Set Your Bookmarks to the New IDEA Site

IDEA Website

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services will automatically direct users from the Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004 site to the new Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) website starting April 30, 2018.

OSERS launched the new IDEA website in June 2017 in order to provide updated department information regarding the IDEA to the public including students, parents/families, educators, service providers, grantees, researchers and advocates.

IDEA website users are encouraged to bookmark the new IDEA website: https://sites.ed.gov/idea.

While the Legacy site will redirect users to the new IDEA site on April 30, content from the Legacy site is available for reference on the new IDEA website on the Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004 historical reference page.

The Legacy site was developed in 2006 as a result of the 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA. The site was developed and updated mostly between 2006 and 2011. It had not received updates since 2013.

OSERS determined it would leave the Legacy site live after the new site launched to provide stakeholders ample time to compare the two sites, adapt to the new site and provide feedback to OSERS.

OSERS has made updates to the site based on the feedback it received from stakeholders since the initial launch of the new IDEA website.

OSERS will continue to gather feedback about the new website in order to enhance and add content to the new IDEA website to ensure the new site remains current.

Stay tuned for video tutorials highlighting features of the new site in the coming months. Comment below if you have feedback regarding the new IDEA website.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Melissa Herzig and Melissa Malzkuhn

Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2),
a National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center at Gallaudet University


Melissa Herzig

Melissa Herzig

Melissa Herzig is the Research and Education Translation Manager and the Director of Translation at the National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2) at Gallaudet University. She co-founded the PhD Program in Educational Neuroscience (PEN) at Gallaudet and is its Assistant Director. Her role is to facilitate two-way communication between researchers and educators.

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Melissa Malzkuhn

Melissa Malzkuhn

Melissa Malzkuhn, digital strategist and creative director at Gallaudet, directs the university’s development of research-based creative and translational products, including bilingual storybook apps designed for early language acquisition for Deaf children. She leads the VL2 Storybook Creator program that provides training for and facilitates the development of bilingual storybook apps in multiple languages. As founder and Creative Director of Motion Light Lab, she leads projects intersecting creative literature and digital technology to create immersive learning experiences.


ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and early literacy?

Melissa Malzkuhn (MM): I have master’s degrees in deaf studies and fine arts/visual narrative, which have given me the opportunity to do a lot of creative and innovative work, while focusing on the importance of narratives. When I started working at Gallaudet in 2008, I led efforts as managing editor of the world’s first peer-reviewed sign language journal, Deaf Studies Digital Journal, which provides articles in American Sign Language (ASL) with printed English. It was fun and challenging to figure out technological capabilities in publishing a visual and spatial language. That led me into my current role with VL2, which is to create innovative resources that help families and teachers promote evidence-based approaches for promoting language and literacy in young children. My work utilizes touchscreen technology to promote a bilingual experience for families with young deaf children. That’s my journey in a nutshell. I also come from a deaf family and I grew up with rich ASL stories. I’m grateful for my access to language, narrative, and word play since birth. My experience has led me to believe in the importance of ASL literacy. The challenge is that since ASL is an oral language, stories are passed on through generations, but can easily disappear. My motivation is to document ASL literature, but to also innovate ways in how we view and interact with ASL storytelling. I’m also the mother of a deaf 5-year-old, so watching his language and literacy development has had real implications for my work.

Melissa Herzig (MH): I’ve always enjoyed working with children and thought I’d be a teacher. I also had a natural curiosity about how the body and the mind worked. I majored in biology in college. After graduating, I worked as a research assistant in language and cognitive neuroscience labs and learned the science behind cognition and language. I started a master’s program in teaching and learning and bilingual education and learned more about language and literacy development. As I began to spend time in classrooms, I found a huge disconnect between what we know from research and what was happening in classrooms, so this became my passion: better connecting research and education. I also better understood the urgency of focusing on early language development in young children. I pursued a doctorate with a strong focus on literacy and motivation. In my current position, I direct the Translation in the Science of Learning Lab. This lab is responsible for translating VL2 research discoveries for applications in various learning environments that deaf children experience. We produce publications and resources for parents, educators, medical professionals, and policy makers as well as offer training for educators on bilingual education and language policy. I am also a mother of three hearing children who have grown up in a bilingual (ASL and English) environment, which has had a positive impact on their development.

ED: What is early sign language acquisition and why should parents of young children know about this?

MH: We know from brain research that there is a critical period for language to develop. For deaf children, there is a serious risk of language deprivation during this critical period. We also know that, for deaf children, including a visual language like ASL in the early years is critical to their later development of strong English literacy and language skills. Most deaf children are born to non-deaf families and many of them don’t have all the information they need to make important decisions about promoting language and literacy development. Research demonstrates that multiple modes of communication have a positive impact on all children’s language development. Sign language helps the child’s brain progress through the normal developmental milestones by activating the part of the brain that spoken language activates. Parents of deaf children are made to think that they must choose ASL or English, but they need to know that they don’t have to choose; they should try it all, and use it all! Bilingualism, regardless of the languages used, makes children’s language and literacy development stronger. Readers can check out our Early Education Literacy Lab website for more information on the latest research in this important area.

ED: How has your work improved the quality of early learning and influenced approaches to teaching early language and literacy?

MM: I’ve been developing bilingual and interactive storybook apps for deaf children using our VL2 Storybook Creator platform. Anyone can create storybook apps using this platform. Its research-based design has three modes:

  1. Watch Mode—the storyteller signs the story from beginning to end with images of the story in the background;
  2. Read Mode—the traditional book where you go from page to page and read the text, and the reader can click to have an individual page or a word signed to them; and
  3. Learn Mode—a list of vocabulary words from the story appear, and the reader can learn and explore words in both text and sign.

This has been a wonderful tool for both educators and families. These are engaging stories for children, and also support parents in learning sign language and sharing reading time with their child. Our goal is to support young deaf children who are learning to read and reading to learn.

MH: This tool has helped boost bilingual teaching in the classroom with deaf children. Teachers have long lamented the scarcity of bilingual resources, so it is a welcome addition to the classroom. We’ve also developed resources to help teachers use the storybook apps, including lesson plans that go along with most storybook apps. Resources provide ideas for how to use the storybook apps for guided, shared, and independent reading and teaching of ASL and English grammar. The best way to help deaf children read is through stories, getting the whole picture, and building background knowledge—not to just focus on English print. We think these visual and interactive storybooks are essential.

MM: Through the VL2 storybook creator program, we’ve collaborated with a number of countries to develop translated versions in their signed and written languages. We’ve worked with Norway, Russia, Japan, Italy, and the Netherlands. On top of this, there is tremendous interest to bring our platform to more countries and to more schools in the U.S. This is really groundbreaking work! Technology has finally caught up to our needs in this area; use of this technology can support literacy for deaf children in a way that hasn’t been an option in the past.

MH: We conducted a usability and efficacy study and found that a diverse group of children were accessing and using the apps, from beginning signers to fluent signers. We also found that participants do learn new English vocabulary words from the stories. The users really liked how the tool allowed for individualization. They can move through the story at their own pace and choose what works for them (watch the story, read the story, click “play” to see videos that aid with comprehension).

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

MH: Overall, one of the major challenges is getting findings from the research base into the hands of families when they are making decisions about early language development. There is a misconception in the medical and education fields that children need to learn spoken language in order to read. This is not true. Visual sign can activate the brain in the same place as oral language. Strong language foundation in any language is best. Strategies we’ve used for countering the misconceptions include sharing our work through research briefs, websites, and presentations. Through our translation lab, we are continually creating resources to translate the research base for families and teachers.

MM: Another challenge is the huge demand for more ASL and ASL/English content because there is limited capacity in the field. We are striving to expand the number and type of visual storybook apps to cover more subject areas and topics. Through collaboration with others, we are building a global digital library of a variety of visual books that teachers and families could access.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting early literacy development in young children?

MH & MM: Reading is fun, signing is fun, and the bridging of two languages in bilingual education is natural. And start early. The earlier we introduce both languages, the better. Language play is so important, and finding ways for all children to be creative with language helps develop the important skills that foster strong literacy skills.

And finally, family involvement is crucial. We encourage schools to engage families in a meaningful way, potentially providing ASL classes at family-friendly times, and encouraging language immersion at home. We’ve developed a VL2 parent package to address this, with helpful FAQs and tips for families on developing language and literacy.


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.

Melissa Herzig
Posted by
PEN Associate Director and Strategic Focus Areas 4 Leader, Gallaudet University
Melissa Malzkuhn
Posted by
Digital Innovation and Media Strategies Manager, Gallaudet University

ED Welcomes OSERS Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett

Johnny Collett

Johnny Collett

The U.S. Department of Education welcomed Johnny Collett, the new U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), on Jan. 16, 2018.

Collett, a former high school special education teacher, has served as the program director of Special Education Outcomes at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and as the Kentucky state special education director. Collett has also served as an assistant division director and exceptional children consultant both at the Kentucky Department of Education.

Collett will lead OSERS towards its mission to improve early childhood, educational, and employment outcomes and raise expectations for all people with disabilities, their families, their communities, and the nation.

OSERS comprises the Office of Special Education Programs, which administers the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Rehabilitation Service Administration, which administers titles I, III, VI, and VII, as well as Section 509 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended by title IV of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). OSERS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary administers a number of special projects.

Advocacy: The Foundation for My Success

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

Carla Priest

Carla Priest

Carly Priest is a rising senior at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she studies history and English. In her free time she dives for the Swimming and Diving Team, works in a local kindergarten, and writes for the school newspaper. Carly attends the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) conference as a representative for Eye to Eye, where she has served as a mentor, intern, camp counselor and Diplomat. 


Everyone has a different path to figuring out who they are. My own journey is far from over!  As a senior in college, I continue to learn about myself every day, but the ability to advocate for the resources I need continues to make all the difference. I share my story as a different learner to remind others who struggle with learning and attention issues, as I do, that success is not only possible, but critical. In learning differently, we have something unique and important to offer the world.

From kindergarten through eighth grade, I was seen as the “wacky” kid. Even though I was the “wacky” kid who had difficulty with spelling and a hard time following sequential instructions, no one suspected a learning disability because I loved to learn. Even with my love for learning, thinking back on my early education, I vividly recall feeling hopeless in the classroom. I had no words to communicate how I struggled!

My elementary school was a small public charter school that centered on a nature-based education model. The school’s kinesthetic and experiential approach to education allowed me to learn with my body, oftentimes outdoors. This emphasis on learning in motion, along with alternative instructional methods, ultimately mitigated my learning challenges enough to get by until high school.

Although mostly unnoticed through elementary school, my learning differences became apparent when I transitioned into a traditional high school. Within the first few months, my English teacher, sensing something was wrong, suggested we look deeper into what was going on. Evaluations revealed my visual processing disorder as well as attention deficit. It was good to finally have a diagnosis, but as I quickly realized, finally having a “name” for the difficulties I had always experienced was only the first step in the ongoing journey. Even though my diagnosis meant I suddenly received several types of accommodations, I still didn’t understand why I had accommodations, how they would help me, or when I should use them. I still needed to figure out what kind of tools would allow me to succeed.

Things dramatically changed for me in high school once I became involved in mentoring a younger student through Eye to Eye. Eye to Eye is a nonprofit, art-based mentoring program for students with learning and attention issues. Each art project focuses on developing students’ self-esteem, self-advocacy skills, and helping them understand how they learn and what they need to succeed.

More than anything, mentoring with Eye to Eye taught me so much more about myself. I learned that different accommodations could be helpful in different situations. I started to understand that extended time on tests was important, but in my case, it was far more important to have a testing environment with limited distractions. I looked for strong allies at school and found them. When I realized I processed information much better if my body was in motion, a psychology teacher encouraged me to walk around the back of the classroom during lectures, and would toss me baseballs to keep me focused and engaged in class. With these newfound allies, I was able to explore new ways of learning. With newfound confidence, I embraced my capacity to think differently, and began to explain to others what my “labels” meant. If I could self-advocate, success in college would not only be possible, but (as my allies assured me) inevitable.

Research shows that self-awareness and self-understanding are keys to success for young adults with learning and attention issues. A Student Voices study by the National Center for Learning Disabilities shows that young adults with learning and attention issues who are successful after high school have three things in common: a supportive home life, a strong sense of self-confidence, and a strong connection to friends and community. My community of support and allies, including my family, Eye to Eye, and my teachers, helped me develop and grow in these areas.

Now that I am in college, advocating for myself has become more important than ever. I speak to each professor about which accommodations I need and when I’ll need them. I am able to customize learning in a way that works for me. In addition to college, I have even had opportunities get involved in advocacy on a larger scale through an internship with the U.S. Department of Education as well as working with the National Center for Learning Disabilities in the areas of self-advocacy and personalized learning.

As I began to understand how I learned differently and developed the ability to communicate those differences to others, I laid a foundation for my future. Every learner should have the same opportunity to understand how they learn differently and embrace those differences. If we do not help our students access the resources they need, we will lose out on the intelligence, creativity, and passion of so many students with learning and attention issues who fail to see their future as one full of opportunities for success.


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.

Carla Priest
Posted by
A student at College of the Holy Cross and a Diplomat with Eye to Eye

Our Highs are Higher

Carrie Woodcock and her family posing in front of a lovely rural stream

Carrie Woodcock and family

Carrie Woodcock is director of the Maine Parent Federation and a parent of 10-year-old Sami who has Down syndrome.


This summer, I attended a conference alongside doctors, nurses, physician assistants, therapists and other medical professionals, all of whom work with children with special healthcare needs and disabilities. I was there to represent parent voices as the director of the Maine Parent Federation, an OSEP-funded Parent Information Center. I am a big supporter of, and was very excited for, the keynote presenter that day, Dr. Brian Skotko.

Dr. Skotko is a genetic specialist and co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Down Syndrome Program. He has also gone on to facilitate the creation of many such clinical programs throughout Massachusetts. I was first introduced to him at the annual Massachusetts Down Syndrome Conference. I was so impressed with our first encounter that now, whenever I attend events at which he’s speaking, I always attend his sessions—regardless of their subject matter—and  always walk away having learned something new.

At the conference we attended this summer, Dr. Skotko discussed the impact of a Down syndrome diagnosis on the immediate family. He and his staff had conducted some of the first surveys of parents, siblings and individuals with Down syndrome. To say that I was thrilled that a physician and sibling of an individual with Down syndrome himself took this opportunity to raise awareness for family engagement, a crucial subject many times overlooked by medical professionals, was an understatement. His data were brought to life by his personal experiences, and were overwhelmingly positive. They indicated that a large majority of surveyed immediate family members love and are proud of their family member with Down syndrome.

During a question and answer period following the presentation, a professional in the front of the room challenged some of the data Dr. Skotko had presented. She brought to his attention that perhaps the data were positively skewed because parents and family members would have guilt associated with speaking negatively about their experiences and, ultimately, their own family member. Well, I am not one to hold my tongue, but I did have to pause to ensure I reigned in my “mommy” emotions and represented the parent voice in an assertive yet positive way.

In that moment, memories from my 10 years of being a mom to my precious gift rushed back. Some of the first feelings to come back to me were those that I have been ashamed to admit as a parent. For example, the diagnosis at my daughter’s birth had me thinking that I would always be a parent to a child living at home. The hours in the hospital enduring her open heart surgeries had brought me emotionally to my knees, wishing my child was healthy. I recalled the times her anxiety caused bathroom accidents in public places, which had me wishing for normalcy. Listening to friends talk about their gifted and talented children had me feeling like an outsider. I remember feeling sad because the birthday party and play date invites were few and far between, if at all. For a second I thought that maybe this woman was right; maybe I do sugar coat my family’s reality because I am too ashamed to admit otherwise.

But in the next moment, I saw Sami’s hand reaching for my mom’s face, days after open heart surgery. This was the first expression of her personality shining through. I remembered my toddler son translating her words and being so proud that he was the only one who could understand her. We celebrated her first everything and then celebrated her first everything all over again when she regained a lost skill. I recalled the way that, no matter where we are, she makes people smile, no matter what kind of day they may be having. And the oh-so-many little things in life I would have completely overlooked were it not for her.

I gathered my thoughts, raised my hand, and explained this concept to the group. In fact, the professional that asked the question was right; the challenges are hard and often. We do have doubts about our ability to parent and yes, horrifyingly enough, we will ask “why me?”

However, we celebrate and appreciate all that is positive. We do this in a way that is bigger than any outsider could know, and we do it time and time again. The impact has been so positive—my family completely changed for the better the moment Sami came into our lives. In addition to the daily joy we experience with her, all of us are dedicated to her cause, and the cause of others. My professional career has shifted from sales and marketing to assisting families with their own special loved ones. My husband, who was and still is a physical education teacher, has brought her spirit to the way he interacts with his students, including those with special needs. Lastly, but perhaps my proudest family accomplishment, is how Sami refers to her 13-year-old brother as her hero. No matter the circumstance, he shows no embarrassment towards her, only love and admiration.

I summed up my comments that afternoon, and I’ll leave the same simple thought for you here. “You see, our lows may be lower at times, but our highs are more often, and they are always so much higher. We wouldn’t dream of trading it for anything!”


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.

Carrie Woodcock and daughter, Sami.
Posted by
Director of the Maine Parent Federation and a parent of 10-year-old Sami who has Down syndrome.

Helping Youth Meet Their PROMISE

PROMISE: Promoting the Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income

What is PROMISE?

Promoting the Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income (PROMISE) is a five-year research project that advances employment and postsecondary education outcomes for 14–16 year old youth who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI). PROMISE began October 1, 2013 and will continue until September 30, 2018. The program is an interagency collaboration of the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Labor, and the Social Security Administration. Under this competitive grant program, state agencies have partnered to develop and implement model demonstration projects (MDPs) that provide coordinated services and supports designed to improve the education and career outcomes of children with disabilities receiving SSI, including services and supports to their families.

2017 represents the fourth year of the projects (the first year was primarily dedicated to recruitment and enrollment). Thanks to the ongoing efforts to support families and youth, we look forward to hearing about bright future outcomes for the thousands of youth and families being served by PROMISE.

Further information is available at the PROMISE TA Center:

PROMISE TA Center logo

 

PROMISE Success Stories

Model Demonstration Project Success Stories

The PROMISE MDPs were created to facilitate a positive impact on long-term employment and educational outcomes by reducing reliance on SSI, providing better outcomes for adults, and improved service delivery by states for youth and families receiving SSI. The six MDPs are comprised of 11 states:

Under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), projects are coordinating with vocational rehabilitation agencies so that youth are receiving pre-employment transition services, to include paid employment. By April 30, 2016, the MDPs recruited a total of 13,444 youth and their families with half of them receiving intervention services targeted around improving outcomes in employment and postsecondary education.

Personal PROMISE Success Stories

Cody—a Youth with Promise

Wisconsin PROMISE

Cody is excelling as a student at Burlington High School and employee at McDonalds. He plays video games, rides bike, and is learning to drive and weld. His goal is to be a welder after college. Cody was born with a brain tumor and has just one hand, but that’s not stopping him.

He’s a youth with Promise, on a journey to achieve his personal, educational, and career goals.

Watch Cody’s story on YouTube.

Xavi’s Story: Youth with Promise

Wisconsin PROMISE

She’s like most #teenagers… she hangs with her cats, dances with her friends, and loves Criminal Minds. She’s also going to have a lung removed. She’s a youth with Wisconsin Promise, on a journey to achieve her personal, educational, and career goals. Xavi shares her dreams, challenges, and the steps she’s taking with Wisconsin Promise to plan for her future.

Watch Xavi’s story on YouTube.

Dorian Shavis—A Firm Foundation

Arkansas PROMISE

As someone who expressed an interest in architecture, one of the Arkansas PROMISE youth participants expressed his desire to work at an architectural firm. Working with the local workforce board, Arkansas PROMISE staff set up an interview with a local architectural firm and secured an internship that resulted in the PROMISE youth and the firm staff learning from one another.

Watch Dorian’s story on YouTube.

More PROMISE Success Stories

You can find many more PROMISE success stories at:


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.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Lillian Durán,
 National Center on Improving Literacy

Lillian Durán standing in front of a school

Lillian Durán

Lillian Durán, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences at the University of Oregon. Her research is focused on improving instructional and assessment practices with preschool-aged dual language learners (DLLs). Dr. Durán leads National Center on Improving Literacy’s (NCIL) work on creating and translating resources for DLLs, and provides expertise on the topic of recommended practices in assessment and intervention with young DLLs with and without identified disabilities. Prior to Dr. Durán’s work in higher education she worked for 9 years as an early childhood special education teacher. 


ED:  How did you begin your career in early learning and early literacy?

Lillian:  I started my career as an early childhood special education (ECSE) teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I was hired without special education licensure to teach a self-contained special education preschool class that was deemed “cross-categorical,” meaning the children all had disabilities but the type of disability varied by child. Around this same time I enrolled in a master’s program at George Washington University. I eventually became licensed and graduated with a degree in ECSE.

My next job was working with an early intervention home visiting program in rural Minnesota. We worked in home settings with infants and toddlers with identified disabilities, birth to age three, and their families. Many of the families were native Spanish speakers. Through this work, I started to become very interested in young dual language learners (DLLs). I grew up in a multi-lingual house. My mother was German and father Mexican, so I grew up learning and speaking 3 different languages and always saw the value in being multi-lingual.

I was surprised at the number of Spanish speakers in rural Minnesota. Many were agricultural workers and in some of these rural districts 30–50% of the families were Latino. I started helping these rural school districts by conducting Spanish language assessments, which piqued my interest in DLL assessments and literacy. I ended up enrolling in a doctoral program and working with Scott McConnell, at the University of Minnesota, who developed the Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDIs) to measure preschool literacy. The focus of my doctoral work was on

  1. assessment and intervention with DLLs whose home language was Spanish and
  2. second language acquisition.

I have been an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Special Education Department for the past two years and last year had the opportunity to join NCIL.

ED:  What efforts have you and NCIL been involved in to improve the quality of early learning and early literacy?

Lillian: NCIL’s efforts in early learning are emerging. Our first year has really focused on laying the groundwork. We have been busy:

  1. building our repository of existing resources,
  2. developing professional development materials for educators and families around evidence-based instruction, screening, and assessment for students with literacy related disabilities including dyslexia, and
  3. forming partnerships with key stakeholders and audiences.

NCIL has a number of activities planned this October to raise awareness and improve understanding of dyslexia. I was specifically brought onto the NCIL team because of my expertise in screening and progress monitoring, especially for young DLLs. I am also a co-principal investigator for a research grant, funded by ED’s Institute of Education Sciences, focused on developing a Spanish version of the IGDIs for both screening and progress monitoring. This research and expertise will be wrapped into NCIL’s body of work.

In the second year of NCIL, we will focus more intentionally on early learning, particularly screening and assessment tools.  We are forming a partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop a simple tool that pediatricians can use to identify risk for reading-related disorders. We are excited to begin work with preschools, including building partnerships with existing Head Start and statewide Pre-K programs that are interested in improving early literacy screening, monitoring, and instruction. I have an early childhood background and it is my role on the NCIL team to ensure we are thinking about how to translate our work so it is appropriate for younger children and the various early learning programs they participate in. Working in an elementary school or classroom can be very different than working in an early learning program. There can be so much variability across different early learning programs—the education level and expertise of the teacher, whether or not they implement a specific curriculum, the overall quality of the program, and much more. You really need to understand the program and meet them somewhere in the middle if you want to be successful in helping them improve their instructional quality and contributions to early literacy. Our specific early learning work scope is still in development, but we are hoping to identify local Head Start and Pre-K programs to partner with and, within these programs, to establish regular early literacy screenings. We also hope to teach evidence-based intervention strategies to teachers within the programs so that once children are identified there is actually a system of targeted and systematic instruction in place to meet their identified needs.

ED:  What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work, and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

Lillian: One major challenge is helping practitioners and administrators understand the systematic need for universal screening. Universal screening isn’t just about identifying children who may have a developmental delay or disability; it is also about identifying the instructional needs of all children. We need to do a better job getting this message across.

Related to this is figuring out how we train and support teachers to differentiate instruction. Once you do know where the kids are functioning (e.g., in a multi-tiered system of support, once you know which tier level the kids are), what do you do? How do you differentiate instruction based on children’s instructional needs? This is the research-to-practice challenge. Through research we can identify instructional approaches to meet the needs of various children, but translating these practices into real classrooms and early learning programs isn’t always easy. We need to understand the context and build strong partnerships with programs. We need to understand what programs are currently doing to see how the research-based practices can be embedded. For example, do programs have enough staffing to support the implementation of new instructional approaches? Do programs have an existing curriculum that these practices align with?  We need more people that are focused on this challenge—getting evidence-based practices into the hands of people working with children. I believe what’s crucial to this is researchers taking time to roll up their sleeves and get into classrooms, working directly with practitioners. This allows researchers to partner with programs to work through the practical challenges that always come up.

The final challenge I’ll mention is the need to address and improve the overall quality of early learning programs. I worked with migrant Head Start programs in Utah to implement a semi-scripted curriculum focused on early literacy and language. We found that with the right support they were able to easily implement this early literacy curriculum, and then found that it changed teachers’ practice throughout the day (not just when they were implementing the curriculum). The teachers were hungry for guidance and support on how best to help their children. Again, the message here is that researchers need to become more embedded in the classroom, conducting more focused observations of how what they’ve developed could be implemented in different classrooms and programs. A researcher’s work isn’t done after developing a product or intervention; this is just the beginning. The next critical step is figuring out what support is needed for the product or intervention to actually be translated into daily practice on a large enough scale to actually make a difference.

ED:  What suggestions do you have for others interested in supporting literacy development in young DLLs?

Lillian: My first bit of advice is to understand your own attitudes toward DLLs. This can be tough, but thinking from a strengths-based model is much more effective than from a deficit model, where you primarily think of the kids as not knowing English. Bilingualism is an asset and not a deficit. If we attend to children’s home language in addition to English when it comes to assessment and intervention, we will have a better picture to understand a child’s language and literacy development. This provides tremendous information when determining whether there is a language or literacy delay or disability. Additionally, it is important to learn more about bilingual development. What may be considered a concern with regards to monolingual development may actually be typical when children are developing two or more languages. Finally, seek out bilingual resources and hire bilingual staff.  And simply hiring bilingual staff is only the first step—they need support and training in order to implement evidence-based interventions. I’ve been in many preschool programs where there is a lack of attention to what the bilingual staff are doing. They need:

  1. training about language development, assessment, and interventions and
  2. curriculum and supports in place to guide their instructional practices.

Overall, the big frame is prevention. We need to screen and monitor the progress of all young children and ensure the instructional approaches we are using with young DLLs are meaningful and effective. By intervening early, we will hopefully prevent reading problems from developing down the road. Early intervention is a cornerstone in preventing reading difficulties and I hope to make that a key focus of NCIL. A house is only as solid as the foundation.


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.

Words of Wisdom

Note: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Jordon Bills

Jordon Bills

Jordan Bills, M.A., CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist (SLP) at Washington Speech in Fairfax, Virginia. She works with children of all ages with various speech, language, and feeding disorders. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and master’s degree from the George Washington University. You can read more about Jordan’s credentials and accomplishments on the Washington Speech staff page.


Why did you become a speech-language pathologist (SLP)?

In high school, I volunteered at a center for blind and visually impaired children for three summers. I worked side-by-side with the speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists at the center. The work they did was incredible and I knew this is what I wanted to do! One child in particular had a large impact on me. He was three years old and unable to respond to his name. By the end of our summer together, he was not only turning toward others when they said his name but also responding to their greeting. I’ll never forget the feeling when I heard him say, “Hi, Jordan!” In that moment, I understood the power of communication. Communication is what connects us to one another. It’s what makes our lives so beautiful! I feel lucky to spend my days helping children communicate more effectively.

Why do you enjoy working with children with Down syndrome?

As a pediatric SLP, I have the privilege of working with children with Down syndrome across their lifespans. This is one of my favorite populations to work with because of the great potential for growth. Every milestone is celebrated, even the small ones, as each child works so hard to develop their speech and language skills. Every child with Down syndrome has unique strengths and interests, which I use to support the development of new skills. I have targeted bilabial sounds /b, p, m/ in functional phrases while playing basketball; used a child’s desire for hugs to teach expanded question forms (Can I have a hug?); and taught subject-verb-object sentences using Disney characters.

With younger children, I spend a lot of time playing on the floor. Children tend to learn best through repeated experiences with real objects and situations. Play is their vehicle for learning. As they enter elementary school, our sessions include more structured tasks focusing on the skills they need to participate fully in the classroom and to interact with friends. My goal for all of my clients with Down syndrome is for them to be able to effectively communicate with friends, family, and professionals across environments. My hope is that improved communication will allow them to experience the joys in life that come from making connections with others.

One of my favorite events is the annual Buddy Walk in Northern Virginia. Attending this event gives me the opportunity to see some of my patients outside of the therapy room. I love watching them with their families and friends participating in a community event. It reminds me of why I love what I do!

What are some tips that you have for families with children with Down syndrome?

Parents and other caregivers are the primary communication partners in a young child’s life. Therefore, parents play a critical role in helping their children develop speech and language skills. Below are some strategies for families to support communication development from birth through early elementary school.

Strategies for Birth to First Word Users

  • Focus on pre-linguistic skills. These are skills a child needs to master before words emerge. They include: joint or shared attention, social referencing (checking parents’ facial expressions to understand how to react appropriately in new situations), turn taking, pointing, sustained engagement and attention, and imitation.
  • Use language stimulation techniques in everyday activities to help your child develop his/her understanding and use of new vocabulary words. Techniques include: self-talk, parallel talk, sentence completions, choices, and communication temptations (actions you can take to set up the environment to tempt your child to communicate with you).
  • Consider a Total Communication This evidence-based approach incorporates speech, manual signs, gestures, pictures, and/or a speech-generating device to help children communicate as effectively as possible while developing verbal speech. This approach can reduce frustration and support long-term vocabulary development.
  • Familiarize yourself with the stages of play. Challenge your child to engage in symbolic and early pretend play.
  • When teaching new words, use real objects or pictures of real objects. Incorporate vocabulary learning into your daily activates.
  • Don’t forget about your child’s oral-motor and feeding skills. Children with Down syndrome are at risk for feeding difficulties. A certified speech-language pathologist can evaluate your child and develop an individualized treatment program to help him/her improve oral-motor skills for feeding.

Beyond First Words: Learning to Combine

  • Research shows children begin to combine words when they reach a single word vocabulary of around 50 words. Ensure your child has a variety of single words (e.g. nouns, verbs, pronouns, social words, adjectives) he or she can use to combine. Keep a record of the words your child uses to monitor vocabulary growth.
  • Continue to build your child’s vocabulary during play and daily routines. Teach 2-3 word combinations and encourage imitation. Children with Down syndrome benefit from repeated experiences with the same activities and vocabulary.
  • Use expansions (adding one word to what your child says) to model phrases. Do this often! It will likely take many repetitions before your child imitates your expanded phrase.
  • Try a pacing board to help your child learn to combine words. Pacing boards provide a visual and tactile cue to remind your child to use two words. They are helpful for children with Down syndrome given their strengths in visual learning. A simple pacing board can be two large dots on a piece of cardboard or thick paper. Point to the first dot and say the first word, then point to the second dot and say the second word.
  • Read often! Try books with repetitive phrases your child can learn and eventually fill in.

Early School Age

  • As your child’s vocabulary and utterance length increases, speech intelligibility often becomes a main concern. Again, a pacing board can be a useful tool. This time, your focus will be on teaching your child to speak slowly and producing each word deliberately while touching one dot on your pacing board. Speaking with a slowed rate can help improve your child’s overall intelligibility.
  • In speech therapy, your child may be working on specific speech sounds or patterns of sounds. Work closely with your child’s speech-language pathologist to continue practice at home. To increase your child’s motivation, incorporate target sounds into highly meaningful words. For example, if your child is working on the /k/ sound, “cookie” and “car” may be very motivating words. Daily practice is key!
  • Use recasts to help your child develop appropriate grammar. Grammatical recasts are when you take your child’s utterance and repeat it using adult grammar. For example, if your child says, “dog eat,” you would say, “Yes, the dog is eating.”
  • Consider AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) to supplement verbal speech. This may increase your child’s ability to be understood, participate in class, and engage socially. It may also decrease frustration.

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.

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.

Things People Say

Note: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Jessica Wilson and her son, Jasper

Jessica Wilson and her son, Jasper

A guest blog by Jessica Wilson. Jessica and her son, Jasper (aka Jaz, Jazzy, the JazMaster, or Dude!), live in a cozy house of fur with two crazy dogs and two lazy cats. Their favorite activities include singing movie hits, dancing in the kitchen, snuggling and traveling the world together. Jessica is Director of Communication and Dissemination for the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) and Resources for Access, Independence and Self-Employment (RAISE) projects with the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) in New Jersey.


Number One. “Did you know?”

They never complete the thought, as if just looking at him implies what they’re really asking. I ache to play dumb: Know what? That he would almost never cry as a baby and be a champion sleeper? That he would love to swim but hate to play soccer? That I could love him ‘til it hurts and still get so annoyed by some of his antics? As obnoxious as my brain screams for me to be, I simply answer, “No. After losing the first one, I didn’t want to take any chances with this very wanted baby.”

The mention of my previous sorrow precludes them from saying anything directly about those tests, so I leave it at that. I resist ranting about warped concepts of perfection or the technologies the medical community pushes that are incapable of measuring the value of those born “dappled.” If I launch into my diatribe, their eyes glaze over as they nod in the faux agreement children give their parents when they just want the scolding to stop. I can always tell when they’re thinking, “I would have the test.” I couldn’t guess what they would do if it were positive.

Number Two. “My sister’s/cousin’s/brother-in-law’s/landlord’s daughter/nephew/classmate/neighbor is ‘like him’.”

What, rakishly handsome? Lucky them. A consummate flirt? Better watch out! The self-appointed town mayor, greeting every person or animal we see on the streets? Good luck getting anywhere quickly with such a gregarious kid.

I suppose it’s an attempt to connect, a way to say “he’s okay” because they know someone who knows someone who… But sharing an extra chromosome doesn’t make anyone like someone else any more than two people having green eyes does. Don’t tell me these six-degrees individuals are “like” each other. They aren’t.

Number Three. “He’s so high-functioning.”

Yeah, far more than I am at 3:00 a.m. “MOMMY!” “urgh…?” “WHY ARE YOUR EYES CLOSED?!” “I’m sleeping, baby.” “WHY?!” “unnnhhh…” “READ TO ME!!!!” (seriously?)

Number Four. “Funny, you can’t see it.”

What’s there to see? His almond shaped eyes that look through me as the spark of laughter flickering within them sears my soul? His cute little hands with that long crease across his palms holding mine, petting the cat, learning to write his name, wiping away tears when he’s mad? The orthotics helping reshape his desperately flat feet?

What exactly are you looking for that will legitimize him in your eyes? Maybe I should carry the envelope with the verdict handed down by some anonymous technician. Perhaps the letter from the state when the lab automatically reported his existence to the county health department “for statistical purposes.” What can’t you see? He’s a kid, growing up loved. What else are you looking for?

Number Five. “I’m sorry.”

You should be. You’ll never hear the thoughts he speaks to me with his smiling brown eyes as he tilts his forehead to rest against mine. You’ll never drink in the heat that radiates from his head or taste his soft hair on your lips. You’ll never be awakened (again) at 3:00 a.m. by the hot air from his mouth on your face as he whispers, “Mommy, I want snuggles.” You’ll never know how it feels to celebrate every jump forward in development that other parents take for granted, but when he finally does it, it’s a very, very large molehill.

You should be sorry that you can only see back in time. This is a new era with new opportunities and new ideas about potential and worthiness. I’m only sorry it’s taken this long and that we still have so far to go.

Number Six. “That’s awesome!”

Thanks, Brian—you are the right kind of friend. May everyone with a kid “like mine” know a man like you.

Number Seven. “I don’t know how you do it.”

I’m his mother. Still confused?

Things I Say.

“I’m so proud of you.” “Boy, you’re handsome!” “Why won’t you let me cut your nails?” “TURN THAT DOWN!” “Wanna go bowling?” “Sweetheart, don’t let the dog beg like that.” “Would you please put this stuff away?” “You’re just too good to be true/Can’t take my eyes off of you.” “No, I don’t want to smell your feet.” “I love you, my sweet angel. You’re my heart and soul, my love and my life.” “You know you drive me nuts, right?”

Number One.

“I’ve loved my son since before he was ever born. What else is there to say?”


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.