Special Education

Missouri Tackles Challenge of Dyslexia Screening, Services

By Rachel Wegner — February 26, 2018 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Kierstyn Lawson hated kindergarten. She struggled to keep up with her peers, leaving her mother at a loss for how to help.

“What kindergartner doesn’t like school?” recalled the parent, Stephanie Lawson, of California, Mo., a rural community halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis.

Kierstyn was not diagnosed with dyslexia until she turned 9. Once she was, her mother said it shed light on why Kierstyn was struggling in school. Yet even after the diagnosis, Lawson had to fight to get her daughter the support she needed from her school. Eventually, Lawson hired a private dyslexia tutor—a move that ultimately helped her daughter move forward. Kierstyn, now 11, can read more fluently and comprehend what she sees on a page.

Catching Dyslexia Sooner

The state of Missouri is now rolling out a dyslexia law aimed at identifying and supporting students like Kierstyn early in their education. State-mandated dyslexia screenings for children in K-3 take effect in the 2018-19 school year in all Missouri regular public and charter schools. The law, signed in 2016, also led to the development of dyslexia training for teachers and recommendations on how best to support dyslexic students throughout the state.

Missouri joins dozens of other states with dyslexia laws and is among the latest to face the challenge of implementing, explaining, and coordinating the screenings and subsequent follow-ups with students. While the screenings are not designed to diagnose dyslexia, they will identify where students are struggling and leave it to parents, districts, and educators to decide what is best.

Dyslexia affects the way people process written and oral language. A common characteristic is difficulty connecting letters to the sounds that those letters represent. The Education Department says that 3.4 percent of students aged 6-21—about 2.4 million children and youth—are receiving services for a specific learning disability through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The category includes children with dyslexia.

Advocates, however, argue that the prevalence of learning disabilities is much higher. The National Center for Learning Disabilities says that 1 in 5 students has “learning or attention issues,” including dyslexia.

The Missouri education department has provided a list of recommendations for conducting screenings and offering classroom supports for students with dyslexia. For some districts, the law will require supports beyond their existing special education and reading programs. The mandate also annually requires two hours of dyslexia training for every practicing teacher in the state’s 518 districts.

Rep. Kathy Swan, a Republican state lawmaker who originally proposed the bill that led to the new law, said it’s up to the schools to choose what screening tool they will use for the assessments.

“There was concern during the bill, in its passage, over the cost of that,” Swan said, adding that some screening tools are free and others come at a price.

Swan said a subcommittee in the Missouri House of Representatives proposed funding in February to cover any costs for the screenings. If approved, the funding would be part of the fiscal year 2019 budget and falls within the current Missouri legislative session, which adjourns May 18.

Efforts by organizations such as Decoding Dyslexia, which launched in 2011, have fought to keep dyslexia at the forefront of discussions among educators, parents, and lawmakers.

Erica Lembke, a member of the 21-member dyslexia task force established by the state, said a key part of the commission’s process was hearing hours of testimony from educators, parents, students, and others.

“To me, it’s a great example of how parents and families can push legislation forward,” said Lembke, who chairs the special education department at the University of Missouri.

A total of 29 states have dyslexia-support and -identification laws, according to statistics from the International Dyslexia Association available as of December 2015. Six states have resolutions or initiatives addressing dyslexia, and 14 offer procedures or handbooks for educators and parents to support dyslexic students.

Kim Stuckey was hired in 2016 as a dyslexia specialist for the Missouri education department. She worked with the task force to devise a plan to implement the legislation.

In its research, the task force discovered many gaps in how Missouri school districts and educators understood dyslexia, Stuckey said.

“The awareness piece has been really important,” she said. “For many years, teachers [would] tell you, ‘We’re not allowed to say dyslexia. We’re not allowed to talk about it.’ Anecdotally, you would hear that across the nation.”

Some school personnel have been reluctant to use the term, saying that dyslexia is a medical diagnosis, or that educators should focus on specific deficits and not a label. The U.S. Department of Education addressed that issue in an October 2015 “Dear Colleague” letter. The letter explained that dyslexia, along with dysgraphia and dyscalculia, were acceptable terms to use when discussing a student’s evaluations, special education eligibility, and individualized education program.

Stuckey said the letter, and now the Missouri state law, are steps in the right direction to remedy the lack of conversation and understanding about dyslexia. She said the screenings are designed to equip educators and parents with more information to help students who are struggling.

“At the end of the day, schools overwhelmingly want to do what’s best for kids,” Stuckey said.

Training Teachers

Lembke said she hopes universities and colleges around the state will also improve dyslexia training for preservice teachers.

After the task force surveyed higher education institutions, Lembke said she was surprised at how many were not properly equipping preservice teachers to address dyslexia. State lawmakers Swan and Rep. Donna Pfautsch are seeking to craft requirements for colleges and universities to better prepare future teachers to handle dyslexia in their classrooms.

When it comes to additional costs, resources, and time that may be required of administrators and educators, Swan said it comes down to the “right thing to do” to ensure students succeed in their education, careers, and lives.

“We are doing a great disservice to people in the state of Missouri if we do not begin to recognize [dyslexia] and do something about it,” Swan said. “It’s a critical effort.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as Missouri Tackles Challenge of Dyslexia Screening, Services


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education
Reading & Literacy K-12 Essentials Forum Writing and the Science of Reading
Join us for this free event as we highlight and discuss the intersection of reading and writing with Education Week reporters and expert guests.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education Q&A This Teacher Helps Students With Disabilities Find Agency Through Communication
An award-winning special education teacher shares insights on pandemic recovery and building agency for students with disabilities.
5 min read
Blue silhouettes of two faces look  toward each other with a speech bubble and a thought bubble between them to represent communication.
DigitalVision Vectors
Special Education Supreme Court Seems in Favor of Deaf Student's Right to Sue School District Under the ADA
Miguel Luna Perez was there as the justices weighed issues in his case over his district allegedly failing to provide trained interpreters.
7 min read
Miguel Perez stands outside the Supreme Court after arguments in the case of Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools on Jan. 18, 2023 in Washington, D.C.
Miguel Perez, right, along with lawyer Roman Martinez, stands outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Wednesday after arguments in his case against his former school district in Sturgis, Mich.
Mark Walsh/Education Week
Special Education A Deaf Student Says His School District Failed Him. The Supreme Court Will Decide
Miguel Luna Perez received inadequate assistance for 12 years, his suit says. The high court will decide if he can pursue money damages.
10 min read
Miguel Perez
Miguel Luna Perez in a 2016 yearbook photo as a senior at Sturgis High School in Michigan. Luna Perez, who is deaf, went on to the Michigan School for the Deaf in a settlement with his district but is seeking to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 for the district's alleged failures to provide him adequate assistance to communicate.
Photo courtesy of Luna Perez family
Special Education 'Better Defined by Their Strengths': 5 Ways to Support Students With Learning Differences
What are effective ways schools can support students with learning differences? Educators on social media weighed in.
3 min read
A diverse group of students wearing book bags and climbing ladders and books to assemble a large puzzle
iStock/Getty Images Plus