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New Report Outlines What it Takes to Ensure Dyslexic Students Learn to Read

What Works for Learning Disabled Students Could Boost Literacy for All Kids

NEW HAVEN—The national drive to ensure that more students read proficiently by the end of third grade will not succeed unless our schools find an effective way to teach the 2.4 million students with learning disabilities, according to a report released today by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

With nearly 5 percent of U.S. students diagnosed with dyslexia or other learning disabilities, schools must adopt a comprehensive approach that emphasizes early identification, research-based lessons and new technology for these students, according to “Don’t Dys Our Kids: Dyslexia and the Quest for Grade-Level Reading Proficiency.”
At the same time, the strategies developed for children with learning disabilities should be applied in every classroom to bolster reading skills for all students, helping to narrow achievement gaps and reduce dropout rates.

“We know the brain research, we know the best practices, we know what works to ensure that dyslexic students learn to read,” said Stewart Hudson, president of the Tremaine Foundation, a Connecticut-based philanthropy that invests in educational policies and programs that assist those with learning disabilities. “We need to use what we know to help all children read on grade-level and succeed in school.”

Currently two-thirds of U.S. fourth graders—and more than four-fifths of those from low-income families—are not reading proficiently, according to results from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Students who don’t read well by that point often fail to catch up and are four times more likely to drop out of high school, research shows.

To address this, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is working with foundations, nonprofit partners, states and communities to increase the number of low-income students who master reading by the end of third grade. Addressing learning differences, particularly through tailoring instruction to various learning styles, is critical to the effort, said Ralph Smith, the campaign’s managing director.

"If we can succeed with having more kids with dyslexia learn to read, that success will help us to do better with all kids,” said Smith, a senior vice president at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The U.S. Education Department has recognized the importance of a personalized approach to education by making it an "absolute priority" in its Race to the Top grant competition for school districts. “Don’t Dys Our Kids” recommends providing that personalized instruction using Universal Design for Learning principles, which offer multiple means of engaging and teaching students with different learning styles.

The report provides a far-reaching overview of the history and progress in understanding and meeting the needs of children with dyslexia, as well as the persisting challenges that must be overcome, to ensure that all students can read proficiently by the third grade. The report also highlights best practices and examples of solutions that are already working in communities.

Based on interviews with nearly 30 experts, the report stresses the need to maintain high standards for all students and provides a collection of recommended actions:

  • Early identification: Research shows that intervention efforts with dyslexic children are more effective before age 7, but many learning disabilities aren’t identified until students are in their teens. A Response-to-Intervention model can provide increasing levels of support to help identify children as early as pre-kindergarten. Children can be screened as young as 2 in child care settings or doctor’s offices.
  • Research-based curriculum: Neuroscientists have determined that the brains of dyslexic students operate differently than those of other children. Research also indicates the best teaching techniques for these students can also help other struggling readers learn to read and comprehend words. Phonics are important but cannot be the only component of a reading program. The report recommends curriculum based on Universal Design for Learning principles.
  • Better teacher preparation: Too few teachers are trained in how to teach reading, and even fewer know how to spot learning disabilities. Teacher preparation courses, whether in education schools or professional development tracks, should emphasize the brain science, screening practices and teaching techniques that can help all children learn to read.
  • Technological advances: Assistive technology can help students with disabilities listen to books, organize material and read on a screen that provides more space between words or lines of type. New technology can also make it easier to assess learning differences. Yet only an estimated 25 to 35 percent of learning disabled students have access to such technology in school. Schools should expand the use of such material when possible.
  • Parent engagement: Parents play a key role in identifying and addressing learning disabilities. While some develop into strong advocates, others don’t understand what their children need or how to secure it. Worse, they view the diagnosis as a stigma and are reluctant to seek help early on. A broad parent engagement strategy can help provide the support for these students, as well as other struggling readers.

“We need to harness the advocacy energy of the learning disabilities community to a broader literacy movement,” said Hudson, Tremaine’s president. “And we need more mayors, governors, school superintendents, and chief state school officers to embrace the structures and practices that make a difference.”

On Wed., Nov. 14 from 1-2 p.m. ET, the Tremaine Foundation will host a webinar on “Don’t Dys Our Kids” with advocates and leaders on learning disabilities and early literacy issues to discuss the report’s recommended actions and highlight successful efforts in communities today. Members of the media are invited. Please register if you would like to attend.



The Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation is a Connecticut-based foundation that focuses its grantmaking in the areas of art, environment and learning disabilities.

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is a collaborative effort by foundations, nonprofit partners, states and communities across the nation to ensure that more children in low-income families succeed in school and graduate prepared for college, a career, and active citizenship.