BOSTON — Parents, educators and medical professionals pushed lawmakers Tuesday to support earlier screening for dyslexia so that children can receive the additional help they need before falling behind their peers.
“We know that there is a way for us to diagnose dyslexia before our child becomes seven years old or before they graduate eighth grade and go on to high school,” Sen. Linda Forry said. “If we identify students with dyslexia sooner, as they begin to learn the alphabet and how to read, we will protect them from years of feeling incapable and being left behind.”
The Joint Committee on Education heard testimony on four bills dealing with dyslexia: by Sen. Barbara L’Italien, Rep. Alice Peisch, Sen. Bruce Tarr and Rep. Chris Walsh.
Each bill has roughly 40 co-sponsors and each one takes a different approach to screening. L’Italien’s bill would add the word dyslexia to the state’s special education statutes — it does not currently appear in those laws, her office said — and ask the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop guidelines for screening of all students before the end of kindergarten for characteristics associated with being at-risk for dyslexia.
“We need to do better, we need to get to kids at the earliest possible age,” L’Italien said.
Dr. Melissa Orkin, a program director at the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, said early identification of dyslexia is critical and cited research that showed that dyslexic students who receive an intervention in first grade make twice the gains of their second- and third-grade peers who received the same intervention.
According to Decoding Dyslexia Massachusetts, the rate of occurrence of dyslexia in the American population is between 10 percent and 17 percent, and 80 percent of special education students in Massachusetts “has dyslexia but schools do not have the current most informed understanding of dyslexia and do not identify it or miss-categorize it.”
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke defines dyslexia as “a brain-based type of learning disability that specifically impairs a person’s ability to read. These individuals typically read at levels significantly lower than expected despite having normal intelligence.”
Supporters of the bills said it is important to screen children for dyslexia at an early age because a child who is struggling to read is not necessarily unintelligent, and that child’s brain may understand letters and numbers differently and benefit from another method of learning to read and write.
“We think it is important to know that it is a disorder of neurobiological origin and that children are stepping into the first day of kindergarten with a less optimal brain to learn to read,” Dr. Nadine Gaab, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School and faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said. “There is no reason to wait until third, fourth, fifth grade to give them a diagnosis and access to resources.”
L’Italien asked some of those who testified about low-cost ways schools could possibly screen for dyslexia, including checking whether a child can tell when two words rhyme or whether they can properly identify two words that begin with the same sound.
“That’s going to be a good part of this, the issue of — as policymakers — what it would cost, how it would be implemented, et cetera,” L’Italien said. “I don’t think anyone in this room disagrees that we need to do a better job.”
Dr. Tiffany Hogan, director of the Speech and Language Literacy Lab at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute, said all but 13 states have laws to screen students for dyslexia and provide training so teachers can more effectively help students with dyslexia. The cost of those screenings and training, she said, is worth it.
“One fact is clear from all of my work with these students, and that is the small cost of effective screening and teacher education far outweighs the costs, the years of struggles to learn to read, and a higher than expected rate of high school dropout, juvenile delinquency, and suicide,” she said. “It’s the old adage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”