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PCS Trustee Dr. Sally Shaywitz Article in the NY Daily News

What Eric Adams gets right about dyslexia

By Dr. Sally Shaywitz

New York Daily News

May 15, 2022 at 5:00 am

Mayor Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks deserve kudos for their new plans to improve instruction for children with dyslexia. They recognize the tremendous scientific advances over the past few decades in our understanding of dyslexia will benefit the thousands of children with dyslexia attending the nation’s largest public school system.

Science is beginning to replace mythology with fact. While schools often claim that dyslexia is rare, epidemiologic data indicate that it is quite common, affecting 20% of the school population and representing the vast majority of children identified as having a learning disability. In certain disadvantaged populations, the prevalence may be even higher.

Those wanting to help move dyslexia forward must begin with an accurate understanding of what dyslexia is and is not. Slow reading, so common in dyslexia, is often mistaken for slow thinking. In fact, people with dyslexia are often among our most creative and innovative thinkers. Such recognition has led to our conceptual model of dyslexia as a weakness in accessing the sounds of words, surrounded by a sea of strengths in higher-level, big-picture thinking. We now understand that dyslexia is a problem involving the language system, specifically getting to the sounds of spoken words.

From its very first description over a century ago and in 2018 established in federal law, dyslexia has been differentiated from learning disability in its definition as “an unexpected difficulty in reading for an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader.” This means that a student does not have to score below a certain level to be identified as dyslexic.

In virtually every lecture I give to a school or when I am asked to speak before Congress or the Senate, I always say in the case of dyslexia, “we don’t have a knowledge gap — we have an action gap.” We have the data and insight we need to move forward; we need the will to do so. Here, we must congratulate the mayor and chancellor for recognizing and addressing this gap.

At the same time, it is critical that the actions they take now are aligned with evidence. The next steps must ensure that these well-meaning programs are evidence-based and will achieve their goals of screening for, identifying and providing effective interventions for the hundreds of thousands of New York City children with dyslexia.

Specialized programs for children with dyslexia, one of the approaches Adams and Banks support, represent a solution whose time has come. Windward School in New York and Park Century School in Los Angeles, independent schools both, have long been known as highly effective. In addition, Adams and Banks would be wise to look into the model pioneered by Dr. Laura Cassidy in establishing the Louisiana Key Academy, a specialized school for dyslexia within an inner-city, with a student body made up primarily of disadvantaged children of color. It works.

Where the proposed plan of the mayor and chancellor falls short, however — at least in the

preliminary sketches the public has so far seen — is in its approach to dyslexia screening. Our data clearly indicate that the achievement gap between typical and dyslexic readers is evident as early as first grade and persists. Furthermore, evidence is overwhelming that interventions to improve reading in children with dyslexia are most effective when they are begun early. Taken together, these collective findings mandate that we identify dyslexia as early as possible, towards the end of kindergarten and in first grade, using an evidence-based screener.

At the same time, it is critical that we do not confuse screening with more detailed evaluations. For the group of students identified by screening as being at risk, schools can then focus resources such as additional instruction and consider a more detailed evaluation.

In contrast, the mayor and chancellor have proposed an ill-defined, brief literacy screener three times during the year — and, if the child consistently scores below benchmarks on this literacy screening, the child will then be recommended for secondary screening for dyslexia. That is not aligned with what science tells us about dyslexia screening. Critically, it risks missing the great majority of dyslexic children. A better approach would administer a validated dyslexia screening instrument at the onset; this would require just a single administration each year.

The proposed dyslexia program represents a true giant step in addressing the needs of children who are dyslexic. The program is so close but not quite there yet. I would strongly urge review, especially in the critical area of screening to ensure that it is evidence-based and will effectively identify all children at risk for dyslexia early. Mr. Mayor and Chancellor Banks: You are almost there.

Shaywitz is the Audrey G. Ratner Professor in Learning Development at Yale University and,

along with Bennett A. Shaywitz, MD, the founder and co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.

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