Editorial | Support legislative effort to address reading skills

March 22, 2014 

The earlier a child starts receiving help with a reading difficulty, the sooner he or she will read at the level classmates are reading. Pat Santaniello, program coordinator of the Horry County Literacy Council, points to research by educator Susan Hall showing that 90 percent of children who receive help in the first grade reach the reading level expected.

If children receive help in fourth grade instead of late kindergarten, it takes four times as long to improve reading to the same level. And three-fourths of children who don’t have help until age nine or later will struggle throughout their school years -- and beyond.

Once those facts are understood, it is absolutely clear that kindergarten boys and girls should be screened for reading difficulties such as dyslexia, which means “difficulty with words.’’ Like her father, brother, daughter and granddaughter, Santaniello is dyslexic, although she was not diagnosed until she was a grandmother. Like some with the neurological condition, Santaniello was able to work around it.

As many as one of five of the population have dyslexia, Santaniello told the Rotary Club of Little River. In most classrooms that means in a room of 25 youngsters, five may have poor “decoding abilities.’’ Moreover, they may be deemed slow learners or just not paying attention. Teachers have to instruct the majority of 20, and five are left out. That is galling to Santaniello -- and it is not acceptable for education.

Heidi Bishop, who has worked with those with dyslexia for 28 years, is president of the S.C. Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, Bishop, like Santaniello, says dyslexia cannot be cured -- but it can be overcome. “We can teach skills in a very direct way,’’ using the Orton-Gillingham approach.

Teachers trained in Orton-Gillingham learn “how to deliver their curriculum for all in the classroom,’’ including those with dyslexia. Bishop is with Camperdown Academy in Greenville. With financial support from grants such as one from Greenville Women Giving, 46 Greenville County teachers have been trained in the Orton-Gillingham approach. Public education does not have funding and teachers pay for their training, Bishop says.

“It’s baby steps,’’ Bishop says about progress on the path of recognizing dyslexia and other learning difficulties -- and providing help at an early age. It’s an exciting time, she says, because “Things may be aligning’’ to advance progress. Meetings of educators are ongoing, coordinated by S.C. First Steps To School Readiness, the state’s early childhood agency.

Legislation is pending in the General Assembly that address early literacy assessment and require “every S.C. school district to have a literacy plan,’’ according to First Steps chief program officer Dan Wuori. The proposed Read to Succeed Act is based on a Florida law and creates an office in the Department of Education. “This has a lot of momentum,’’ Wuori says.

The House version, H 3994, has cleared the full House Education Committee and the Senate bill, S 516, is up for debate this week. Dana Yow of the Education Oversight Committee staff, says the legislation calls for pre-kindergarten or kindergarten assessment of “literacy, mathematical, physical, social and emotional behavior competencies.’’

Comprehensive assessment of the abilities of young children is critical to their success as readers and learners. “Read to Succeed’’ has the potential for progress and improvement that legislators and educators should embrace.

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