I think my child has a reading disability. What should I do?
Monday, October 07, 2019
It’s 6 a.m. on the first day of school. It’s time for Julio to wash up, dress, make sure he packed all his school supplies, and have breakfast. He grumbles and says, “I’m not hungry. I don’t want to go to school. I won’t open a book.” As his eyes well up with tears, he murmurs, “I can’t read. The other kids know. They’ll call me stupid.”
You ask yourself, “Does he have dyslexia? Some other reading disability?” Then you shutter. You fear the future. You’re certain Julio has a reading disability.
Why certain? For more than 15 years, your brother struggled with reading and writing. Emotionally, it ripped a chunk out of his confidence. A chunk that’s still visible.
Often, fear creates hideous monsters in our brains. But history doesn’t repeat itself like a movie in loop mode. It does, however, shed light on what may lie ahead.
The solution is straightforward: Get an accurate, comprehensive, and well-informed reading and writing evaluation (and in some cases, a speech-and-language evaluation). Without such an evaluation, teaching a struggling reader to read is akin to doing heart valve surgery without reviewing the results of MRI or other relevant tests.
For parents, this raises a critical question: How can I get the right reading evaluation?
Get a Reading Evaluation
You can pay for a private evaluation. This way, you can seek out a masters- or doctoral-level reading specialist with a sterling reputation who will take the time to listen to you, understand your concerns, observe your child in a variety of school situations, interview school staff who have instructed him, assess his (or her) reading and writing, pinpoint his problems, and make recommendations based on the findings and the research.
As you might suspect, private evaluations can be very expensive, especially if the specialist has a doctorate in reading and does far more than test, test, and test again.
You can also request — in person and always by email and USPS letter — that your school district evaluate your child to determine if he has a “specific learning disability.” Examples include serious difficulties recognizing words, understanding grade-level materials read to him, and identifying the sounds made by individual letters and letter combinations.
If your child’s teachers also indicate that he’s struggling with reading, might have dyslexia or other reading disabilities, or has stagnated or made minimal progress, the school will likely honor your request. It makes moral, ethical, and financial sense.
In addition to these justifications and the fact that the earlier problems are caught, the easier (and less expensive) they are to remediate, federal law provides the school with a strong legal incentive. Specifically, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA), the main federal law governing special education, asserts that “Either a parent of a child, or a [school district] …may initiate a request for an initial evaluation (IDEA, Section 614).”
Because many school districts use learning consultants or school psychologists to evaluate children’s struggles with reading, it’s important that you specifically request — by email and USPS letter — that a state-certified reading specialist or one with a graduate degree in reading conduct the evaluation.
Generally, they have far more education, knowledge, and experience evaluating and treating reading disabilities than learning consultants and school psychologists. The difference is like having highly trained radiologist rather than a general practitioner evaluate a critical set of sophisticated MRI films.
Assuming both physicians are highly competent, the general practitioner may well miss what the radiologist would see. So, ask for a reading specialist; if you don’t, you and your child may not get one, which may perpetuate his struggles.
Submit a List of Critical Questions
At least two weeks before the reading evaluation, meet with the evaluator and give and discuss with him or her a list the questions you (and, if possible, your child’s teachers) want answered. Specific, concrete questions can help to direct and individualize the evaluation. Here are several examples:
- What are my child’s instructional, independent, and frustration levels for word recognition, oral reading, and listening comprehension? (For older students who can successfully read third-grade materials, add silent reading.) Without my child losing focus, what length materials can he comfortably read?
- What, if any, are his major problems with decoding unknown words, comprehending what he reads, understanding and using vocabulary, reading fluently, and writing clear, logical sentences, paragraphs, and compositions?
- In class, what barriers, if any, are hindering his progress?
- What objectives are most important for him to achieve in the next two months? Weekly, how should his progress be objectively and validly measured?
- What specific reading and writing methods and strategies will accelerate his reading and writing achievement? How can he best learn them?
- What does the published research say about the recommended methods and strategies? (Please give me one or two recent articles explaining and evaluating the recommended methods and strategies or direct me to the current research on them.)
- How many hours per week should he receive one-on-one or small-group reading and writing instruction? If he’s placed in a small group, what should be the maximum number of students in the group?
- How should his reading program be coordinated throughout the day, so different teachers, such as his science and social studies teachers, use the same approaches to accelerate his progress in reading and writing?
You and your child’s teacher might want to add more questions. To develop these questions, I suggest that you review these articles. You may want to suggest that your child’s teachers to do the same:
Make a Decision: Public or Private?
“But wait,” you say. “You started this column by discussing private evaluations. Should I trust evaluations done by school personnel?” My answer: Yes, if…
Yes, if they answered your critical questions in accurate, valid, and comprehensive ways. Yes, if your child’s teachers think the findings are valid and the recommendations practical. Yes, if other knowledgeable experts agree.
The important question is not “public or private.” Both can be excellent. But the best any evaluation can do is offer a well-founded hypothesis, an educated guess, that leads to an experiment we call “instruction” or an “Individualized Educational Program.”
Thus, the critical questions:
- How well did the evaluation answer your critical questions?
- What’s the likelihood that the evaluator’s recommendations will substantially accelerate your child’s progress?
- Is the school likely to effectively implement the evaluator’s recommendations?
- Is the IEP Team likely to frequently monitor your child’s progress?
- Is the IEP Team likely to use valid measures to monitor your child’s progress?
Without frequent and valid progress monitoring, monitoring you can rely on, struggling readers often spend years stagnating in ineffective programs. However well intended, such programs can easily cause lifelong educational, social, emotional, and health problems.
Go Beyond Reading
Although this article focused on reading evaluations, keep in mind that vision, hearing, sleep, and nutrition can strongly influence reading, writing, and every other aspect of your child’s academic, social, and emotional growth. So, request, by email and letter, that the school assess your child’s needs in these areas as well as reading, writing, and listening comprehension.
Usually, school personnel will arrange for vision and hearing screening tests. They’re routine. But your request for a sleep and nutrition screening will probably surprise them.
If the sleep screenings, usually done by a school nurse, and the nutrition screening, best handled by a registered dietician, suggest problems, it’s important to get private evaluations or request, by email and mail, diagnostic evaluations by
Your request for a diagnostic evaluation by the school’s physician may surprise the evaluation team. Nevertheless, IDEA identifies diagnostic medical services — not treatment by a physician — as a related service. IDEA states that related services include:
“Medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes. Related services also include school health services and school nurse services” (https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b/a/300.34)
IDEA further states that:
“Medical services shall be for diagnostic and evaluation purposes only as may be required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education, and includes the early identification and assessment of disabling conditions in children” (italics added; https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b/a)
As far as I know, federal circuit courts have not ruled on the issues of medical diagnostic services for sleep or nutrition. Research, however, has shown that problems in these areas can dramatically affect learning in ways that impede a child’s ability to “benefit from special education” (https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b/a). Thus, IEPs that fail to address such problems can dramatically undermine the effectiveness of otherwise effective IEPs.
Consequences of Inadequate Sleep: “Moodiness, fatigue, irritability, depressed mood, difficulty learning new concepts, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate or a ‘fuzzy’ head, lack of motivation, clumsiness, increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings” (https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/307334.php). Each of these can intensify a child’s reading problems.
Consequences of Poor Nutrition: “While most American children may be taking in a great deal of calories, they may not be taking in any essential vitamins, nutrients, and minerals. This lack in vitamins and minerals leads to detrimental side-effects, according to Mary Gavin from the Nemours Foundation. Children with insufficient diets are reported to have more problems with health, academic learning, and psychosocial behavior.” (https://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/how-diet-and-nutrition-impact-a-childs-learning-ability).
As a parent, grandparent, and educator, I strongly believe that identifying problems suggests the need to discuss them with competent health professionals.
But if the sleep and nutrition screening or medical evaluations don’t find any problems, great. It’s time for you to work with school personnel to develop a reading and writing program that will not only benefit your child’s reading but enhance his social and emotional development.
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