Increasing Dyslexia Awareness in North Dakota

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Story by Deb Seminary, contributing writer

The need for improved screening and intervention for dyslexia led to the creation of HB1461 during the 2019 North Dakota legislative session. The bill was passed and the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (DPI) received $250,000 to implement the Dyslexia Pilot Program for the 2019-2021 biennium.

“Awareness and knowledge for students that might have dyslexia is growing across the state,” said Lea Kugel, DPI’s assistant director of the Office of Special Education. “Hopefully, by identifying red flags early, students can receive instruction specific to their needs so reading gaps can be closed and they can stay in the classroom with their peers as they grow older.”

Brenda Ehrmantraut, DPI’s assistant director of Academic Support, explained how the program was assigned internally at NDDPI to create a partnership between special education and general education.

“While students with dyslexia can be placed in special education, much can be done in the general classroom to build critical reading skills alongside peers with similar reading skill challenges,” she said. “With the pilot program focusing on teacher awareness of dyslexia, better steps can be taken to rapidly address student needs.”

“All special education students are general education students first,” said Kugel. “Reading interventions should be tried within general education prior to determining if students need more specially designed instruction included in special education.”

In order to implement the pieces of the legislation, there needed to be an agreed-upon definition of dyslexia. For this program, dyslexia refers to a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin and is characterized by difficulties with accurate or fluent recognition of words and poor spelling and decoding abilities independent of the individual’s general intelligence level. The program includes professional development for school staff, phonemic awareness and other dyslexia risk factor screenings for children, reading interventions to use when finding dyslexia tendencies, and of course, and progress monitoring to determine the effectiveness of how the program is working in schools.

Out of the competitive application process, three districts/consortiums were chosen: Grand Forks school district, Kindred Consortium (Kindred, Northern Cass, Lisbon, and Enderlin), and West River Special Education Unit, which worked with schools in multiple districts.

Implementing the Pilot Program

“We heard the teachers were hesitant at first, but as the training related to dyslexia was provided, they started asking for more,” said Kugel. “They are doing wonderful work with professional development and now the teachers are seeing the impact the interventions are having on students, even those that don’t have dyslexia.”

Justine Gibbon, from Kindred, provided this summary of their experience to date: 

Our first success with the pilot program was learning how to identify learners with traits of dyslexia. Dyslexia impacts people in different ways, so symptoms might not look the same from one person to another. However, a key sign is trouble decoding words. Learners with dyslexia can also struggle with a more basic skill called phonemic awareness. This is the ability to recognize the sounds in words. Trouble with phonemic awareness can show up as early as preschool. Using one-to-one early literacy screening tools, such as aimsweb or FASTbridge, is essential for being able to quickly screen and identify learners with characteristics of dyslexia.

We have also found success with the intervention program called S.P.I.R.E. This program is systematic, multisensory, and explicit and is based on the Orton-Gillingham methodology. We use this program with students identified with dyslexic-like characteristics. Our districts use this program with Tier 2 and Tier 3 learners who need intensive intervention for phonics and phonemic awareness. Some districts have even used this program with special education students, who likely have dyslexia as well.

Finally, our districts have learned HOW the brain learns to read through the science of reading. Much of our grant money has been dedicated to professional development for interventionists, classroom teachers, and even principals. We have learned about dyslexia, the reading rope, phonemic awareness, multisensory learning, and so much more.

Brenda Lewis from Grand Forks Public Schools provided this summary of their experience to date:

Grand Forks Public Schools (GFPS) recognized a need within the GFPS system to identify dyslexia warning signs. GFPS identified three measurable action steps to be implemented with the Dyslexia Pilot Program funded through the North Dakota legislature.

The action steps included:

  • Professional Development of Grand Forks Public School Staff
  • Enhanced Universal Screening Measures
  • Implementation of a reading intervention program 

The pilot involved 33 elementary-aged students. The data collected indicated that students who participated in the intervention made gains in reading. The screening, intervention, and data collection are ongoing. The pilot program continues to help GFPS use data to inform decision-making about literacy as well as appropriate interventions. We are honored to be a part of this work. In addition, this pilot program has given the opportunity for GFPS to learn from colleagues in other districts about the work they are doing and piloting with respect to literacy, dyslexia, and interventions.  

Success

The schools checked in (with DPI) four times per year and presented their data to the 2021 legislature. Based on their reports, $250,000 was again awarded to the pilot program for the 2021-2023 biennium.

As the programs are just beginning to implement some of the interventions and see success, the decision was made to invite the three initial schools/consortiums to continue with the program. West River opted out, so Grand Forks and Kindred will continue to implement the pilot program and present their results. The two have even started meeting with each other to compare interventions and discuss how they are training teachers and other pieces of the program.  

“Lea and I are learning so much from the pilot sites,” said Ehrmantraut. “Districts are figuring out their North Dakota Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) approaches, and how to identify specific deficits students have in reading and language. Then they can figure out a pathway for them.”

The 2021 Legislature also authorized DPI to issue a credential for specialists trained in dyslexia to teachers who undergo training in recognizing and teaching students with dyslexia.

“North Dakota didn’t really have a way for someone to be trained as a specialist in dyslexia,” said Kugel.  “This helps professionals who want to get more background to get the training and credential they need to work with students who have red flags for dyslexia.”

Successful intervention in the schools, increased awareness, and training for professionals – all of this is good news for North Dakota students with dyslexia.

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