Friday, December 22, 2017

Our Holiday Poem

We continue a tradition we started in 2010, blogging in rhyme for our last post of the year.

Every year around this time
Our blogging turns from prose to rhyme
It’s only once in every year
So, loyal reader, have no fear

We’ve rhymed suggestions, apps and tools
For students, parents, and for schools
We’ve rhymed our thanks to families
Who’ve brought their kids for us to see

We’ve thanked teachers, doctors, tutors, and more
Whose faith in our work means so much
Who gave us a great recommendation
That brought folks through our door

It’s been a special year for our Yellin team
We’ve had weddings and babies galore
Our staff’s been heroic and creative
And we couldn’t ask for anything more

But when we look beyond our walls
It’s been a time of some dismay
Our nation is divided
A bit more every day

So we will share our wishes
That things will change for all
For peace, love, and understanding
On issues great and small

We wish you all the best next year
For you and all your crowd
And that the year that's coming
Is one that makes us proud.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
The Yellin Center will be closed from December 23rd until Tuesday, January 2nd. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

NY State Adopts Changes to Diploma Requirements

We have been following how the New York State Board of Regents, the body that oversees public education throughout the state, has been making changes to the graduation requirements for New York students with disabilities.

Most recently, we wrote about changes the Regents adopted in 2016 to create a path to a diploma - called a "local diploma" - for students with disabilities who were unable to pass sufficient Regents exams to obtain a Regents Diploma, the "gold standard" academic diploma for New York students.

At that time, we noted that all changes to the strict Regents diploma requirements were

"... part of a delicate balancing act. Parents and educators want to make sure that all students -- including those with disabilities -- are offered a rigorous curriculum to prepare them for adulthood. On the other hand, both parents and schools recognize that because of their disabilities, some of these students will not be able to meet the highest bar set by certain state exams and risk being left without a high school diploma despite their best efforts to achieve this crucial credential."

Earlier this week, the Regents implemented another change, this one made without the usual notice to the public. It permits students who are unable to pass the English and math Regents (even at the lower passing rate for students with disabilities of 55 percent) to obtain a local diploma if their district certifies that they are prepared for entry-level employment and "showed proficiency" for those subjects in which they did not pass the Regents exam. 

Why is this so important to some families of students with disabilities? The credential which would otherwise have been available to these students who were unable to pass the Regents exams is the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential (CDOS). A local diploma is acceptable for college, military service, and employers; the CDOS is not. This change will increase the graduation rates for New York students and for some it will mean that they are eligible for jobs, military enlistment, or even college where they would not have been before this latest rule change. The long term impact of arguably lowering academic standards will be harder to quantify, but for the relieved parents reportedly attending the most recent Regents meeting, these longer term issues are not paramount. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Some Old-News Updates on Best Practices

Two articles you may have missed in The New York Times reiterate some important points about how to help children with two very different but very common difficulties – anxiety and disruptive behavior. 

The first article, an opinion piece written by Dr. Perri Klass, whose work and writing have been featured in a number of our blog posts (check out her other informative pieces in The Times here), reports on a meta-analysis that investigated the effectiveness of different therapies and drugs used to treat a variety of anxiety disorders in children. To read the meta-analysis on your own, see the reference at the bottom of this post. A meta-analysis is a large research undertaking that combines the results of many smaller studies to get a better idea of the big picture. This meta-analysis looked at a combined total of 7,719 patients between the ages of five and sixteen. As expected, the researchers found that exposure-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a preferred treatment. With this type of therapy, children as young as five years old are exposed to what makes them anxious so that they can practice dealing with the triggers with support, while they simultaneously work on changing how they think about the things that make them feel bad. The researchers also found that the newer types of anti-depressants can be helpful, but they are best when used in combination with therapy (and they were found to be not as effective when used alone, as compared to the exposure-based CBT).
For those of us working in the field, this meta-analysis didn’t really tell us anything groundbreaking. It does, however, get the message out that there is an evidence-based way to help children who are suffering from the kind of anxiety that interferes with their ability to function at home and school. It also reiterates, for parents and caregivers who are seeking help, the importance of finding a therapist who focuses on this type of therapy in her or his work with anxious children.

The second Times article, from October, is another opinion piece, published in the Fixes column, and written by Suzanne Bouffard. In her column, Bouffard describes the process of Collaborative Problem Solving, a technique developed by Ross Greene, who wrote a book we love to recommend at The Yellin Center - The Explosive Child. Bouffard begins by describing the typical disciplinary methods used at many schools, even preschools, across the country. Children are typically removed from the educational environment as a disciplinary measure - they may be put in time out, forced to complete useless assignments as punishment, or even suspended from kindergarten. The main point that Bouffard makes here, and that is at the foundation of my field - school psychology - is that these exclusionary tactics may temporarily stifle unwanted behaviors, but they are also often psychologically harmful and, even more importantly, do not teach our youngest students what they should be doing instead. There’s an unfortunate persistent idea that kids behave well when they want to, but the truth is that kids behave well when they can. Taking a child who struggles with regulating her behavior and excluding her from the classroom and putting her in isolation, for example, does absolutely nothing to help her practice the skills she needs to do better next time.

Collaborative problem solving was described in one of my previous posts on this blog. Bouffard’s piece takes the philosophy behind it and puts it in a very real context, with real examples of families who have seen what a difference it can make. I highly recommend reading the article and thinking deeply about the kind of discipline your child experiences at home and at school. It offers us the opportunity to ask ourselves some potentially difficult questions about whether we’re really using what the field of psychology likes to call best practices when helping our children and our students grow into well-adjusted citizens.

Wang, Z., Whiteside, S. P., Sim, L., Farah, W., Morrow, A. S., Alsawas, M., ... & Daraz, L. (2017). Comparative Effectiveness and Safety of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Pharmacotherapy for Childhood Anxiety Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Jama Pediatrics, 171(11), 1049-1056.

Photo by MichaƂ Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Monday, December 4, 2017

Rejecting Accommodations

The mother of a high school student with attention and reading difficulties recently asked us what she could do to make her son take advantage of the accommodations provided in his IEP. Since her son's learning and attention issues had been diagnosed in fifth grade, he had an IEP that provided for extended time (1.5 times standard time) and a quiet place to take his exams.

As a practical matter, that meant that when his class was taking a test in class, he went to the school library, where he was placed in a small side room. The librarian kept an eye on him while he took his test and he returned to his classroom when he was finished. He went along with this plan until he reached high school, at which time he announced to his parents that he didn't want to be singled out from his friends and that he was embarrassed to have to leave the class for testing. The more his parents pushed back, the more adamant he became. That's when his mom reached out to us.

We had some questions, the answers to which would help determine what might be appropriate to do or say in this not uncommon situation:
  1. Does this student understand why he has been granted extended time and a quiet exam location? Does he understand his learning and attention challenges and how they affect his learning and taking exams? Parents can't expect their students to be comfortable with doing something different than their classmates unless they understand WHY they are doing so.
  2. How was he doing in school? Did the extended time, or failure to utilize the extended time, make a difference in his grades? If so, this could have an impact on his GPA and longer term consequences as he moved on from high school. Did he understand that this could limit his college options? Or, did he find that there really wasn't any substantial difference in how he did? If that was the case, as sometimes happens, he would have to think about the next question.
  3. Was he planning to take the SAT or ACT exams? These two testing companies do not follow the IDEA. They are required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and avoid discriminating against students with disabilities, but they largely determine whether to grant accommodations based upon what a student had been granted and USED during high school. A student who did not use his accommodations might not get them for these high stakes examinations.

These questions helped this family sit down and discuss this issue. His parents shared his most recent testing that supported the need for accommodations, and showed their son how his reading rate improved when the evaluator gave him extra time to complete reading tests. They discussed his plans to attend a competitive  college and looked at the GPA that that particular college required. Eventually, they agreed that the student would forgo his accommodations for two or three months and see how things went. They advised his teachers of this decision, emphasizing that it did not mean that he was declining his extended time. He found that his grades did drop a bit during this period and ultimately he decided that he wanted to continue to use his accommodations. Since the decision was his, it was one that he adhered to. Last we heard, he was using his extended time and quiet location and doing well in school. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Laptops in Lectures: Update

In a blog post last year, I shared the reasons I did not allow laptops in the classes I taught at Brooklyn College.  Succinctly, taking notes on a laptop leads to less learning than taking notes by hand, according to research.  When we are able to record notes as quickly as they are spoken, our brains don’t have to process the information – it goes straight from our ears to our screens.  Recently, The New York Times published an update on this line of research, and I wanted to share some of this interesting information with our readers.  According to the Times article, which referenced a study by Sana, Weston, and Cepeda of McMaster and York Universities in Canada, it isn’t just the laptop users who suffer during lecture.  The researchers gave a lecture to a group of students, all of whom were taking notes on a laptop. Half of the students were also given twelve simple tasks to do while taking notes.  One task, for example, was looking up what was on television at a specific time that evening.  This was meant to approximate typical multi-tasking by college students, who are often on Google, Facebook, or Instagram while also trying to take notes during class.

The results of the study are interesting and potentially alarming.  While it’s not surprising that the students who were given the distraction tasks recalled less from the lecture on a 20-question multiple-choice test, the more notable finding is that the students who were seated in view of the multi-tasking students also performed worse compared to students who were not multi-tasking and were not seated in view of a multi-tasker.  This spillover effect puts other students, not just the kids on Facebook, at a seemingly unfair disadvantage.  The study’s authors warn against a total laptop ban, however, noting that this would be “extreme and unwarranted.” 

Sana, Weston, and Cepeda argue that rather than banning laptops completely, their use should be carefully curated so that students are not simply using them for note-taking, which studies have confirmed is detrimental to learning.  Rather, they recommend the use of web-based research, pop quizzes, online case studies, and discussion threads, all of which can “foster positive learning outcomes.”  They also recommend that instructors have an open conversation with students about the use of laptops in classes, and discourage their use when the technology is not a requirement for learning (e.g., slides are provided, textbooks cover all the information).  Finally, the authors note that instructors have the responsibility to build enticing, interesting classes that can compete with the allure of online browsing.  Inevitably, college students must be responsible for their own learning.  It is up to the instructors, however, to lead them in the right direction.

One important exception to discouraging laptop use was noted by the author of the Times article: students with disabilities who require laptops for note taking, to access lecture materials, or otherwise, must be permitted to use their devices in class. This can single out these students as having disabilities, but the author notes that it is a matter of weighing the needs and best interests of one group of students against those of others. 


Photo credit: Tyler Ingram 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

How is the School Year Going So Far?

Most years, on the day before Thanksgiving, our blog post contains lists of things we are thankful for, or Thanksgiving books for kids,  or a discussion about gratitude. While we are no less grateful for family, friends, colleagues, and so many other things in our lives, this year we are taking a different approach to Thanksgiving -- using it as a good time to pause and take stock of where your child might be at this point in the school year. 

It is now around three months into the academic year and students have had at least one report card. Review of last year's work has been completed and new content has been taught for a while. So it is a good time to pause and see how things are going so far -- and yet it is early enough in the year to make changes that can make the school year more productive and satisfying for your student. 

For all Students
Thanksgiving weekend is a good time to clear out backpacks. Far too many students will have failed to do this since school started. Ideally, older students should do this on their own, but students with organizational or executive function issues of all ages may need some support with this task. Papers that aren't needed currently should be kept in a "reserve" file, since they may be needed to prepare for year-end tests. Other items can be tossed or, if current, replaced neatly into the backpack - ideally, in clearly marked notebooks or folders. If this task is repeated regularly, perhaps every couple of weeks (or, failing that, at each holiday break throughout the year) some order may prevail. 

Parents may want to find some quiet time this weekend to speak to their student about how things are going in a general way. Is her reading group a good fit? Does she have friends in her class? Does she get along with her teacher? Although many of these kinds of issues come up informally in day to day conversations, having a targeting discussion can be fruitful, and can sometimes reveal issues that parents need to address before more of the school year goes by.

For Students with IEPs or 504 Plans
Hopefully, you had reviewed the IEP or 504 Plan when it was created or revised, likely last Spring. Are your child's teacher(s) following the IEP/504? Is he getting the accommodations and/or services it provides? Sometimes, schools may delay a week or two before they begin related services such as speech or occupational therapy, or academic supports such as resource room. They may need to get staff in place or determine appropriate groupings. But, by now your child should have been getting the supports and services to which he is entitled under his IEP/504 for quite some time. If this isn't the case, you should contact the school (case manager, head of guidance, or principal, depending on who heads up the IEP team). 

If your student is getting what is provided for in the IEP/504, but things are not going well, this is the time to call for a new IEP or 504 meeting. You are entitled to do so at any point, not just annually. But a formal meeting is not required to make minor changes, and you may find that you can effect the changes you want more quickly by meeting informally with the head of the IEP/504 team and putting your agreed-to changes in writing.

For High School Seniors
If you haven't completed your college applications, this holiday weekend might be a good time to do so. Those who are applying early decision or early action will have submitted their applications earlier this month, and most other students are aware that they have until the end of the calendar year, or even later, to finish up their applications. But many places have rolling admissions and once their places are filled, even strong applicants will not be accepted. In addition, students who are applying to specialized college support programs need to keep in mind that these programs are generally small and admit on a first come - first serve basis. While latter applicants might be accepted to the college itself, they can be closed out of the support programs they need to succeed. 

So, Thanksgiving can be more than a time for thanks. It can be a time to take stock of how things are going for your student and to take steps to improve things if there are problems that need to be addressed.

In the meantime, all of us here at The Yellin Center wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 17, 2017

The December Dilemma

Thanksgiving is less than a week away, and the Christmas season is already evident in stores, advertisements, and decorations. In a year when the political climate has been challenging for diversity of religion and culture, it may be a useful time to think about how public schools handle religious holidays, how schools can accommodate students' differing religious traditions, and how historical and secular aspects of religious holidays can be celebrated in public schools without making some students uncomfortable or crossing the line between secular and religious education.

We've looked at this subject before, in the context of a presentation by Matthew Yellin, then a NYC public high school social studies teacher (and now Assistant Principal at the same school) on how "separation of church and state" does not require that teachers refrain from teaching students about religion or letting students discuss religion. In fact, Matt noted, "[religion] is an explicit part of my curriculum. Not only is discussing religion in public schools allowed, it is actually mandated by my curriculum."

This topic has also been addressed in a series of resources looking at the legal issues surrounding religious and holiday celebrations in public schools and best practices for teachers that can help them teach about religion as a historical and cultural part of society, while avoiding religious teachings that take a particular position, or are insensitive to the multi-cultural aspects of public schools, their students, and their mission. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League has created a multi-page list of religious and secular observances that teachers can use to infuse their classroom with an understanding of the many ways that a wide range of religions and religious practices impact our culture and our lives.

As you ponder these issues, enjoy your school's holiday concert - religious music and carols are fine, so long as they are part of a larger array of musical offerings. Have a happy and inclusive holiday season!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The IDEAL School of Manhattan

The IDEAL School, a K-12 private school, located on Manhattan's Upper West Side, incorporates its goals of diversity and inclusion in every aspect of its program. Your blogger had the opportunity to visit IDEAL School during a recent Open House and saw these principles in action. Students and teachers alike spoke about their experiences, and it was clear that all of them valued this nurturing and accepting school community.  
The student body includes typical learners, students with some learning or other challenges, and a  number of students with significant learning or developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome.  Individualized instruction at a foundational, standard, or even honors level, is the key to providing instruction for students with different learning needs. Small class size, embedded support and services, and a "no pull out" policy (where services are provided during elective periods so as not to remove children from the classroom) helps students at all levels build critical thinking skills and creativity. 

IDEAL has two specialized programs in addition to its standard curriculum - the Zenith Program, in which about one-third of their student body of approximately 180 participate, and the Dylan Program. The Zenith Program is designed for students needing an additional level of academic, behavioral, and related services support. The Dylan Program is for students with more significant needs, often 1:1 support, which IDEAL provides by an associate teacher. Both the Zenith and Dylan Programs may be paid for by a student's public school, using Carter or Connors funding.

The arts and technology are both important parts of the IDEAL curriculum, for all students. Drama, art, music, and dance are part of academic content through cross-curricular units. STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) classes in the middle school (continuing as electives in the high school) include robotics and film making, with tools such as a 3-D printer and a green screen to help enhance the creativity of students.

The Lower School and Upper School are located in separate buildings, a couple of blocks from one another. This year, IDEAL will graduate its first students since it was founded in 2006. A program to extend the IDEAL education for students with IEPs who are entitled to publicly funded education through age 21 and who need more time to build skills, has begun and IDEAL has also engaged a college advisor  for its 11th and 12th graders who plan to attend college. 

As we visited classrooms and saw students of all levels of ability in their classrooms, it was clear that this is a special place, where every student is learning at his or her own pace, as part of a diverse student body. For families who share its values and approach to learning, this may well be an IDEAL school option. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Financial Education

Most parents teach their kids about manners, good nutrition, how to drive, and hundreds of other tasks and skills that they need to learn on their way to becoming competent, independent adults. But how many families include educating their children about finances and money management in this list? Although more than half of families expect their children to be financially independent by age 21, at least 72 percent of parents express some reluctance to discuss financial matters with their children, according to a survey on Parents, Kids, and Money by the financial firm T. Rowe Price.

Clearly, parents need to incorporate money and finances in the skills and values they pass along to their children. And many of them do. But, according to the Council for Economic Education, a nonprofit whose mission is "to reach and teach every child in America about personal finance and economics"
  • More than one in six students in the U.S. do not reach the baseline level of proficiency in financial literacy.
  • Nearly one-quarter of millennials spend more than they earn.
  • 67% of Gen Y have less than three months worth of emergency funds.
Earlier this year, we wrote about several apps and tools that could help young people manage their finances. And while these can be helpful, an even more powerful tool for enabling young people to  understand and manage their financial lives is a school course focused on personal finance. While a number of states require some coursework on this subject, it is usually only a part of a larger curriculum. Only five states require a separate, stand alone course in personal finance and only 20 states require an economics course for graduation.

The Council for Economic Education seeks to address the need for financial education by providing programs and tools to help families and educators give kids the tools they need to manage and improve their financial lives. These programs include "Never Too Young", designed teach personal finance to K-5 students in after-school/out-of-school settings.

The Council for Economic Education has numerous programs for students of all ages as well as educators and districts. If your child's school does not provide financial education, this might be a good place to begin to persuade them to do so.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Emotional Toll of Dyslexia

If you’ve been following the posts in this month-long series on dyslexia, you know by now that people with dyslexia are bright and creative, that they can achieve excellent outcomes with the right instruction, and that there are plenty of great tools to help readers and writers with dyslexia navigate the challenges of literacy. All of this sounds optimistic - and it should. But parents and educators should be aware that students with dyslexia may suffer from low self-esteem and feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, and frustration related to their academic challenges.

Feedback from their teachers, even the most well-meaning, can be discouraging for children with dyslexia. Because of the types of errors they tend to make, particularly in spelling, dyslexic children are often told to try harder or pay more attention. Their errors may be labeled as “careless” or “lazy.”  Some teachers, confronted with an obviously intelligent student who is making the simplest of errors, assume she just isn’t trying. In fact, many children with dyslexia are some of the hardest workers in their classes, so being misunderstood as careless can be especially frustrating.

It may also be emotionally trying for students with dyslexia to see their classmates learning to read and spell with an ease that is difficult to understand. As children develop proficiency with reading, they are often asked to read aloud in front of the class, placed in leveled reading groups, or sent to the library with their classmates to check out books. All of these scenarios could be uncomfortable for a  child with dyslexia, especially one who has not received a diagnosis. All she knows is that she is in the lowest reading group and that she struggles with the easiest books while her classmates are graduating to chapter books.

Social struggles can continue outside academics, too. Some individuals with dyslexia struggle with language-even oral language-and may not understand complex social scripts. Some also have difficulty understanding sequencing, making blindingly fast social interactions governed by cause-and-effect relationships seem bewildering. Finding the right words is another language-based challenge that impacts people with dyslexia, so even if a child understands what is being discussed, the process of adding his insight can be frustrating. An additional hurdle, more relevant now than in the past, is the constant presence of text in young people’s social worlds. Rather than chatting on the phone, a majority of kids socialize via text messages and social media platforms, which can make it tough for  kids with dyslexia to follow what’s going on with their friends and add their own contributions.

One of the best things that can happen to a child (or adult!) with dyslexia is a diagnosis of dyslexia from someone who can help him understand what this disability really is. He must be shown, over and over again, the difference between the kind of rote learning that his brain doesn’t master as easily and the kind of high-level thinking at which he excels.

Children with dyslexia need opportunities to feel successful, whether or not these occur in the classroom. Sports and the arts have been critical confidence-boosters for innumerable students with learning challenges. Volunteer opportunities, particularly those in which they can play a leadership role, are also excellent places for young people with dyslexia to build feelings of success and self-efficacy.

Finally, kids have trouble appreciating that things tend to get markedly easier for people with dyslexia once they finish school. School has made up an enormous part of their life experience for about as long as they can remember, and it’s hard to imagine that there’s any other system. Luckily, there is. The real world is kinder and more accommodating than school often is, and there are a variety of ways to build and measure success rather than a single report card.

photo credit: Redd Angelo

Monday, October 23, 2017

Assistive Technology for Managing Dyslexia

Having dyslexia can be tough, but the breadth of innovative tools available to help with literacy tasks makes dyslexia a lot easier to manage than it used to be.

Below is a limited list of high-tech assistive technology (AT) to help dyslexics with literacy tasks. But first, an important consideration: Be aware that simply choosing a great tool and giving a student access is not going to solve any problems. Adults must carefully consider the parameters of the task the student struggles with as well as the setting. Speech-to-text software is great, but if the student doesn't have a quiet place to go when it’s time to dictate his ideas, it’s not going to be a successful tool. Similarly, an app that reads text to a student won’t help if she’s too embarrassed to be the only one in the class using headphones.

After selecting the right AT, parents and educators must realize that even today’s tech-savvy youth need lots of training. Would-be users have to understand all the ins and outs of the tool they’re given, including what its capabilities are (and aren’t) and when and how to use it. Plenty of kids have given up on technology that would have been extraordinarily helpful because they couldn’t understand how it could work within their specific academic requirements.

The AT suggestions we’re sharing below are great for students, but even individuals with dyslexia in the professional world may benefit from them.

Tools for Reading


Snap&Read is an excellent text-to-speech program. A small sampling of the many sites it reads aloud include Google docs, Moodle, Bookshare, Evernote, The New York Times, and even social media sites like Facebook and Instagram (which is a great way to get reticent kids to start experimenting). Snap&Read also reads screenshots and PDFs. This software has some other capabilities beyond its reading services. For example, the Simplify tool provides definitions for difficult words. With the Capture tool, users can enter notes on what they read (either by typing them or copying and pasting from the text), which is useful for writing papers. Snap&Read also words in other languages.

Cost: $3.99/month

Learning Ally and Bookshare

With a letter certifying that a person needs their services, both Learning Ally and Bookshare provide users with audio versions of texts. Their libraries include more basic selections, like audio versions of novels, and hard-to-find texts, like periodicals and textbooks that students can listen to. Though on the surface Learning Ally and Bookshare are similar, there are some important differences. There is a yearly fee associated with Learning Ally, for example, while Bookshare is free. Texts on Learning Ally are read by people, whereas Bookshare uses computerized voices; this sounds like a negative aspect, but some learners find that they like the computerized voices better because it is easier to modulate their speed and pitch.

Cost: Bookshare is free, and Learning Ally costs $119 a year.

C-Pen - The Reader Pen

C-Pen is a small device about the size of a highlighter that users can use to scan text, either a single word or whole sentences. The pen will read the scanned section aloud (it has a headphone jack for use in classrooms) in a computerized voice that users describe as natural. The pen can also provide definitions of words. Importantly, the pen accommodates both left- and right-handed users. Scanning takes a bit of practice, and the pen is best suited for reading a word here and there rather than large blocks of text.

Cost: $250


This app, which works only on iPhones, is a combination scanner and reader (unlike other apps that only scan but require a separate app for reading). It can read almost anything, and its portability is a huge boon. Users can scan passages they need for school, like worksheets and sections of books, but it’s a handy tool for reading tasks in the “real world,” too, and can be used for menus, maps, signs, time tables….

Cost: Free

Tools for Writing


The spell checkers built into word processing programs are better than nothing, but they’re famously inaccurate. Enter the amazingly accurate Grammarly, which catches spelling errors and finds usage mistakes, too. It’s good at using context to determine whether a word or phrase is correct, and it can even give users feedback about style. Grammarly works with Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and nearly anywhere one would want to write on the web. It is compatible with MS Word, too, but for now it works with Windows machines only. (Never fear, Apple fans: It’s easy to get around this by composing in the body of a Google Doc and then pasting into a Word document, if that’s the format one needs.)

What really sets Grammarly, apart, though, is the detailed explanations it provides about mistakes, so users can learn as they’re editing. It can also generate weekly progress reports, which can be motivating for students. Other neat features are genre-specific style monitors and a plagiarism detector.

Cost: Grammarly offers a basic version, which includes only basic checking and does not give access to explanations, for free. The premium version, with all the bells and whistles, costs $139.95 a year.


Whether students use Dragon software, Google Read&Write, or simply dictate into their phones, there’s more to text-to-speech than you may think. Here is a useful guide to training students to use speech-to-text software successfully; it takes some time to get it right, but the results are worth it!

Reading and Writing

Google Read&Write

Probably the biggest advantage to using Google Read&Write is that users don’t need to use multiple forms of AT. GRW is the total package, offering both text-to-speech and speech-to-text. It works with documents, web pages and common file types in Google Drive (including: Google Docs, PDF, ePub & Kes). Like many good text-to-speech programs, GRW highlights each word as it’s read, making both following along and editing much easier. The dictionary is quite handy. For typists, the word prediction feature takes some of the heavy work out of spelling. And distractible users will be grateful that GRW simplifies and summarizes text on web pages to remove ads and other copy.

Cost: For an individual license, GRW is $145 a year, though many school districts provide it as a free accommodation to students with IEPs.

For Even More Information

QIAT, an Online Forum

This listserv for people who are interested in AT in education is free to join (and we recommend that you do!). Contributors include assistive technology specialists, students in higher education, educators, vendors, and parents. Send out any questions you have to the group —none are “silly!”—and brace yourself for a flood of knowledgeable responses. (You can adjust your email preferences at any time if it gets to be too much.) The group requests that users be mindful that every email sent goes to 4,000+ users, so it’s a good idea to respond with private messages when appropriate. There are lots of good resources on their website, too.

Look for one more Dyslexia Awareness Month post next week! We’ll explore the emotional toll dyslexia can take and offer suggestions to parents and educators.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Dyslexia Instruction That Works

A diagnosis of dyslexia can bring with it a range of emotions. Some people are crushed, thinking that their, or their child’s, potential is irrevocably limited. Some are relieved: There’s something empowering about being able to name a condition and, of course, it’s validating to have a professional verify that the affected student isn’t “dumb” or “lazy.” But one of the most common reactions is confusion. Parents may feel overwhelmed and lost. Is there a way to teach literacy skills to a child with dyslexia that really works? If so, how does one find it?

We are happy to say that the answer to the first question is an emphatic “yes!” There are several thoroughly researched, time-tested instructional methods that can help students with dyslexia make sense of language. This instruction can occur in a variety of formats, but parents should always look these indicators of a highly-effective program:

  • Curriculum is multi-sensory, explicit, and structured. Orton-Gillingham, and programs based on it, is the gold standard when it comes to instruction for students with dyslexia. There are lots of curricula (Wilson, Lindamood-Bell, Barton, etc.) that are O.G.-based, so don’t be thrown off by names. But research the curriculum to be sure it is grounded in this solid, well-researched approach.
  • Curriculum includes training in phonemic awareness by itself. Phonemic awareness (skills needed to recognize and manipulate the sounds in language), is a key component of good early childhood instruction, but older students with dyslexia need this kind of instruction, too; their brains are less able to develop these skills simply from exposure to language. Recent research shows that phonemic awareness instruction should happen by itself, not in conjunction with written letters, to be most effective. In other words, both phonemic awareness (sounds) and phonics (sounds plus letters) should be part of instruction.
  • Curriculum is administered by a certified reading or literacy specialist, or by an educator certified in an O.G.-based curriculum. No matter how talented, smart, or well-intentioned, standard classroom teachers and even special education teachers are not trained in the kind of reading instruction children with dyslexia need. (Trust me on this; I used to be one! It wasn’t until I obtained a masters degree in literacy, then was trained in Orton-Gillingham, that I was prepared to teach individuals with dyslexia.) 
  • Other parents give the curriculum a thumbs-up. Ask to speak with parents of other children with dyslexia (not just struggling readers) who have received instruction from the provider you are considering.
So now that you know what to look for, how do you find it? That’s often a little more complicated. High-quality instruction for students with dyslexia can occur in a few different formats.

Services in Public School

Your child is entitled to a free, appropriate instruction from her school, often referred to by the acronym FAPE. This will probably take the form of pull-outs, meaning that a special education teacher or reading specialist will take your child out of her mainstream classes to work one-on-one or in a small group of similar students. Please note what we said above about the qualifications of your child’s instructor. If your district doesn’t provide a qualified reading specialist, you may need to do some research and be prepared to demand that your child receive instruction from someone who is properly trained; this should be set out in your child's IEP.  Most special education teachers are not trained in the specific reading instruction students with dyslexia need.

Dedicated Schools

Special schools for children with dyslexia are few and far between, but if you’re lucky enough to live near one or are flexible and up for a new adventure, this might be worth considering. (Some families even move to new cities in order to be near top-notch institutions!) The benefits of a quality school that is dedicated to dyslexia instruction are enormous. Not only are the teachers knowledgeable and experienced in reading instruction, but curriculum that benefits students with this profile is woven into every subject. Most schools also teach students how to self-advocate effectively and use helpful technology that can assist them in college and beyond. And, perhaps most importantly, students become friends with other bright, creative, dynamic, wonderful kids who share their struggles.

Private Instruction (e.g. Tutoring)

Sending your child with dyslexia to a special school isn’t feasible for lots of families for a variety of reasons. For kids who need help beyond what the special education services in their public school provide, private instruction is a great option. This usually occurs through two channels: established organizations or private practitioners.

Tutoring companies that specialize in reading disabilities, like Lindamood-Bell, can be good options for families. Look for an office that administers lots of benchmark assessments throughout instruction that clearly demonstrate that your child is making progress. Avoid tutoring companies that don’t specialize in reading disabilities; most of these organizations (Kumon, Sylvan, etc.) may provide great homework help for typically developing readers but don’t staff the specially trained teachers students with dyslexia must learn from.

Private practitioners vary enormously in training and quality. One surefire way to find a good one is to check out the International Dyslexia Association’s provider directory. Even if one of these professionals can’t take on another student, they may be able to point you in the direction of someone who can. Another suggestion is to speak with the administration at a school for students with dyslexia or students with language-based learning disabilities. The expert teachers who work at these schools often tutor on the side. If they don’t, chances are the principal knows someone who will.

A few words about scheduling, no matter where your child goes for private instruction:

  • Set up at least two sessions a week initially. For younger children, shorter sessions (30-45 minutes) two or three times a week are better than an hour-long session once a week. Remember that your child will be working hard, and an hour in one go, even for older kids, may be too much at first.
  • Your child will likely be worn out at the end of a school day, so morning sessions work better than after-school sessions for some families. 
  • Some tutors will travel to your child’s school to work with him during instruction from which he gets little benefit, like spelling. While this can be an efficient use of time, some students feel self-conscious about being pulled out of class, making it hard for them to learn.
Summer Learning Opportunities

Summer slide, the tendency of kids to lose some of the skills they worked to gain during the school year, hits students with dyslexia particularly hard. It’s tempting to give kids a break for the summer, but they need at least some opportunities to keep their skills sharp to prevent frustration when school begins again. The summer months are a great opportunity for multiple weekly sessions at Lindamood-Bell or with a tutor. For older learners, excellent schools like Kildonan, the Landmark School, the Brehm School, and the Gow School offer residential summer camps that blend expert literacy instruction with opportunities to explore the arts, play sports, and have fun getting to know  peers with dyslexia.

Look for our post next week on high-tech tools to help learners with dyslexia (and adults!) with literacy demands.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Assessing for Dyslexia

The best kind of intervention is early intervention. When it comes to dyslexia, though, this can be tricky because dyslexia can’t be diagnosed until a child begins to show significant difficulty learning literacy skills. That doesn’t mean parents have to simply watch and wonder until first or second grade, though.

The earliest common symptom of dyslexia is late speech (though not all late talkers have dyslexia, and not all children with dyslexia were late talkers). There is a wide range of “normal,” but Reading Bright Start, a useful site for parents of children from birth to age five, provides some useful milestones to look for.

Kids may begin to speak later than expected for a variety of reasons, but no matter the cause it’s a good idea to have a child evaluated as soon as there is concern. A quick consultation with your child’s daycare or preschool teacher can be valuable; these professionals have worked with countless children and usually have a good sense of whether a child is behind or not. Free early intervention evaluations are available in every state for young children. Young kids just beginning school should be monitored, too. According to the International Dyslexia Association, at least one of a handful of measures* should be given to all school-aged children, beginning in kindergarten, to identify kids who are at risk for reading difficulties.

Speech and language sessions for young children don’t focus much on reading skills. It’s too early for that. Instead, the therapist helps children to understand the sounds that make up language, which is a critical foundation for literacy down the road. Strengthening skills early can prevent or lessen many struggles children may otherwise have when they begin school.

Sometimes, though, the signs of dyslexia aren’t addressed until elementary school (or later). Never fear, though; with the right instruction (look for our upcoming post on that topic) there is still good reason to believe that older kids can learn important literacy skills at any age. Recent neurological research indicates that brains are plastic throughout much of our lives—great news for adults!

When seeking out an assessment for an older child, a good assessment should probe all areas in which the child appears to be struggling. An assessment that only seeks to determine whether a child has dyslexia may miss other important issues that are contributing to that child's academic struggles.  Among the aspects of an assessment that are most helpful in determining whether a child has dyslexia or another language based learning difficulty are the following:

Intelligence – A child with a cognitive deficit is not considered to have dyslexia.

Oral Language Skills – It’s important to rule out a language impairment. Children with dyslexia typically have strong higher-language skills, though they may struggle with building blocks, like word pronunciation.

Phonological Processing
– These measures usually don’t involve written language at all; rather, the assessor will examine the way your child identifies, pronounces, recalls, and manipulates the sounds in language. An assessment of phonological processing must be a part of a dyslexia evaluation.

Word Recognition – This means reading familiar words in isolation.

Decoding – This means reading unfamiliar words in isolation. Students may be required to read “nonsense words,” too, to ensure that they aren’t simply recognizing the word’s shape instead of actually interpreting the individual letters.

Spelling – This is usually one of the toughest tasks for children with dyslexia.

– Some students with dyslexia can stumble along with good accuracy, but measures of fluency will reveal how taxing literacy processes are for them.

Reading Comprehension – Children with dyslexia usually have the cognitive skills to understand grade-level text but score poorly on measures of comprehension measures. This is an artifact of their difficulty decoding the text.

Vocabulary Knowledge
– Most children with dyslexia have smaller vocabularies than their peers because of their difficulty processing oral language and accessing written language.

The assessor should also ask about physical and emotional health and family history and educational history. Issues with any one of these areas can interfere with a child's learning.

If it turns out that your child does need special reading instruction, the resulting report will be invaluable. It will help service providers make a treatment plan, and it will demonstrate your child’s needs if you need to negotiate with the district to get your child the services s/he deserves. We have countless posts on this blog about all aspects of assessments and special education laws. Start with the "search" feature on the right hand side of this post, looking for posts on subjects like "IEE" (Independent Educational Evaluation) and "IDEA" (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

So what happens if your child is diagnosed with dyslexia? Look for our next post on effective instruction for dyslexic learners.

*Predictive Assessment of Reading (PAR); Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS); Texas Primary Reading Inventory (TPRI); and AIMSweb screening assessments

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash