Monday, February 12, 2024

Dyslexia expertise in the state of Iowa has continued to expand, as just last month, another cohort of Iowa educators completed the Dyslexia Specialist Endorsement program coordinated by the Iowa Reading Research Center.

The program, which was established at the University of Iowa’s College of Education in 2020, consists of graduate-level courses and practicum experiences in Iowa schools, preparing teachers to effectively address the needs of students with dyslexia.

The inaugural cohort of the program received their endorsement in December 2022. Now, a year later, 6 more endorsees have gained the skills required to identify the needs of students with dyslexia and implement effective intervention methods. 

The course’s emphasis on comprehensive knowledge is what drove cohort members like Barb Shutt, a reading curriculum consultant with Heartland Area Education Agency, to apply for the endorsement.

“I just really always wanted to stay up to speed on what was best practice,” Shutt says, emphasizing the importance of continuous learning despite the difficulty of change. “I kind of have this motto: When you're green, you're growing; when you're ripe, you rot. And I have no intention of rotting anytime soon.” 

With over three decades of experience in education, Shutt came to the program with a good foundation of dyslexia knowledge. “I understood prior to the program that [dyslexia] was not just the reversal of words, and that it had a phonological basis in the brain,” Shutt says.

Still, in working through the endorsement coursework and practicum experiences, Shutt’s knowledge expanded further. “It made me realize there’s a whole lot more there,” she says.

According to the program’s coordinator, IRRC Assistant Director for Education and Outreach Nina Lorimor-Easley, the program addresses dyslexia with a much greater depth than a dyslexia overview course would, ensuring that students understand a full diagnostic profile of dyslexia.

“In order to fully understand dyslexia,” Lorimor-Easley explains, “one must have a robust knowledge of all of the cognitive correlates of dyslexia and any language-based learning difficulties that may co-occur with dyslexia. It is important that our endorsees understand the impact these co-occurring factors may have on a student's success.”

Echoing this sentiment, Shutt shares that her biggest takeaways from the program came from “really considering not only the elements of structured literacy but other relative factors [of dyslexia]: working memory, phonological memory, executive functioning, and how that impacts our readers' development.”

Over the course of the program, endorsees put their classroom learning to the test through two practicum experiences.

First, they engage in a diagnostic assessment practicum. In this practicum, endorsees review data from school districts to identify four students who demonstrate characteristics of dyslexia. Then, they administer a full diagnostic assessment to each of the four students, complete with subsequent diagnostic reports detailing the students’ specific skills and areas for improvement.

“The assessment practicum was exciting, challenging, enriching,” Shutt says. “It really deepened and widened my perspective on what we can find out about students and what we need to find out about students to really understand them as readers.”

In the fall, the cohort engages in an intervention practicum. Endorsees provide individualized instructional support to both an elementary and a high school student for 12 weeks. These interventions are grounded in structured literacy, an evidence-based approach to reading instruction that is taught systematically and cumulatively. 

“That was where the rubber meets the road, if you will,” Shutt says, describing the intervention practicum. “Because you were right there with that student and you were thinking, in the moment as well as thinking long term, what do I want to get to them … what do they need next in this moment?”

Shutt expressed that, sometimes, she had answers to those questions, but other times, there were approaches that she hadn’t thought of. In those moments, conversations with Lorimor-Easley encouraged her to consider other approaches.

“Endorsees are encouraged to develop self-efficacy and autonomy in their instruction,” Lorimor-Easley explains. At the same time, “they are given feedback and instruction to build upon their knowledge and continuously improve the delivery of structured literacy throughout the course of the intervention.”

Learning alongside a cohort of other educators also offers endorsees the opportunity to share their insights with one another. In addition to the knowledge and experience she gained from the program, Shutt appreciated the bond she formed with the other members of her cohort.

“We were still texting last night,” Shutt says, sharing a message of appreciation she’d sent to her fellow cohort members. “I think it’ll always be, you know, a group, a class, a cohort … a sisterhood, if you will.” 

Now, endorsees are using their specialized knowledge of dyslexia to strengthen and grow their work in classrooms across Iowa.

“I think it has helped open conversations,” Shutt says, reflecting on how the program has impacted the work she does in several Iowa school districts. She finds that the program has equipped her with the expertise she needs in order to approach both individual student cases and classroom instruction as a whole.

“Part of my work, moving forward, will be to broaden that,” she explains. “When a district or a school has a student who's not responding to intervention in the way that they'd like to see, [my colleagues at Heartland and I] would collectively serve and respond to those individual intensive reader cases.”

With the knowledge she gained from the program, Shutt looks forward to working one-on-one with students and also hopes to spread her knowledge to more teachers.

“Helping change outcomes for students is first and foremost,” Shutt says. “But then also, a piece there along that journey is empowering teachers–whether it be a special ed teacher or interventionist or the general classroom teacher–empowering those teachers across the system to have the knowledge and skill. It then spreads out and impacts even more students.”

In addition to empowering teachers through the knowledge she shares with them, Shutt hopes to empower teachers to prioritize their learning through programs like the Dyslexia Specialist Endorsement.

“You can do more than you realize,” Shutt says to teachers considering applying to the program. “This will both affirm and challenge you. I think we all need that.”

Already, nine more educators are putting these sentiments to the test as they pursue the endorsement in the third cohort of the program.

As the program continues to expand, its coordinators will continue to meet the demand of teachers who are ready to learn. Educators who are interested in applying for the Fall 2024 cohort at the University of Iowa have until June 1 to apply.

“I would encourage [other educators] to pursue the endorsement, pursue this knowledge,” says Shutt. “It's only going to increase the quality of their impact on their students, on their colleagues, and on their schools.”