Can schools diagnose dyslexia?

can schools diagnose dyslexia

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What is up with schools and their weird dyslexia myths?

Even though dyslexia is listed by name in IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, lots of public schools in the US get really weird when a parent asks for evaluation for dyslexia, or when a student receives a dyslexia diagnosis from a provider outside of the school. Teachers, even special educators, are quietly asking each other, “Can schools diagnose dyslexia?” And the answers are totally inconsistent! It shouldn’t be this way.

IDEA has been a US law since 1975, and it was amended in 1990 and reauthorized in 2004 and 2015. Along with the laws in individual states, IDEA governs the whole system of special education for children with disabilities, including requiring that children with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). While states have their own varying laws about education, including serving children with disabilities, no one is allowed to do less than is outlined in the IDEA.

OK, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s talk about how some schools handle requests around dyslexia services and what approaches are effective.

What IDEA actually says about dyslexia

The IDEA identifies a “specific learning disability” as “a disorder in 1 or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations” and goes on to say “Such term includes such conditions as dyslexia.” It’s right there in the law. 

IDEA also includes a component referred to as “Child Find” that requires “All children with disabilities residing in the State … regardless of the severity of their disabilities, and who are in need of special education and related services, are identified, located, and evaluated.

This seems pretty straightforward, right? But school districts, including many I have worked in, absolutely refused to bring up dyslexia in IEP meetings. Teachers received little to no training in identifying or supporting students with dyslexia. Even as a graduate student in special education in the early 2000s, I learned about dyslexia only in the most general way, certainly not enough to meet my students’ needs. And I had plenty of students who fit the dyslexia profile over the years, with and without diagnoses.

In fact, there was so much confusion and contention about dyslexia in public education that in 2015, Michael Yudin, the assistant secretary of the US Department of Education, published what is known as the “Dear Colleague letter.” In the letter, Yudin highlights the definition of specific learning disability under the law and reinforces the requirement that schools evaluate students for these conditions. He also clarifies that, while districts or states may use RTI (Response to Intervention) to teach students at risk for “poor learning outcomes,” the process cannot be used to delay a formal evaluation. Parents can also request an evaluation at any time, even if the child is participating in the RTI process. Further, Yudin encourages schools to consider the use of the specific terms “dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia” to describe children’s needs in evaluations and IEPs.  

Can schools diagnose dyslexia?

Many parents are being told by school special education teams the school “doesn’t diagnose dyslexia” or, even worse, that the school “doesn’t recognize dyslexia.” Um, there are lots of people I wouldn’t recognize if I saw them on the street, but they do continue to exist, and so does dyslexia! Unfortunately, whether there is someone in the school qualified to actually diagnose dyslexia varies by state, and even by district.

According to the International Dyslexia Association, a thorough dyslexia evaluation should include assessments of: 

  • Oral language skills: speaking, listening, following directions, making inferences from spoken language, etc.
  • Word recognition: reading words in lists
  • Decoding: sounding out words, particularly nonsense words that can’t be memorized
  • Spelling: this counterpart to decoding involves writing words using knowledge about letter-sound relationships and spelling conventions (like dropping the e to change bake to baking.)
  • Phonological processing: identifying and manipulating sounds in spoken words. 
  • Fluency: reading accurately, smoothly, and automatically.
  • Comprehension: understanding what is read
  • Vocabulary: understanding and defining individual words both in written and spoken forms

A thorough assessment will also discuss the child’s performance in the classroom and background information about educational and family history. A cognitive assessment is often part of an evaluation for dyslexia, but more recent research shows that intelligence is not directly tied to success in reading and writing, so an intelligence test is not the best way to show that a student is underperforming.

OK, but can a school provide that? It depends. Different states have different guidelines about who is qualified to provide those assessments and to provide a formal diagnosis of dyslexia. A school-based team, which may include a school psychologist, special educator, speech-language pathologist, or others, can evaluate in all these areas, but may not be permitted in the state to give the dyslexia diagnosis. In other states, school-based professionals with expertise in dyslexia and/or formal assessment tools may be able to diagnose dyslexia in-house.

Where should we go for an evaluation for dyslexia?

If the school won’t address your child’s dyslexia, you may need the support of another assessor. If you have formally, in writing, asked the school for a special education evaluation, and you are not satisfied with the results, find out about your state’s Procedural Safeguards. These guidelines (states are required by IDEA to have them) explain what steps parents can take if the school does not provide special educatoin evaluation and services as required by law. 

In many cases, parents choose to seek the support of a special education advocate or an attorney to help them navigate these challenges. A lot of the experience a family can expect in this process depends on the school district and its administration, unfortunately. 

If you do choose to get a private evaluation, rather than pursuing an independent evaluation through the school district, a neuropsychologist or, in some cases, an educational psychologist can provide a formal diagnosis. This process can be lengthy, expensive, and frustrating. Check your local Decoding Dyslexia chapter or network with local parents to get recommendations for evaluations in your local area. It can be difficult to tell if someone will be a fit for your child’s needs just by looking at their website. Neuropsychologists and psychologists are humans. Some are great with kids and terrible with paperwork. Others are less pleasant to meet with but write detailed reports. And some are all-around fabulous. If you find one of those, don’t lose their card! You may need more testing down the road.

What if my child's school doesn't "recognize" dyslexia?
Dyslexia could not be any more real, but schools have the strange (and wrong) idea that they can’t or don’t have to talk about it. Here’s what to do if your child won’t recognize dyslexia and support your child.


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What kinds of services should a student with dyslexia have?

Another disturbing lie that some school districts have told parents is “We don’t give IEPs for dyslexia.” I’ve heard repeatedly from parents that they were told they could get a 504 (a different federal law governs this program and provides accommodations to help students access the curriculum but doesn’t provide any specialized instruction in the areas of need) but not an IEP. 

can schools diagnose dyslexia
Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

Students with dyslexia, or other specific learning disabilities, should have services that constitute a Free and Appropriate Public Education, according to IDEA. Students with dyslexia, in particular, need a structured literacy approach to learn to decode and spell words, work with the sounds of spoken language, and read fluently and with comprehension. Evidence-based approaches (also referred to as the Science of Reading) are based on research findings that support their effectiveness. Orton-Gillingham is one widespread approach under the structured literacy umbrella, and OG, in turn, has informed and influenced many different programs and curricula. 

My child’s school is doing it wrong. Now what?

I’m sorry you’re struggling with this. With all the many things we know about the brain and how we learn to read, it is so frustrating and disappointing that parents have to beg and fight for the things their children need in school. There is no reason that there are so many different answers to the question, “Can schools diagnose dyslexia?”

Here are some tools and resources that can help empower you to push for informed educational decisions for your children:

  • Get connected: Join your local Decoding Dyslexia chapter (find them on Facebook) and look for groups connected to The Reading League and “Science of Reading.” The first one is more parent and education-focused and the second and third are great resources to educate yourself on how we learn to read and what the best practices are.
  • Get educated: There are many, many, excellent books that explain dyslexia. Some that I highly recommend are:
    • Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz – a researcher at Yale, Shaywitz has written an incredible book describing the science of dyslexia and shedding light on the experience of people with dyslexia. A new edition came out a year or two ago, with lots of excellent updates.
    • The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan by Ben Foss – I had the opportunity to see Foss speak a few years ago and it was memorable. He is an adult with dyslexia and hearing him speak about his experience of growing up and attending school, as well as hearing about his strengths and needs as an adult, was eye-opening and encouraging.
    • Reversed: A Memoir  by Lois Letchford – the parent of a child with dyslexia, Letchford educated herself so she could help her son who (spoiler alert!) went on to complete his PhD. It’s an incredible story.
  • Get support: Connect with an educational advocate or attorney if possible, and connect with local parent groups who can give insight into how things work in your local school district (which is often very different from how things should work according to state and federal law). 
  • Look into reading instruction outside of school: There are non-profits like the Children’s Dyslexia Center, as well as other local organizations that provide less expensive or no-cost tutoring to students with dyslexia. You can also look for tutors who are completing a practicum in Orton-Gillingham or Wilson Reading who need students to tutor as part of their training. And, of course you can also find help through a tutor trained to help students with dyslexia.

If you’re ready to get your child some individual reading support and you’re wondering if online Orton-Gillingham tutoring is the way to go, contact us for a consultation today!

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