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Help Your Struggling Reader Develop a Strong Vocabulary

August 15, 2014 in Special Education Articles by Doug Goldberg

If struggling readers do not have strong knowledge of the vocabulary they hear in class and see when reading, they cannot become good readers. Below are three easy principles for helping struggling readers develop strong listening and reading vocabularies. Of course, you need to adapt these principles to the developmental level of your child or student. One more “of course”: Make the activities fun and interesting.

Ask Struggling Readers to Go Beyond Dictionary Definitions of Words: If the word’s important, help your child or student discuss its meaning, its parts (e.g., prefix), and its use. If possible, use lots of pictures, diagrams, and skits. If the word is grimace, start grimacing; ask your child or student to start. Read the rest of this entry →

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Orton-Gillingham: Who, Where and Why?

July 10, 2014 in Special Education Articles by Jess

To those of you who have tried (and some have succeeded) it seems like you need a secret handshake to get Orton-Gillingham training. After a quick search on the internet, it might appear that you need to fly to a destination that is most likely east of the Mississippi and requires at least two weeks of your time away from home. Then once you complete this two week training, you must dedicate the rest of your life to become ‘certified.’ But this is all an illusion, an illusion that really hampers the ability of very good people to get their knowledge and training to those who need it the most, the struggling kids. Read the rest of this entry →

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Reading Is Not A Natural Process

March 26, 2013 in Special Education Articles by Jess

Many proponents of ‘whole language’ feel that, since humans learn to speak their native language through immersion, the act of reading follows a similar pattern and exposure to the printed word leads to the development of reading skills.  This reasoning bears a false truth value.  A great deal of care and attention to detail must accompany reading instruction because reading is quite different from speech.

In speech, the listener is provided with many clues as to the meaning of the words presented by the speaker.  Intonation, pitch, cadence, and body language all provide context clues that assist in the comprehension of auditory signals.  Further, according to the Innateness Hypothesis, children are equipped with a blueprint for the innate principles and properties that pertain to the grammars of all spoken human language called universal grammar.  Barring neurologically-based developmental delays, children do not require explicit instruction to master the spoken language.  Universal Grammar aids the child in the task of constructing the “spoken language”.  Structure dependency of the native language and coordinate structure constraint are inherent.  Additionally, through stages in oral communication, a speaker learns from the surrounding linguistic environment the proper cadence, pitch, and intonation associated with the successful display of language ability, as well as, the rules of grammar that are language specific.  This presents speech as a natural process.  Read the rest of this entry →

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Childhood Apraxia of Speech – Reading Help

January 30, 2013 in Special Education Articles by Jess

Reading is a fundamental skill needed for academic success.  In today’s world, strong literacy skills are essential.  Children who struggle in reading tend to experience extreme difficulties in all content areas, as every subject in school requires reading proficiency.  When children are then faced with further struggles such as speech production and receptive and expressive language difficulties, the effects can be even more detrimental.

To read proficiently, a child requires highly integrated skills in word decoding and comprehension and draws upon basic language knowledge such as semantics, syntax, and phonology.  Children with speech and language impairments, such as Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS), have deficits in phonological processing.   For these children, phonemic awareness, motor program execution, syntax and morphology will interfere with the ability to acquire the skills necessary to become proficient Read the rest of this entry →

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Putting the D in to the IEP Part 2: Common Pitfalls if your Child has Dyslexia

September 9, 2012 in Special Education Articles by Jess

Let me be very clear, I love teachers and I love schools. I wanted to be a teacher all of my life but my path took me in a different direction. Most parents (I am also a parent) love schools and put all of their trust into the school system. They trust the people that run them to do the right thing, be properly trained, qualified and equipped to help each and every student that walks through their door. Unfortunately, when it comes to children with dyslexia, this trust can be misguided and mishandled. However, there are things parents can do to avoid losing any precious time for their children.

Pitfall: Ignoring that inner voice and early identification

Almost every parent that walks into my office recounts when their child was about three or four years old and they were not interested in learning to read. They wanted to listen to stories and investigate the pictures, but learning the letters and the sounds was just not something they wanted to do. Most parents have an inner voice that will tell them something is amiss, but at this age it is so easy to listen to well-meaning friends and family members tell you it is normal and they will outgrow it, but that inner voice won’t go away. This might also bring up memories of the parent’s own struggle with reading and send up a red flag- don’t ignore it.

Solution: Research/Second Opinion

A simple Google search for a developmental reading chart will reveal what typical children should be doing at a particular age. Of course, there is always variation, but a medium to large deviation should not be ignored. Contrary to popular belief there are neuropsychologists that can diagnose dyslexia at this tender age. Above all else, do not ignore your parental instinct and do not allow the “he’ll grow out of it” mantra that begins at this age.

Pitfall: Trusting that the school knows how to help

I’ll say it again, I love schools, but I also know what they don’t know. I know they are not trained in dyslexia. I know the majority are terrified to utter the word. Yet, parents trust them almost completely with the education of their children. Parents believe that they must be trained in how to teach reading, even to those who are struggling. Parents also tend to believe (want to believe) it when they are told they will ‘grow out of it’ or “we are just waiting for the phonics fairies” (my favorite yet).  They trust that even when the child is identified, their small group instruction is structured and individualized.

Solution: Research/Second Opinion/Speak up

Question everything! What is the teacher doing to help your unidentified student? How is she tracking his/her progress? Remember to keep track of everything, many dyslexia cases are based on failure to identify.

For those children that have been identified: Question the material being used. Is it based on the Orton-Gillingham approach? Is it a program that is responsive to your child’s identified needs? Is the teacher trained in the program? Most importantly, is the teacher trained in dyslexia? Don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion or an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). Don’t be afraid to have a non-partisan person of your choosing observe your child during their school day. Call an IEP meeting any time you wish.

If you cannot get your child tested or qualified, don’t be afraid to hire an advocate and record every meeting. The moral of the story is, don’t be afraid to challenge the school and be a little uncomfortable.

Pitfall: Not doing everything in writing

And I mean everything! Parent after parent has told me they asked to have their child evaluated but they did not submit this request in writing. It is not enough to mention something to a teacher in passing. A student study team (SST) is not a replacement or appropriate response to a request for testing. Document everything.

Solution: Know the law/hire an advocate/keep a paper trail

Some basics: To have your child evaluated, you have to submit a compelling letter in writing requesting the testing. Once you have done this a time line goes into effect. The school now has 15 calendar days (check your state laws) to respond. If they deny your request, it has to be in writing and it has to explain the reason for the denial. Some common, but illegal, reasons are: Response to Intervention (RTI) has not been tried yet or a Student Study Team (SST) is suggested. These are grounds for a compliance complaint. Keep a record of all of this.

Pitfall: Not knowing how to read the testing

I was recently in an IEP where the school psychologist was talking about standard scores, percentiles, normal curves and discrepancy at a pace that was hard to follow and a condescending tone that would make any parent hesitant to ask for clarification. Every parent needs to know what those tests are assessing and what the results mean.

Solution: Ask questions and know the law

Ask questions! Ask the school psychologist to explain everything you do not fully understand. Educate yourself about the nuances of testing. Many dyslexia diagnoses depend on the trained eye picking up inconsistencies in the subtests. Many schools will only report or dwell on the composite score and ignore the clear deficits that show up in the spelling, fluency, phonemic awareness, processing speed scores because they have been overshadowed by the comprehension and writing samples. Remember the composite is an average and it needs to be picked apart. Most importantly, under IDEA, there no longer needs to be a discrepancy to make some eligible under Specific Learning Disability. Yes it is true. The IEP team needs to evaluate all of the information to make a determination, not just the scores. In the case of dyslexia, this is extremely important information that every parent (and advocate) needs to arm themselves with.

Pitfall: Not knowing a spelling-only issue is not resolved by a pencil grip

I admit it, when it comes to dyslexia cases I have a lot of pet peeves. Nothing gets me hotter under the collar than the ubiquitous pencil grip. Let me be very clear, dyslexia can manifest in spelling only; sometimes that spelling is messy. The appropriate intervention for spelling is not a pencil grip. I have seen no less than ten parents be offered a pencil grip in response to a student who cannot spell. I am still waiting for a rational explanation to this ‘intervention.’

Solution: Education

Common sense should prevail here, but I know emotions run high. Spelling issues that are a result of dyslexia require the same intervention as struggling readers. They need a multisensory, structured, systematic program (usually based on the Orton-Gillingham approach).  Also, this is a great time to discuss accommodations. A student with spelling issues can be granted smaller spelling lists and the teacher can ease up on the red pen for those students who struggle with spelling. No more frownie faces for poor spelling. I will discuss more accommodations in the assistive technology pitfall.

Pitfall:  Not using assistive technology

Assistive technology is the great hidden secret of the school system. Many parents and advocates will not realize that there are many technologies that would be appropriate for students with dyslexia.

Solution: Ask for an AT assessment

Ask for Assistive Technology assessment every time. Some examples of assistive technology for students with dyslexia are: Speech to Text, Co-writer, Kurzweil and even raised paper. It doesn’t have to plug in to be assistive technology.

The theme is not to be afraid. Don’t be afraid to make the school irritated to become ‘that parent.’ Unfortunately, dyslexia is still a fight in an IEP. It does exist. It is real. Tests can identify it. It is not outgrown. There are no ‘phonics fairies.’ Parents hold the key to their child’s success when it comes to dyslexia and hopefully the above information will help navigate the system and get help early.

Part one can be found here: Putting the D in to the IEP: Why Advocating for a Child with Dyslexia is so Difficult

Below you will find a video on Dyslexia for a Day a simulation kit that is great for professional development or personal use.

Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley is the co-founder of the Dyslexia Training Institute (www.dyslexiatraininginstitute.org and www.dyslexiadr.com.) She is currently writing Putting the D in to the IEP at www.dyslexiadr.blogspot.com. She received her doctorate in Literacy with a specialization in reading and dyslexia from San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. Dr. Sandman-Hurley a Certified Special Education Advocate assisting parents and children through the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan process. She is an adjunct professor of reading, literacy coordinator and a tutor trainer. Kelli is trained by a fellow of the Orton-Gillingham Academy and in the Lindamood-Bell, RAVE-O and Wilson Reading Programs. Kelli is the Past-President of the San Diego Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, as well as a board member of the Southern California Library Literacy Network (SCLLN). She is a professional developer for California Library Literacy Services (CLLS) as well as a Literacy Consultant for the San Diego Council on Literacy. She was awarded the Jane Johnson Fellowship and the Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE) scholarship. Kelli has presented at numerous conferences as well as provided professional development for k-12 teachers. She is currently working on her book, Putting the D in IEP: A guide to dyslexia in the school system. Join the Dyslexia Training Institute at www.facebook.com/dyslexiatraining


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Embedding an ABA Intervention During Read Aloud

September 4, 2012 in Special Education Articles by Jess

It is well documented that students with ASD benefit from ABA interventions.  It is also well documented that children with disabilities (including students with ASD) benefit from inclusive classroom experiences with the necessary services and supports integrated into the classroom to improve learning outcomes.  When students with ASD are included in general education classrooms, ABA interventions can and should be embedded into as many different instructional and non-instructional activities as possible to provide the intensity of intervention they often need to meet their social communication, behavioral, and academic needs.  Many teachers consider ABA as a 1:1 intervention that can only be implemented in therapeutic settings.  However, as I discuss in my books Bringing ABA into Your Inclusive Classroom and Bringing ABA into Home, School, and Play for Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, ABA interventions can be implemented within everyday routines and activities across home, school, and community settings. Read the rest of this entry →

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Putting the D in to the IEP: Why Advocating for a Child with Dyslexia is so Difficult

August 12, 2012 in Special Education Articles by Jess

Advocating for a child with dyslexia or suspected dyslexia can be tantamount to moving a cruise ship with a piece of string and your teeth. But if you pull hard enough and you give the ship enough fuel to move, you can make progress.  Once you set sail the whole ordeal will be worth the struggle. So, why is it so difficult to get appropriate services or even recognition of a problem from most schools?

“Dyslexia is a broad term that covers a lot of different issues.”  If I had a dime for every time I heard this mantra that has been adopted by countless participants at IEP meetings, I would have a lot of dimes.  I have to admit, I have had to control my smirk when I hear this mantra and wait for my turn to set the record straight. The fact is the opposite is true. Dyslexia has a very narrow definition and only includes those students with a phonological processing problem (www.interdys.org for a complete and official definition). It can be identified with the correct battery of tests that are correctly interpreted. Read the rest of this entry →

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“Mom, I Can’t Read!”: The truth about literacy, struggling readers, and dyslexia

June 4, 2012 in Special Education Articles by Jess


Fact 1:

Approximately 20% of children reach age 11 and are not able to pass a reading test.  

Fact 2:

It is estimated that up to 60 million people in the United States have dyslexia and struggle to read. 

Fact 3:

It doesn’t have to be this way.  

Highly Visual Learning 

With synthetic phonics system firmly in vogue as the go-to method for literacy instruction, many children are learning to read easily nowadays. However, with 1 in 5 children failing to grasp basic phonics, there is clearly more work to be done.  

In fact, some of you may have noticed that your own child labors over reading, reads short words incorrectly, guesses at words based on pictorial clues or context, doesn’t seem to understand what he reads or even flips words like ‘was’ into ‘saw’ in his writing.  


Children, like everyone, have different learning styles. Some children are kinesthetic learners, some are visual, others verbal or aural.  We all naturally use the parts of the brain that work best for us. The more we rely on those parts, the more they develop, to the detriment of other areas. When this scientific truth is applied to literacy, it can have a dangerous result. 

Visual learners seem to be particularly at risk when it comes to reading, though at first this risk may be well hidden. Children with this visual learning style will usually succeed in early literacy tasks, learning the alphabet and simple words through sight-memorisation and repetition. Both of these methods appeal to their highly engaged visual capacity.  

But their reading technique will eventually fail them.    

As text grows more complex they can no longer reliably use sight-reading or context clues as a trigger for the correct word, so they begin to guess, often wildly. Meanwhile their peers progress while they struggle, which leads to frustration, collapsed confidence, and even a refusal to read. 

If you recognize these patterns in your own children, it is likely they are highly visual sight-readers. Some of you will have children who have been labelled as dyslexic. Though not all highly visual learners have dyslexia, most dyslexics are highly visual learners. I should be said that although dyslexia causes problems in some areas of learning, it carries certain distinct advantages. There is a growing body of research in the scientific community on the enhanced perceptual abilities of dyslexics, including acute peripheral vision, excellent processing of “big-picture” gist when presented with a visual scene, and superior perception of variations in spatial patterns or pictorial connections. 

But where does this leave the highly visual learner when it comes to reading? 

The Science of Reading 

In a grossly simplified description, the conventional reader’s brain processes written language by first taking in a word through the visual cortex, and then processing it in the auditory cortex. Here the letters and letter groups are mapped to the phonemes (sounds) which are stored in the auditory memory. These sounds, now recognised by the reader, are blended into words. This stream of words is then passed to the prefrontal cortex where the actual meaning of the words is processed. 

However, in the dyslexic reader’s brain, the auditory cortex is bypassed. You can see this lack of activity in that area of the brain on an MRI scan. The visual information presented by a word moves directly from the visual cortex into the prefrontal cortex. So the word ‘cow’ is processed in exactly the same way as a picture of a cow might be.  

This technique works for a small number of words, but eventually the visual memory cannot keep up with the huge volume of words that need to be processed in the English language and thus sight-reading fails.

The Art of Changing a Brain 

Most reading recovery schemes recommend an intensive application of the same learning approach that has already failed. 

If you think about it, this is like asking someone who is not nearly tall enough to reach a certain tree branch to just “try harder”! 

What must be done instead is to find a way to re-activate the auditory processing cortex in the reading process.  

The best way to accomplish this is to appeal to the visual processing strength of the dyslexic child without allowing a visual-only processing of words. The learner must be given visually imaginative tools which can then be used to help decode (break down) the phonic structure of each word. When the phonic structure of a word is processed, this forces the engagement of the auditory cortex. 

By presenting this child with visually memorable characters which represent the various English-language phonemes and placing these characters above the appropriate letter pattern, decoding can be achieved easily.  These characters enable the child to grasp abstract information like phonemes and retain them in her visual cortex until the brain relearns how to read with an engaged auditory cortex and no longer needs this visual stimulus.  

In this way, sight-readers are weaned off their habit of jumping to a guess and instead are taught to scan each word to match the letter patterns with the sound patterns.  

Easier said than done? 

Many of you might be thinking, “Phew. That was an awfully big mouthful of long words and foreign concepts. Can it actually be done?” 

Yes! It is not an overnight process to say the least, but when the visual learner is engaged in this way through short daily practice, significant progress can be made in anywhere from 3 to 9 months, with most children achieving an excellent level of reading within a year. As always the sooner a reading problem is tackled the better, with the optimal age to embark on this kind of approach being between 5 and 9 years of age. 

There is an abundance of hope for dyslexic children. Understanding the problem and how to solve it is the vital first step in setting your child on the right path to a lifetime of happy reading.  

Oxford Learning Solutions publish the Easyread System. Easyread uses imaginative synthetic phonics to teach struggling learners how to read, specializing in cases of dyslexia, highly visual learning and auditory processing deficits. Visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/easyreadsystem.

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Struggling Readers Need Small Classes

July 12, 2011 in Special Education Articles by Jess

Being in a small class, with a quality teacher, positively and profoundly effects children:

Most of the research done in the last 30 years [shows] … that small classes, especially in the primary grades, boost student achievement and that the benefits last through later grades when students are in ordinary size classrooms…. If we really want all the excellent teachers policymakers, politicians, and pundits are calling for, we have to be willing to provide the school supports that are necessary. One of those supports is reasonable class sizes that allow teachers to do their job to the best of their ability (Joanne Yatvin, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English). Read the rest of this entry →

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Can Students with Learning Disabilities Learn How to Learn?

May 31, 2011 in Special Education Articles by Jess

Many middle school and high school students with reading disabilities have difficulty understanding their textbooks and succeeding on assignments. Reasons for their difficulties include:

  • Their inability to understand the demands of the task
  • Instruction devoted solely to the mastery of subject materials, such as a social studies chapter. Read the rest of this entry →
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