Siri Bliesner is the current president of the Lake Washington School District Board of Directors, where she has served nearly eight years as a board member. Long before her election to school board she became expert on one of the most important topics in education today – reading – when her daughter Samara struggled early on in school learning to read and write. Their journey eventually led to a diagnosis of dyslexia.
While the path from a preschooler who struggled to read to a successful adult was at times emotionally exhausting, their happy-ending story holds valuable lessons that apply today for families and students faced with a dyslexia diagnosis.
Early signs of dyslexia
It’s often hard for parents to catch dyslexia’s early clues because they aren’t always readily apparent. In Samara’s case, Bliesner recalled how her daughter could sing the alphabet but didn’t consistently recognize letters. Bliesner read to Samara all the time; she loved popular children’s books like Curious George and Amelia Bedelia. But even at a young age, Samara deployed what her parents now realize were adaptive strategies for words she either couldn’t decode or didn’t know. For example, she’d substitute “palace” for “castle.” Assessments given during the first couple of years in school were mixed.
By the end of 3rd grade, although she was receiving extra tutoring at home and additional reading support in a resource room at her school in the Lake Washington School District, Samara was behind. And while she was able to manage her feelings during the day, school overall was becoming a negative experience. At one point, Bliesner recalled Samara saying, “I hate school.”
As Samara got older, while she developed work-around skills to better manage her school day, one area that continued to pose a challenge was writing. “She could speak many sentences but could only write a few words.” As a result, Samara along with her parents and teachers spent a lot of time on writing.
Looking back, Bliesner says the signs of dyslexia and language processing issues now seem obvious, but at the time it was confusing.
Dysgraphia, dyscalculia and language processing disorders are learning disabilities that impact the ability to write, do math and process information. They are often co-concurring with dyslexia, but may not manifest until later.
Tackling the problem
When faced with the challenges posed by dyslexia and language processing issues, Bliesner relied on multiple interventions and strategies to address both the root of the problem (teaching her daughter a system that could help her learn to read) as well as additional therapies and supports to address related needs. These included:
✔️ Orton-Gillingham – one of the most popular interventions to help dyslexics learn to read, Orton-Gillingham teaches students to match letters to sounds, and to discern letter sounds embedded in words. This is commonly referred to as explicit instruction in phonics. According to Bliesner, Orton-Gillingham’s systematic approach helped her daughter master the rules of reading. “Once she knew the rules, she could code and decode. We learn [to read] through hearing. She didn’t.”
“Orton-Gillingham is a highly structured approach that breaks reading and spelling down into smaller skills involving letters and sounds, and then building on these skills over time. It also was the first approach to use multi-sensory teaching strategies to teach reading, which is considered extremely effective for teaching students with dyslexia. This means that educators use sight, hearing, touch, and movement to help students connect and learn the concepts being taught.”
✔️ Barton program – Bliesner supplemented Orton-Gillingham (OG) at home with the Barton program, an intensive, explicit instruction method based on OG that focuses on reading, writing and spelling. With Barton “we saw change in a month” said Bliesner.
✔️ Vision therapy – While vision therapy is used to correct many types of vision challenges, for some struggling readers it can help make the reading process more efficient. This was the case for Samara, who began to see changes in immediately in her reading skills when she began vision therapy in 3rd grade. After just a few sessions Samara went from not being to complete a word search to finishing one in ten minutes. According to Bliesner “vision therapy definitely was huge. The changes we saw were immediate.”
✔️ Assistive technology – students with dyslexia not only must work harder and more intensively to learn how to read, they also often rely on other strategies to help them keep pace in school (think of it as trying to learn how to juggle while running a marathon at the same time). For Samara, that meant using e-books, text-to-speech software and other types of assistive technology so that she could continue to access content commensurate with her abilities. This is a critical piece because many dyslexic students can work at their grade level or beyond, but often can’t without extra supports because instruction and curriculum in many topics is language based, even in subjects you might not suspect, like math.
What about school?
While the research on effective reading instruction for dyslexia and related language processing disorders is well-settled, delivery of that type of instruction in the classroom for the most part isn’t really happening. Even when schools use recognized, research-based programs, they may opt to combine it with other interventions, or not commit to the prescribed frequency and intensity dyslexic students need.
“I’m not convinced we implement with enough fidelity and enough exposure,” said Bliesner. “Students like Samara may need three hours a week of one-to-one instruction, but the school can only give one. Samara never got the intensity or duration she needed.”
From her years as a parent and now as a school board member, Bliesner sees the dyslexia challenge for schools as one of both commitment and resources.” We don’t have a big enough tool chest for our reading instructors,” said Bliesner. “You have to be willing to invest time and dollars into it.”
The Lake Washington School District has partnered with parents and other professionals over the past several years to develop a district-wide approach to teaching students with dyslexia and similar reading challenges. This work has included training for over 500 teachers in foundational literacy instruction along with increased access for some groups of students who will benefit from phonological-based instruction. Learn more about Lake Washington’s dyslexia work here.
Advice for families
While the availability of programs and therapies along with the acceptance of dyslexia has improved since her daughter was first diagnosed, Bliesner offered this advice for families just getting started on their dyslexia journey:
✔️ Learn your family history – dyslexia is a neurobiological condition that is genetic in origin. That means it’s important to research your family history. If a grandma or an uncle or mom/dad had dyslexia, there’s a good chance your child may have it.
✔️ Be willing to talk about it – speaking openly about dyslexia and advocating for supports will help dispel some pretty damaging myths and stereotypes. You’ll be hard pressed to find a dyslexic student who at some point wasn’t labelled as “lazy” or “not trying hard enough” or worse. It’s still too common for some to simply dismiss dyslexia as not a real diagnosis. But Bliesner stressed that once we label something and define it, that opens doors to resources and interventions to help students learn, grow and thrive.
✔️ Keep advocating – when families, advocates, elected leaders and others put pressure on the system to change, it can and will eventually do that. “We can’t let the system off the hook” said Bliesner. “If we’re ever going to get to one hundred percent reading, we’re not going to do it unless we do it effectively with programs that work.”