Teach dyslexic students well

An Alice Birney Middle School student reads aloud during reading specialist Sarah Donovan's class Wednesday, November 12, 2008. (Brad Nettles/File)

Public schools in South Carolina teach children who cannot see, children who don’t speak English and children with severe cognitive disabilities.

But they are not equipped to teach children with dyslexia — a neurobiological condition that makes it difficult for them to read and write, but that does not necessarily affect their mental acuity.

Indeed, it has been three years since the General Assembly requested and received — and apparently ignored — a report on specific ways the state could help those students.

It’s past time for the state to act. Estimates are that as many as one in five students have dyslexia. That’s a lot of students likely to have difficulty in school, or even drop out, despite having the capacity to succeed, with the right teaching.

The S.C. Department of Education has finally recognized dyslexia as a learning disorder. But it doesn’t screen all students to determine if they have dyslexia, and it doesn’t train teachers to deal with it.

Further, reading programs that public schools do offer might actually harm dyslexic students, who perceive some letters upside down and some letters in the wrong order. Trying to teach them with materials that are appropriate for non-dyslexic students could serve only to convince them that they cannot learn.

Teaching techniques have been developed that work for dyslexic and mainstream students. Locally, the private Trident Academy has had success with those programs. But many families cannot afford private education.

Other states have done better, including Texas where the Legislature requires all school districts to report the number of students with dyslexia.

But reports suggest that even there some parents find it difficult to convince school districts to provide the special curriculum called for by law.

Canada and Britain have formally instituted “dyslexia friendly schools,” and teachers are trained to recognize the signs. Singapore has begun providing dyslexia assistance in its schools, and Denmark, which provides special instruction for children with dyslexia, has decided to screen all children from the age of eight for the condition.

Even big business recognizes the need for better education for dyslexic children. Both Apple and Google produce technological resources for use by children with dyslexia.

South Carolina students should not have to fail before they are identified as dyslexic. Screening ahead of time would save time and resources.

And when identified as dyslexic, students should be taught by teachers who have received special training — just as students who speak English as a second language are.

Failing to address this problem belies the claims of legislators who purport to be pro-education — and even pro-business.

Dyslexic students can learn and become part of an educated workforce. But they need schools to do their part.