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 Dyslexia is a learning disorder involving difficulty identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words. It can be overcome with good reading instruction and targeted interventions in the classroom. (Canva photo)

How the dyslexia community came through for a game-changing state law

The most painful plot twist in the 50-year fight to standardize science-based reading was the backlash against the parents of dyslexic children.

Dyslexia is a cognitive, which is to say a hardwired, impediment to reading. The condition can be overcome with good instruction and targeted interventions when necessary. The Balanced Literacy approach that colonized reading instruction in the late 1970s snatched away the very teaching tools, like phonics, that would have taken care of mild dyslexia right there in the regular classroom, and supported intensive interventions for the more severe cases.

But in the 1980s, the education industry derided dyslexia as a “middle-class myth.” Since the only identified dyslexics were kids of parents who could afford to get a diagnosis, it was just a made-up problem well-off people used to excuse the academic failures of their lazy or not very smart kids. Actually, low-income schools, drowning in struggling readers, didn’t have the resources to sort out the specifics of kids’ reading struggles, never mind the capacity to respond to problems once they were named. No dyslexics there.

Utterly frustrated, the grown-up dyslexics and parents of afflicted kids gathered into advocacy groups like the International Dyslexia Association. They wanted science-based reading so they could quit spending big money on tutors, special private schools or lawyering up to sue the school district for proper services.

In the end, they were the ones who pushed science-based reading over the mountain of resistance, nationally.

In 2016, then-Gov. Gina Raimondo’s education advisor, representatives from Decoding Dyslexia Rhode Island and others crafted a law mandating that all children be screened for dyslexia. The law passed, but had no teeth nor money attached, so it went nowhere.

That brings us to the 2019 Right to Read Act in Rhode Island.

Having been involved with the ineffectual screening law, Rep. William O’Brien, a North Providence Democrat, became the champion and principal sponsor of the Right to Read Act. Why?

 Rep. William W. O’Brien, a North Providence Democrat, is the House
deputy majority leader. (Rhode Island House of Representatives) 

“I have significant dyslexia and always struggled with reading as a child,” he wrote in an email. “Now, as a [Providence math] teacher, it breaks my heart when I see students struggling with curriculum that doesn’t address their learning differences. …I was lucky that I had a support system… My mother spent countless hours helping me sound out words and learning strategies to help me read.”

Dyslexia is always personal.

Decoding Dyslexia Rhode Island President Shannon Saglio followed the proliferation of reading laws sprouting up nationally. She says: “We needed to be in the larger literacy discussion. Dyslexia is only a part of it. Arkansas had a law focused on teacher preparation and training which could build the background and the ‘why.’ Other states mandated curriculum first, which teachers often dismiss. We needed shared understanding.”

To get the law passed, Saglio wanted to address reading more broadly through science-based Structured Literacy, which is rooted in phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics, syllable types, morphology, semantics, and syntax.

She took the bill to O’Brien. He liked it so much, he cloned it almost verbatim.

Besides kids with dyslexia, reading problems run rampant among English language learners, kids with language or cognitive challenges, and those who are on the autism spectrum. Right to Read addresses reading instruction for all kids, of all abilities, at all grade levels, in all subject areas. Good instruction will not eliminate any of the problems. But it will help schools triage students who need intensive interventions apart from those who merely need good instruction and a little help.

Joseph Maggiocomo, a dyslexia advocate, had been involved in the first screening legislation. He was still pushing a separate bill focused only on dyslexia. To argue his case, though, he helped assemble an army of experts, students and educators to testify on the efficacy of Structured Literacy and to share the miserable experiences of struggling young readers. Advocates appreciated his efforts because the testimony was persuasive. Clips are available on DDRI’s website.

Right to Read passed the first year it was introduced. It emphasizes teacher training, but also mandates changing curricula. On its Right to Read page, the Rhode Island Department of Education provides a list of already-vetted programs and guidance for how schools can choose the right one for them.

A 2022 supplemental bill acknowledged COVID-19’s disruption by pushing out the compliance deadlines to the 2025-26 school year. Unfortunately, that same bill exempted a large swath of teachers from the new training which, insanely, included curriculum directors, reading specialists and anyone with a M.A. in reading no matter when they got it. Administrators are also only “strongly encouraged” to learn the shared language. O’Brien sponsored that bill as well, which was too bad.

Such carve-outs weaken what is a game-changing law. Instead, the Legislature needs to put some muscle and money into supporting the work. It’s their initiative after all.

In her testimony at the House hearings, psychologist and literacy expert Susan Brady, professor emerita at the University of Rhode Island, said, “Let me reassure you that educating teachers in how to provide this instruction would benefit almost all children in Rhode Island. The reading scores will go up.” (Emphasis added.)

And when they do, you’ll have the dyslexia community to thank.

First published: RI Current News, February 8, 2024

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