Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, affecting tens of millions of people in the United States. But getting help for children who have it in public school can be a nightmare.
"They wouldn't acknowledge that he had a problem," says Christine Beattie about her son Neil. "They wouldn't say the word 'dyslexia.' "
Other parents, she says, in the Upper Arlington, Ohio, schools were having the same problem. The district in a suburb of Columbus wasn't identifying their children's dyslexia or giving them appropriate help.
So, in 2011, the parents pooled their resources and hired a lawyer.
"I was not surprised there was a group of students with dyslexia who were not getting the kind of instruction that they really needed," says Kerry Agins, an Ohio special education attorney who represented the Upper Arlington parents. She says the issue of public schools failing to address the needs of students with dyslexia is widespread, in Ohio and across the country.
Agins advised the parents to file a group complaint against the district.
Parents typically fight special education cases alone, seeking remedies one by one. But a group complaint, Agins told them, could force the school system to make broader change.
Nineteen people signed the complaint, including parents, students and graduates of the Upper Arlington public schools.
In August 2011, the Ohio Department of Education found the Upper Arlington Schools in violation of the law when it came to promptly and properly identifying students with learning disabilities and finding them eligible for special education services.
"We felt vindicated," Christine Beattie recalls. "Like, we aren't crazy. We know what we're talking about."
In its decision, the state ordered the Upper Arlington Schools to train teachers and staff on how to identify and evaluate students with learning disabilities.
But the parents said this was more than a special ed problem. They say it was a problem with the way kids were being taught to read.
How kids learn to read
The Upper Arlington Schools were using what's referred to as a "whole language" approach to reading instruction. It's an approach that became popular in the 1980s and continues to guide reading instruction in many public schools today.
Whole language holds that learning to read is a natural process. Children don't need much direct instruction. Instead, surround them with books, and they will become readers.
But decades of research shows that reading is not a natural skill. Unlike speaking, which humans learn automatically by being surrounded with speech, we have to be taught to read.
People with dyslexia have an especially hard time learning to read because their brains are wired in a way that makes understanding the relationship between sounds and letters difficult.
Research shows that they learn to read better when they are explicitly taught the ways that sounds and letters correspond. And research shows that even students without dyslexia learn better this way.
Upper Arlington had to retrain its teachers, who had, for the most part, learned whole language-based methods in their teacher-preparation programs.
Now, students in Upper Arlington are taught to read using a phonics-based approach that explicitly and systematically teaches them how letters represent sounds to form words on the page.
"O Octopus ah!" the kids yell in a first- and second-grade classroom at Barrington Elementary School in Upper Arlington.
Their teacher, Ashley Stechschulte, is holding up a series of cards with words on them, and the children repeat after her as she sounds out the first letter sound.
Then they move to more complex letter-sound combinations. They discuss the word "sock." Stechshulte asks what the letter combination "ck" is called.
"A digraph," answers a student. A digraph is one sound created when two letters appear together.
Stechshulte then asks the class to consider the difference between the digraph "ck" and the digraph "wh," as in the word "whistle."
"Who can tell me what's the big difference between these two digraphs?" Stechshulte asks.
A little hand shoots up. It's a boy named Jacob.
"The 'ck' can only go at the end (of a word) and the 'wh' can only go at the beginning," says Jacob.
The teacher was using "Fundations," a program based on the Wilson Reading System, a structured, phonics-based approach. Fundations is typically used with children who are struggling to learn to read but it can also be used for whole class instruction.
For students in Upper Arlington who show signs of dyslexia on a screening test, there is more intensive, one-on-one tutoring available.
Brett Tingley, one of the Upper Arlington parents who signed the group complaint, says if all kids get effective reading instruction, fewer children should need special ed services.
"I have started to call it not dyslexia but 'dysteachia,'" Tingley says. "It's the teachers who are not giving the right kind of instruction."
Emily Hanford is senior education correspondent for APM Reports.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, affecting tens of millions of people in the United States alone. And yet for parents of children with dyslexia, getting help in public school can be a nightmare, which is why parents in one school district in Ohio demanded change. Here's Emily Hanford of APM Reports.
MICHELE JOUBERT: OK, let's do our phonogram drill. Ready?
MOLLIE: Oh - wait - ah, oh (ph).
JOUBERT: Yeah, you're right. Do the long and short vowel.
EMILY HANFORD: We're in a small classroom in Upper Arlington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. A sixth-grader named Mollie is working one-on-one with teacher Michele Joubert. Mollie has dyslexia.
JOUBERT: So show me the sounds in crack.
MOLLIE: Kuh, er, ae, kuh (ph).
HANFORD: If you have dyslexia, your brain has a hard time understanding the ways that sounds and letters correspond, so you have to be explicitly taught. Three days a week, Mollie works with Joubert, who is specially trained to deliver this kind of instruction. Mollie's parents moved to Upper Arlington two years ago because here their daughter can get this kind of help in public school.
KELLI TRINOSKEY: They get it, and it's just unbelievable.
HANFORD: That's Mollie's mom Kelli Trinoskey. Their previous school district wouldn't even test Mollie for dyslexia. Across the country, schools aren't identifying dyslexia in part because it can be so expensive to treat it. It's the way things used to be in Upper Arlington, too.
CHRISTINE BEATTIE: They wouldn't acknowledge that he had a problem. They wouldn't say the word dyslexia.
HANFORD: That's Christine Beattie talking about her son Neil. Teachers told her Neil would catch up. They didn't want to hear about dyslexia. Finally, a group of 19 people, including parents, students and graduates of the Upper Arlington schools filed a state complaint against their school system, kind of like a class action. And they won.
BEATTIE: We felt vindicated, like we aren't crazy. We know what we're talking about.
HANFORD: The state department of education found the Upper Arlington schools in violation of the law. As a result of the decision, the district now screens every kid for dyslexia and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars training and hiring specialists like the one who was working with Mollie. But the Upper Arlington parents said this isn't just a special ed problem; it's a problem with how children are being taught to read. So they demanded that reading instruction change for all kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Now we're going to try some other sounds. Let's start with this one.
HANFORD: This is a class of first and second-graders in Upper Arlington last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: C-K, sock.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: C-K, sock.
HANFORD: Maybe this is how you remember being taught to read. But that might date you. By the 1980s, this kind of phonics teaching had pretty much been replaced by the idea that kids don't need direct instruction - just surround them with good books, and they will learn to read. Turns out that approach is a disaster for kids with dyslexia. And decades of research show it's not effective for other kids either. What works better is explicitly teaching children the ways that sounds and letters correspond. But many schools have been slow to respond to the research, so have teacher preparation programs.
Do you remember feeling, I don't know what I'm doing - like, I don't know how to help this kid?
ANDREA ROWSON: Every single day of my career, yes.
HANFORD: Teacher Andrea Rowson says she didn't learn anything about explicit phonics instruction when she was in college to become a teacher. She learned it when she went back to get specialized training in how to help students with dyslexia. Now she trains teachers in Upper Arlington, Ohio. She says what works for dyslexic kids is good for all kids. And the school district is betting that if all children are taught to read better, fewer kids will need expensive special education services.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER AND STUDENTS: School, S-C-H-O-O-L, school.
HANFORD: For NPR News, I'm Emily Hanford.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAMIE XX'S "OBVS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.