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(Illustration by Dan Carino)
Dyslexia Is The Most Common Learning Disability For All Students. Why California Doesn’t Screen For It Early
Dyslexic students often fall through the cracks and miss the chance to get help when it would make the biggest difference.
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In California, just over half of 3rd graders fail to meet the state’s benchmarks for reading and writing.

Audio Version: Dyslexia Is The Most Common Learning Disability. Why California Doesn’t Screen For It Early

Students fall behind for multiple reasons, but state education leaders point to the most common learning disability.

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“One of the greatest contributing factors to lower achievement scores in reading is the lack of early and accurate identification of students with dyslexia,” read the state’s guidelines on the learning disability, released five years ago.

Advocates and parents say dyslexic students fall through the cracks in the current system, missing out on the chance to get help when it would make the biggest difference.

A lack of attention early can compound problems later. Trouble with literacy doesn't just hurt students in English/language arts classes, but all classes — social studies, science, math. Reading and writing is the way students must demonstrate what they know.

“It can feel as though you can't do anything in the classroom, like everything is a struggle,” said Pasadena mom Adriana Luquin, whose son was never formally diagnosed with dyslexia, but needs additional help in school.

California is one of 10 states that does not require schools to assess students for dyslexia, though there have been several attempts to mandate universal screening in early elementary grades. The most recent is Senate Bill 237.

“When a parent knows what their kids' issue is, they become better advocates,” said state Senator Anthony Portantino, who sponsored the bill. “When a teacher knows what the problem is, they know what tools to use to address it.”

Skeptics of screening say schools are already overburdened and under-resourced and cannot help dyslexic learners without more funding and support.

In the meantime, some school districts are trying to cobble together a system to help struggling readers.

“What can a child that can read do? Endless things, right?” said Rebekah Ruswick, Director of Special Education at the Downey Unified School District. “There has been, for years, a missed opportunity.”

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How To Identify Dyslexia — Before Kids Even Learn To Read

The foundation for reading is built before kids ever step foot in a classroom.

“It starts with learning the sounds of your language,” said Harvard Education Professor Nadine Gaab. “It starts with understanding that if you add sounds or take sounds away that new words form.”

Reading requires using different parts of the brain in complex ways. Dyslexia manifests in different ways, but most people have trouble with some aspect of literacy.

“We are all much more similar than different, but there are real observable differences in the brains of people with and without dyslexia,” said Rebecca Gotlieb, an assistant researcher at UCLA's Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice.

While brain scans can show these differences, it is not a realistic solution for identifying dyslexia on a large scale. For one, it’s too expensive.

Researchers say the right assessments can identify students at risk of developing dyslexia before they even fully learn to read.

These assessments evaluate how well a student can perform the basic skills needed to read. For example, one test presents kids with a set of familiar pictures, letters, numbers or colors and has them name each one as fast as possible.

“Most kids do complete it, it's really just a matter of the amount of time it takes to complete it,” Gotlieb said. Kids at risk of developing dyslexia can take longer to connect what they are seeing to the word that describes it.

  • LAist solicited comments from our readers about their experiences with dyslexia. You'll see their remarks throughout this story.

  • “My son is 10 years old and has had a stressful educational journey…He is a completely different person from the confident rambunctious child in preschool. He’s self conscious, nervous, and has low self esteem due to his dyslexia… It is a journey that we never expected to be on but we love and support our amazing boy and will always fight for him.”

    — Stephanie

A team based at the University of California, San Francisco has been working on a free web-based screener that would take a classroom teacher 10 to 20 minutes to implement.

UCSF Dyslexia Center Co-Director Marilu Gorno-Tempini said the goal is not to diagnose very young children with dyslexia, but rather identify who is at risk of developing the learning disability, and could benefit from specialized instruction early on.

“It should always be a risk assessment and a way of tailoring teaching to different strengths and weaknesses,” Gorno-Tempini said.

Several people we interviewed compared screening for dyslexia to preventative medicine. In the same way changing diet and exercising can reduce high cholesterol and prevent heart disease, researchers hope identifying dyslexia warning signs early and intervening could bypass the biggest struggles with reading.

With Dyslexia, A Lack Of Early Intervention Creates More Problems Later

California's Inconsistent Approach To Dyslexia

When we asked for your stories about dyslexia, families often recounted how difficult it was to figure out why their child was falling behind in school.

When Lilianah Parra was in 7th grade, she said homework that teachers told her should have taken her an hour, took two or three.

“It was putting stress on me where like, to the point like, I probably would cry every day,” Parra said.

The San Bernardino teenager had a hard time spelling, writing and understanding the meaning of words written out on the page.

Parra already received some support through an individualized education program, or IEP, but at the time the district’s psychologists weren’t trained to look for dyslexia.

Parra’s mom, Lori, requested an independent evaluation with an outside psychologist that diagnosed Lilianah with dyslexia, ADHD and dysgraphia and dyscalculia — which relate to writing and math.

Naming Lilianah’s learning disabilities helped Parra push the district to provide resources to meet her needs. For example, Parra started using computer-based apps to read text aloud and take notes.

  • “The system is built to support learning in a very specific way and if you don't learn that way, then you're kind of out of luck unless somebody advocates for you or you learn to advocate for yourself.”

    —Adriana Luiqin, Pasadena

Lori said finding out about dyslexia earlier could have changed her daughter’s relationship with school.

“I think she probably would have loved reading right now,” Lori said. “To this day, she hates it, you know, because she knew she struggled.”

While some schools might screen specifically for dyslexia or find the learning disability through the special education process, there is no universal approach in California.

The Parra family’s experience tracks with what we heard from dozens of parents who responded to our call-out. When schools do not assess their children for dyslexia, those with means often shell out thousands of dollars for outside evaluations. Parents told us without the label of dyslexia their kids haven’t been able to access tools or instruction specific to their needs.

Legislation that would require California schools to screen every student for dyslexia annually between kindergarten and second grade failed to pass the Assembly education committee.

The lawmaker who had the power to advance that bill, Long Beach Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, did not return our request for comment.

  • "My son has dyslexia and initially it was very difficult to get services. The doctor said it was up to the school to evaluate and diagnose. The school said it was up to the doctor."

    — Bridget Smith

One opponent of universal dyslexia screening is the California Teachers Association.

Ismael Armendariz leads the union’s special education committee and says districts already have the tools they need, and that mandated screening doesn’t solve the larger underlying problems in the state’s public schools.

“There are teacher shortages across the state,” Armendariz said. “People are leaving. We have hella vacancies in Oakland.”

The special education teacher said educators do not always have the funding or capacity to step in when students fall behind in reading.

“We want time to plan,” Armendariz said. “We want time to look at student data and actually drive instruction based off of that.”

Educators may need additional training for screening mandates to succeed. In a national survey, just 17% of teachers said they feel “very well prepared” to teach kids with mild to moderate learning disabilities including dyslexia.

I call it the sea of struggling readers. When everybody is going down with the ship, how do I find the ones with dyslexia?
— Timothy Odegard, Middle Tennessee State University

There is a gap between what research shows is the most effective way to identify and help students with dyslexia and what’s happening in many classrooms.

“The reality is, is that our, what I like to call our base systems of education and early grade reading, aren't running optimally,” said Timothy Odegard, a psychology professor and chair of excellence in dyslexic studies at Middle Tennessee State University. “It doesn't allow our identification models and our ideas about labeling to work effectively.”

Odegard has studied dyslexia policies across the country and found that in several states, fewer students were identified with the learning disability than expected.

It’s estimated that up to 20% of people have dyslexia. Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas, which all have universal screening, are identifying an average of 4% to 7% of students with dyslexia.

Students at schools with high numbers of kids with poor reading skills were less likely to be identified as dyslexic. One hypothesis is that it’s related to how teachers interpret the screening results.

“I call it the sea of struggling readers,” Odegard said. When everybody is going down with the ship, how do I find the ones with dyslexia?”

Students of color were also less likely to be classified as dyslexic. Odegard said this could be an example of how bias shapes students’ school experience.

What Happens After You Identify Dyslexia?

“Screening is only as effective as the intervention that it's paired to,” said UCLA’s Gotlieb.

The first step is teaching all children to read in an evidence-based way. This means focusing on basics, like that letters connect to sounds and combine to form words.

Dyslexic learners will still need additional instruction, experts say, though not necessarily within a special education setting.

Researchers at UC Davis found that dyslexic readers score “substantially lower” on reading tests in first grade than typical readers and never caught up to their non-dyslexic peers.

“If the persistent achievement gap between dyslexic and typical readers is to be narrowed, or even closed, reading interventions must be implemented early,” they wrote in a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2015.

Multiple studies show that interventions in first- and second grade could successfully bring most students up to their peers’ average range of reading ability.

Scans of children with dyslexia show that these early interventions can change how their brain works while practicing skills related to reading.

If the persistent achievement gap between dyslexic and typical readers is to be narrowed, or even closed, reading interventions must be implemented early.
— 2015 study in the Journal of Pediatrics

Researchers have found the most effective lessons for dyslexic readers are frequent, build skills gradually and “directly make connections between the letters in print and the sounds in words.” Those lessons should also eventually include opportunities for students to learn how to unlock the meaning of a longer text.

“We are going to teach them explicitly what they're supposed to be learning, they don't have to guess,” Middle Tennessee State University’s Odegard said.

These interventions still work as students get older, but not as well.

Another goal of early intervention is that by the time students reach later grades, only those with the most severe needs will require the most intense interventions— everyone else will have already gotten the help they need.

  • "My son was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was 7. He is now 48 and a highly successful professional in the tech industry… fought for what my son needed in the school setting, found resources outside the school that would give him the needed skills to work within his dyslexic world."

    — Helen Falco

It’s one thing to deploy interventions in a controlled lab setting, it’s another to incorporate them into the busy school day, in the midst of a pandemic that has disrupted learning for more than two years.

Gotlieb is part of a team at UCLA piloting a universal dyslexia screener and several different types of lessons in three L.A. schools.

Gotlieb shows me a few of the activities from a curriculum called RAVE-O while we chat over Zoom.

There’s a stack of cards with colorful images.

“You use the pictures to cue the students to come up with the many interesting meanings that a word can have,” Gotlieb said. That’s important because some kids with dyslexia might not grasp that a single word with a few modifications can have multiple meanings and it can stop them in their tracks while reading.

Depictions of waves (choppy), cut-up vegetables (chopped) and eating utensils (chopsticks) all lead back to the same root word.

That kids can have fun while learning to read is important, Gotlieb said.

“Our perspective is that dyslexia, it's not like a curse, it's not something to be avoided,” Gotlieb said. “It's something to know about so that we can help a student reach their fullest potential.”

What Are School Districts Doing?

A 2015 legislative attempt to mandate screening instead pivoted, requiring the California Department of Education to publish a set of dyslexia guidelines. The 136-page document, released in 2017, encourages schools to screen all children for dyslexia. Without a mandate, implementation is up to each school district.

In response to an LAist inquiry, some districts said they can identify struggling readers through their existing academic assessments. Other districts are considering adopting new programs that would help educators flag students at risk for dyslexia.

L.A. County School District Dyslexia Policies
  • We asked the 10 largest school districts that enroll elementary-aged children in L.A. County to tell us about their policies related to identifying dyslexic students.

  • ABC Unified School District
    The district convenes a “student study team” to recommend interventions for students who need additional help, which could include a referral for a special education assessment. Communications Officer Scott Smith said in an email there are reading programs specifically designed for dyslexic readers.

  • Compton Unified School District
    The district uses a variety of assessments to measure students' reading skills. These tests don’t diagnose students with dyslexia, said Sal Aquino, the district’s director of special education. “But it does provide us with some more informed data that we utilize for early intervention.”

  • Downey Unified School District
    The district assesses students who may need special education services with tests that look at a child’s skills, including reading and writing, and is currently reviewing dyslexia screening tools that could be used with all students, said Director of Special Education Rebekah Ruswick. “If students are identified as ‘struggling’ in the area of reading, our student study teams meet to brainstorm systematic and intensive interventions,” Ruswick said in an email.

  • Los Angeles Unified School District
    The district measures students’ academic performance through different assessments, said Division of Special Education Coordinator of K-12 Instruction Leila Rondeau. If a student tests below benchmark there’s a ladder of interventions, ranging from additional reading instruction to an assessment for special education.

  • Long Beach Unified School District
    “We don’t keep specific data on students identified with dyslexia,” public information director Chris Eftychiou said in an email. He said dyslexia falls under the label of “specific learning disability” and the district has “numerous resources” to support them.

  • Palmdale Elementary School District
    This district has a universal dyslexia screening program, said Director of Special Education Ron Cooper in an email. Students who need additional help receive additional instruction focused on topics including phonics, spelling and word recognition and may eventually be referred for a special education assessment.

  • The Glendale Unified School District, Pomona Unified School District, Torrance Unified School District and Montebello Unified School District did not provide any information in response to our request.

“I like to have multiple tools at my disposal, because every kid is different,” said Downey Unified's special education director Rebekah Ruswick.

Ruswick said the district’s timeline is still a work in progress and will include ongoing training, feedback and intervention.

“You have kids that are highly capable, with amazing capacity, that have dyslexia,” Ruswick said. "And so it's just making sure that our classrooms are prepared. And our intervention teams are prepared. And if needed, our special education teams are prepared.”

“This needs to not be something that parents have to advocate for. How do we create a system where we identify the students?
— Howana Lundy, San Bernardino City Unified School District

In San Bernardino, Lori Parra, Lilianah’s mom, helped kickstart the district’s re-evaluation of how it served students with dyslexia.

Howana Lundy, director of special education for the San Bernardino City Unified School District, said what started as getting resources for Lilianah, turned into “working together to make sure that no other family has to really have the experience that she had early on.”

“This needs to not be something that parents have to advocate for,” Lundy said. “How do we create a system where we identify the students?”

The district convened a dyslexia task force of parents and educators in 2020 that met monthly.

“It felt that they were finally listening,” Parra said.

The district is rolling out a universal screener for dyslexia, new interventions and teacher training this year. Together the group developed a pamphlet to pass out to families.

“This thing is not going to change overnight,” Lundy said. “But if we have a plan, then over time, we will get very good at making sure that our students with dyslexia, and their needs are being met.”

Part 3: Policy Meets Practice

LAist reporters Julia Barajas, Robert Garrova, Jill Replogle, and Kyle Stokes, and engagement producer Adriana Pera, contributed to this story.


Learn More About Dyslexia
  • I want to know more about dyslexia ...

    • California Dyslexia Guidelines — Comprehensive guide from the California Department of Education to help educators and parents identify, assess and support students with dyslexia.
    • International Dyslexia Association — membership-based organization that hosts conferences and workshops, and publishes self-assessments and fact sheets on everything from the neuroscience of dyslexia to how to apply for accommodations on college entrance exams. It also publishes some resources in Spanish.
    • International Dyslexia Association, Los Angeles Branch — hosts teacher trainings, conferences, and provides grants to support dyslexia programs in local schools. Published fact sheets on dyslexia in English and Spanish.
    • California Dyslexia Initiative Free Webinar Series — hosted by the Sacramento County Office of Education and funded by the California Department of Education. Also publishes professional development resources for teachers.
    • Learning Disabilities Association of America: Comprehensive informational resources for parents, educators, and adults. Recommendations for helpful apps, programs, and teaching materials. Also provides advice for folks who have just learned they might have a learning disability.
  • I want to know more about laws regarding dyslexia and special education ...

    • AB-1369: California Dyslexia Guidelines — under the guidelines, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction is required to provide technical assistance in implementing the guidelines to parents, teachers, school administrators and faculty members in teacher training programs.
    • SB-237: Dyslexia Risk Screening — this bill has not been passed.
    • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — IDEA requires school districts to provide a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment for children with disabilities. The federal IDEA website has resources for families, including information on individualized education plans (IEPs) and dispute resolution.
  • I want to connect with other parents or dyslexia advocates ...

    • Disability Rights California — engages in legal and policy advocacy, and publishes resources for individuals with disabilities and their families.
    • Decoding Dyslexia CA Parent Support Groups — Decoding Dyslexia, a grassroots organization made up of families affected by dyslexia and educators, has parent support groups that meet regularly across California.
  • I want to go to college ...

Terms To Know
  • Dyslexia Terms

    • Phonemes: The smallest units of sound that make up words. For example, while the word “car” is spelled with the letters c-a-r, the phonemes involved are “/k/” and “ar,” or /kar/.
    • Phonological awareness: An individual’s awareness of and access to the sound structure of oral language. It is the understanding that spoken language can be divided into smaller units (i.e., words, syllables, and phonemes) and that those units can be identified and manipulated.
    • Phonological processing: The ability to understand, mentally store, retrieve and change speech sounds. Someone with a phonological processing deficit has a hard time segmenting written words into smaller parts.
    • Decoding: A skill used to break words down into syllables and phonemes.
    • Fluency: In reading, fluency refers to the ability to read a text accurately and quickly, focusing on comprehension instead of decoding.
    • Dyslexia: A learning condition that affects how a brain processes language, which usually manifests itself in difficulty reading. People with dyslexia often have trouble recognizing letters and understanding how combinations of letters create the sounds that make up our language.
    • Dyscalculia: A learning condition that affects a person’s ability to do math, and can make math take longer. Dyslexia can also affect math.
    • Dysgraphia: A learning condition that involves difficulty with writing — handwriting, typing, and spelling. Like dyscalculia, dysgraphia has a high rate of co-occurrence with dyslexia.
  • Education Terms

    • IDEA: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Federal law that requires students with disabilities to have access to a “free and appropriate education,” including additional services or accommodations.
    • IEP: Individualized Education Plan. A plan developed by a support team to ensure that a child who has a disability identified under IDEA and who is attending an elementary or secondary educational institution receives their education in the least restrictive environment. Children receive a support team that also includes a child’s parents and at least one special education teacher and usually a general education teacher; a school district representative; and other various experts and representatives as necessary.
    • Specific learning disability (SLD): One of the 13 disability categories identified in the IDEA. If an individual has an SLD, it means they can have trouble understanding or using language, spoken or written, that may make it difficult to listen, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations. Dyslexia qualifies as a specific learning disability.
    • Multi-Tiered Systems of Support: A series of gradually escalating responses to students struggling in class. This is an umbrella term for the many options for services available to school districts, and is focused on all students, not specifically students in special education.
    • Neurodiversity: The idea that all brains interact with the world differently, supporting the notion that there is no one “right” way of neurological thinking or behaving.
  • Sources: California Dyslexia Guidelines, U.S. Department of Education

What questions do you have about early childhood education and development? What do you want to know about kids ages 0-5 and those who care for them in Southern California?
Decades of research indicates early childhood education significantly boosts children’s readiness to learn. Mariana Dale wants families, caregivers and educators to have the information they need to help children 0-5 grow and thrive by identifying what’s working and what’s not in California’s early childhood system.

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