-based reading program is used over time with a trained professional, a child will learn to read.

A short interview with the child and parents can help guide a parent as to whether the child should be evaluated. Ask the person if they like to read. Most people who struggle with reading do not enjoy it. Ask a parent if they remember having difficulty in school, or even, as an adult, do they like to read. Dyslexia is hereditary, however people from previous generations might not have been evaluated and might be unaware of their learning difference.

The Hamilton School at Wheeler offers free dyslexia screenings for kindergarten through second grade. These are not evaluations, but can help guide parents who are trying to understand if their child has a learning difference. Call Joan Graff at 401-528-2168 to schedule an appointment.

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Does your child need a tutor?

Ask most parents about how valuable tutors are for their dyslexic or ADHD child and they may tell you that the tutor saved their child. Tutors are employed for many different reasons. In general, parents and schools hire tutors to assist students with perceived learning differences which are impeding their progress in school. The type of tutoring depends on the student’s needs and age.

There are many different types of tutoring. Broadly, I put tutors in four categories:

  • Specialized skills-based tutoring (reading, writing, math, etc)
  • Content specific tutoring (history, foreign language, literature)
  • “Homework buddy” tutoring
  • Organizational (executive functioning) tutoring (managing overall work, written expression)

Over the past thirty years the tutoring industry expanded as we better understood why certain children were struggling in school and specifically what could help them.

When considering a tutor there are many questions…

Why is a tutor being considered? What kind of tutoring does the child need? How often? What time of day? What special skills or training does the tutor need? Making a proper match between the tutor’s skills and the student’s needs will help ensure success.

The cost of tutoring varies greatly. It depends on where you live in the country and what the market will support where you live. Consumers should be discriminating. A tutor that charges $100/hr may not be the best and conversely, hiring a friend for $25/ hr may not be the most efficient. Generally, the more training and experience a tutoring has the more expensive it is.

Assistive technology cannot take the place of tutoring, but it can support tutoring, especially if a parent is having difficulty finding a sufficiently skilled tutor. There are some great software programs out there, including, Lexia, Readlive, Learning Ally, Bookshare, and IXL, to name a few.

Knowledgeable and skilled tutors can have a huge impact on student progress especially when the tutoring is linked back to a classroom reading group or some other setting where a student can use the skill in context. Communication between the tutor and the regular classroom teacher is crucial in order to insure independent mastery of skills. When tutoring is done in isolation without adequate communication with regular classroom teachers it is much less effective.

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One in Five

In many respects, the article that appeared on the front page of the Boston Globe last week, entitled, Thousands of Boston students fall behind was unremarkable.  I would imagine that hearing that one in five students are two or more years below grade level was not terribly surprising to most people.  There are many reasons why students fail in school.  What is surprising is that in 2018 we are not matching those statistics with statistics that we know about children with  learning differences. I believe that many of the low performing students in the Boston study have undiagnosed or untreated dyslexia, ADHD, or other language processing issues.

Superintendent Tommy Chang, who commissioned the report, said the school system needs to do a better job of keeping students on track and intervening more aggressively when students fall behind.  Yes, that is true.  But, specifically, these children need to be identified early and “treated” consistently overtime so that the master key skills.

It is widely accepted that approximately  25% of the people in our society learn differently than the norm.  In school, these students are vulnerable to not learn key academic skills.  “Keeping students on track” can be misguided when it amounts to promoting students in order to maintain students on track to graduate.  The real question is not, “can they graduate?”.  But rather, “Have they achieved proficiency in key academic skills?”.

I get the fact that Boston Public Schools are probably underfunded and teachers may be underpaid and many students are coming from families that are experiencing many different kinds of stress.  I suggest that we begin with what we know. We know that 1 in 5 students in this country are experiencing some kind of learning problem that could impact their ability to learn and retain information.  It seems to be that we could begin to improve these statistics by targeting the right kind of help to the right students.  While we cannot change that one in five students have learning differences, we could change the statistic that one in five students in Boston Public Schools are two or more years below grade level in key academic skills.



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Dynamism in good schools

What makes good schools good? Is it all about resources? Do they have the best teachers? Less challenging students? Smaller class sizes? Better engaged parents? Stronger leadership?

To be sure, all of the above matter and can impact building a strong learning community.  But what happens when a school is judged to be a good or even great school?  How does that school remain good or great?  Should they just keep doing what they are doing?  Maybe.  But, maybe not.  Most schools are increasingly diverse communities-racially, religiously, sexually, and neurologically.  By definition, these communities are changing so that what was good and “worked” last year may be less effective in the future.B7246178-42F3-4931-AC91-FC26FFFEF3B7

“Fair enough,” you might say.  But, then, how do teachers know when they need to teach a different topic or to teach differently than they might have done previously?  How do school leaders know when it is time to change?  Certainly, professional development is key.  Teachers and administrators should attend workshops and conferences.  They should visit other schools.  They should compare notes with educators at similar schools.  Certainly, they should always ask the question, “how can we get better?”  One eighth grade parent whose son is graduating this spring put it very succinctly,  “the teachers at Hamilton have always known my kid, and that has made all the difference”.  Presumably, when the members of a learning community all know,  accept, and support each other real learning is more likely to occur.  And, when everyone is learning in a school how could that school not be great?



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Why LD “Schools within Schools” work and why they will be the wave of the future

Wheeler’s thirty year experiment has unlocked the special education conundrum and proven that schools can educate children with learning differences while also challenging others.  Students who have learning differences are excelling and so are students without learning differences.  Wheeler understands that students learn differently and teaches accordingly and everyone benefits.

We know…

  1. Children with dyslexia and other learning differences need to be taught skills explicitly through repetitive direct instruction with more hours of practice that their non-learning differenced peers.
  2. Minority groups tend to be outliers, in part, because they are in the minority.  Visably increasing the numbers of children with learning differences changes the definition of what is normal and provides students with an affinity group. It creates a critical mass where children can see themselves amongst their peers.  C41FED17-4954-437C-BA04-8EFFA6B4611B
  3. Maintaining high expectations is crucial for children with learning differences. In fact, and often due to time constraints, children with learning differences are expected to produce less output when they need to more practice. Being in an environment that expects high performance is healthy and normal.
  4. By teaching students with learning differences more efficiently in small homogeneous groups, students are are also afforded more time to pursue their passions and strengths in such areas as the arts, athletics, and music.  This is what is meaningful for children, what they will remember, and what will ultimately shape their adult lives.5D169275-EE3A-4601-BFA5-3EE3D8970BEA
  5. In general, students do not like to be pulled out of class for extra help. The SWAS model allows students to be taught within the normal structure of the school.  It also “normalizes” learning differences and allows students with subtle learning variations to access more help.
  6. Creating a culture that supports students, parents, and teachers enables an environment where everyone is learning and the community pulls everyone forward.


Happy holidays!


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The Hamilton School at Wheeler Newsletter, Appleseeds.



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A National School District of Independent LD Schools…

It is not as crazy as it sounds.  For the past 15 years administrators from Independent Schools that serve children with language-based learning differences have been meeting at the annual International Dyslexia Association Conference.  7D72D4C2-DB96-4F8A-877E-9254EB508BD0It began with the Heads of these organizations meeting.  Now, it includes teachers and other administrators who meet each year to talk about common interests such as fundraising, testing data, innovative teaching methods, assistive technology and other common interests. I believe the success that we have had with this IDA Independent School Network (ISN) is due to building personal trusting relationships over time and then having the ability to reinforce those relationships through the use of technology in between the the personal meetings.  9BBEBCA6-ECF0-4FB0-8CF6-7758959F4976One fascinating aspect of this project is that there seems to be high motivation to collaborate (each school potentially gets better) and little threat from competition as the schools are not usually geographically close together and often vary slightly in terms of their target populations.



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RI Commissioner of Education Visits The Hamilton School at Wheeler

Rhode Island Commissioner of Education, Dr. Ken Wagner stopped by The Hamilton School at Wheeler last week.  Hamilton parents shared experiences about getting their children evaluated and their challenges in obtaining effective and consistent services for their children. Dr. Wagner visited classrooms and observed children with dyslexia being taught in small instructional groups.  B942200A-7E73-448F-92CD-DF396005EDBC

Dr. Wagner commented about Hamilton’s positive culture which creates safe environments for students to strengthen their weaker reading and writing skills while simultaneously maintaining high academic expectations.

At the end of the day twenty seventh and eighth graders talked with Dr. Wagner about their learning differences, including dyslexia, ADHD, and executive function challenges.


A very uplifting morning. Many thanks to Ken Wagner for the visit.  At the end of the day, I could not help but wonder why private and public schools do not have more interaction.  Seems to me children would benefit.

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