The invisible dyslexics

February 24, 2003

MAYBE WE SHOULD have called it Reading by 7 instead of Reading by 9.

Scientists in the reading field say that if language disorders aren't diagnosed and treated in the earliest grades, children with difficulties are doomed by the time they reach 9. Only then are they typically diagnosed as disabled, but by then it's too late.

That's what happens to thousands of Baltimore kids, according to a sobering report just out from the Abell Foundation.

Here's how it happens: Under state and federal special education laws, children who experience reading difficulties are not entitled to special instruction unless there is a large discrepancy between their intelligence as measured by IQ tests and their reading achievement. This means that children with low intelligence and poor reading abilities fall through the cracks. Only a handful receive special education services in the city's early grades. About 6 percent eventually enter special education, but the vast majority do so after the third grade, when intervention is notoriously ineffective.

The so-called "discrepancy requirement" implies that reading disorders can't be diagnosed or treated in a child from a poor background. The problems are blamed on weaknesses in intelligence rather than specific deficits that educators can diagnose and treat. The report, written by Baltimore researcher and former city school board member Kalman R. Hettleman, calls these kids "the invisible dyslexics" and says they number in the millions and live in every city in America.

Part of the problem, Mr. Hettleman writes, is public misunderstanding about what dyslexia is and who has it. The media often portray dyslexics as near-geniuses who overcome reading difficulties to become multimillionaire CEOs. These people exist, but they bear little resemblance to the typical struggling Baltimore child who can't read. Reading scientists now know that deficits in the processing of sound ("phonological processing") are a root cause.

The education establishment has been slow to respond to the new research consensus. A shocking number of teachers have little knowledge about how to diagnose and teach these children. Some teachers believe the difficulties are confined to bright nonachievers; some cling to the discredited notion that these kids will grow out of their difficulties, that early intervention is "developmentally inappropriate."

Effective early treatment costs money. But as Mr. Hettleman points out, in the long run it should reduce the skyrocketing costs of special education as well as the other economic and social costs of dropouts and other poorly educated citizens.

One easy step can be taken this year, when Congress rewrites the federal special education law. It should eliminate the discrepancy requirement and replace it with language reflecting the latest scientific research on reading.

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