Reading the signs

Study to assess dyslexia intervention efforts across S.C.

If you’re a K-12 student in South Carolina with dyslexia, you might be getting the necessary intervention for your reading difficulties. But chances are equally good that you have not even been identified as having a learning disability.

The state’s 103 school districts have no uniform protocol for identifying children with dyslexia — a reading disorder that affects 6 percent to 10 percent of school-age children nationwide — and don’t necessarily use best practice interventions, says Scott Decker, an associate professor of psychology at Carolina. But Decker plans to help the state to address that issue, using a three-year, $738,000 grant from the S.C. Department of Education to assess how each school district goes about identifying and helping its students with dyslexia.

“Because there hasn’t been a lot of guidance, everyone has been crafting their own policies — it’s like the Wild West,” says Decker, program director for the school psychology program at Carolina. “We’ve heard that some school districts are doing a great job in this area. But others are probably not performing at high levels.”

In addition to his research team at the university, Decker is working on the project with John Payne, director of the Office of Special Education Services, and Lisa McCliment, lead school psychologist at the state Department of Education.

Decker says his interest in learning and reading stemmed from his own reading problems in youth. “I eventually ended up in gifted classes, but I did terrible in the first grade,” he says. “I was a delayed reader.”

Since graduate school, Decker has spent his career developing assessment tests for children with reading difficulties. He is using an internal grant from the Office of Research to assemble a team of faculty members from across campus who have expertise in literacy, language and learning. That group will help to craft some form of guidance to help school districts follow best practices in assessing and instructing its students with dyslexia.

“Because there hasn’t been a lot of guidance, everyone has been crafting their own policies — it’s like the Wild West.”

— Scott Decker, associate professor of psychology

More than 40 years ago, there was no educational classification for learning disabilities such as dyslexia. Children were either mainstreamed or placed in special education classes — those with severe dyslexia usually ended up in the latter. Parents began advocating in the 1970s for change, suggesting that children with higher IQs but low reading ability didn’t belong in traditional special education classrooms.

School districts responded by assessing student’s IQ tests and reading ability and using some combination as the criteria for designating children as having a learning disability. That assessment method was used for about 30 years, Decker says, but IQ tests were found to be nearly invalid predictors of children’s potential, and meeting the criteria didn’t indicate which instructional intervention was best.

“We’re now in a new era of reform concerning learning disabilities,” Decker says. “There’s an awareness that some schools don’t really know how to adequately address the issue of dyslexia.”

At some point, Decker envisions creating an app that would inform parents as to what is normal reading behavior for a given age, providing prompts to seek intervention if warranted. He’s also hoping to develop training modules for future teachers and school psychologists that would guide them in dyslexia assessment.

“This project is all about leveraging awesome brain power here at Carolina to help kids across the state,” he says. “This is research that has applied value.”

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