Published 12:00 am, Saturday, July 8, 2017
NORWALK — Words of encouragement flowed in a Brookside Elementary School classroom one morning last week when a third-grader struggling to read sounded out the word “nab.”
“Nice job,” teacher Oda Erstling said, pausing to discuss the meaning of the word before producing another flash card. “Here comes a tricky one.”
Over the course of a two-hour session, Erstling and the 8-year-old would finger-trace, sound out, spell and eventually read dozens of words in an exercise that is as much for the teacher’s benefit as the student’s.
Erstling is one of six Norwalk special education teachers who received 30 hours of training last month from Literacy How of North Haven. It is the first step toward earning certifications with the International Dyslexia Association as dyslexia practitioners and in the Orton-Gillingham approach to reading.
Nationwide, there are 929 teachers with the relatively new practitioner certification; 47 are in Connecticut.
Four days a week over the next six weeks, the Norwalk teachers get to try out what they have learned.
What it is: A language-based learning disability that refers to a cluster of symptoms in which people have difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading.
What it is not: Seeing words backward. It is also not due to lack of intelligence.
How many have it: Estimates vary widely. Between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population have a reading disability; of those, as many as 85 percent are believed to have dyslexia.
What are the signs: It varies, but most involve difficulty acquiring and using language, reading and writing. Individuals with dyslexia often have trouble organizing language, spelling and learning letters and their sounds.
How it is treated: Dyslexia is a lifelong condition, although people with it can learn to read and write well using a multisensory, structured approach. Often, students with dyslexia need more time to complete tasks, or may need to listen to books orally.
“There is so much confusion around what is best for children with dyslexia,” said Jule McCombes-Tolis, director of Fairfield University’s Reading and Language Development program, after observing one of the sessions.
McCombes-Tolis is on the front lines of a battle to help struggling readers cut through hit-or-miss approaches that don’t seem to improve reading fluency or comprehension. Norwalk public schools have joined her in the fight.
“The schools superintendent here mentioned a real need to train teachers in how to serve children with dyslexia,” McCombes-Tolis said of Norwalk Superintendent Steven Adamowski. “I said, ‘Let’s write a grant.’ ”
Together, they secured an $80,000 grant from the Noble Charitable Trust to hire Literacy How and create a summer Dyslexia Intervention Clinic.
Norwalk will carry the effort forward into the new school year by creating a dedicated clinic for students with dyslexia, a language-based learning disability. The center is under construction on the district’s Briggs High School property.
“We expect it to become a statewide model,” said Stacey Heiligenthaler, Norwalk’s interim assistant director of special learning.
The center will be used to teach students and to train more educators in how to identify dyslexia and develop a comprehensive intervention program.
“School districts spend a lot on outplacement for students with dyslexia,” Heiligenthaler said. “Building in-district capacity means a lot.”
McCombes-Tolis said she would love to see the center become regional, drawing students from Stamford up to Bridgeport.
Fairfield University’s graduate school of education is one of nine university programs nationwide to receive accreditation from the International Dyslexia Association. Southern Connecticut State University also has an accredited program.
Heiligenthaler estimates as many as 20 percent of the students identified as having special needs in Norwalk have reading difficulties including dyslexia. Just how many is uncertain. Until a state law was passed two years ago, dyslexia wasn’t tracked as a specific diagnosis.
The first cohort of six trained Norwalk teachers will be followed by five Norwalk psychologists who will receive training by Fairfield University in how to diagnose dyslexia.
McCombes-Tolis called it a great start.
A fresh set of tools
Erstling has worked with her share of struggling readers. She said the dyslexia training has given her a fresh set of tools.
And new approaches, most tailored to the needs of the student.
In the summer program, there are 11 students arranged by ability, not age. The two working with Marian Arnista both happen to be third-graders tackling words with the short “i.”
“What is the sound for the short ‘i,’” Arnista asked them, reminding them to follow a multistep process she taught them to help decipher words.
“Think of it. Read it to yourself. Spell it out. Say the word,” Arnista advised. “Have your finger under the first sound.”
By 10 a.m. the lesson was over — for the students. Teachers stayed behind to debrief with mentors and prepare for the next morning.