Field Trip: Learning to See Dyslexia
Garland Independent School District serves thousands of dyslexic students. Dyslexia is a learning disability that has profound effects on students as they move through high school — so identifying students early on is incredibly helpful. But how do you do that?
In this podcast we find out how Garland ISD is empowering people to work across departments, train teachers to become dyslexia therapists, and help teams working with special education and dyslexic students to work together.
- What dyslexia looks like, and how dyslexic students experience school
- How schools can work across teams to better serve dyslexic students
- Takeaways from seeing dyslexic students thrive after identification and intervention
Dyslexia affects a huge number of students in America. But the thing is, it’s not always well-understood.
MARCY EISINGER: A lot of teachers will misinterpret that, if they don’t really understand it, as being lazy and just not getting their work done, what have you. And that’s simply not the case.
Today, we’re going to find out what school is like for dyslexic students… and how dyslexia might appear, if teachers aren’t trained to spot it.
CATHY CLIFFORD: It really affects how we can program for the student, because if we can’t all look at everything available to the student, then we can’t really appropriately plan for the student, because then they are kind of siloed into one direction, and all of the different aspects aren’t necessarily available to them.
We’re also looking at how one school district is breaking down silos between teams that work with special education, English learner programs, interventions and more, so they can better serve students with dyslexia.
MARCY EISINGER: If I am simply working just with dyslexia, then I’m going to miss out on what I need to know about the English language learner component. I’m going to miss out on those twice exceptional students who would never be identified or never receive the services that they deserve to have.
From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.
MARCY EISINGER: My name is Marcy Eisinger. I am the Assistant Director for Dyslexia.
Marcy oversees everything that has to do with dyslexia at Garland ISD in Texas – not far from Dallas.
MARCY EISINGER: And if you are familiar with dyslexia, it has its hands in pretty much everything. I fall under special education here in Garland, but it also has to do with a lot of other areas in terms of MTSS, RTI, curriculum and all of our other populations as well.
RYAN ESTES: We are talking today about how Garland Independent School District supports students with dyslexia. Let’s start by getting a better picture of what we’re dealing with. Marcy, talk to me a little bit about what dyslexia actually is. How does someone with dyslexia see the world, and what is school like for dyslexic students?
MARCY EISINGER: That’s really a multifaceted question, because what dyslexia is, it’s neuro-biological in origin. It’s the way that the brain processes language, and so it has nothing to do with intelligence whatsoever. So a lot of our kids are often actually quite bright. They have intelligence, however they don’t perform in school, and they have difficult times reading. Dyslexia, that’s what that means, dyslexia, would be translated to “bad reading.” They struggle with reading. They struggle with the way they process the language. And often when students come into school, you see every student when they come in may have this great excitement for what school has to offer, and they come in and they’re ready to learn. Every student wants to learn. However, sometimes if you’re struggling and you’re smart and you’re seeing all the other kids that are around you — think of an elementary student walking into school and all the students are learning to read — well, they know that they’re not able to do with those other students do.
That takes a toll on dyslexic students, and on how they view themselves, and how they feel about school in general. They get frustrated. And often, when they’re younger they figure out how to compensate, which works for a while, but then in middle school, the areas where they struggle become more obvious.
MARCY EISINGER: I had a student that would come into middle school and they’re not able to read, but yet they are bright. They understand content, they understand concepts, but yet they’re not able to perform. And after so many years of not being able to perform and not being able to do things that some of the other students might be able to do but have that intelligence, it does take a toll on their self-esteem. So you might see students shut down, you might be able to see students that will start acting out, feeling ill when being asked to do tasks that they struggle with. And that goes on into high school too.
Even when I was in the classroom, before I even understood what dyslexia was, just to see these students struggling and not really understanding why. Because a lot of teachers will misinterpret that if they don’t really understand it as being lazy and just not getting their work done, what have you. And that’s simply not the case.
Marcy told me about a Vietnamese student, who had been in an ESL program for pretty much all of his educational career. He was receiving language services, but there seemed to be something more, he struggled all the way through elementary school and up into middle school, even though his siblings were doing great. One year, his teacher – who had been trained to look for symptoms of dyslexia – asked Marcy to come in and lend some expertise. Turns out, it was dyslexia – but it hadn’t been diagnosed, because it was easy to overlook or mistake for something else.
MARCY EISINGER: It was unidentified and he struggled and there were also behavior issues that came along with that. The older he got… well, come to find out, once the student was identified, he was able to turn it around and it was like an ‘Aha’ moment for him, just to see him be able to turn it around. And it did take some time. But I think knowing that it’s not too late and just understanding, “Hey, this is what it is.”
That story, you can probably tell, is not unique. Another time, an eighth grade student came to her and said, “Ms. Eisinger, you saved my life”
MARCY EISINGER: She told me about her experiences through elementary school, where she would act out in elementary. She couldn’t read, she didn’t want to read and she would try. She told me, “It’s like I’m being punished for it,” because she would have to stay in at recess because she didn’t get something done or refused to do something. And so that struggle manifested into something that became more of a behavior and a depletion of who she was as a person. And that came straight from her. By the time she was identified in at the middle school level, just the fact of knowing what dyslexia is and that is not too late, she too was able to turn it around. With the appropriate accommodations that she received and the intervention that she was able to get at that level, she actually did turn around, going from being a failing student who had never passed a star test or any of the major tests that she had to take and doing homework assignments, to being a successful student. [She] went ahead and moved on into high school with a whole different outlook on what the future possibilities were.
And she still keeps in contact. Those relationships were really important. And you can see that time after time with different students.
RYAN ESTES: When a dyslexic student is in the classroom, what are the kinds of things that teachers will observe, whether or not they know about a dyslexia diagnosis? What are the kinds of things that teachers will see, whether they be behavioral, academic, any of those things?
MARCY EISINGER: Good question. I will tell you, starting very early on, of course we know the earlier we find it, the better, right? We know this, but we also know it’s never too late. So if you look at some of those early indicators, even before they go into school, you can look and see if they had a delay in speech, or if they have trouble with rhyming and blending and segmenting words. These are all characteristics that parents and early educators, those in PreK and K can start to look at to see if they’re struggling with any of these things. The phonemic awareness component, right? So starting early, you can see it there. Labored reading. If you see that the student is struggling with reading in general, that’s a problem.
There’s a level of unexpectedness that goes with this. If you know that a student obviously understands, sometimes you can see that they have a vocabulary, especially if they’ve been exposed to it, but that’s not what they’re putting out. Right? You see something unexpected. They might be very good with numbers, however they’re not able to read. So just by looking at that, teachers can also look at avoidance. If a student, when they’re being asked to read something, this is when they typically would have their stomach ache, or this is when they try to hide and blend into the background. Those are all red flags for teachers to recognize when they’re in the classroom, especially when they’re young.
So if that’s how dyslexia often manifests itself in young students, how do schools typically support those students? Are they included in special education? Cathy Clifford also joined us on this call – she is one of the special education coordinators at Garland.
CATHY CLIFFORD: My name is Cathy Clifford, and I am one of the special education coordinators. I oversee many things. Primarily I work with our staff that does evaluations of students for disabilities. I oversee our educational diagnosticians, our licensed specialists in school psychology, and our speech pathologists, and encompassing all of that are the evaluations for students that are suspected of having dyslexia, that are already in special education or being referred through the special education process.
Cathy said that, at least in the state of Texas, dyslexia doesn’t always fall under special education. While the evaluation and plan for treatment can be part of special ed, sometimes this is done under the Section 504 umbrella.
CATHY CLIFFORD: So in Garland specifically, we want to look at those students that we see are struggling, and we have student support teams that meet on the campus, and we have individuals that are knowledgeable about both the student and reading difficulties, whether it’s our dyslexia therapist, our educational diagnosticians, our special education resource teachers. They all come together and determine from that point, should we refer through our 504 committee for evaluation or should we refer through special ed?
And anytime we suspect a disability or we think that this student will need specially designed instruction to be successful, we’re going to refer through the Special Education avenue, through I.D.E.A. If the committee determined that the reading difficulties, once we can identify those and start a treatment plan with that, some kind of programming and that would be successful, then a lot of times those students are referred through our 504 committee. And once that happens, our dyslexia therapists or therapists-in-training are doing that evaluation, compiling all of the data and bringing that data and evaluation to the committee to determine whether or not that student does have dyslexia.
On the special Ed side of things, our educational diagnosticians are doing very similar things. They are also looking at perhaps a disability with a specific learning disability in the area of reading or perhaps writing.
Sometimes we have students who have speech and language delays because we know that is something we really have to pay close attention to. Those students that have delays with their language in early delays in their language could be at risk for dyslexia. And so we’re looking a lot of different data there. And again, we do our formal evaluation, we gather all of our data from both teacher and parent and our observations. We bring this to the ARD committee, the IEP team, to make a determination as to if the student does, in fact, have dyslexia. And if so, what are our recommendations going to be for programming for the students.
RYAN ESTES: What are the most difficult aspects of supporting dyslexic students? What are the biggest challenges that schools face or questions that are hard to answer in this entire process?
CATHY CLIFFORD: I think some of it, parents, once the identification is made, I know from our end, we’re also looking at possibly a student with a disability as well. And parents really want an idea of a timeframe of when we can remediate these issues with the student. And that’s very difficult, because every student is so individualized. We know what research tells us about the programming we use and how long it may take. But each student is so different that it’s hard to make that prediction. So helping parents understand that this is a journey that we’re going to take together, and we hope to see progress in a very short amount of time. However, we have to really tailor what we’re doing for each individual student and find what really works for them.
MARCY EISINGER: Can I just say in relation to that, in Texas and I know in Garland, we screen all kindergarten and first graders, and that is a huge task because we know between 5 and 17 percent of the population could be identified with dyslexia. So honestly, along with what Cathy said, a lot of our challenges in public schools in general would go toward the funding of these students. Funding is always an issue. However, we have a great school board and Superintendent in our district that support dyslexia and this intervention. And as we know, dyslexia is on a continuum from mild to most severe. So as a student is identified, first we have to identify and then we have to make sure, like Cathy said, that we provide that appropriate intervention. And that does look different for every student. However, we do know that the way a student with dyslexia needs to be taught, has to be taught in a specific way.
Something Marcy just said caught me off guard – between 5 and 17 percent of the student population could be identified as having dyslexia. I had to make sure I was hearing correctly.
MARCY EISINGER: It used to be where they said one in five people had characteristics of dyslexia, but they’re now saying now that it’s between 5 and 17 percent that could be identified. That could be a large burden to for school districts to be able to do that. But I think a lot of it goes back to the support that you have from your district.
At Garland ISD, it’s more like 8%. And before we go any further, here’s a really important point: even if someone is identified as having traits of dyslexia, that doesn’t automatically mean that they’re eligible for instructional services or even accommodations. Those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis at individual 504 or IEP meetings, so it’s not like 17% of students are going to require additional services. Still, I said to Marcy, that has the potential to be a significant number of students they’re working with.
RYAN ESTES: At Garland ISD, you have been doing something pretty unique to better serve these students, and that’s one of the reasons we have both of you on the call here. Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re doing and what it is that you have put in place so that you can better work with those students that have dyslexia?
MARCY EISINGER: Sure. Well first, like I said, we do identify and we definitely screen early, so we’re looking and we support students K through 12. And it has to do with working within other departments. I mean, even though I fall under special education, like I said, it crosses over into a lot of other different areas. So we’re also looking K through 12, and we want to make sure that we’re supporting our students throughout the curriculum and working within different departments, including our gifted and talented. Cathy and I work closely together between our dyslexia therapists, and we’re training all of our teachers to become dyslexia therapists on campus, which is an additional two years of training, so that we can provide them the best intervention that we can provide.
And making sure that we’re working with diagnosticians, we’re working with our gifted and talented people, we’re working with our ESL department to make sure that those English learners are able to have equal access, to make sure that we’re identifying all the students that we have and that we’re able to provide the appropriate intervention. So I think that that is one way that we’re unique, is not only are we training our dyslexia and teachers to become therapists, to be able to work with them, but we’re training across the district so that classroom teachers and so that administrators and everybody in the district is aware of what dyslexia is and what it is that we can do to support them in the general ed classroom as well as the intervention and across the different areas.
RYAN ESTES: One thing that we have heard from a lot of different districts is that often departments operate in silos, and you have touched on this already — working relatively isolated from each other. What does that often look like in special education?
CATHY CLIFFORD: Well, in special education, we’re very fortunate to now have our dyslexia program more in the same department now. They didn’t always hold true in the past. A little bit before Marcy came on board with us, it was moved under our executive director and we were able to start planning in-service trainings together. We were starting to really collaborate. And also, we have to work with our intervention department, our bilingual department, our special programs. We have to all work together, and our executive director is really taking steps to ensure that we’re able to work with a variety of departments and do training together. Marcy and I have been able to do training together with our dyslexia therapists and our educational diagnosticians. We’re hoping to continue that in the year to come. We’re also going to be doing some work with our speech pathologist. Right now our biggest challenge is just finding the time for all of that training as well. That’s been difficult on our end, because once the school year starts, our therapists need to be in the classroom with those students or educational diagnosticians. They have a lot of responsibilities on campuses and just finding the time that we can pull them together has been a challenge.
RYAN ESTES: So that that training really helps avoid the situation where, say, someone in special education isn’t talking with the people who are working with English language learners or people in charge of Section 504. Is it because you’re trying to mitigate that aspect of it?
CATHY CLIFFORD: Yes, it is, and Section 504 is also in our department. While it’s not special education, we’re all in the same department together. So our Section 504 coordinator is also in this department, and he and Marcy have been able to go out and actually meet on the campuses. We have a large school district, but they’ve been able to go to each campus and meet with the 504 committee and, and talk them through what the Section 504 committee would look like. Specifically in relation to a student with dyslexia, what that might look like, what their responsibilities are, how to develop a plan for a student, and that all are those students that do not fall under the special education umbrella.
RYAN ESTES: When departments do operate independently of one another and don’t have the kind of cooperation and communication that yours does, for example, how might that impact dyslexic students? What are the pitfalls that come into play when people across teams aren’t talking to one another in that way?
CATHY CLIFFORD: It really affects how we can program for the student, because if we can’t all look at everything available to the student, then we can’t really appropriately plan for the student, because then they are kind of siloed into one direction and all of the different aspects aren’t necessarily available to them. For example, we have dyslexia therapists that are doing instruction with a systematic phonemic approach. And a lot of times for our special education students, that’s the most appropriate route for them to take. And now with us working hand in hand, that is something that ARD committee has the ability to make the decision to do. We often invite our dyslexia therapists into that ARD meeting, IEP team meeting, and together we plan what that looks like for the student.
MARCY EISINGER: It really inhibits what we’re able to do for our students, right? Because if you have a student that is twice exceptional and dyslexic and may also be an English language learner, then we need to be able to adjust for that. If I am simply working just dyslexia, then I’m going to miss out on what I need to know about the English language learner component. I’m going to miss out on those twice exceptional students who would never be identified or never receive the services that they deserve to have. This is the potential for these students and if we’re not working together, then that student is not going to be afforded that best possible opportunity to be successful.
RYAN ESTES: Aside from the training that you mentioned, training people across departments, what are the kinds of things that you are doing in order to encourage this kind of collaboration?
MARCY EISINGER: Here in Garland we are doing a lot of things to be able to get out the word. So not only are we working interdepartmentally and with our dyslexia therapists and with classroom teachers on campuses and administrators, but we’re also reaching out to the community. We have put on a lot of events and a lot of public awareness so that parents have an understanding of what dyslexia is and what they can do to support at home, and so that they have an understanding of what we all can do together in this. We actually went out and have done a lot of professional development and trainings for the community and for parents. We’ve done a bilingual simulation of dyslexia and learning disabilities that hasn’t ever been done before. And that was a tremendous project, and it helped to bring in our bilingual community to have an understanding of dyslexia, too, because it’s often misunderstood and people look at it like…to understand it, it’s not that there’s something wrong, it’s just something different that we can easily address if we know about it.
RYAN ESTES: So here is the big question that I have for you is what you’re doing working? What kind of results are you seeing?
CATHY CLIFFORD: Oh, I believe it’s definitely working. That’s not to say we don’t have more work ahead of us in this collaborative model and looking at a lot of changes that have happened within our district in the last year. We have a lot more collaborative meetings to have, a lot more training. But we are seeing our dyslexia therapists and our educational diagnosticians working hand in hand more than they ever have. We have more work in that area, but we see them collaborating. I often hear educational diagnostician diagnosticians tell me that, “Oh, I’ve been to my dyslexia therapist. I’ve had them look over the information I have and vice versa.” They talked about the dyslexia therapists coming to them and getting their opinion about, “Do I need to test deeper in an area? Do you think we need to make a referral to special ed at this point? What do we need to do to make sure this student is successful?” And I’ve seen a lot of growth in that area this year.
MARCY EISINGER: I will tell you, just the response that we’ve had from the community and the response that we’ve had from parents and students alike — hearing parents come to you and sending emails about how thankful they are with what we’re doing and how they have actually watched their child go from not being able to read to now being able to read, within just a short amount of time. Like I said, every student is different, but the responses and the parents that respond with, “Wow, this is amazing. This is what we’ve needed. We had no idea.” You see tears from parents saying, “I had no idea that this is it, but they’re so thankful.” The thanks from them and for them to want to spread the word about how this program has been working for their child and what we are doing here in Garland has made all the difference in the world for them and for their children. To me, that says it all.
There’s always more work to do, of course. But Marcy said they can see they’re heading in the right direction. Students are passing state tests for the first time in their lives. Kids who previously talked about dropping out are getting supports and are making it in school. And these effects are growing.
MARCY EISINGER: It will be such an asset in terms of dropout prevention, in terms of reading, scores, all of it. But most of all, within the self-esteem of their students and their ability to achieve success. And knowing that they can, instead of being beat down, the parent responses, the student responses, have been incredible.
RYAN ESTES: I want to ask one quick follow up question about this cross-departmental collaboration. Are you primarily relying on the training, and training people to identify and keep their eyes open for certain behaviors or aspects of dyslexia, or of other situations, or are you also trying to share data about students between departments? Are you doing both of these? Are you simply training? What does that look like?
MARCY EISINGER: Both. We are actually doing both. Some of that is at a district level where we are trying to get more of that data at the district level to look and cross over. And we do meet and discuss that and try to work together and that regard. So yes in both senses, but the training and the collaboration that we see from district to campus level administrators to the dyslexia therapists, diagnosticians, speech language pathologists on campus to the classroom teachers, everybody needs to be aware of this. So yes, we do provide training. We were talking earlier about some of those classroom look-fors. We do training on that, we do simulations with campuses.
I do training with dyslexia therapists and then they are working on the campus. So they’re bringing their level of knowledge to the committee. Everybody is bringing their part to that committee to help to make these determinations. So in regards to dyslexia, we’re training our campus teachers for those look-fors. And they are also a part of this committee. So you have a fourth grade teacher who is saying, “Well, this student is having difficulty reading out loud. He’ll avoid it and he knows these certain words, but every time he goes to write it, he gives me very little in writing and he always uses the small words. Instead of saying, ‘This was enormous or gigantic, he’d use the word ‘big.’” They’ll refer back, so getting them to understand what this looks like, these avoidance behaviors, these acting out behaviors, at every grade level.
So if you’re at a secondary high school, you’re at a high school campus, that training is going to be geared toward, “Hey, this is what we need to look at.” You know, talking about learning another language, that’s often difficult for a student with dyslexia, with all that language processing piece, a second language could be very difficult. But it’s a matter of, “We need all of the input from everyone involved that has knowledge of the student to be able to help make those determinations.” They might need a special accommodation, and without the input of the classroom teacher or that Spanish teacher… we need to make sure that we have the proper things in place for them. So like I said, we do it both ways. It’s both at a district level and then with our campus administrators, and then hands on, on the ground at the campuses.
RYAN ESTES: My last question for each of you, I’d love to hear from each of you from your perspective, from the perspective of someone working in special education, from the perspective of someone working with dyslexic students. Since you started this work together and trying to work with each other, what have you learned? What are the kinds of things that you would say to someone at another district who is looking to do the same kind of thing? What are the important things to keep in mind?
CATHY CLIFFORD: I think one thing you have to have an open dialogue with all parties. Marcy and I visited several times and learned from each other about different aspects of what our evaluations entail and encouraging your staff also to have an open dialogue and to make sure that we try to come to the same page. We may not always, we may have a differing opinion about something as far as some small aspect of it. But overall, we need to all come together for the betterment of the student, and trying to find that. And I think that’s helped us a lot, we’ve been able to build a relationship that we feel like we can have open dialogue and share information. Also, I think it’s important to make sure the people we oversee are hearing the same information, and that’s been a challenge just due to time and bringing them all together. But I’m hopeful that in each step we take, that’s going to improve more and more.
RYAN ESTES: When you say people, everyone hearing the same information, who are those people that you’re referring to?
CATHY CLIFFORD: Those would be the educational diagnosticians, the special education teachers and the dyslexia therapists.
RYAN ESTES: And how about you, Marcy? What have you learned most through this process?
MARCY EISINGER: I’m learning every day, right? So it’s actually a… an open mind. You need to have an open mind. You need to be able to listen. You need to be able to meet people where they’re at and then work from there. Because everybody’s coming in with something different. And because I was fairly new to the district, I’m learning a lot of that as well, but at the same time, I think that by listening and by really trying to understand where other parties are coming from, you get a lot farther in terms of where we need to be. Like I said, I’m a firm believer in servant leadership. The bottom line is, we’re here to serve the students, and we also want to grow our personnel and our teachers, and to make sure that we’re all hearing the same thing, but we’re all also listening to what each other has to say. And sometimes I think because we are educators and we all have our own area of expertise, we all have our own perspectives. Because based on where we’ve come from and what we’ve done, we see things differently. So it’s a matter of really trying to be able to communicate well and building others so that they can do the best work for our students.
RYAN ESTES: We’re on the phone with Marcy Eisinger and Cathy Clifford from Garland Independent School District in Texas. Thank you both for speaking with us today.
MARCY EISINGER: I appreciate you having us.
Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, offering Frontline Special Ed & Interventions. It’s software that helps schools manage programs for special education and special student populations, making it easier to work with IEPs, RTI/MTSS, English Learners program, Section 504, and more. To find out more, visit FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.