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Battle Over Reading: Parents of Children With Dyslexia Wage Curriculum War


Kim Head's kindergarten son, Noah, would do anything to avoid school. Hide under tables. Complain of a stomach ache. Cry. 

For Noah, going to school was painful and he didn't understand why. But, his mom figured it out. It turns out Noah has dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult to read and spell. 

Dyslexia affects 1 in 5 individuals, and is the most commonly diagnosed learning disability, said Sarah Sayko, the deputy director of the National Center on Improving Literacy. The group is federally funded and works to give educators and parents evidence-based information to help all children, including those with learning disabilities, learn to read.  

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Head began looking for curriculum geared toward helping dyslexic students, lessons to teach the brain how to process the written word. She began working with him at home and saw improvement right away.

"The biggest difference I saw immediately was not just in his academic skills, but in his self-esteem," said Head, "He stopped crying and he stopped saying he was stupid and started believing he was a normal kid." 

That was more than six years ago.  Head's anguish led her to join forces with other families in her state of Arkansas who have lived through similar experiences. They faced down an education establishment over reading instruction in the state.

"There's no need for any family to suffer what families have suffered through," said Audie Alumbaugh, who has a niece with dyslexia. Alumbaugh has led the group's effort to change reading instruction for every child in Arkansas. They pushed for laws to support reading instruction based on the science behind how the brain learns to read. It involves explicit, systematic instruction in phonics, teaching students all of the patterns of how sounds and letters go together. 

"We absolutely know that this is the best way to teach students to read," said Sayko.  Comprehensive phonics instruction was supported by a federally appointed National Reading Panel nearly two decades ago.

"So there's actual scientific evidence about how students learn to read, and it's largely been ignored," said Stacy Smith, an assistant commissioner at the Arkansas Department of Education. Smith said Arkansas is now wholeheartedly embracing this change in reading instruction for all students, not just those with learning disabilities. "I'm gonna tell you it's been a battle and an uphill climb," she said.

Around the country, parents with children who have dyslexia have been pushing for this kind of reading instruction. In Arkansas, lawmakers have passed at least eight laws in the past seven years. The state is changing everything, including dyslexia screening, reading instruction, and teacher training and licensing. It hopes to have all the pieces in place by the 2021-2022 school year.  

The fight over reading instruction has been underway for decades. Some experts support this science-based approach, while others support what's called 'balanced literacy,' an approach that emphasizes exposure to books. Students get some phonics instruction, but not in the same systematic way. 

The families behind the science-based instruction are convinced it will make a huge difference in Arkansas, which ranks in the bottom third of states nationwide in terms of reading levels. 

"They've been doing it wrong all this time," said Alumbaugh, a former teacher herself. "We need to get this right for kids."

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