Oklahoma dyslexia students not getting the help they need

Monday, January 10th 2005, 5:56 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Students with dyslexia do not receive the help they need because Oklahoma schools do not identify them early enough and teachers are not trained to counteract the learning disability, according to child advocates.

Early intervention is key to treating dyslexia, a reading disability caused by faulty wiring in the brain, said Mary Monfort, a University of Central Oklahoma professor.

Monfort said dyslexia is not a visual problem or a matter of intelligence. Most dyslexic children are very bright, but their brain has problems putting sounds to letters. Often the problem is heredity.

If caught early _ ideally before age 8 _ brain pathways can be altered through specific and systematic teaching methods.

``If you get it really early and you start it right, then the brain is still malleable,'' Montford said. ``You can change the formation of the brain.''

There are no Oklahoma school districts that routinely screen all children as young as kindergarten for learning disabilities, said Mary Dahlgren, a reading consultant who was director of the Payne Education Center, a private center in Oklahoma City that offers training for special education teachers.

Instead, she said, most wait until the child has struggled for several years before placing them in special education classes.

``The Oklahoma system is a wait-to-fail system,'' she said.

But several districts said they do everything they can to help struggling students without labeling them as dyslexic. If caught before third grade, nine of 10 children can overcome their reading difficulties, Dahlgren said.

Instead of teaching dyslexic students to read, several Oklahoma teachers say they rely on accommodation _ reading aloud to the student or giving oral exams. That teaches the children to cope with their disability but doesn't correct it.

Nancy Goosen, director of special services for the Edmond School District, said the state doesn't allow students to be classified as ``learning disabled'' until they are at least 8 years old. Instead, struggling children can be categorized as developmentally delayed.

``Disability is a very serious word,'' Goosen said. ``We want to make sure that's truly what that is.''

Steve Lindley, spokesman for the Putnam City School District, said teachers understand the need to catch learning disabilities early.

``In an elementary school classroom especially, teachers spend a great deal of time every day working on literacy skills. That is their job and they are experts in recognizing when students have a reading problem.''

Misty Kimbrough, the assistant state superintendent of special education, said it is up to individual districts to provide screening in a timely manner.

``There is nothing that says a student must fail before he is placed,'' she said.

Still, even if a child is in a special education classroom, that does not mean the student will get specialized help.

According to the National Institutes of Health, fewer than 10 percent of teachers know how to teach reading to children with learning disabilities.

The number may be even less in Oklahoma, where special education teachers are not required to have a master's degree and bachelor-level programs generally do not give more than a cursory look at dyslexia.