The Medford Public School district recently announced it will be screening all elementary school students for dyslexia, but city officials and parents still have some concerns.

During Monday's School Committee meeting, Associate School Superintendent Diane Caldwell announced the new mandatory screening initiative, and the School Committee thought it was a necessary measure to help identify students with reading disabilities.

"I am really glad Medford is not waiting for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to make this a mandate," School Committee member Erin DiBenedetto said this past week. "We are stepping up and doing these screenings. We take dyslexia very seriously in our community."

Although it is a positive sign the school district is moving forward with the mandatory screening tests, DiBenedetto and others want to know how the district will help the kids once they are "flagged" with a potential reading disability.

"We need to know what our next steps in Medford are going to be," DiBenedetto asserted.

The National Institute of Health defines dyslexia as "a brain-based type of learning disability that specifically impairs a person's ability to read," and it states people with dyslexia "typically read at levels significantly lower than expected despite having normal intelligence."

Last October, Massachusetts amended a law to make it a requirement for schools to implement screening tests for dyslexia. However, the law, which is in Title XII Chapter 71 section 57A, allows school districts to choose the particular screening method and diagnose and evaluate the needs of the child.

The school district will use NWEA-MAP, DIBLES-8 and Lexia-Rapid as its screening tests, and it will test students in kindergarten through second grade three times per year. The new tests should be more accurate to determine if kids have dyslexia than tests in past years.

 "We are being proactive," BiBenedetto stated. "Then, we will adjust as the requirements come forward in the next year or two."


Training teachers

Medford parent Maureen Ronayne has a son with dyslexia at Brooks Elementary School, and she is still concerned there are not enough trained teachers to help students once they are selected as potentially having dyslexia.

"[Kids] have to be taught explicitly how to crack the code for reading," Ronayne said. "If we are going to be flagging one in every five kids of having a reading issue, we have to be able to do something with it."

Ronayne said teachers need a "massive amount of training," and she explained teachers are sending out worksheets that encourages guessing and looking at pictures. She said this is hurting students' reading ability in the long run.

"Looking at the pictures makes kids poor readers," Ronayne asserted. "When they take those strategies and give them to struggling readers, it doesn't work, and it takes years to undo the damage that that causes. It impedes authentic reading. It gives these kids a crutch. If kids pick up poor habits with reading, it is very difficult to correct it."

However, Ronayne said the elementary school teachers are "well meaning" and are not "deliberately" teaching reading the wrong way.

"I did talk to my son's teacher about it and she said, 'I'm just teaching reading the way the district requires me to teach,"' Ronanye said. "She is doing what she is supposed to do, except that the whole curriculum is wrong according to the neuroscience. We have to do something."

Co-Founder of Decoding Dyslexia Massachusetts Nancy Duggan also emphasized the importance of implementing effective teaching methods for kids with dyslexia.

"Early screening will mean nothing if identifying the students at risk is not followed by explicit and systematic instruction," Duggan said.

Caldwell said the school district must follow the guidelines of the state, but she said the district performs "a lot of intervention" and attempts different strategies with struggling readers.

"Medford Public Schools follows the state standards," Caldwell stated. "The materials we use follow the state standard. We have to go by the state standards."

 "I am looking for professional development for the teachers, more awareness for the parents so they understand how reading happens, and with the screening, I really hope the teachers notify the parents," Ronayne said.