Changing Dyslexia Awareness: The California Dyslexia Guidelines

One K-5 school principal we spoke with asked: how do I know which students would benefit from NoticeAbility's social and emotional learning courses? The answer of course, is students with dyslexia. But how could she identify those students in a place where the term 'dyslexia' is not even recognized? Any struggling reader is at risk for the poor outcomes associated with dyslexia: anxiety, depression, school avoidance, low self-image, among others. And in order to benefit from NoticeAbility courses, students don’t need to exhibit the specific indications that often lead to a dyslexia identification: average-to-high intelligence, high listening comprehension, and reading below expectation. Since teachers know who their struggling readers are, but not every student will get neuropsychological testing for information on root causes, we went looking for guidance that might help schools properly screen and provide services for their students with dyslexia.

What we found is that state and federal government policies drive the funding and behavior of schools, and whether or not districts 'see' the latent potential in their students with dyslexia. Recognizing dyslexia at the state level as its own named category of specific learning disability (SLD) or a language-based learning disability (LBLD) is a useful first step. Here in Massachusetts, the state legislature amended the law in November 2018 to include mandated dyslexia screening for all students state-wide to determine which students are at risk. But very little screening has taken place in part because it's unclear what would be the next steps. A committee is working on new state-wide guidelines, which is great, but not yet in place.

That's when our friends at Children's Health Council introduced us to the California Dyslexia Guidelines, and we nearly fell off our chair. The guidelines, shared as PDF download here, are evidence-based, comprehensive, and they answer questions any teacher, parent, or district administrator might have. A treasure trove of information, usefully presented: a roadmap for how a district might get it right with respect to dyslexia.

So we got curious, and reached out to Richard Gifford, Educational Program Consultant in the Special Education Division of the California Department of Education to talk with us about the guidelines.

NoticeAbility: Thanks so much for making time to talk.  Can you tell us about the California Dyslexia Guidelines and the impact the have had?

Richard: It’s important to recognize that they are guidelines, not mandates. The guidelines represent the hard work of reading researchers, educators, parents, and other stakeholders.  They are designed to speak to everyone in the system. So it's encouraging that a number of school districts prompted by the guidelines have changed supports for students with dyslexia. Some have implemented specific dyslexia plans for their students, identifying legitimate interventions based on the recommendations in the guidelines, and invested in screening for dyslexia. We hope families, teachers, and school leaders feel that the guidelines represent their perspective, and answer their questions as well.

NoticeAbility: Where have you seen the guidelines impacting students first?

Richard: Los Angeles Unified School District is an example. When they knew guidelines were going to be coming out they put together a working group and created a dyslexia policy and a plan. Not directly related to the publication of the guidelines, but LAUSD has also revamped their k-3 reading program across the district to follow science-based reading practices. It was a 3 year process called the Early Language and Literacy Plan, which seems to be really getting traction. The program is designed to give the general education population uniform access to literacy best practices early on. This should reduce the number of students who are struggling to learn to read, which frees up dedicated focused resources to be available for those students with dyslexia. Since the guidelines were released, Pleasanton Unified School District and Irvine Unified School District have made some significant strides, and I'll be working over the next year to identify and connect with more districts here in California who have taken the initiative.

NoticeAbility: What gap does the report fill that other states might benefit from?         

Richard: The guidelines were key to increasing awareness. What was true in California is also true nationally: dyslexia wasn't recognized universally as a 'real' disability, even though it's specifically called out in federal education code. Once a state department of education explicitly names dyslexia and provides best current research and intervention guidelines, then efforts to systematically help students with dyslexia gain legitimacy.

NoticeAbility: What are some of the lessons learned from the process that might help other states heading down the same path?

Richard: Make sure that the right people contribute to generating the recommendations; researchers, educators, parents, students, and other stakeholders. And don't expect everyone to agree! I really recommend putting in place a framework to navigate the process. One of the key coordinators started every meeting with a review of ground rules for communication and engagement. It was helpful for someone with background in facilitating working groups to manage the process. It requires skill in negotiation, collaboration, and communication to get something like this in place.

NoticeAbility: That sounds like the competencies our students with dyslexia get great practice at through our coursework! Thanks so much for sharing, and let us know how we can support the great work you are doing!

Richard: Likewise, thank you!