In Pursuit of a Dream

NOTE:  October is Learning Disabilities/ADHD/Dyslexia Awareness Month

Picture of Savannah

This blog is written by Savannah Treviño-Casias, a member of the Young Adult Leadership Council of the National Center for Learning Disabilities


My dream is to be a clinical mental health counselor!

I built my whole college experience around a plan to go to graduate school right after I completed my bachelor’s degree in psychology. Achieving that dream has been filled with challenges and many ups and downs.

You see, I have dyscalculia, a math learning disability. This disability requires me to be an advocate for myself in both school and life.

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OSERS Application Assistance for 2019 Grant Competition: 84.326M


Competition:

Model Demonstration Projects for Early Identification of Students with Dyslexia in Elementary School

CFDA:

84.326M

The U.S. Department of Education is committed to attracting as many qualified applicants as possible for its discretionary grant competitions. The Department is also committed to an equitable and transparent application process. OSERS is, therefore, providing to interested applicants technical assistance on the application process and application requirements for this competition.

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Teaching English Learner Students with Disabilities

Erica Sommer

Erica Sommer is a special education teacher in Del Valle Independent School District, which serves students in and around Austin, Texas.

Sommer works closely with the district’s substantial English learner population, has almost 15 years of teaching experience and has been passionate about teaching for as long as she remembers. She shared with us how working with English learner students and those with disabilities has impacted her as a teacher and individual.

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Erica Sommer
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Special Education Teacher Del Valle Independent School District, Del Valle, Texas

October and Disability Awareness

ICYMI "In Case You Missed It!"

In addition to announcing OSEP’s new director, Laurie VanderPloeg, and interviewing Caryl Jaques at Little One’s University preschool, this October, we highlighted aspects of disability awareness for National Disability Employment, Dyslexia, Learning Disabilities, ADHD, and Down Syndrome!

Check out the stories below:

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My Truth About Dyslexia―What I Wish for Other Kids With Dyslexia and Their Parents

Douglas Rawan II, a sixth-grader with dyslexia

Douglas Rawan II, a sixth-grader with dyslexia

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month


My name is Douglas Rawan II. I am 11-years-old, live in Massachusetts, and I have a story about dyslexia.

It starts back in fourth grade when I began to feel different than my friends in school. Making jokes was the way I would cover up having no confidence in school. No one knew that inside I felt stupid. I remember one day when my mom asked me to do some reading and writing, and I threw pencils on the floor and my book. I remember my mom looked really sad. Inside I knew it would be too hard, but I didn’t know why. Since Kindergarten, my mom hired tutors to help with reading, but nothing changed at school. I also had a hard time focusing at school until one day I came home and told my mom that I asked the assistant principal for a standing desk. My parents didn’t even know what that was.

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A Teacher’s Perspective on Advancing Dyslexic Education

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.

Alison Pankowski

Alison Pankowski

Alison Pankowski currently trains teachers in her New Jersey district in the Wilson Reading System and is an International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Certified Dyslexia Therapist. She is the current Vice President of the New Jersey branch of the IDA.  Mrs. Pankowski was a contributing member to the New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook, released in September 2017.


As a dyslexia specialist in my school district, I build the knowledge base of my colleagues regarding early identification, structured literacy intervention and essential accommodations for students with dyslexia.

I explain, often, that:

  • “Yes, you can identify students at risk for dyslexia as early as five years old.”
  • “Yes, teachers should provide instruction in phonemic awareness in second grade to continue to build reading skills.”
  • “No, using audiobooks is not a crutch; it provides access to grade-level text for struggling readers and levels the playing field.”

While it is true that legislative efforts in my home state of New Jersey have helped to bring these types of conversations to the local school level, there is still much work to be done to ensure that our state dyslexia laws, enacted in 2013 and 2014, are implemented effectively.

There are still many persistent misconceptions about dyslexia, and much of the implementation gap exists because professionals cannot act upon what they do not know or understand.

The truth is higher education often does not include coursework on dyslexia in teacher preparation programs, so local education agencies must either figure out how to build capacity or wait until guidance is provided.

But where would this guidance come from?

In New Jersey, I was invited to join a group of individuals tasked with creating dyslexia guidance. This group consisted of practitioners with expert knowledge in the field of dyslexia, including learning disabilities teacher consultants, speech and language pathologists, psychologists, higher education professors, assistive technology experts, parents and N.J. Department of Education representatives.

New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook

New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook

We worked together for more than 19 months to create the “New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook” with the intent to:

  • Build an understanding of dyslexia and related difficulties with written language;
  • Demonstrate how to identify and remediate students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties; and
  • Inform both educators and families in best practices to support students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties.

We met monthly to discuss how to best provide this understanding and specialized knowledge without overwhelming or alienating educators and families.

Our meetings involved thoughtful, often passionate conversations about what we had experienced or had heard from others around the state; both positive and negative, regarding how schools had chosen to implement the laws passed by the state.

Usually these discussions resulted in written revisions to chapters drafted on early screening, intervention, assessment, accommodations and assistive technology. These discussions then led to more discussions and more revisions!

As committee members with experience in the field, we met with educators and families across the state throughout the process to learn more about what guidance they were seeking and to assure them that it would be coming soon. We worked diligently to craft a resource that would provide best practices to meet the needs of their struggling readers.

The N.J. Department of Education released “The New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook: A Guide to Early Literacy Development & Reading Struggles” Sept. 25, 2017—just in time for Dyslexia Awareness Month in October.

My hope is that this handbook will be a giant step forward in closing the gap between the research on dyslexia and the implementation of best practices in the school and classroom.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Alison Pankowski
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Alison Pankowski is an International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Certified Dyslexia Therapist and is the current Vice President of the New Jersey branch of the IDA.

From Daughter’s Advocate to National Advisory Board Member

One mother brings personal experience to the new
National Center for Improving Literacy

Laura Shultz boating with her daughter, Catherine.

Laura Shultz boating with her daughter, Catherine.

Laura Schultz is co-founder of Decoding Dyslexia Maryland and previously worked as a Congressional Staffer for Rep. Helen Delich Bentley and later as the Director of Federal and State Government Relations for a national trade association in Washington, D.C. She has a background in public policy and consulted for a Florida-based public relations firm for many years before “retiring” to focus on dyslexia advocacy to help children who struggle to read, write and spell in public school. She has two children, one a senior at Leonardtown High School and the other a junior at the U.S. Military Academy. Her husband is active duty Navy and they are a proud military family


Something was wrong, but no one could quite figure out what to call it.

At age three, my daughter Catherine spoke very few words compared to her brother. Early evaluations revealed that she needed speech and occupational therapy services.

Catherine displayed behavioral issues including aggression, which the school psychologist later attributed to possibly too much stimulation. At other times, she was withdrawn. She was held back in preschool because of these issues.

When she entered kindergarten, Catherine had meltdowns because of her frustrations with language.

What I saw was her having difficulty finding words and using incorrect language, which resulted in a scrambled output of the words she could find.

After three years in preschool and a year of kindergarten, she could not identify her letters and sounds, write her own name or spell simple words. I felt strongly that we were looking at a reading problem, and my advocacy finally resulted in her being found eligible for special education as a child with a “specific learning disability.”

As Catherine prepared to enter first grade at age seven, I was frightened and frustrated feeling that my child was in crisis and it did not seem that the district’s special education personnel knew how to address her reading and writing needs.

The years of pull-out services, small-group instruction and reading interventions produced few results.

Unfortunately it would take another six years from the time she was identified as having a “specific learning disability” before we understood her specific learning disability was dyslexia.

One year her teacher pulled me aside to share the Patricia Polacco book, “Thank you, Mr. Falker” and encouraged me to read it to Catherine. It was the first time anyone almost mentioned the common learning disability by name.

By fifth grade, our developmental pediatrician formally diagnosed Catherine with dyslexia. We shared the news with her school team hoping that we would finally be able to get the appropriate instruction in place for our daughter.

Unfortunately, we still found it difficult to bridge the divide between the evidence-based interventions being recommended and the programs and expertise available in our school.

By seventh grade, we had to move on to seek private reading and writing instruction for Catherine.

Through pinpointing Catherine’s dyslexia and getting her the proper services she needed, she is now a high school senior pursuing a certification in Computer Aided Design and Drawing (CADD), taking two English courses and making plans for college.

Laura Schultz and daughter, Catherine

Laura Schultz and daughter, Catherine

Students like my daughter sit in every classroom in every school in every state. They are ethnically, culturally and socio-economically diverse. Many of these students will have access to the resources our family ultimately pursued and that is good, but truth be told, many more will not and that is a problem.

Unidentified dyslexia often creates social and emotional difficulties for struggling children. Parents’ and schools’ lack of understanding and awareness of dyslexia and other disabilities can exacerbate a child’s struggles unnecessarily. I knew other families and schools would benefit from knowing about early reading interventions that included phonological awareness and decoding instruction—this type of instruction would not only reduce the underlying cause of a child’s anxieties or challenging behaviors, but would also teach them to read.

My family’s experience, in what I would describe as an excellent public school system, motivated me to reach out to other parents of children with dyslexia. I knew that many of these families were experiencing similar situations and that collectively we may be able to raise awareness and bring much needed resources to our schools and communities.

We established Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, a parent-led grassroots movement that offers awareness, support and advocacy for children with dyslexia, their parents and educators.

Through my advocacy work with Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, I was asked to serve as a parent stakeholder on the Family Engagement Advisory Board for the National Center on Improving Literacy* (NCIL), which was funded by Office of Special Education Programs in September 2016.

NCIL is an important component of the U.S. Department of Education’s mandate under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to support students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. The center is tasked with:

  • Developing and/or identifying tools to screen for and detect reading challenges early;
  • Identifying evidence-based literacy instruction, strategies, accommodations and assistive technology;
  • Providing information to support families;
  • Developing and/or identifying professional development for teachers on early indicators and instructional strategies; and
  • Disseminating these resources within existing federal networks.

Schools today are searching for information and assistance in implementing the evidence-based instruction outlined in ESSA and required by many of the new dyslexia laws passing in state legislatures across the country.

As I near the end of my family’s personal pre-K-12 journey, I’m excited to be able to offer NCIL the benefit of my daughter’s experiences to help change the way students with reading challenges and dyslexia are identified and taught to read.

It’s my expectation that NCIL, in collaboration with parents, educators, community partners, and reading researchers, will offer our public schools the information and guidance they need to bring the science of reading into their classrooms and to close the research-to-practice gap that sometimes hinders their ability to deliver best practices in literacy instruction to the students that need it the most.

This October, Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, is the perfect time to learn more about the mission of the NCIL and to spread the word to your schools and communities about dyslexia and this new research-based resource. Encourage teachers, principals and families to visit the NCIL website and make suggestions about the types of information, tools, trainings and resources that are most needed.


* The National Center on Improving Literacy is a partnership among literacy experts, university researchers, and technical assistance providers, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.


Understanding Teachers Make “All the Difference” for a High School Student with Dyslexia

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.

Carter Grace Duncan

Carter Grace Duncan

Carter Grace Duncan is a freshman in a Northern Virginia public high school. She is a youth advocate for Decoding Dyslexia Virginia who enjoys sharing her knowledge with students with disabilities about how accommodations in school can help create a pathway to academic success.


A teacher can make the difference between a good day and a bad one.

Actually, they can make or break a child’s entire school year by understanding what accommodations in a 504 plan or an individualized education program (IEP) can do to help a person like me who works everyday to overcome the impact of dyslexia, dysgraphia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

I think I am lucky to have been surrounded by teachers who worked hard to make sure I was able to be as successful as my peers.

I have had a 504 plan since the fourth grade. It’s supported me through elementary school, middle school and now into high school.

At the beginning of the year, I introduce myself and my accommodations through email. I think it’s important for my teachers to know why I benefit from something that most of the other kids in my class don’t use. The game changers for me include:

  1. Extra time
    Dyslexia makes me read slowly and work hard to decode words. This means that it takes me more time to take tests. Knowing that I can work hard and answer the questions correctly at my own pace is very helpful for me. I would like to be able to show my teacher what I know.
  2. Read on demand
    Reading and spelling are harder for me than my classmates. I can decode almost any word after my remediation; it just takes me some time to do it if it’s a harder word. If I am really stuck, I would like to ask for help to have the word or phrase read to me. It makes me way more comfortable in class to know that if I get stuck, my teacher will know that I really need the help.
  3. Small group testing
    It helps to be on my own or in a smaller group. If I am taking a test with the class I might get to the third question and someone next to me is finished with the test because they can read it faster. I’d like to be able to focus on the content and do my best.
  4. Technology
    I use my iPad to ear read (text to speech) everything I can. Eye reading is tiring for me. Sometimes, I use an app to change a handout to a readable PDF and then ear read it, if I need to. Normally, I just eye read the handouts. My iPad also has an app that will let me record the classroom lecture, if I need it. I don’t access the curriculum exactly like my peers, but the system in place right now works really well for me.
  5. Teacher notes
    I am dysgraphic, too. That means it is hard for me to put my thoughts onto paper quickly. I learn best by listening to the teacher first and then practicing what I have learned. It is very hard for me to listen and copy things from the board or write things down as the teacher is talking. I take notes, but I miss a lot. The teacher’s notes help me make sure that I don’t miss anything when I am studying.
  6. Advanced notice when called on to read in class
    This accommodation makes me feel comfortable in class. It feels terrible if I think I might be called on to read out loud without knowing what I am going to read. If my teacher wants me to read something, they’ll just tell me the night before and I will practice first. I am a good reader now, but I still get nervous when I have to read out loud. Messing up on a word like ‘began’ feels really bad in a classroom full of my classmates. That’s what dyslexia will do to me.

With the help of my parents, my teachers and my accommodations, I’ve created a successful learning environment for myself. Because I need to work very hard to achieve the academic success I’ve had, I don’t take anything for granted. I appreciate my teachers who have made an effort to understand me and my accommodations.

Teachers really do make all the difference!


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.


Carter Grace Duncan
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A freshman in a Northern Virginia public high school and a youth advocate for Decoding Dyslexia Virginia

“Acceptance & Achievement: Because of my Dyslexia – Not In Spite of It”

Guest Blog post by Caida Mendelsohn


Caida Mendelsohn

Caida Mendelsohn

In early elementary school, I was aware that I was different from my classmates. I would get pulled out of class to work with and reading specialist. I took longer to finish worksheets in math class. I would stumble over words and make more mistakes than my classmates when reading out loud.

Eventually, I was diagnosed with dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). My parents made the choice to move me to a local school that specialized in dyslexic remediation. This school would help build skills that I could use to be successful, even with dyslexia. The teachers there understood dyslexia and tailored their lessons to meet our needs.

I was no longer self-conscious when reading out loud and I no longer worried about how long it took me to finish a worksheet. All of the other kids in my class were dyslexic. For the first time, I didn’t feel different or weird.

When I went back to a general education classroom, I was given basic accommodations for my dyslexic and ADHD. In my 6th grade earth science class, I began to feel different from the rest of my classmates again.

Every night for homework, we had to read and take notes from our texted book. In reality, the reading was probably only 10 pages but it felt like 100 pages. It took me so long to do my homework every night. I would get frustrated and cry over my text book, then cry to my mom, and then cry over my textbook some more.

None of my friends in class seemed to have the same problems doing the reading and taking notes. Everyone else had organized notes with highlighter and bullet points just like the teacher taught us to do. My notes were messy and almost incoherent.

Then one night, while doing earth science homework, I had an aha-moment. I stopped taking notes on lined paper and started taking notes on printer paper. I started organizing my notes graphically and using colored pencils. When I began taking notes like this, homework became less hard and I started retaining and understanding more of what I was reading.

I realized that I think and learn differently than my peers because of my dyslexia. So why I was trying to study and learn in the same way they were? I needed to use my creativity and try a different ways of studying and figure out how best I learn.

As a junior in college, I still take notes this way.  Being able to think differently, be creative, and adapt is what has made me a successful student. And the challenges I’ve faced have helped me become the advocate I am today.

Having ADHD and a learning disability like dyslexia has been a challenge in some ways, and a great teacher in other ways. I have learned to accept myself and the way I learn. I have learned to speak up for what I need. And I have learned the importance of encouraging others to do the same.

On the nights I cried over my earth science textbook, I never imagined I’d be where I am now. I never imagined I’d be living in Washington, DC, or that I’d have two amazing internship opportunities—first with the National Center for Learning Disabilities and now with the U.S. Department of Education.

But anything is possible.

My experiences have inspired within me a desire to ensure equity in education for all students, including students with disabilities. I want to ensure they, too, have access to the same opportunities as other students. Because one thing I’ve learned is that what you are given in life – even dyslexia or ADHD—does not determine who you are. But what you do with that determines everything.


Caida Mendelsohn is a junior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and is originally from Decatur Georgia. At Smith, Caida is majoring in Government and minoring in Education and Child Studies. Additionally, Caida is working towards the teaching certificate for elementary education. It was Caida’s personal struggle with her learning disability that first sparked her interest in education and disability rights and advocacy.

“From Hidden Potential to Harvard”

Guest Blog post by Laura A. Schifter


Laura A. Schifter and daughter Ellie

Laura A. Schifter and daughter Ellie

At age seven, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. Right after receiving my diagnosis, my parents were told they should not expect much from me and that I would not be successful academically. This assumption came, not from knowing me, not from observing my ability to think, but rather from the simple fact that I had dyslexia, meaning I struggled to read words on a page.

Today, I have a doctorate and teach at Harvard. And many other students with dyslexia find success, too. So why are these assumptions so widespread and expectations so low?

Reading is often seen as the most critical foundational skill in education. Reading is not simply required in English classes, but in all academic classes. This is why it is easy to assume that if a child struggles with reading, they cannot be successful in school. Fortunately for me, my parents did not accept the professional’s assumption as fact.

Growing up, my parents ensured I got the access and support I needed to be successful. My mother allowed me to learn by going to museums or watching videos. I got access to audio books from Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic, and my sister even recorded homemade audio books for me.

However, sometimes these accommodations could not provide the just-in-time support I needed. That’s when I would piece together information from my peers and try to get by. At best, I was able to successfully fake that I had completed the reading. At worst, I would be exposed as not knowing an answer and humiliated.

Even though I had some teachers who looked at me and only saw my barrier with reading, I also encountered many teachers who challenged assumptions and saw my potential. I had an English teacher who met with me before class to discuss the readings; a chemistry teacher who provided additional scaffolding with writing conclusions; and a history teacher who encouraged me to take the Advanced Placement (AP) exam even after I was rejected from the AP class because of concerns that the reading would be too challenging for me.  The exceptional teachers I encountered never lowered expectations for my success, but rather found ways to support me in meeting the expectations.

My experiences, with supportive parents and teachers, are common to many successful students with learning and attention issues and even students with disabilities more broadly. However, given the large achievement gaps for students with learning disabilities, these positive and supportive experiences are not common enough.

In schooling, we place a high value on reading because reading is an effective way to represent content. But it does not need to be the only way. In fact, advances in technology can make representing information in multiple ways easy.

For instance, in my graduate work, I learned about the screen reader embedded in my computer. This tool allows me to have immediate read-aloud support for any accessible digital text. I now use it all the time from reading journal articles to reading emails to proofreading my own work. There are also many other types of technology and accommodations that can make a difference for students with learning disabilities.

In order to fully leverage technology as a tool to help struggling learners, teachers need to not only learn how to use the technology, but also commit to making their lessons accessible to all learners. This commitment can only be successful if we shift our thinking. We must think not about the limitations of the child, but about the limitations in the curriculum.

This shift will change our assumptions and enable us to see past the child’s barrier to reveal the child’s potential. It will help so many more students like me succeed.


Laura A. Schifter, Ed.D., is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, coauthor of How Did You Get Here: Students with Disabilities and Their Journeys to Harvard, and a member of the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ Professional Advisory Board.

Previously, Schifter served in Washington, D.C., as a senior education and disability advisor for Rep. George Miller (D-CA) on the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Schifter earned an Ed.D. in education policy, leadership and instructional practice and an Ed.M. in mind, brain and education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has a B.A. in American studies from Amherst College. Schifter was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was 7.