Friday, February 17, 2023

As a literacy consultant working with various school districts in Iowa, Lisa Hawker has always been eager to stay informed about the latest literacy research. While she appreciated the skills she had learned from pre-service work and district-sponsored professional development, she knew there was more she could do to increase her understanding of working with students with dyslexia.

“I would say my knowledge about dyslexia was at an intermediate level,” said Hawker, who is currently a literacy consultant with Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency. “I felt it was necessary for me to have the most up-to-date research and evidence.”

At the same time, Courtney Bentley, a school improvement facilitator with Keystone Area Education Agency, was experiencing a similar dilemma. While she had some knowledge about working with students with dyslexia, she knew there was more to learn.

Luckily for Bentley and Hawker, Iowa’s new Dyslexia Specialist Endorsement was the perfect way to gain the skills and knowledge they were looking for.

“When I learned about the endorsement program, I just had to jump at the chance to participate,” said Bentley.  “For years, I had wanted to make dyslexia and high-quality, evidence-based literacy practices a focus of my work and this opportunity allowed me to immerse in it.”

In 2020, with the passing and signing into law of a new dyslexia bill, the Iowa Legislature established the requirements for a dyslexia specialist endorsement. The first program to offer the required coursework was established at the University of Iowa’s College of Education that same year. In the fall of 2021, 18 educators, Hawker and Bentley among them, entered the program, which is coordinated by the Iowa Reading Research Center. Together, they embarked on a year-and-a-half long journey of intensive coursework in dyslexia education. In December of 2022, this cohort of educators completed the program and applied to the Board of Educational Examiners to become the first individuals to receive the endorsement.

“Being a member of the first cohort was both exciting and challenging,” said Hawker. “Getting to the other side is so rewarding because I know what I’m talking about!”

According to the program’s coordinator, IRRC Assistant Director for Education and Outreach Nina Lorimor-Easley, dyslexia specialist endorsees are equipped to identify the needs of students with dyslexia and to implement individualized and effective intervention methods.

“This group is prepared to provide initial language-based assessments, as well as more in-depth follow-up assessments for students who are struggling with all aspects of reading or writing,” said Lorimor-Easley. “They have been trained to gather the data they need to design targeted instruction that will directly address weaknesses in foundational language skills. They are also fully prepared to work with peers and administrators as they make evidence-based instructional and curricular decisions in pre-kindergarten through Grade 12.”

The Dyslexia Specialist Endorsement program is not attached to any specific curriculum or publishing company. Instead, it aims to provide endorsees with the knowledge they need to identify problems and develop evidence-based intervention plans using a number of different instructional strategies.

“Through this learning, I received generalized training about dyslexia, the different ways it presents in the school setting, and the best evidence-based approaches teachers need to take in order to help students with dyslexia,” Bentley said. “Regardless of whatever programs or materials districts choose to use, I am now able to confidently coach, teach, and guide schools to implement solid teaching practices.”

When dyslexia specialists identify learning difficulties early on, they can address a student’s needs before higher-level literacy skills are impacted. This can lead to better academic, social, and emotional outcomes for students with dyslexia.

“This program is so important for educators because it truly helps us understand how we learn and how to teach students,” said Hawker. “It allows us to have an educated perspective when determining what to teach and how to teach it.”

Hawker describes the new skills she has acquired as an incredible addition to her professional abilities.

“Having this knowledge directly impacts the type of instruction I am able to recommend to teachers for universal instruction as well as for intervention,” Hawker said.

Bentley agrees.

“My job is to equip those teachers with the knowledge, confidence, and ability to implement instruction in their classrooms,” she said. “As a result of this program, I am much more competent in providing learning opportunities to school districts.”

The Endorsement Experience

Educators enter the dyslexia specialist endorsement program with at least 3 years of kindergarten–Grade 12 teaching experience. The endorsement program includes four graduate-level courses and two hands-on practicum experiences in Iowa schools. Lorimor-Easley says the practicum experiences are her favorite part of the program.

“To see everyone develop the skills to really lean in to data for decision-making, and then to see those instructional decisions pay off in the form of student progress, was gratifying for me, and I think truly exciting for them,” she said.

Lorimor-Easley describes the first cohort as a “passionate, skilled, and determined” group of individuals. She was impressed by the students’ willingness to be vulnerable with their learning and to commit themselves fully to getting the most out of the program.

In addition to the knowledge they have gained and the endorsement that comes with it, Hawker and Bentley both say that they and their classmates have transformed from a cohort of strangers into a network of like-minded educators who assist and support each other.

“We have continued to lean on each other professionally and personally and are in daily contact with one another,” Hawker said. “We consistently seek advice and input as a network to ensure we are providing timely and consistent feedback and consultation across the state of Iowa.”

“I now have access to fellow specialists throughout the state to help with problem-solving, resources, and support,” Bentley added. “I continue to use many of the resources we were provided in my job now.”

For her part, Lorimor-Easley is excited to see the new endorsees put their knowledge into practice in Iowa schools. Having more specialists with the skills to support students with dyslexia is the first step in the process; getting them into classrooms is the next.

“I think we want to really encourage districts, administrators, and AEA staff to lean into these professionals and utilize them as the valuable resource they are,” said Lorimor-Easley.

What’s Next for the Dyslexia Specialist Endorsement?

In August of 2022, eight more Iowa educators entered the program as the University of Iowa’s second cohort. This spring, they will continue their coursework and participate in their first practicum assignments. As the endorsement continues, Lorimor-Easley plans to broaden its impact even further. For example, she hopes to further align the program with the accreditation requirements of the International Dyslexia Association, making program endorsees qualified to receive additional credentials through that organization.

Educators who are interested in applying for the Fall 2023 cohort at the University of Iowa have until June 1 to apply.

“You will not regret making this commitment,” said Hawker, “Like anything that is life-changing, it is a marathon and not a sprint. You are worth the time to develop yourself as a professional to make an impact on a system that creates the trajectory for student learning and success.”

Lorimor-Easley lauds the accomplishments of the first cohort.

“To instruct this inaugural cohort of Iowa’s Dyslexia Specialist Endorsement has been an honor, to say the least,” said Lorimor-Easley. “Many people have worked hard and long to bring this endorsement to fruition, and there is no better group of people that I could have worked with.”