Last year, California appeared ready to join 40 other states by mandating a screening tool for dyslexia — a learning disorder that affects 1 in 5 readers. The test would have flagged first graders who need extra help matching letters to sounds, connecting sounds to words, linking words in a sentence.
The stakes were high. In California, nearly 60% of third-graders are not reading at grade level, a crisis with potentially disastrous consequences. Research shows that students who aren’t proficient readers by third grade are more likely to miss school, more likely to be disciplined, more likely to drop out.
The bill died in the Assembly Education Committee before lawmakers even discussed it.
In some ways, this was a surprise. Gov. Gavin Newsom has publicly shared his struggle with dyslexia and has promoted generous state funding for research. And the bill’s author, Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-Glendale, who also has dyslexia, has long pushed for a dyslexia screening mandate.
“It is reprehensible that California is one of 10 states that doesn’t screen for dyslexia,” said Portantino. “The issue isn’t going away. Every year we don’t screen first-graders is another class lost. Shame on us.”
Simply put, the drive to identify children with dyslexia ran into the power of the state’s teachers union, according to parties involved in the issue.
California’s efforts to help children with dyslexia come amid a national push to change how reading is being taught to all children, especially to the youngest learners. The efforts have repeatedly stalled over the past few years because of deep disagreements over the best way to teach reading.
The California Teachers Association has been one of the strongest opponents of dyslexia screening, saying children learn to read at their own pace and flagging potential learning disorders could railroad some students, especially English learners, unnecessarily into special education.
Meanwhile, thousands of students continue to struggle with the basics of literacy, falling further and further behind because there is no process to screen every child, dyslexia advocates say.
California as outlier
Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, dyslexia is considered a learning disability and could qualify a student for special education or accommodations in the classroom through a 504 plan. But not all students with dyslexia are automatically placed in special education. Students with mild cases often stay in their regular classrooms. Those with moderate dyslexia might get an individualized education program but spend most of their time in their regular classrooms, only leaving a few hours a week for specialized reading instruction. Students with severe dyslexia might spend more time working one on one or in small groups with a specialist.
The longer it takes to identify a child with dyslexia, the harder it is for students to overcome the condition, meaning that delays in screening and assistance could lead to long-term literacy struggles, according to dyslexia experts.
Literacy advocates are appalled and frustrated at California’s delay in requiring dyslexia screening.
“As a state, we cannot afford to wait any longer. We are way behind the nation on this. California is an outlier,” said Lori DePole, co-state director of the nonprofit advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia. “We’ve been waiting for years. We’re done waiting.”
Other states, including many with high percentages of English learners, such as Texas, Florida and Arizona, mandate dyslexia screening with little controversy.
The situation is urgent, said Maryanne Wolf, professor in residence at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and director of the school’s Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice. Teachers’ beliefs that dyslexia screening would overidentify some children, especially English learners, as needing special education is “a misconception,” she said.
“Screening is not a diagnosis or a ramp to special education. Rather, it gives teachers information on strengths and weaknesses of every child so that early targeted instruction can give children their best shot at becoming literate,” Wolf said. “Every time a child is not realizing their potential is a loss to society, economically and in every other way. … The stakes are so high. We cannot continue to let this happen.”
Seven years ago, when Gavin Newsom was lieutenant governor, he spearheaded an effort at UC San Francisco to research the neuroscience behind dyslexia and devise a free screening tool for schools. His interest stems from his own experience as a child struggling with dyslexia.
Since he was elected governor, Newsom’s support has accelerated. Over the past few years, his administration has invested almost $20 million in dyslexia research and pilot screening projects, $60 million in programs to help children with learning disabilities and $500 million in literacy coaches and reading specialists for all students.
Momentum is picking up elsewhere, as well. The state Department of Education encourages all districts to screen students for dyslexia annually. Some districts, including Los Angeles Unified, are moving toward universal screening on their own, without waiting for statewide legislation. And the state’s teacher credentialing commission recently added dyslexia guidelines and a phonics-based reading curriculum to the standards required for future teachers.
The tool that UCSF researchers created, called Multitudes, is expected to be released in 2023. The free 20-minute test, intended for kindergartners or first graders, will be available in Spanish, Mandarin and other languages. The web-based test will assess students’ phonological skills, spelling, comprehension, vocabulary and other reading abilities.
But even when it is released, the tool will be optional for California schools unless legislation mandates its use. Last year, the bill, known as SB 237, would have required all schools to screen first graders for dyslexia, using “culturally, linguistically and developmentally appropriate” tests, and then provide specialized reading instruction to those students who have it. Because it’s a mandate, the state would reimburse districts for their extra costs.
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate but hit a wall in the Assembly when Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, chair of the Education Committee, declined to schedule the bill for a vote.
O’Donnell, who is retiring at the end of the year, did not return emails from EdSource. But the California Teachers Association said it opposed the bill because it would lead to the overidentification of students with potential reading disorders, take up classroom time and not necessarily result in more help for children with dyslexia.
Children learn to read at their own pace, and teachers know best which students need extra support, the union said.
“Learning to read is a little like learning to ride a bike. With practice, typical readers gradually learn to read words automatically,” union executives wrote in a June 24, 2021, letter to O’Donnell, which the union recently sent to EdSource when asked for its position on the legislation.
The letter continued, “Universal screening alone will not prevent the impact of dyslexia on student gains in reading, nor minimize the impact of the frustration of students, nor improve thoughtful planning for instructional support.”
The union did not answer further questions about its position.
The union’s position on how children learn to read contradicts brain researchers whose work has come to be described as the science of reading.
Cindy Jiban, principal academic lead for early learning at NWEA academic research firm, wrote that approaches such as the “riding a bike” style described by the union do not work.
“Proponents of the science of reading have justifiably called out two practices that are NOT supported by research and should not be adopted or continued: Incidental or haphazard decoding instruction, (and) the three cueing systems in word decoding,” Jiban wrote, referring to the practice of encouraging students to guess a word based on the context, pictures or grammar. “Teaching kids to try any of these they like when a hard word shows up is not responsible, the science tells us.”
But regardless of literacy philosophies, screening for dyslexia can be a crucial way for teachers to identify — and provide tailored services for — students who are struggling with reading, and “should be seen as part and parcel of effective instruction,” said Young-Suk Kim, education professor at UC Irvine and dyslexia expert. While she agrees with the union in that identified students need supports, “there is no evidence” that screening leads to over-identifying dyslexia in young students, she said. “On the contrary, there is strong, robust evidence delayed assessment leads to many unnecessary problems.”
Advocates for English learners had similar concerns as the teachers union. Californians Together, which advocates for English learners in California public schools, opposed SB237 because they believe it didn’t consider the complexities of bilingual students. Too many might be misidentified as having learning disabilities and miss out on valuable time in regular classrooms if they’re placed in special education classes or spend several hours a week with a reading specialist, said Martha Hernandez, the group’s executive director.
And for those students who are actually dyslexic, any extra help should be tailored to the specific needs of English learners. Teachers, as well, should be better trained to recognize “whether (a problem) is language or literacy,” Hernandez said.
“One of the worries is that once children are identified as being at risk of dyslexia, then there may be a blanket implementation of a reading intervention or a reading program that was really designed for native English speakers without reflecting the really considerable research on effective literacy for second language learners,” she said.
Children who are learning English, whether they’re dyslexic or not, have specific literacy needs that might not be addressed in one-size-fits-all reading programs, she said.
The group isn’t opposed to universal dyslexia screening in general, and would be open to a screening test that addressed those concerns, Hernandez said.
Against this backdrop, a committee with California and national researchers and representatives from all sides is working on a compromise. Linda Darling-Hammond, State Board of Education president and TK-12 adviser to Newsom, has been observing the talks. Results are expected in early 2023.
The larger issue, perhaps, is how schools should teach reading in general. After years of using a “balanced literacy” approach, steeped in whole language practices, some districts are moving toward a “structured literacy” approach described as a science of reading-based curriculum, which emphasizes phonics. That method is far more effective for teaching children with dyslexia because of its focus on explicit, sequential instruction, literacy advocates say.
Texas struggles with getting teachers to change
In at least one state, screening for dyslexia has been the easy part. The challenge in Texas — which, like California, has struggled with reading scores and has a high percentage of English learners — has been convincing teachers that they need to change the way they teach reading, said Pearl Garden, chair of the Texas Association for Literacy Education.
Like in California, literacy teaching methods used to vary by district. But now, under new legislation, Texas requires all K-3 teachers to take a 60-hour course on better ways to teach reading — in part to improve outcomes for students with dyslexia. But because some teachers have to take the course on their own time, and even pay for it themselves, there has been some opposition, Garden said.
“Dyslexia screening is critical because it’s like finding the right medicine to fix what’s wrong,” Garden said. “My recommendation? It’s important to have teacher buy-in.”
A 2019 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities found that identifying English learners with learning disabilities can be nuanced. English learners tend to be underidentified in grades K-3 and overidentified in later grades.
But that doesn’t mean schools should not screen students, the report found. Instead, students should be tested in both English and their native language, and teachers and reading specialists should take into account a student’s individual linguistic abilities.
Lindsay Kubatzky, director of the policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said his group is closely watching how dyslexia screening affects English learners.
“We think there are safeguards in place, but that being said, it’s really challenging to disentangle what’s a result of being an English learner and what’s a learning disability, especially post-COVID,” he said. “We’re looking to see if there’s a spike in the numbers of EL students with learning disabilities. The rate should be steady. But we also hope schools aren’t denying services to students who need it.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Portantino said he plans to introduce a new bill next year to require dyslexia screening. He’s hopeful the new version will pass, in part because the Assembly Education Committee will have a new chair. He also plans to work closely with the union and English learner groups to clarify the details.
Although he was largely quiet on SB237, Newsom remains a strong advocate for dyslexia research and support. Last year he released a children’s book about dyslexia, and supporters hope he’ll include mandatory screening in his forthcoming budget.
But for Portantino, the issue remains a personal mission. Dyslexic himself, he knows firsthand the challenges of trying to succeed in school with a learning disability. Undiagnosed until eighth grade, Portantino struggled with reading most of his childhood, and the condition “significantly” affected him, academically and personally, he said.
The issue is too important to drop, he said.
“We know that early intervention works. We know it can help kids be successful long term,” he said. “I am committed to this issue, 100%. I want this to work.”