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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Why kids should not sit still in class

Movement stimulates the brain and may help students become better learners.

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The Evolving Nature of Learning Differences

Whether parents receive an evaluation from a public school that diagnoses a “reading disorder” or a private evaluation that suggests a “rule out” for ADHD,  diagnoses for learning differences are rarely as straight forward as they might initially appear. Understanding and teasing out additional subtle learning variations is crucial.  Diagnoses tend to “evolve” over time, in part depending on the demands of the school grade, but also due to the brain growing and developing. Students and parents need to understand and accept their learning differences so that significant progress can be made.5BA85BF0-3A50-4B32-BF70-34B80FED97B6

Dyslexia and ADHD are lifelong conditions. The diagnoses can be complicated (involving many factors). Many children with dyslexia tend to have “dyslexia plus”. These “plus factors” can be subtle and can make all the difference in terms of a student making progress.

Learning differences tend to be dynamic over the course of one’s life. Children and parents need to learn repeatedly at different stages about their learning differences.  They need to understand the differences, accept them, so they can move forward to accommodate or remediate them.  Different understanding and strategies may be necessary at different grade levels.  If a certain skill is not required at a certain level it will be difficult to determine if the child has that skill.  Learning differences tend to become evident when certain skills are needed, but not available to the student.

Students and parents need to be educated about the evolution of learning differences from elementary through high school (metacognition).  In particular,  a process for expanding the diagnosis as students progress through school is crucial. 

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