Monday, August 31, 2020

Rachel Spah, mother of a 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son, both of whom have dyslexia, had an immediate reaction when new dyslexia legislation was passed and signed into law in June.

“I was ecstatic, said Spah. “This law was much needed in the state of Iowa. Our children and teachers deserve better concerning dyslexia and struggling readers.”

The Iowa Legislature passed and the governor later signed into law Senate File 2356, which will make available to educators more education and training on dyslexia . The Iowa Reading Research Center will play a substantial role in the implementation of this legislation but, more importantly, the state is taking important steps to benefit children with dyslexia and those who educate them.

“Teachers can't teach what they don't know,” said Leanne Klinkenberg, who has a 12-year-old son, a 14-year-old son, and a 17-year-old son, all who have dyslexia. “They need to know the specific learning challenges associated with dyslexia and how to teach in a way a child with dyslexia can learn. Kids with dyslexia can learn how to read. Teachers can learn how to teach them.”

Receiving proper literacy instruction from a young age can make a difference for all children, but especially students with dyslexia, in becoming successful readers. Students with reading disabilities are most vulnerable to failure when teachers do not have the information they need to identify when a child might be having a problem or the steps to follow for ensuring the issues are addressed. Early educators in pre-kindergarten through Grade 3 are particularly critical to students’ reading development.

“Early educators are like our first line of defense,” Spah said. “They could truly change a child’s life by just knowing the early signs of dyslexia.”

According to Katie Greving, president of Decoding Dyslexia Iowa, parents of children with dyslexia can spend several years making the case that their children have a problem and struggling to get the help they need. When families do begin to receive help, the educators who are trying to do their best do not feel properly trained to instruct the children.

“This law addresses dyslexia awareness and literacy instruction at all three of those state, local, and individual levels,” said Klinkenberg. “Obtaining appropriate services and supports for a student with dyslexia would be easier if everyone came to the table with a well-informed knowledge base.”

The new legislation will implement a graduated system for educators serving in different roles to have increased knowledge and expertise in dyslexia and literacy. There are five main aspects of the legislation that will help begin the process of creating this system.

Changing the Dyslexia Definition in Iowa Law

A seemingly simple change that was built into the legislation was that the definition of dyslexia in Iowa law will now match the International Dyslexia Association’s Definition.

This may seem insignificant, but according to Iowa Reading Research Center Director Dr. Deborah Reed, “Achieving consistency in how we define dyslexia and refer to the particular difficulties experienced by individuals with dyslexia is about fostering a common understanding of this reading disability among families, students, and educators.”

“That understanding lays the foundation for identifying students with potential characteristics of dyslexia and planning instruction and assistive technology for those confirmed to be experiencing this reading disability.”

Iowa Educators to Complete IRRC Dyslexia Module

All current in-service educators employed by school districts and Area Education Agencies will need to complete the Iowa Reading Research Center’s eLearning Dyslexia Overview module by July 2024. After that, new teachers will complete the training within one year of being hired if they did not already do so as part of their teacher preparation programs. The one-hour module is free to all Iowans and provides basic information about dyslexia.

“I was happy to see the requirement of all educators to complete the Dyslexia Overview module,” Spah said. “I think it's so important to get good, accurate information out there to educators about dyslexia because it is such a complicated learning disability.”

Dyslexia Specialist Endorsement

The Iowa Reading Research Center will collaborate with the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners to develop an advanced dyslexia specialist endorsement. Certified educators with at least three years of teaching experience will be able to add the endorsement to their teaching licenses, demonstrating that they are prepared to teach with advanced knowledge of dyslexia.

Endorsees will gain advanced knowledge in areas such as:

  • Structured literacy instruction
  • Neurobiological and psychological factors of dyslexia
  • Related assessments and literacy interventions
  • Providing services, accommodations, and dyslexia-friendly learning environments
  • Use and implementation of assistive technology

“It’s important that those who will provide supplemental intervention to students with dyslexia have more than basic, general knowledge of the disability,” Reed said “Rather, they need advanced knowledge of typical and atypical reading development, how to distinguish dyslexia from other reading disabilities, and what array of supports will help students with dyslexia experience success in all their classes. “Having teachers with this endorsement will benefit schools because it has been challenging for them to navigate what they need to do.”

Over the next year, the Iowa Reading Research Center will outline the specific coursework and other training needed to obtain the dyslexia specialist endorsement. Depending on funding allocated during the 2021 legislative session, applications for the pilot cohort of educators will be available in late spring of 2021, with classes to be held through the University of Iowa College of Education in fall of 2021. In 2022, other teacher preparation programs in the state potentially could apply to add a dyslexia specialist endorsement program at their institutions, which the Iowa Reading Research Center would oversee.

“I can't overstate how important the Iowa Reading Research Center is to implementing this law and to literacy in Iowa as a whole,” Greving said. “The center is our state's source of expertise and information on effective reading instruction for all students, including those with dyslexia. Its involvement will ensure that the training teachers receive will be of high quality and aligned with research findings.”

Dyslexia Specialists at the Iowa Department of Education and Iowa Area Education Agency Board

Among the first cohort of educators earning the dyslexia endorsement will be newly designated personnel at the agencies charged with providing guidance to all schools. The Iowa Department of Education will employ a dyslexia specialist to provide guidance and assistance such as professional learning and materials to Area Education Agencies (AEAs), school districts, and accredited nonpublic schools. Should funding be available, the AEAs also will be required to employ dyslexia specialists to provide guidance and assistance to the school districts they serve.

Consistent with the requirements for the endorsement, dyslexia specialists at the Department and AEAs must be highly trained in dyslexia and have a minimum of three years of field experience in screening, identifying, and treating dyslexia and related disabilities.

Standing Dyslexia Board

To oversee the implementation of the new legislation and determine the next steps Iowa should take, a standing Dyslexia Board will be established. The Iowa Dyslexia Task Force ended after submitting its report and recommendations that became the basis for SF 2356. Given the representation of different stakeholders who will constitute the new board, this group will provide a valuable means of gathering feedback.

Reed will serve as the representative from the IRRC. The board also will include educators with experience and expertise in teaching students with dyslexia, Iowa Department of Education and Area Education Agency representatives, other specialists related to literacy and dyslexia, and parents and advocates from Decoding Dyslexia Iowa.

“The parent perspective [on the board] is so important,” Greving said. “Unless you have experienced trying to discuss concerns about dyslexia with a school and trying to get help for your child, you really can't imagine all of the barriers parents encounter.

A Long Time Coming

The beginning of the process to pass Senate File 2356 began in 2013 when Decoding Dyslexia Iowa formed. A big step took place in 2018 when the law establishing the Dyslexia Task Force passed.

“Decoding Dyslexia Iowa has been working to change laws and policies to help students with dyslexia since 2013,” Greving said. “We did not get everything we wanted in this law. But that is the nature of this type of change. It's a journey, not an event. Each step forward is important.”

According to Greving, members of the dyslexia community as well as educators have responded positively to the law.

“I think parents are hopeful, and we've heard from many teachers who are excited about the new endorsement,” Greving said.

Klinkenberg hopes all children with dyslexia will eventually have access to appropriate instruction made available in part by the components of this law.

“It could mean the difference between learning to read and not,” she said.

As a parent, Spah is optimistic the law will help children with dyslexia and their caretakers.

“[The law] means just maybe another mother will not have to muddle through a dyslexia diagnosis like I did,” Spah said. “It means more widespread accurate information about dyslexia in the school system in the state of Iowa.”

“I’m hoping it means that resources and information will become more plentiful and struggling readers will receive the help they require.”