The statistic that more than 10 percent of Tennessee students might have dyslexia is helping to propel a bill through the state legislature. If passed, schools would be required to screen all Kindergarten through 2nd grade students for dyslexia, three times a year.
Early and frequent screening is meant to catch signs of dyslexia as soon as possible. Lori Smith of Clarksville says that if this type of screening had been in place when her daughter Ryann had started school, she might be reading at grade level right now.
Smith testified at a hearing for the bill earlier this month. She recounted the difficulty of getting a dyslexia diagnosis for her daughter, now in 4th grade. Smith could tell early on that Ryann had difficulty reading, but she wasn't sure why. That began a five-month process, attempting to get more help at school.
Because Ryann worked hard in class and completed all of her schoolwork, Smith says her teachers didn't seem concerned. "Finally, her teacher told me, 'Ms. Smith you need to accept that your daughter is just average.'"
But Smith believed Ryann's challenges had nothing to do with intelligence, so they opted to have her tested outside of school. That led to a dyslexia diagnosis and spurred a renewed effort to get the appropriate services.
Screening every child might help students like Ryann, who do not appear to be failing but are still in need of assistance. Tim Odegard of the Center for Dyslexia at Middle Tennessee State University believes this approach could bring relief to parents, who worry they have done something wrong.
These screenings would not diagnose dyslexia, but instead detect reading difficulties which could eventually lead to a diagnosis. Odegard thinks Tennessee schools are equipped to take it from there with the statewide framework, Response to Intervention or RTI.
The idea behind RTI is that teachers quickly respond to student struggles and provide support as needed. Rather than waiting for students to fail to receive help, this approach calls for incremental intervention, like small group instruction.
"We know what to do with dyslexia," Odegard says. "If we are trying to implement something as lofty as a Response to Intervention framework across the entire state, wouldn't it make sense to start with what we know really well?"
The dyslexia screenings, which would cost the state 1.6 million dollars a year, are meant to jumpstart the existing interventions much earlier for struggling readers. And when it comes to reading intervention, Odegard says the earlier the better.