Massachusetts is failing to provide sufficient instruction to students with dyslexia. That’s according to recent reporting by the Boston Globe, which estimates there could be up to 180,000 dyslexic students enrolled in state public schools.
While there are federal standards for screening children for dyslexia required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the issue lies in connecting children with the tailored instruction they need to learn how to read. Currently, Massachusetts does not mandate specific teaching methods for dyslexia.
“You need trained professionals to implement this type of teaching, and that's very expensive,” Jennifer Curtis, the former superintendent of Weymouth Public Schools, told Boston Public Radio on Wednesday. Beyond cost, Curtis said there aren't enough teachers trained in effective methodologies for teaching dyslexic students to read.
Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability caused by a neurological difference in how someone interprets written language into sound. “To say this squiggle on the page makes this sound in the English language, that's a learned behavior,” said Nancy Duggan, executive director of Decoding Dyslexia Massachusetts. “It's learned like swimming or basketball or playing the cello.”
People with dyslexia have a harder time making those connections. The key is early intervention.
“The younger we work with the students, the more likely we are able to help remedy and give them the toolbox and the skills they need to be successful readers as adults,” said Curtis.
Curtis and Duggan would like to see the Orton-Gillingham method used consistently in the Commonwealth’s public schools. It’s a systematic teaching method that uses phonics and explicit meaning and is approved by the International Dyslexia Association.
Some private schools are offering reading education tailored for dyslexic students to fill the gaps in the public school system. Curtis is the CEO of South Shore Stars school in Weymouth, which is focused on teaching students of a variety of learning differences.
Yet the cost of these schools, which can be tens of thousands of dollars a year, could be prohibitive to the state’s neediest students. Curtis said South Shore Stars is working with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to receive Chapter 766 approval, which would allow public school districts to use funds that are allocated towards special education needs to send children to South Shore Stars.
After receiving instruction tailored to their learning differences, the student would then return to their school districts. “They need to go out and be in their own neighborhoods,” Curtis said.
At the state level, Duggan said it’s time to reframe standardized reading curriculum. The lack of curriculum standards should be seen “not as a problem of local control and state control, but of consumer protection,” she said. “We should spend [money] on products that are proven reliable.”