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Connecticut Attempting To Diagnose And Help More Students With Dyslexia

May 30, 2017

Here's how journalist Gabrielle Emanuel described having dyslexia.

"I've come, very recently, to kind of think about it as a tongue twister, but for the brain," Emanuel said on WNPR's Where We Live. 

"You see the letters in order, it's a misconception that they're backwards or jumbled," she said. "But then, when you go to read it, it's actually really hard and you don't know what's going on in there." 

She said she got support early, which made a huge difference for her. But students who don't get support often act out in class, and some develop severe behavior problems -- especially in high-poverty districts where identification is often especially low. 

That's what happened to Ameer Baraka, who grew up in one of the most violent housing projects in New Orleans. 

"I fell completely through the cracks," Baraka said. "Both my brother and sister went to college. I couldn't read, I was frustrated, I was called stupid, dumb -- by my mother and my siblings, and my only hope and aspiration was to sell drugs. I chose to sell drugs because basically dyslexia incarcerated me."

He would skip school on Fridays because that's when the spelling tests happened. He was eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to prison, but four years in, he was finally diagnosed with dyslexia. That's when he turned his life around -- he learned to read, and since his release he's become a successful actor, activist, and educator.

Connecticut and other states have made legal strides with dyslexia. Starting in July, new public school teachers in Connecticut will be required to know how to identify a student with dyslexia, and how best to teach these students to read.

However, there still remains a large gap between the research and what actually happens in the classroom, said Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity

"Somehow, education has been afraid of dyslexia," she said. "Educators don't discuss it, don't screen for it, don't diagnose it, and don't give children the services they need. And I think that's changing now, but I don't know if it's quick enough."

Students with dyslexia are guaranteed an appropriate education under federal law, but the federal government has not actually defined dyslexia, so states have been left to figure that out on their own. 

Connecticut defined dyslexia in 2015, and earlier this month, passed another law that furthers its efforts to tackle this complicated reading disability. Shaywitz said it's important to connect the right scientific research with classroom practice if children are to benefit.