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Can Reading Disabilities be cured?

Here is an excellent article from the International Dyslexia Association about how to determine if an educational promise is too good to be true. 

Where did you recieve your training?

I am trained through the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education. Click on the logo below for more information.

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Is there research to support this method?

Click here to learn more about research supporting the effectiveness of the Orton-Gillingham reading system.

What's wrong with Guided Reading/Balanced Literacy?

Click here to listen to the podcast: Sold A Story by American Public Media. It is an excellent expose' of how educators were led to believe in a reading approach that was not based on research or evidence.

Does My Child Have a Reading Disability?
Finding a Path Forward While Avoiding the Pitfalls

Video Transcript

About Me

Hello , my name is Kathleen Mirus. I taught Special Education for 15 years in various public schools both in Maryland and in Virginia. I left the classroom last year to start my own tutoring business.  While I was in the classroom, I screened students who were suspected to have disabilities. I helped to determine if they were eligible for special education services. I'm an expert in structured literacy.  I'm trained in Wilson reading as well as in the Orton-Gillingham reading methods. Finally,  last but not least, I'm a mom to four children ages 14 to 22.

Congratulations on Taking This Step!


The  most important thing I want to say today is, “Congratulations for taking this step!”  It is scary to be in a place of uncertainty if you are watching your child struggle, especially if their spirit is hurting. You want to help!  It's my hope that by the end of this session you will feel the confidence you need to get the answers to help your child.

Reasons You May Suspect a Reading Disability


Here are some reasons why you may suspect a reading disability.

They are:

  • Family history

  • Struggling to sound out words

  • Spelling difficulty 

  • Self-confidence is suffering

If your child is in school, the staff may or may not agree with you.

If you are homeschooling your child,  you may be questioning whether something you're doing or maybe something you're not doing is contributing to your child's challenges.

A Quick Poll!

Here's a quick poll to get some input from you in the audience. The question is: “What is the best thing you can do for your struggling reader?”

Here are your choices:  

  1. Read aloud 

  2. Reward or motivate them 

  3. Assess them

  4. Drink more wine!

Drinking wine can't hurt right?  All joking aside the correct answer is : C.  Assess.  While the other options will certainly help you, assessment is the most important thing you can do for your child.

Assessment Options


Once you decide to move forward with assessment there is another decision to make. There are three paths forward with assessment and you'll need to choose the one that best fits your situation.  I'll discuss what each option is and give some pros and cons of each method. The three options are: 

  1. Parent assessment

  2. Informal assessment

  3. Formal evaluation

Parent Assessment


The first option is a parent assessment. This option involves you, the parent,

using the tools that you have to pinpoint where your child is struggling.

If your child is in school,  this means finding what's been sent home as far as

screening tests, growth assessments,  benchmarks,  report cards, anything that was given by the school to determine if there are reasons to suspect a disability. If you're homeschooling, you will use the assessment tools built into whatever reading program you are using. Hopefully that program has some kind of a tool built into it that will help you know whether your child is meeting the pace of instruction and where they're falling as far as where you would start instruction.

Parent Assessment: Pros and Cons


Here are some pros and cons of the parent assessment. The biggest pro is that you,

yes, YOU are the expert on your child!  If your child is in school,  you may already have information that will help you.  If you're homeschooling, you can start with whatever program you're currently using to do some assessment. The biggest disadvantage to this approach is that there's really no consistent criteria between the programs.  The other big disadvantage to this approach is…(picture of stressed out mom surrounded by many reading programs) It's overwhelming!  There are so many programs to choose from! Researching the different approaches takes a lot of time and energy. You might feel like this mom in the picture.  If your child is in school,  you'll need to collect the results from the different screening tests and growth assessments and then you will need to spend time researching and evaluating what those results might mean.

Formal Evaluation


The next option I want to talk about is a formal evaluation. A formal evaluation is the

only way to officially determine if your child has a reading disability. If the public schools support your request for an evaluation,  it's perfectly free.  If not,  you can also have the evaluation done privately but it would be at your expense. If you are interested in pursuing a formal evaluation,  I can help you get started. I used to be a part of my school division’s eligibility team,  so I can give you insider tips and pointers on how to get the ball rolling, how to get the process started,  and how to help you have the best chance of having the school agree and support your concerns,  and provide

the evaluation to you at no cost. 

Formal Evaluation: Pros and Cons


The pros to this are that if you go through this,  you will know for certain if your child has a reading disability.  This is really the only way to definitively know whether or not they have a reading disability. Next,  you will get specific information. You will find out exactly where their learning is breaking down.  You'll find out if, for example,  your child has a working memory weakness, or if they have an auditory processing disorder.

The formal evaluation will  pinpoint the exact area where your child is having difficulty. Another advantage is that your child can get access to opportunities. These opportunities might include access to services,  accommodations,  scholarships or other types of assistance.  If you're homeschooling, you may not be as interested in this at least not right now,  but possibly in the future,  if your child decides to move on to college,  those scholarships and other types of accommodations may come into play.


Now for the cons.  It will take energy and persistence to see the process through. It is a long process.  It starts with you meeting with the school and they're going to screen

your request to see if they share your suspicions of a disability.  If they don't, and they deny the request, that's a possibility.  The length of time in Virginia, which is where I live, the process takes at least 65 days.  If you end up paying for the evaluation yourself,  it is rather expensive.  The cost may range from $800 up to a couple thousand dollars. This is just my rough estimate,  depending on where you go. The reason for that is that parts of it have to be done by a psychologist and you know they're very difficult to

find, and their time is really expensive. Finally the other drawback to a formal evaluation is that you just may not agree with it.  Outcomes may vary depending on the experience level of the team that's doing the evaluation and how well they connect with your child. Sometimes it comes down to how many different days that they spread the testing over. If  they're trying to cram all the testing into one day,  you're not going to get as good of a result as if they were spreading the testing out over multiple sessions. Those are just some of the factors to think about.

Informal Assessment


All right, so now I want to talk about the third assessment approach.  This is the informal assessment.  This is the middle of the road option as far as the assessment choices. An informal assessment will pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses in reading, and then match those weaknesses and strengths to a specific intervention.

It’s not going to tell you the root of the problem as a formal evaluation would,  but it will tell you the impact of that problem and it can tell you how to address the

impact of the problem.  


Informal Assessment: Pros and Cons


Some pros to an informal assessment are: First, it identifies skill gaps and weak areas. Another big one: It's less expensive because it can be done by a teacher or a therapist.  As a matter of fact, I can provide this type of assessment.  It takes about one hour,  and the cost is $75.00 so we're talking much less expensive than possibly $800 to several thousand dollars. That would be the cost for a formal evaluation that needed to involve a psychologist. The results can guide you to a reading intervention that will address the weak areas and give tips and recommendations on how to use your child's strengths to sort of mitigate those weaknesses.


The cons: Really,  the biggest con is that it cannot formally determine

whether your child has a reading disability.  So,  if I did an informal evaluation, I could not tell you,  “Yes, your child does have a reading disability,” or, “No, your child does not have a reading disability,”  however, I could let you know what impact is being experienced while your child reads,  and match that up with a reading intervention.



Pitfalls to Avoid


So that's the first part, the assessment piece. While you are deciding which assessment path to take, here are some pitfalls to avoid. Now if you notice that you are doing or have done any of these things, do not feel discouraged! The only reason I am presenting these pitfalls is because I have personally done all of them. Yes, all of them! Over my years with students,  I've done them and I often wish that I could track down all of my former students, and apologize to them for what I didn't know back when they were in my classroom. My hope is that my mistakes will boost you up a little bit on the learning curve, so that your children don't have to suffer the way some of my former students did.


Pitfall #1-Teaching letters before your child can isolate, delete and substitute sounds


Here is the first big tip. Do this: Assess your child for phonological awareness. I’m going to talk about exactly what that means if you don't already know on the next slide.

Basically,  phonological awareness is understanding the sounds of language

with no letters involved. It's all hearing. It's knowing when does a word start and when does a word stop.  When does a syllable start, and when does a syllable stop? When does an individual sound start, and when does that sound stop?  So, for example if you say /c/  /a/  /t/  to your child, can they tell you that the word you're trying to say is “cat”? That's one way to look at phonological awareness. Then, you want to do the opposite.  You want to give them a full word, for example,  “dog.”  If you say “dog” is your child able to break that down, segment that word,  into three sounds? If they can do those things, they have some level of phonological awareness. If they have that, you want to take it to the next step.  You want to give them a nonsense word, a word they have no experience with because it's not real.  See if they can break down a word such as “pim.”  If you say “pim,” can they break that down? If they're able to do that, that's a good sign!  It means they have a foundation of phonological awareness.


So those are just some examples of how you can assess phonological awareness. What you don't want to do, (and believe me I've done this because I didn't even know what phonological awareness was for probably the first five or six years of teaching), so you don't want to focus on letters too early,  before your child can isolate and manipulate spoken sounds. What happens is, if you throw these visual symbols at the child before they understand what those visual symbols represent they're not going to retain them because they're not going to have any meaning, if that makes sense. On this next slide this is the distinction between phonological awareness and phonics.

As I said, phonological awareness only includes what you hear.  That's why here on the slide, I have the little sound waves that you see when you record a voice memo, because it's just the sound.  I also have the ears here because phonological awareness is only what you can hear,  it's not what you see. So, as I said, phonological awareness is understanding how language works.  Where does a word start? Where does a word end?  If I hear a sentence,  can I tell you how many words are in that sentence?

“Johnny kicked the ball.”  Can I tell you that “Johnny kicked the ball” has four words?  That's showing that the child has some phonological awareness. Now phonics is different because phonics is basically taking visual symbols, (letters), and connecting those visual symbols with the sounds. That's why for phonics, I have the visual alphabet here and I have the eyes so you know that phonics has to do with what you see.


Pitfall #2- Teaching the letters all at once, or in random order.


We know what phonics are, and we know they're important. You want to teach them in a very deliberate, systematic way. You want to teach phonics by starting with four letters, not all the letters, just four! Orton-Gillingham starts with “c, o,  a,  and d”  for example, two vowels and two consonants.  You want to teach your child how to blend just those four letters into words, words that are maybe three letters. Then, once they can read those words with three letters and a short vowel,  you want to teach them how to spell those exact same words.


What you don't want to do is what I did for many years. I just taught all 26 letters.

I just taught them all,  maybe in ABC order or maybe depending on whatever book we happened to be reading aloud that day.  If the book was The Very Hungry Caterpillar maybe I'd talk about “Cc.”  If we were talking about Clifford,  The Big Red

Dog,  maybe I would talk about the letter “Dd.” I would just kind of throw letters at them randomly, and sort of sporadically, and then kind of forget about them. I just relied on the students to be able to put all those together,  and figure out how those letters work together. So that was my mistake. 


What you don't want to do is let your literature drive your phonics instruction.  You want your phonics instruction to drive your literature instruction.  I know that this is a big issue among a lot of reading specialists and teachers.  They want to start with the literature,  and then use the literature to introduce the phonics.  What research has found is that if you introduce phonics in a very systematic, cumulative way , that is the best way to help kids retain it, practice it and make it meaningful. 


The first four letters that are taught in Orton-Gillingham, which is one method of structured literacy, are an example of systematic cumulative phonics instruction.  As you can see from the way I'm tracing these letters, each one of these letters starts in the same place,  but each one of them just goes a little bit further as far as forming the letter.  They all start in the same place,  but a little more is added each time.

These four letters are easy to write,  and there are words that you can build

with them such as: cod, cad,  doc and dad. That may be just four regular words or real words,  but there are also nonsense words that you can build from these four letters.  You want to make sure your child can read and spell just that small set of words and you want them to be able to do it to the point of mastery.  You want them to master being able to blend,  (or “decode”),  and then spell, ( or “encode”),  those same words before adding other letters. 


Pitfall #3 -Prompting your child to “Sound it Out” without teaching syllable division


Okay next tip! You want to teach them how to divide words into syllables and then

help them identify the type of syllable.  What you don't want to do is give

prompts that are too general such as: “Sound it out,” or,  “Chunk the word.”  Now, “Sound it out,” will work fine if the word is maybe just a three-letter word with a short vowel. But once you get into multi-syllable words,  “Sound it out,”  just doesn't really help as much.  There are just too many possibilities when you take into account the different sounds that the vowels make,  etc. So when you teach syllable types,  what you want to remember is that a syllable type is to text what a key signature is to music.

A  key signature,  when you're looking at music, it will tell you which notes in the upcoming song are flat, and which of them are sharp. When you look at a syllable type when you're reading, if you know what syllable type you're reading,  you can identify which sound the vowel makes. You will know whether it's going to be long or short, whether it's going to be “r” controlled. There are seven types of syllables. Knowing those and recognizing those before you try to decode the word are going to help you read.


Pitfall #4-Falling for a quick fix that seems too good to be true


Okay next one! Recognize that an effective intervention is going to take time and effort. Even an effective reading intervention is going to take one to two years to close the gap if your child has a reading disability. What you don't want to do is fall for quick fixes or promises that seem too good to be true,  and there are a lot of them out there! I didn't even know how many there were out there until I started doing the research as a teacher. I never knew how many quick fixes, or claims to being quick fixes were out there. What I want to do is quickly talk a little bit about the research behind an effective reading intervention and maybe give you some insight as to why some of these interventions still take a long time. On this next slide, I want to show you  a visual illustration of what is going on in your child's brain when they are struggling to read.  Here you have three different areas of the brain.  I didn't use the scientific terms, but I just described in my illustration what that part of the brain does, and what kind of information is processed. This area towards the front of the brain is responsible for processing speech sounds, the sounds of speech when we speak. This area that's also involved in reading, deals with word sounds and word meanings.  Finally,  this area towards the back of the brain is the area where the visual information is processed, what a  word looks like.  All three of these areas,  in order for reading to happen,  these areas of the brain need to develop a network,  an efficient network, for communication.

This illustration shows that in a struggling reader,  the network between the brain areas might be a little spotty or it might have some twists and turns. It might not be super efficient, and that in turn is going to slow down the communication between these areas and it's going to result in your child struggling.


Now this next illustration shows what happens after an effective reading intervention.

As much as some of my students would love to have actual race cars running around in their brains, the idea is that a good reading intervention is going to cause, (and research has shown this), anatomical and functional changes in the brain. These changes make the communication between these three areas speedy, efficient and automatic enough for reading to happen.

Your next question might be,  well if that's what an effective reading intervention needs to accomplish, which is no small task, what is an effective reading intervention?  How do I know if what I'm doing with my child,  or what my child is learning in school,  is effective?  Well the simple answer is that it needs to make those three areas of the brain function together.  The reading program needs to engage vision in both the input that is provided by the instruction, and the response that the student gives.  It needs to engage the hearing of the student and the speech, actually articulating those sounds,  and saying what they're reading in both the input provided by the teacher as well as the response given by the students. Also, it needs to teach phonological awareness, as well as systematic phonics which we already talked about.  It needs to teach syllable division and syllable types as a way for students to sound out the words.

As you can see from the comparison chart,  all of the common approaches-- and here we've got workbooks,  we've got computer-based such as Starfall,  ABC Mouse--

all of these approaches have some of those elements,  but something called “Structured Literacy” is the only approach that contains all of those elements.


Pitfall #5- Letting your child guess at words


Okay last tip!  The one I get asked about the most has to do with guessing.  Guessing is a very common habit.  A lot of kids do it to different degrees,  but if you start to notice that your child is relying on that a lot,  you really, really need to take steps to break that habit.  So here are some ideas. First, give a shorter passage.  Even if it's just a sentence, you want to backtrack to the simpler text.  You want to find out what they have the accuracy to read without needing to guess.  That's really what you want to find out.  So essentially we've come back full circle and again we're talking about assessment!


You want to assess to find out why the decoding is breaking down. You want to answer this question: What can my child read without guessing? If you can figure that out,  that's where you want to start. 


We've reached the point where I am going to check out the chat and see what questions you may have for me, and hopefully I can answer them in the next few minutes, so let me check the chat.


Q and A:


What is the difference between a reading disability and dyslexia?


All right well I don't see any questions at the moment,  so what I'm going to do is

go ahead and… please if you still have questions go ahead and type them in…but I want to talk about a common question that I get asked and that is: What is the difference between a reading disability and dyslexia? A  lot of times those terms are used interchangeably.  Sometimes you'll hear dyslexia used more frequently, sometimes you will hear reading disability used more frequently.  The quick answer is that dyslexia is a specific type of reading disability. The reason you'll hear dyslexia more in common discussions and in advocacy groups is because in education, people purposefully avoid using that term. If you're talking to someone who works in a school, or a principal or somebody on the eligibility team, they're probably not going to use the term dyslexia. That is only because the laws that have to do with special education, which is what they're dealing with everyday, don't really define the criteria for dyslexia specifically. What they did is they created this kind of umbrella category which is what I'm trying to show on the slide. It's a bigger category called “Specific Learning Disabilities.” In the educational world, dyslexia would be included under that umbrella of a specific learning disability. On the slide, there is a little more of a precise definition for dyslexia.


What is Structured Literacy?


All right,  I’m checking again and I don't see any questions, so quickly I will talk a little bit about Structured Literacy. I get asked about that a lot as well. It's not a term that you hear very often. More often than not,  you'll just hear the name of a reading program, for example, All About Spelling,  All About Reading, there are so many of them.  There's Hooked On Phonics,  there are so many different reading programs out there.  Structured Literacy is a bit of an umbrella term.  It doesn't refer to a specific type of reading program, however, the characteristics of structured literacy, (which are listed up here on the slide, some of them I touched on already),  anything that would qualify as structured literacy would have to have these components in it.  


We talked about phonological awareness. We talked about the importance of sound/symbol association,  teaching that deliberately. We talked about syllable instruction, we talked about it being multi-sensory, using vision, using auditory, using spoken responses, all of those multiple modes of processing information are helping those areas of the brain communicate more efficiently.  Systematic,  cumulative phonics instruction rather than just randomly introducing letters.  Explicit instruction: you want to teach each concept deliberately,  you don't want to just sort of assume that the child will figure out the pattern. 


Finally, using diagnostic teaching.  This is where the assessment piece comes in.  Again,  you want to assess to determine where to start.  You don't want to just assume what they know and what they don't know. Then you want to also use assessment to pace the instruction. You want to make sure you're not going too fast and you want to make sure you're not going too slow. You also want to check for mastery at each stage, even if it's just those first four letters that I talked about.  Those have to be mastered to the point of automaticity before moving on to the next stage. 


I still don't see any questions,  so I am just going to wrap up and say thank

you to everyone who attended! I really appreciate you taking the time out of

your day,  whether it's live or whether it's the recording,  thank you for taking the time to listen and learn a little bit more about how to determine if your child has a learning disability.  Hopefully this information was helpful to you!  Please feel free to reach out.

My website is there on the slide. You can also reach out to me via email: You can also reach out to me through the OnZoom webinar registration. My email is also available there in the description of this webinar.  Thank you very much for your attendance and hopefully I will hear from you soon.  Thank you!

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