Despite the law, schools don't do enough to identify, educate
dyslexics, advocates say.
By Jennifer Radcliffe, Star-Telegram, January 4, 2004
For more articles like this
classmates at Bedford Junior High School studied Shakespeare,
seventh-grader Sean Fraser struggled to read simple words such
as "cat" and "sat."
Teachers shrugged off Sean's reading problems, assuming he would
catch up. One educator even suggested that he was faking the
His mother, Gale Bessire, gave up on the public school system
when Sean reached ninth grade. She spent $60,000 over four years
to hire a tutor and send her severely dyslexic son to a private
Today, Bessire spends her evenings reading college auto
mechanics textbooks to her 18-year-old son.
She wonders how much easier his life would have been if the
Hurst-Euless-Bedford district had complied with a 1985 state law
that requires schools to identify and educate students with
"What did they do for him?" Bessire asked. "Nothing. If it
wasn't for me, he still wouldn't be able to read as well as he
People who read poorly often wind up in low-paying jobs, on
welfare rolls or in jail, at a cost to the country of $224
billion a year, according to the National Right to Read
Yet, many public school districts in North Texas have not fully
complied with the law, the Star-Telegram has found. Schools
aren't identifying students early enough, and they're not
providing them with the required help.
As many as 20 percent of children have dyslexia or a related
disorder, but a Star-Telegram survey of 16 area districts found
that nine of them are providing the state-mandated help to less
than 1 percent of their students. Six others are helping 1
percent to 3 percent. One -- the Greenville school district --
provides help to 7.7 percent.
Several other districts declined to provide the number of
students in their dyslexia programs.
Public school educators said that their dyslexia programs comply
with the law but that providing the tutoring -- which requires
additional materials, training and teachers -- can be a
financial burden. They also said that the disability is
sometimes hard to identify.
Dyslexics have difficulty spelling, recognizing and sounding out
words. Reading is like trying to make sense of a foreign
language they've never studied. They don't see letters and words
backward, as is commonly believed, but they mispronounce
complicated or unfamiliar words and confuse words that sound
alike, such as "tornado" and "volcano" or "lotion" and "ocean."
"Some of those same characteristics occur in normal children,"
said Mary Arthur, who runs Grapevine-Colleyville's dyslexia
The issue came to a head this summer in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford
school district, which enrolled only 29 of its 20,000 students,
or 0.15 percent, in a dyslexia program last school year. A
persistent group of parents forced the school board to take
notice of deficiencies, and officials overhauled the program
this fall to include more students and to provide better
Such grassroots efforts are one of the few ways that parents can
force districts to comply with the law, especially after the
Legislature gutted the state's oversight in the spring.
Before, state auditors periodically visited campuses to make
sure programs, including the dyslexia program, complied with the
laws. Soon, districts will effectively police themselves; they
will fill out online questionnaires in lieu of the regular
When districts fail to comply with the law, students with
dyslexia often flounder in regular classes or are
inappropriately placed in special education tracks, educators
and parents say. Those students may needlessly fall behind and
struggle to reach their full potential.
"We're in a mess. We're just in a mess," said State Board of
Education Chairwoman Geraldine "Tincy" Miller, who pushed
through Texas' dyslexia law 18 years ago. "I'm very upset about
it. They're taking the accountability piece out of the whole
Schools should begin testing children for dyslexia in
kindergarten -- "the earlier the better," according to The
Dyslexia Handbook: Procedures Concerning Dyslexia and Related
Disorders, which outlines the Texas law.
A substantial amount of national research, including reports
used to support President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, shows
that if children cannot read at grade level by fourth grade,
there is a 75 percent chance they will never catch up.
A 1996 state law reinforces the importance of early testing by
requiring schools to assess the reading skills of all
kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders. Those who are
identified as being at risk for dyslexia must receive immediate
Each campus that has identified students with dyslexia must
develop a program that includes intense, individualized phonics
instruction in small groups, the law says. Teachers who lead the
groups must be trained in dyslexia.
Research shows that dyslexics use different -- and less
efficient -- parts of their brains to read than nondyslexics. It
also shows that when dyslexics are provided the type of intense
phonics tutoring required under Texas' 1985 law, they begin
using the more efficient parts of their brains.
Texas' curriculum calls for the use of both whole-language and
phonics techniques in reading instruction. Some children thrive
with whole-language instruction, which emphasizes using context
clues and memorization to learn to read, but dyslexic children
do not, experts say.
They need to be taught how language works in a methodical and
repetitive way, the experts say.
Without that type of instruction, dyslexic students will
struggle to associate written letters with corresponding sounds.
They may not, for instance, understand that the word "cat"
breaks down into three unique sounds.
Dyslexic children, all of whom have average or above-average
intelligence, can often be perceived as lazy or inattentive if
their learning disorder is not diagnosed.
They are at risk of joining the ranks of the 90 million U.S.
adults who are, at best, functionally literate, meaning they can
read just well enough to get by.
Sean Fraser worries about how he will earn a living. He fears
that he will never be able to read manuals about today's
high-tech cars well enough to become a certified mechanic.
"It's real frustrating," he said. "The way everything works,
you've got to read to do almost anything."
Some educators call dyslexia a gift of sorts. They believe
dyslexics have an easier time thinking creatively and point to
famous dyslexics such as businessman Charles Schwab, designer
Tommy Hilfiger, political consultant James Carville, and actors
Whoopi Goldberg and Keira Knightley.
"I really feel strongly that these children could be the stars
of the school," said Valerie Tucker, a certified academic
language therapist who teaches educators how to work with
dyslexic students at Literacy Education & Academic Development
in Argyle. "They're the brightest kids. I think we should give
them every advantage we can."
Bound by law
Miller, the state board chairwoman, spent years believing that
her son, Vance Jr., was a slow learner.
He struggled to put his thoughts on paper. His teachers in the
Highland Park school district couldn't figure out what was wrong
or how to help.
At 13, he still couldn't read well. He acted up frequently and
experimented with drugs. By 19, he had dropped out of school.
Miller, who was earning her certification as an academic
language therapist and working as a reading specialist at Texas
Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas, confided to a
co-worker that she was devastated by her son's behavior. She
talked about his struggles to read and his constant behavior
The co-worker suggested that Miller have her son tested for
The tests, conducted in the late 1970s, showed that Vance Miller
Jr. had a near-genius IQ of 145. They also showed that he had
dysgraphia, a form of dyslexia that makes it extremely difficult
for people to express themselves in writing.
Miller regrets that her son's teachers weren't trained to
identify the learning disability.
"I had to look to the school to give me guidance," she said. "I
really and truly did not get any guidance. I got a lot of mixed
Miller became an expert in reading disabilities, which led to
her 1984 appointment to the State Board of Education.
Immediately, she championed the passage of Texas' dyslexia law.
The 1985 law was groundbreaking for dyslexic students, said
Gladys Kolenovsky, administrative director for the Luke Waites
Child Development Center at Scottish Rite Hospital, a national
leader in dyslexia diagnosis, instruction and teacher training.
"Texas did something no state had ever done before and very few
have done since," she said. "If you have a child with dyslexia,
Texas is the state where you want to be."
The law, Texas Education Code 38.003, says that students in
public schools shall be tested for dyslexia and related
disorders and that each school district shall provide special
instruction for those students.
For years, Miller -- dubbed the "dyslexia lady" -- received
calls from parents with emotional stories about school districts
that were ignoring the law.
In 1990, more than 800 people attended a public hearing in
Austin to discuss the law and the lack of compliance.
"There was incredible testimony," Miller said.
A high school principal acknowledged for the first time in
public that he was dyslexic. A mother told of how her son's
dyslexia so damaged his self-esteem that he eventually committed
suicide. People with doctoral degrees argued about whether
In 1991, the state approved rules to clarify and support the
law. The rules are published in The Dyslexia Handbook, a
publication periodically updated by the Texas Education Agency.
The rules provide school districts with specific requirements
for testing and instruction, but Miller knows the law is not
being followed in many districts.
One reason, she said, is that she was unable to get the state to
provide a per-student money allotment for dyslexia programs.
Special education students and gifted-and-talented students, on
the other hand, generate additional funds for districts.
The training and supplies needed to comply with the law require
a financial commitment that some districts won't make, Miller
Advocates also fear that districts are taking advantage of
vagueness and local control built into the law.
For example, the law says teachers must be trained in dyslexia,
but it does not provide specifics. Some districts send teachers
to a two-hour workshop. Other districts ask teachers to complete
a 700-hour academic language therapist certification program.
Still, by the late 1990s, Miller believed that she had made
great strides. The law was on the books, and her son, at 37, had
turned his life around, earning a degree from Southern Methodist
University and joining the family real estate business, the
Henry S. Miller Co.
Then, in 1997, Vance Miller Jr. died in a car accident.
In her grief, Miller wondered whether the entire course of his
life might have been different if he had been successful in
school. Maybe, she thought, he wouldn't have died in that crash.
His death made her fight harder to make sure that other children
don't fall through the cracks.
That would be easier to do if districts followed the law, she
Reluctantly, she added: "There's a lot of reasons, I guess, for
schools to not implement this law."
One of the most heartbreaking, she said, is educators'
reluctance to understand dyslexia and its symptoms.
"Even with the law, even with all the research ... there are
still people, educators, to this day who will not accept the
fact that there is such a thing as dyslexia," she said.
A school district that provides dyslexia instruction to fewer
than 2 percent or 3 percent of its students is not doing its
job, according to Dr. Jeffrey Black at Scottish Rite Hospital.
Ideally, about 10 percent of students should be attending the
programs, his colleagues say.
More children than that have dyslexia, but some will be able to
succeed without extra help, and others may require special
education classes, experts say.
But most area districts fall short of Black's target and don't
even come close to 10 percent.
In the 62,000-student Arlington district, for example, only 55
dyslexic students, or 0.09 percent, receive dyslexia
instruction. The 13,800-student Grapevine-Colleyville school
district has 14 students, or 0.1 percent, in dyslexia classes.
The Fort Worth school district offers dyslexia instruction to
about 300, or 0.37 percent, of its 81,000 students.
Schools either don't know what they're looking for or are trying
to avoid diagnosing dyslexia, experts say. Public schools
usually wait too long to diagnose dyslexia in elementary
students and then provide no dyslexia instruction to teen-agers,
But some school officials say the experts' estimates are too
"I personally don't think it's 10 percent," said Arthur, who
oversees Grapevine-Colleyville's dyslexia program. "I have a
hard time thinking that 1,300 children in the district would
The Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district, which has
traditionally had few students in its program, expects the
number to increase now that it has changed its qualifying
Previously, the district's program included only students who
failed the state's standardized reading test. But consultant
Debbie Easom of Granbury-based Dyslexia Solutions told school
leaders to eliminate that criteria because many dyslexic
children can pass the untimed test if they work at it all day.
"We recognize the fact that we were probably underidentifying,"
Assistant Superintendent Steve Chapman said.
Some administrators defend the practice of delaying dyslexia
instruction, saying it is almost impossible to tell whether a
child has dyslexia until the third grade. Younger children might
show some symptoms of dyslexia that they will outgrow, they
said. Other educators said they do not want to label children.
"We want to do that as a last intervention," said Cindy Brown,
director of special services for the Northwest school district.
"Dyslexia is a lifelong condition. Labels are a lifelong thing.
You want to be sure they're right."
Miller said she's tired of what she calls districts' excuses.
Third grade is not early enough, she said.
"That just makes me sick," she said. "That just flies in the
face of all the new research. It's the old-fashioned approach:
wait until they fail."
Warning signs for dyslexia can be identified in children as
young as 3, said Joyce Pickering, executive director of The
Shelton School in Dallas, the largest school in the country for
children with learning disabilities.
The school diagnoses learning disorders in young children using
test results from 15 areas, including motor and language skills.
Dyslexics exhibit significant differences in visual and auditory
skills, but many kindergarten teachers don't know what to look
for, she said.
"It's not that they're mean, horrible people," Pickering said.
"They don't think that they can help."
Sue Cantrell, an academic language therapist for The Shelton
School and a mother of three children with learning
disabilities, said many area school districts also fail to
identify and treat older dyslexic students.
"It breaks my heart when I look at these kids who are in the
eighth grade and are undiagnosed and have been struggling all
these years," she said. "It's almost too late. By then, they're
Several administrators, however, said that almost all dyslexic
children are diagnosed in elementary school, eliminating the
need for most middle school and high school programs.
"It would be very strange for a child to get to junior high age
and for no one to have picked it up before that," said Maggie
Stevens, special education director in the Everman school
district. "That would be really sad."
Cantrell and other experts said programs for teen-agers are
necessary because many students go undiagnosed in elementary
school. And many who were identified in elementary school will
need continued tutoring, Cantrell said.
Districts often don't comply with all of the law's requirements,
and there's no mechanism to punish them.
The state's Dyslexia Handbook, for example, says that "each
school must provide each identified student access at his or her
campus to the services of a teacher trained in dyslexia."
But the Arlington school district buses dyslexic students to
classes at three of its 50 elementary campuses, said Roberta
Carter, the district's dyslexia coordinator.
Dyslexic students who remain at their home campuses are
considered to have mild cases and are taught in regular
"If that child needs individual one-on-one, then our classroom
teachers make time for that," Carter said. "The reason I feel
comfortable that we are meeting the law is because we train. We
encourage staff development. It's a total understanding."
Carter said that when dyslexic students read from books and
written material, they are encouraged to follow along with a
"It's the key to helping that dyslexic student," she said.
But experts say phonics tutoring -- not following along with a
pencil -- will help dyslexic students.
The law also says that dyslexic students must be given
personalized phonics help in small groups led by a trained
The Fort Worth district, however, doesn't remove any child with
dyslexia from the regular classroom.
"It has been determined that the [classroom] reading programs we
currently have in adoption qualify as dyslexia programs," said
June Davis, Fort Worth school district coordinator of student
Students who need more help may be shown Scottish Rite reading
videos in their regular classrooms.
"We don't have pull-out programs," Davis said. "That's just not
something we subscribe to. We want to keep children in the
An expert at Scottish Rite Hospital said a teacher would have to
be talented to juggle regular classroom duties and
simultaneously provide individualized phonics instruction in
small groups to dyslexic children.
In the Crowley school district, some dyslexic students are
encouraged to place colored transparencies over their work, a
"Often dyslexia students have light sensitivity," said Janet
Wynne, who oversees Crowley's dyslexia program. "Print may shift
or shake or blur."
The colored transparencies keep the print from moving for
dyslexic children, she said.
But medical experts said dyslexia does not affect children's
"People who have dyslexia see things the same way you and I do,"
pediatrician Vennecia Jackson, director of diagnostic services
for Scottish Rite Hospital, told parents at a recent seminar.
Miller is reluctant to push for a stronger law. Getting it
passed was a battle, and she worries that if the issue is
reopened, the law could be wiped off the books.
But she does plan to work to replace the enforcement mechanism,
which lawmakers all but eliminated this year.
The Texas Education Agency is developing a system under which
each district will provide statistics about special programs to
the state via electronic forms. State employees will review the
documents, and if any items raise red flags, the state can
dispatch a team to visit the school district.
Previously, teams of state monitors periodically visited
districts to check whether they complied with guidelines for
state and federally funded programs. Dyslexia programs were
included in the visits, although they do not receive funding.
The state required corrective action and a follow-up report from
schools that were not in compliance, said Debbie Graves
Ratcliffe, TEA spokeswoman.
A spokesman for state Sen. Teel Bivins' office said the Amarillo
Republican sponsored legislation to reduce the compliance visits
to save districts money and to make the education system more
"If they're going to fudge numbers, they're going to fudge
numbers," said the spokesman, who said he wasn't allowed to give
his name. "We can't legislate morality."
Now, the burden of making sure a district complies will fall
largely to parents, Graves Ratcliffe said.
"The parents could talk to their principal and their school
board and get compliance, but beyond that there's probably not
much" that can be done, she said.
Miller said she worries that school districts will not be honest
on the TEA forms.
She and other advocates said they will continue their efforts to
help dyslexic students. They'll continue to tell parents about
their rights under the 1985 dyslexia law and to push for more
"I'm going to bring this out in the light," Miller said.
Texas law requires public school districts to identify
students with dyslexia and related disorders and to provide them
with personalized instruction. Experts say the programs should
serve no less than 2 percent of a district's population. Here is
the percentage of students in area districts' dyslexia programs
during the 2002-2003 school year:
Eagle-Mountain Saginaw 1.0%
Fort Worth 0.4%
SOURCES: Area disticts and Texas Education Agency.
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