Heritage Academy of Learning Excellence
Heritage Academy of Learning Excellence News
July 28, 2014

Schools struggle to meet demand for dyslexia testing.

News -Tracy Armstrong noticed something was wrong when her daughter was in Grade 1. Her daughter, who was in a French immersion class at a local public school, was having trouble learning to read. She isn't alone. A study done by the American National Institute for Health says that nearly 20 per cent of the population has dyslexia. The International Dyslexia of Association Ontario branch, places that number at 15 to 20 per cent of the population. That breaks down to four or five children in each classroom who have some degree of the learning disability.

"One in five kids have dyslexia, they should be doing better," Armstrong said of the school boards in Ottawa.

Armstrong, who lives in Nepean, said her daughter's first grade teacher wasn't receptive to what she felt were warning signs of the learning disability.

Most parents don't notice anything is amiss until school starts, but according to "Challenging the Myths: Erasing the Stigma of Dyslexia", written by private school founder Shelley Holloway, they start much earlier.

It can start with the late development of talking compared to their peers and difficulty learning the names for shapes, colours, letters and numbers. Even poor articulation - like saying "gispetti" instead of spaghetti, can be an early red flag.

Holloway began her research into dyslexia after volunteering to help read to children at her son's school. "It was Grade 1 and he wouldn't remember from day to day what sound a letter would make, we made very little progress," Holloway said, adding there wasn't a lot of support available then.

Dr. Tim Hogan, the head psychologist for the Ottawa public school board, said there are a number of reasons a child would have trouble reading in Grade 1, and letter reversals may not yet be a cause for concern.

"In Grade 1, I would say about 40 per cent of the cohort would experience those

problems to some extent," he said. "Teachers will try to correct mislabeling letters or associating them with the wrong sound. If we continue to see they're not sorting it out in Grade 2 then we might look to other methods."

But Armstrong said the longer the school waited, the more difficult things became for her daughter.

"We had a much more receptive teacher in Grade 2 but we didn't want to wait any longer so we had her tested privately," Armstrong said.

This testing is the coveted psychological assessment that would help to determine whether or not her daughter had a learning disability. The tests are done by the school boards, but the wait lists are long and many parents get frustrated with lengthy waits and subsequent barriers to in-school resources so they seek assessments from private psychologists - either paying out of pocket or using health insurance if they have it. Armstrong said the first test she had done cost $2,200.

Hogan said that while he feels the Ottawa public board is one of the better-resourced systems in the province, many parents are stepping outside the system to get their kids tested.

Hogan said there are 23 full-time equivalent psychologist positions within the public board.

There are an additional 30 speech and language pathologists that serve the board's more than 100 schools.

Hogan said typically each psychologist is responsible for up to eight elementary schools, based on the school population and the needs, and they may spend half a day per week at each school, or one day every two weeks.

"Each school identifies five priority students each year to be assessed," he said, adding a psychologist's job within the board involves a lot more than just doing assessments.

There is no set list of criteria, determining which student is picked for assessment, and the testing would look for markers of any of the Ministry of Education's 14 defined exceptionalities - everything from the gifted to autism.

Barbetta, whose three children all have varying degrees of dyslexia, said she suspects the children who act out are the ones who get placed on the list.

"The student who is suffering silently at the back of the class won't get noticed," she said.

Hogan said learning disability classes are not meant to serve as a placeholder for students with behavioural problems. He added more parents seem to be coming to the school with assessments in hand.

"I don't know if the issue is more prevalent or there are more private psychologists available," he said. "But special programs and resources can be made available before the formal testing."

Chief psychologist for the Ottawa Catholic school board, Elizabeth Paquette, said from the school's perspective, the first step for intervention with a reading difficulty is not psychological resources or intervention.

"First we would do remedial reading, give the student extra time to process for tests and rule out other potential learning disabilities," she said.

There are 11 full-time equivalent psychologist positions in the Catholic board and each would be responsible for 10 schools. Much like the public board, each school identifies five priority students each fall to be tested.

"We would look at students who are very withdrawn and don't want to be in school," she said.

Paquette said while an assessment doesn't have to be done for an individualized education plan, it must be done for the learning disability classes available for grades 4, 5 and 6 students.

"The system classes are more strategy based," Paquette said.

Paquette said she has been working in the school system for 25 years and the diagnostic tools are becoming more refined, but the assessments have also become more complex.

"There are challenges, there is a bigger caseload now," she said.

No matter what test is done, the results will never be listed under what Armstrong feels is the proper name for the condition. Dyslexia is not in the diagnostic manual used by psychologists, meaning many are reluctant to use the term. As a result, it is often referred to as a language-based learning disability.

Linda Barbetta, head of the Learning Disabilities Association of Ottawa Carleton, says she thinks the broad-based term does a disservice to students.

"It's too generic and focuses on accommodation rather than remediation," she said. "I think it would be very costly to educate teachers on dyslexia and the teaching methods though if the school boards started to use the term."

Hogan said in the early days of his professional career, the term dyslexia was still being used.

"It's no longer a DSM (diagnostic manual) classification, but that doesn't mean the phenomena has changed," he said. "In all likelihood, it's a learning disability with a neurological basis."

Hogan said focusing on the fact that the child has a reading problem and has difficulty with language or math skills, should direct the student to the resources.

But Rob Kirwan, who heads the public board's special education advisory committee, said with the growing number of recognized learning disabilities and dwindling funding, resources are tough to get.

"It becomes a case of pitting kids with (attention defi-cit disorder) against kids with autism as they compete for dollars," he said.

The testing process can also be complex to navigate.

"A parent who is just struggling to pay the rent or that is new to the country, may not recognize that a student is having trouble learning to read," Kirwan said.

Holloway, founder of Mindware Academy, a private school for children with learning disabilities, said that people with dyslexia require specific one-to-one remediation.

"Schools often lack the time, the money and the specific skills to offer such remediation," she said. "But by labeling the condition as language difficulty, schools are free to use other methods of remediation."

Holloway says these methods have little to no success with the dyslexia learner.

Based on her experience, Armstrong said she agreed.

"The first test was kind of inconclusive," Armstrong said.

"It showed she had a strong likelihood for having a learning disability."

The test recommended Armstrong's daughter, who was enrolled in French immersion and was having difficulty learning a second language, switch to the English stream.

The test also indicated difficulty with reading, writing and working memory - all common traits for someone with dyslexia.

Armstrong's daughter was moved to an English program, but there weren't many supports in place.

In the meantime, her daughter became introverted and quiet.

"Her anxiety was extremely high," Armstrong said. "When (students) are anxious, they can't learn. They are on overload."

Despite her concerns, Armstrong said she was dismissed by the school and even some of her friends.

"I had people tell me that if I wasn't so stressed out then maybe she could read better," Armstrong said.

By Grade 4, Armstrong said she still felt everyone was dismissing the situation.

She was asked if her daughter was born late in the year - she's a January baby, or if her daughter was getting enough reading practice at home.

"Meanwhile her personality started to change," Armstrong said of her daughter, who began to sleep less and withdraw at school.

There were supports in place, but Armstrong said they often left her daughter feeling isolated.

"One teacher discovered that if she was tested orally, she would perform much better because she wasn't limited by her writing," Armstrong said. "But they would make her answer the questions on a recorder in the hallway by herself. How must that have made her feel?" At the beginning of Grade 4 she had her tested again.

The same psychologist who saw her in Grade 2 retested to fill in the blanks.

"She came back right away with a diagnosis of dyslexia, and I thought we would get all this support because now I had a diagnosis," Armstrong said.

But that wasn't the case. In-class accommodations were varying depending on the teacher and the reading support wasn't there, Armstrong said.

"Because she was in Grade 4 and they don't teach them to read after Grade 3," she said.

So Armstrong and her husband decided to spend $3,000 on a private, week-long course called the Gift of Dyslexia. The course uses multi-sensory teaching techniques.

"Basically, there's 220 words in the English language that don't have a picture associated with them. The point is to find a way to teach them those words. It's clay and picture based."

For the first time ever Armstrong said her daughter felt like someone understood her style of learning. But the success was short lived.

"I would go into her school and work with her when she would have been having French class," Armstrong said, adding by then she had quit work to be available to help with her daughter's schooling. "But we found that unless she was doing it everyday and it was incorporated into her schoolwork, it wasn't helping."

By Grade 5, Armstrong knew the gap between her daughter's reading and writing ability was greater than the school thought. She refused to sign the school's individualized education plan because she felt the supports weren't working.

Another test showed she was right.

"I was shocked when they told me they didn't want to change anything," Armstrong said, adding the school told her they felt they could close the gap the next school year.

"She's always loved school though, that's the weird part," Armstrong said. "If only teachers could channel that and teach her the way she needs to learn, then she would soar."

By the time her daughter hit Grade 6, Armstrong said she had had enough and enrolled her daughter in a private school designed to help kids with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

Now she's in Grade 8, and while there's still a gap, they're working with the school to close it.

"The best part now is she knows she's not alone," Armstrong said, adding her daughter is much more confident.

"It's not the academic piece as much as the confidence, because once you shatter a kid, it's very hard to build them back up."

But the tuition cost $15,000 a year.

"I feel fortunate we can afford it," Armstrong said. "If she has dreams we want her to be able to realize them. But I feel very let down by the public school system."

From tutoring methods to tax credits, Armstrong said she plans to start a website to help other parents who are navigating the path from diagnosis to remediation.

"I feel like we made some mistakes along the way, so if we can take away the learning curve for other parents then I feel good about that."

In the final installment of the series, we will examine some of the options for parents in the community to help children with dyslexia.

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