When teacher Kay Nelson directs her class at Hamlin Robinson School to spell a word, she helps them break down every step.
Spell the word “monster,” she tells her students. How many syllables does it have? What is the vowel sound in the first syllable? The second?
Spell it out loud. Spell it in the air with your hand. Write it on the paper on your desk.
Her class, 15 children in all, spell the word out loud, in unison. Fifteen students raise their hands and write big, loopy letters in the air. Fifteen hands pick up pencils and write the word on paper, in cursive.
Nelson teaches fourth grade. But in this class of 15, there are students reading at the first-grade level, and also the fifth grade.
Most children here entered this private school in the Central District in third grade, diagnosed with a language-based learning disability such as dyslexia that was derailing their educations.
Desperate to get their children back on track, their parents pay up to $25,000 a year — more than double the price of tuition at the University of Washington — and come from a 50-mile radius, fighting through rush-hour traffic, even ferrying over from Bainbridge Island.
But it’s not just kids with learning disabilities who strain to learn to read. Only about 40% of Washington fourth graders are proficient at reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only slightly better than the national average of 35%. The numbers have hardly budged in almost 25 years.
The state’s own education officials acknowledge that Washington is not following established science in teaching reading, and that teachers here are still arguing about which skills are needed to become a good reader — or any kind of reader at all.
Washington teachers lack “a common language and common theory of practice of how to teach reading,” said Aira Jackson, director of English language arts for the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Elsewhere in the country, that dispute has been settled.
“We know how to teach children to read,” she said. “There’s really no debate anymore about what skills are necessary to learn how to read.”
Hamlin Robinson and many other private schools, including Our Lady of the Lake in Northeast Seattle, teach a version of “structured literacy,” which emphasizes step-by-step, systematic teaching that helps children understand the relationships between sounds and letters to decode words — a method broadly known as phonics.
It can help all children learn to read, said Meghan Whittaker, director of policy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Structured literacy “will work for every child,” Whittaker said. “There is no harm in providing that in every school across the country.”
A year ago, Washington lawmakers passed a bill that requires districts to screen children for signs of dyslexia. That bill was aimed at helping kids with a specific learning disability. But it will usher in major changes in the way all kids are taught to read in this state, Jackson said.
“We have no one to blame but ourselves”
Washington teachers have often dismissed phonics-heavy instruction, saying it’s a boring, repetitive way of learning to read. They argue that it shackles them to a script, and doesn’t take advantage of rich, immersive literature that can turn a child into a lifelong reader.
What’s more, most reading teachers already introduce students to phonics somewhat, they say. Beyond that, drilling phonics is an old-fashioned way of teaching that most students don’t need.
That’s the way a cluster of school districts in Pennsylvania thought of phonics, too.
But in 2015, modeling their efforts on a similar program in Ohio, eight Pennsylvania districts began screening all kindergartners for language-based learning disabilities. (Washington will begin screening in 2021.)
The Pennsylvania schools used off-the-shelf tests and set a high cutoff, hoping to capture as many students as possible who might need at least some help. In one district, as many as 50% of kindergartners qualified for extra reading assistance, said Monica McHale-Small, an adjunct professor at Temple University and former superintendent of Pennsylvania’s Saucon Valley School District.
Teachers learned how to use structured literacy to teach reading, although there was “lots of angst and gnashing of teeth.”
McHale-Small said she came to realize that many of the things she’d been taught in graduate school about how children learn to read “weren’t consistent with what science was telling us.”
“I had to learn to change my practice,” she said.
Once the Pennsylvania teachers began trying the new method, many were sold, she said, and began talking it up to colleagues in neighboring districts. Pennsylvania’s success featured prominently in a much-talked-about report by American Public Media.
There’s no such thing as a magic bullet in education. Not all children who struggle to read have dyslexia. And teaching via structured literacy does not guarantee that every dyslexic child will find it easy to read.
But McHale-Small, who has been in public education for 27 years, regrets that educators ignored the science for so long.
“We in public education have no one to blame but ourselves,” she said.
Washington’s new law specifically calls on teachers to emphasize four reading skills: phonemic awareness, the ability to hear, identify and manipulate the smallest unit of sound, or phoneme, in a word; phonological awareness, the ability to recognize and work with sounds; letter-sound knowledge, the ability to identify the unique sounds that every letter makes; and rapid automatized naming, the ability to quickly name aloud a series of familiar items.
In the 1990s, educators fought over the best way to teach reading, with many favoring a “whole language” approach — teaching reading with good literature and encouraging kids to guess at words, rather than breaking them down and sounding them out. To resolve the debate over how best to teach reading, Congress formed a National Reading Panel, which reviewed hundreds of studies.
The panel’s 449-page report concluded that reading is not a natural process, and that students needed more than just good books; they also needed to be taught the explicit relationship between sounds and letters — especially for those who struggle.
And many students struggle.
In Washington, nearly 48,000 children in 2018 were identified as having a “specific learning disability,” which includes dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia. Those numbers likely understate the problem; it’s estimated that as many as one in five children have some degree of dyslexia.
Hamlin Robinson’s approach was developed by Beth Slingerland, a Renton educator. Since the 1960s, teachers have studied techniques based on Slingerland’s understanding of how children learn to read. It’s a close relative of the Orton-Gillingham method, a time-tested approach to reading instruction developed in the 1930s. Slingerland and Anna Gillingham knew each other and worked together.
Slingerland’s approach was taught in schools in Renton, Kent and Issaquah for many years. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find Slingerland’s methods or other types of structured literacy in Washington public schools, although some teachers have taken the training and use it in their classrooms, said Michelle Ross, executive director of the Slingerland Institute in Bellevue, which teaches about 600 teachers a year in the U.S. and Canada.
Hamlin Robinson’s students all have a learning disability in reading, and many didn’t qualify for special-education services because they were not failing badly enough, even though they could not read, said principal Stacy Turner.
His school’s growth speaks to the hunger for a different approach. Hamlin Robinson started in 1983 with 12 kids. Today, it has more than 280 first through eighth graders and a long waiting list. It plans to build a separate middle school by 2020 and increase enrollment to 500.
As a private school, Hamlin Robinson isn’t required to administer state standardized tests, so it’s hard to compare its outcomes to those of public schools. But here’s a different measure of the school’s success: Of the 29 students who graduated from the school’s eighth grade in 2015, at least 22 of them are enrolled in college for the fall.
In 2018, Washington lawmakers approved legislation to screen every kindergartner and first grader for the learning weaknesses associated with dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities.
Screening must start by fall 2021, Jackson said. However, some districts have started early, and others are already changing up their reading curriculum to emphasize phonics.
That same law created a dyslexia advisory council, which is working on ways to change reading instruction in Washington. Jackson, the state superintendent official, thinks this will usher in major changes in the way reading is taught here: She says there will be more of an emphasis on breaking down words into their smallest components and sounding them out, while still exposing children to good literature.
It’s not always more money
Our Lady of the Lake, a Catholic school in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood, doesn’t specialize in teaching students with dyslexia. It’s just an ordinary K-8 Catholic school in a middle-class Seattle neighborhood, where tuition runs $8,000 a year. But over the years, it’s acquired a reputation for teaching kids who struggle to read and write, said Vice Principal Bonnie Meyer.
The school uses Slingerland’s methods, but it also incorporates a whole language-style teaching in fourth and fifth grade for kids who are ready for it. The two methods can complement each other, “especially in the hands of a skilled teacher who knows where the students are in the learning continuum,” she said.
All students do the same lessons together, and if a child is having trouble, the teachers pull them out and work with them — either in a group, or one on one.
Meyer pulled up reading figures for this year’s fifth-grade class. When they were in first grade, 30% of these kids had trouble reading. Four years later, 89% percent of the class is reading at or above the fifth grade level. Only a handful of kids are behind — and not by much.
“If all teachers would use a structured literacy approach, and we did it in elementary schools, we’d see far fewer kids struggling,” Meyer believes.
Virginia Berninger, a retired University of Washington psychology professor who has studied specific learning disabilities and written several books about teaching kids who have a hard time reading and writing, thinks public schools could take a lesson from Our Lady of the Lake.
In a public school, there’s no way to pull all of the struggling readers out of the classroom for special instruction, Berninger believes. She believes in using simple tests to screen for reading problems, then implementing interventions early in a child’s life.
“My thing is, it’s not always more money,” she said. “It’s doing things more intelligently … We need to find ways to help more kids in the general ed classroom.”
This is the second of a two-part series on learning disabilities in Washington state.