Listen: Hard to Read: How American Schools Fail Kids with Dyslexia

An MPR News Presents broadcast of the APM Reports education documentary “Hard to Read - How American Schools Fail Kids with Dyslexia.” There are proven ways to help people with dyslexia learn to read, and a federal law that's supposed to ensure schools provide kids with help. But across the country, public schools are denying children proper treatment and often failing to identify them with dyslexia in the first place.


2017 EWA National Award for Education Reporting, finalist in Broadcast: Single-Topic News or Feature category


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STEVEN JOHN: Welcome to MPR News Presents, I'm Steven John. This week, we've been airing a series of new education documentaries from our documentary unit, APM Reports. Today, the final program in the series.

STEPHEN SMITH: From American Public Media, this is an APM Reports documentary. Dayne Guest graduated from high school in 2016. He was working construction but he knew that wasn't what he wanted to do with his life. His options are limited, though, because Dane has a really hard time reading. When he opens a book, he sees--

DAYNE GUEST: Just a whole bunch of words, just a whole bunch of letters just lined up.

STEPHEN SMITH: Ever since he can remember, letters and written words haven't made much sense to him. His mom, Pam Guest, knew something wasn't right starting back in kindergarten.

PAM GUEST: In the mornings, when the students came into the classroom, they would write that they brought their lunch or that they were going to purchase lunch in the cafeteria. And Dayne always walked right past that board and sat down.

STEPHEN SMITH: The teacher said he'd catch up, but by the end of first grade, Dayne still wasn't reading. The school said he had to be two grade levels behind before he could get special education. And there's no way to be two grade levels behind when you're still in first grade. So Pam hung a blackboard on the wall of her home office and tried teaching Dayne herself.

PAM GUEST: He wasn't learning anything at school, so we spent time, every evening almost, teaching him the lessons, teaching him the classwork, teaching him what he hadn't learned during the day. And no matter how much practice we did, he still didn't get it. It didn't make sense.

STEPHEN SMITH: By second grade, the school acknowledged there was a problem, and Dayne started getting special education services for reading.

DAYNE GUEST: They would take you into a room. There would be like 10 of us maybe, and they would read to you or write for you.

STEPHEN SMITH: But he never remembers anyone teaching him to read. Instead, he says teachers told him he just wasn't trying hard enough. That's what teachers told his mom, too.

PAM GUEST: They were telling me that he was a smart person. He was entirely capable of doing the work, but he just wasn't applying himself in a way that would help him to become successful academically.

STEPHEN SMITH: Watching Dayne struggle was eerily familiar. Pam's brother had struggled like this, never graduated from high school, ended up addicted to drugs and died. People in Pam's family suspected her brother had dyslexia. He never had formal testing. That can cost thousands of dollars. But Pam kept thinking, maybe Dayne has dyslexia. She figured if he did, though, the school would let her know. It's not like dyslexia is some kind of unknown disorder.


Theo Huxtable from The Cosby Show had dyslexia. Pam used to watch that show.

SPEAKER: Theo, I think that you should be tested for dyslexia.

THEO HUXTABLE: Dyslexia, what's that?

STEPHEN SMITH: This is the episode where Theo is first diagnosed.

SPEAKER: He has the brain power. He just has a glitch in the way he takes in information.


SPEAKER: Yes, he just has a problem in the way that he processes language.

STEPHEN SMITH: This is exactly what seemed to be going on with Dayne.

PAM GUEST: So I asked the teachers, if he was dyslexic. I said it. I said the word, is he dyslexic?

STEPHEN SMITH: And they said no. It went on like this year after year, Pam suspecting he was dyslexic, the schools saying, no, and Pam believing them because they were the education experts. She didn't know what else to do. And then, when Dayne was a senior in high school, Pam found out about a group called Decoding Dyslexia. It's a network of parents across the country, concerned that schools aren't screening kids for dyslexia or giving them appropriate help.

Pam learned she had a legal right to demand that her son be tested. The school finally did, Dayne's senior year of high school. And the testing report said--

PAM GUEST: "Characteristics similar to those of dyslexia," but they would not say that he was dyslexic. And I asked the psychologist, why she used that phrasing. And she said, she would never say that a student is dyslexic. We don't do that. And I said, what do you mean you don't do that? She said, it is not in our realm of professionalism to say that a student is dyslexic. We will never do that.

STEPHEN SMITH: It's as if dyslexia were a bad word, a label that would harm kids. But for Dayne, never getting that label meant never getting the right kind of help. And here's the thing, people with dyslexia can learn to read. There are teaching methods that work. But in American public schools, millions of kids with dyslexia are not getting this kind of teaching.


From APM Reports, this is Hard To Read: How American Schools Fail Kids With Dyslexia. I'm Stephen Smith. Scientists estimate that somewhere between 5% and 12% of children in the United States have dyslexia. It's the most common learning disability. And yet, it's routinely ignored or improperly treated in many public schools. Why?

Our correspondent, Emily Hanford, has been investigating this question for months. Over the next hour, she's going to tell us what she's learned. It's not just a story about dyslexia. This is a story about what's wrong with the way kids are being taught to read in American public schools. She begins with a student named Billy Gibson.

EMILY HANFORD: When Billy was in elementary school, he couldn't spell his own name.

BILLY GIBSON: I would have to like, ask kids next to me. I'm like, hi, do you know how to spell William Gibson? And because I-- I'm in the first and second grade, where kids were already like, looking at me like, you don't know how to spell your own name?

EMILY HANFORD: Even Billy stumped him.

BILLY GIBSON: And I'd be like B-I-L-E-I. And I just would get all the letters backwards. And I would write the Y's in the wrong direction. I would-- the worst thing for me was figuring out between lowercase b and d. I would always get those mixed up and stuff.

EMILY HANFORD: He bombed all of his spelling tests, of course. Here's what he remembers about how his teacher would respond.

BILLY GIBSON: I would be immediately sent out into the hallway of the classroom. After she's done handing out the tests to the rest of the kids, the kid with the highest grade in the class would come out. And I remember her saying like, see if you can teach this kid how to spell these words.

EMILY HANFORD: Billy had no idea he was dyslexic, neither did his parents. Billy just came to think of himself as the dumb kid who spent a lot of time in the hall. We're going to return to the question of how schools deal with kids who have dyslexia. But first, what was going on in Billy's brain? What is dyslexia?

SPEAKER: Trivial, trive--

GUINEVERE EDEN: So this is a boy who has dyslexia, and he's 11.

EMILY HANFORD: That's Guinevere Eden. She's a neuroscientist who studies dyslexia, and this is a recording of a child in one of her studies.

SPEAKER: Trive-- triviale--

GUINEVERE EDEN: Most children at that age are able to sound out this word. It's not an easy word, trivialities.

SPEAKER: --lities. Trivialities

EMILY HANFORD: Guinevere Eden says all babies will naturally start talking, unless they have some kind of major cognitive impairment or hearing issue. Our brains are wired for speech. They are not wired to read.

GUINEVERE EDEN: Nothing in the brain was organized to be reading. So when we learn to read, we put together a set of brain systems that have properties that allow us to become skilled readers. But they weren't actually designed to do that.

EMILY HANFORD: In other words, reading doesn't come naturally. We have to learn to read. And there's something about the brains of people with dyslexia that makes learning to read really hard.

SUZANNE PEKOW: Humpty Dumpty sat on a--


SUZANNE PEKOW: Humpty Dumpty--

MILO PEKOW: Had a great fall.

EMILY HANFORD: That's our producer Suzanne with her son Milo, who's four. Milo is not dyslexic.

SUZANNE PEKOW: What rhymes with cat?


SUZANNE PEKOW: What rhymes with jelly?


EMILY HANFORD: What Milo is doing, rhyming words, requires something called phonemic awareness. That's the ability to notice and manipulate the individual sounds or phonemes in spoken words. People with dyslexia have a hard time doing this. Guinevere Eden says this makes it difficult to learn to read because--

GUINEVERE EDEN: When we see words for the first time, we really try to sound them out. So we go through them very carefully and try to match the sounds to the letters.

EMILY HANFORD: After we sound out a word a few times, our brain stores it in our visual system as a whole word. And we know it when we see it. That's how it works if you're not dyslexic. If you are dyslexic, it doesn't come to you the way that sounds and letters correspond. A common perception is that dyslexia is about reversing letters, getting lowercase b's and d's mixed up the way Billy Gibson did.

But all beginning readers tend to do this. It's just that many people with dyslexia don't get past the beginning reader stage, unless they get the right kind of help. When they don't get that help, school can be torture.

JUDY GIBSON: Stay home. [SNIFFLES] I want to stay home.

EMILY HANFORD: This is Judy. She was in third grade when her mom recorded this.

MAGGIE GIBSON: I can't let you stay home, though. We're going to have to go give it a try.

EMILY HANFORD: Judy does not want to go to school today. She would refuse to go to school a lot. She even learned to make herself throw up on command, no need to put her finger down her throat, says her mom, Maggie Gibson. Maggie's oldest son is Billy. Maggie and her husband Rob have five kids, and they all have dyslexia. But they didn't know it at first.

MAGGIE GIBSON: We knew something wasn't right.

ROB GIBSON: You can tell things are off, but you don't know specifically what.

EMILY HANFORD: I talked to parents all over the country. And this is the way so many stories about kids with dyslexia begin. The parents know something's wrong, but the school doesn't see it. That's why Maggie recorded Judy, to show the school how miserable her daughter was. Finally, a private tutor one of the Gibson kids was working with said, you should have him evaluated.

The Gibsons decided to pay to have all five kids tested. Here's Rob.

ROB GIBSON: So what we did is we set up where we had Gibson day. And so they evaluated every single kid back-to-back for an entire day.

EMILY HANFORD: Results in hand, the Gibsons marched into their kids' school and said, look, our children have dyslexia. And according to Rob, this is how the school responded.

ROB GIBSON: Yeah, we understand this is a test showing abnormalities from a reputed institution that recommends a child with dyslexia have this, that, and the other. And oh, we don't agree with it. And when we got to that disagreement, it was almost like we were disagreeing over reality.

SPEAKER: So our purpose today is to review the educational evaluation you have completed by Kennedy Krieger.

EMILY HANFORD: This is a recording Rob and Maggie gave me of the meeting, where they went over the test results with staff at their son Eddie's school. It's not a great recording, but you can hear the disagreement Rob described.

SPEAKER: He doesn't-- we do not suspect a learning disability.

ROB GIBSON: Well, wait a minute.

EMILY HANFORD: That's one of the school's staff saying the school doesn't suspect Eddie has a learning disability, despite the private testing results. What the Gibson's wanted for their son is an IEP, an Individualized Education Plan that students with disabilities who are behind in school are supposed to get, according to the Federal Special Education Law.

But the school says Eddie can't have a disability because he has passing grades and average standardized test scores. This is the fight a lot of parents get into with their schools. Their kids figure out ways to get by, but they're not doing nearly as well as they could if they got specialized instruction. And for years, many public schools refused to acknowledge dyslexia.

FRAN BOWMAN: They would say, we don't use the word dyslexia.

EMILY HANFORD: This is Fran Bowman. She's a former Special Education teacher.

FRAN BOWMAN: Because once you open Pandora's box, you have to serve those children.

EMILY HANFORD: In other words, if schools acknowledge a kid has dyslexia, they may be legally obligated to provide specialized education, and that's expensive. Special education directors I talked to denied their schools were refusing to use the word dyslexia to keep kids out of special ed.

Whatever the reason, schools not using the word was such a problem that in 2015, the US Department of Education issued a special letter reminding schools that not only can they use that word, they should use it if it can help them tailor an appropriate education plan for a student with dyslexia because there are effective methods to help people with dyslexia learn to read, first developed back in the 1930s.

FRAN BOWMAN: So Samuel Orton was a neurologist and psychiatrist.

EMILY HANFORD: This is Fran Bowman again.

FRAN BOWMAN: He was seeing a lot of adolescent boys who had all sorts of emotional problems because they couldn't read.

EMILY HANFORD: These boys were otherwise perfectly intelligent. They just couldn't make sense of words on the page. Orton paired up with a woman named Anna Gillingham, who was an educator and psychologist.

FRAN BOWMAN: What they figured out was that, there were children who had to learn to read differently.

EMILY HANFORD: They came up with an approach known as Orton-Gillingham, OG for short. It's an approach where students are explicitly and systematically taught the ways that sounds and letters correspond. To oversimplify a bit, it's basically heavy-duty phonics.

FRAN BOWMAN: They started working in mostly very fancy private schools. This was not in public school at all, Orton-Gillingham.

EMILY HANFORD: Fran Bowman got trained in OG in the 1970s. And her dream was to bring this approach to kids in public school. She thought her dream would come true when in 1975, President Ford signed what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

FRAN BOWMAN: I was teaching college at the time. I can remember like literally almost the day the law was passed. And I remember saying to all my students, this is so exciting. We're finally going to be able to say, OK, so you're having trouble with reading, and it's the beginning of kindergarten, we can help you.

BEN SHIFRIN: The intent behind the law was absolutely incredible. And it began to schools to recognize they needed to do something.

EMILY HANFORD: This is Ben Shifrin. He's dyslexic, grew up in the 1960s, got no help for his dyslexia in public school. He says his parents paid $15 a week for an Orton-Gillingham tutor to come to his house. Ben Shifrin eventually got a master's degree in special education. And started working in public schools a few years after the special Ed law went into effect. He quickly became disillusioned with the law.

BEN SHIFRIN: I think the thing that has insulted me the most and why I left public Ed, was when they wanted me to say to parents when I look at IEPs and say, we need-- oh, no, no, no. We don't have to provide a Cadillac. We just have to provide a Chevy.

EMILY HANFORD: Meaning, public schools don't have the money to give every kid with learning disabilities the best treatment. But it's not just cost that's kept public schools from giving kids with dyslexia what they need. It's a long-running disagreement about how to teach children to read.

FRAN BOWMAN: Oh, the reading wars go way back. They go back hundreds of years.

EMILY HANFORD: That's Fran Bowman again. The "reading wars" in the US go all the way back to Horace Mann, the father of the Public Schools Movement. In the 1800s, he railed against the idea of teaching kids that letters represent sounds. Mann believed children would better understand what they were reading if they first learned to read whole words.

This came to be known as the whole language approach, as opposed to the phonics approach Fran Bowman learned in her Orton-Gillingham training in the 1970s. She was able to use OG in public schools for a while, but she says she soon got a supervisor who told her she wasn't allowed to use it.

FRAN BOWMAN: And this guy said to me-- I will never forget it. It's like emblazoned on my brain. He said, do-oo you-oo talk l-like X? I said, no. He said, well, that's how you're teaching people how to read. You should be teaching them by the entire word, instead of these little sounds.

EMILY HANFORD: He was a whole language guy. Whole language was big in the 1980s. Most teacher preparation programs bought into it, and so did most school districts. The basic idea behind whole language is that reading is a natural process. If you expose kids to lots of good books, they will learn to read. But by the 1990s, there was rising panic in America that too many kids were not reading well.

SPEAKER 1: From the US Department of Education tonight, a report card that no one would be very proud to bring home.

SPEAKER 2: Reading and writing skills have stagnated.

SPEAKER 3: The reading skills of American students declined last year for the first time in 20 years.

EMILY HANFORD: In response to the news about poor reading skills, Congress created a National Reading Panel to get to the bottom of the debate about how best to teach reading.

ANDREA ROWSON: So what they decided to do was do a mega-analysis on all the scientifically-based research.

EMILY HANFORD: This is Andrea Rowson. She trains teachers in how to teach reading. The National Reading Panel reviewed more than 100,000 studies. And in 2000, the panel published a report that was a crushing blow to the whole language movement.

There was no evidence to show whole language worked. And lots of evidence that teaching children the relationship between sounds, letters, and spelling patterns improves reading achievement. This is for all kids, not just kids with dyslexia.

Andrea Rowson was teaching in public school when the report was released. But she says she didn't learn about the findings until years later. She doesn't think the report changed much of anything about the way schools taught reading.

ANDREA ROWSON: What happens in public education to be honest is, I think a lot of initiatives come through, a lot of information gets thrown at schools, new regulations, new this, new that. And I think it was just one of those things where they said, OK, and didn't really realize how huge it was.

EMILY HANFORD: Rowson works for a school district in Ohio that's made big changes in the way it teaches reading, but not because of the National Reading Panel. Her district changed because a group of parents hired a lawyer and filed a complaint. We'll hear about that later. For now, back to the Gibsons, the family with five dyslexic kids. When the school system refused to give their kids IEPs, Rob and Maggie Gibson hired a lawyer, too.

MAGGIE GIBSON: All we wanted was to secure the right to learn in public school.

EMILY HANFORD: At this point, their oldest daughter was in high school. Their youngest was in first grade. Billy, who you met earlier, was in middle school. And he was really struggling.

BILLY GIBSON: It just it got so overwhelming. I like, I would constantly have these anxiety attacks. And it got to a point I just-- I refused to go to school.

EMILY HANFORD: Trying to get him the help he needed was turning into a long and contentious process. Rob and Maggie felt that for Billy and his older sister, time was running out. They needed help with reading before they finished high school. So the Gibsons decided to put them in a private school for students with language-based learning differences. Lucky for them, there's one of these schools not far from their house, the Jemicy School.

BEN SHIFRIN: I'm going to take you in the theater first because--

EMILY HANFORD: That's Ben Shifrin. He's the guy who got fed up with public schools because he thought they weren't doing right by kids with learning disabilities. He's the head of Jemicy. It's in Owings Mills, Maryland, just outside of Baltimore. He takes me on a tour.

BEN SHIFRIN: This is brand new, the theater.

EMILY HANFORD: The school is beautiful, modern buildings, student artwork everywhere. Tuition is about $35,000 a year.

BEN SHIFRIN: Hi, there.

EMILY HANFORD: Hi. Can we come-- stop in for a minute and just observe what you're doing?

We're in a building with lots of small classrooms. Lower school students get daily tutoring in small groups.

BEN SHIFRIN: So this is Josie and Christopher.


BEN SHIFRIN: And they are first year students here at Jemicy.

EMILY HANFORD: Josie and Christopher are in fifth grade.

BEN SHIFRIN: And they're working on double-vowel O. So what are the two sounds that oo make?


BEN SHIFRIN: Oo as in school and uh as in book. School and book, think of that.

EMILY HANFORD: This tutoring is based on the Orton-Gillingham approach. The philosophy here at Jemicy is intensive reading remediation and a lot of hands-on learning. Students can take geometry in a woodworking shop. But by senior year of high school, students are in some pretty traditional-looking classes with lectures and lots of reading. The idea is to prepare them for college.

SPEAKER: All right, so if you guys remember, yesterday, we left off talking a little bit about this Rimland thesis. It's the opposite of what Halford Mackinder proposed with the Heartland thesis.

EMILY HANFORD: This is 12th grade history at Jemicy.

BILLY GIBSON: Yeah, so that was my question. What was America's and China's relationship?

EMILY HANFORD: And that is Billy Gibson. He's about to graduate from Jemicy. Next year, he's going to college to study 3D computer animation. But when he started at Jemicy, Billy wasn't sure he would finish high school.

BILLY GIBSON: I was going in the mindset of like, what's the point? What's the point of doing work? I'm not going to be anything. I've already been told that I'm not going to be anything. I don't have any dreams.

EMILY HANFORD: But things turned around for Billy at Jemicy. His mom Maggie noticed the difference right away.

MAGGIE GIBSON: You're so used to fight mode because you're fighting for it to be recognized that your kid needs X, Y, and Z. And then you go in to Jemicy, and you have a teacher conference. And the teachers sit down and say, we think your child would benefit from this, this, and this. And we notice that your child needs whatever it is. And you're like, oh my gosh, we're speaking the same language. We're all noticing the same thing.

EMILY HANFORD: But it costs a total of more than $60,000 a year to send two kids to Jemicy. Maggie and Rob are fortunate. He's a well-paid physician, and they got financial help from their kids' grandparents. But five private school tuitions weren't in their budget. So they kept fighting with the public schools to try to get their younger kids better help.

Getting what you need for a kid with dyslexia is a rich man's game, says Maggie Gibson.

MAGGIE GIBSON: It is a rich man's game, and the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

EMILY HANFORD: Maggie and Rob eventually got the school system to pay for two of their younger kids to go to a special private school. They don't think they would have gotten that if they hadn't hired an attorney. They estimate their family has spent more than $350,000, including legal fees, private tutoring, and tuition.

MAGGIE GIBSON: We've taken out mortgages on the house. We have credit card debt that is astronomical. And we're fortunate enough to have family members that help. But what does a normal person do that doesn't have the luxury of other people to help them? What do you do?

EMILY HANFORD: When kids with learning disabilities don't get the help they need, things often don't turn out well. Nearly 20% of students with learning disabilities drop out of high school. More than half end up involved with the criminal justice system.

I wanted to know what school systems have to say about kids with dyslexia who aren't getting proper help. So I went to the people in charge of special education and reading instruction for the school system where the Gibson kids went, the Baltimore County Public Schools.

MEGAN SHAY: I'm Megan Shay. I'm the director of English Language Arts.

REBECCA RIDER: Rebecca Rider, director of Special Education.

EMILY HANFORD: Rebecca Rider and Megan Shay are both relatively new to their positions. And they acknowledge the school system has a problem when it comes to kids with dyslexia. It's something they say they're beginning to fix.

REBECCA RIDER: We need to do better.

EMILY HANFORD: That's Rebecca Rider. Here's Megan Shay.

MEGAN SHAY: This is big. We need to do more for reading in this county. We have multiple data points that say that this is an issue.

EMILY HANFORD: One alarming data point, the Baltimore County Schools are paying nearly $40 million a year to send kids with disabilities to specialized private schools. The school system couldn't say how much of that is being spent on kids with dyslexia. But a lawyer told me the costs have been rising. He said that's because the school system is identifying more kids with dyslexia. And the schools don't have teachers trained to provide the appropriate help.

Until recently, Orton-Gillingham tutoring was not an option in the Baltimore County Public Schools. But last year, the school system started training teachers in OG. Megan Shay says the goal is to have at least one OG-trained teacher in every elementary and middle school. In addition, she says--

MEGAN SHAY: We need to train all of our teachers to be better teachers of reading.

EMILY HANFORD: Megan Shay says colleges of education are not teaching teachers how to teach kids to She points to the fact that only half of third graders in the county schools are reading on grade level. Nationally, only 36% of fourth graders are proficient in reading.

Baltimore County recently started training all of its primary school teachers in the science of effective reading instruction. What's prompting the Baltimore County Schools to make all these changes now? Megan Shay says it has a lot to do with parent advocacy.

In Baltimore County and across the country, parents of kids with dyslexia have been pushing for change. One of those parent advocates is Pam Guest, Dayne's mother.

Dayne also went to Baltimore County Public Schools.

PAM GUEST: Up here. So all of these boxes are--

EMILY HANFORD: We're in Pam Guest's home office and she's pointing to boxes of paperwork from her years of unsuccessful efforts to get Dayne help in school. At one point, she says she visited a private school for students with learning disabilities. She walked in and then turned around and walked out because she couldn't quite bear to see what she knew her son couldn't have.

PAM GUEST: And I talked to a lot of these upper class white families who were able to take their kids out and send them to private school. I couldn't afford to do that. But those kids are doing well now, and they're able to go to college. And we didn't have that opportunity.

EMILY HANFORD: She says she's determined to change things so what happened to her son won't happen to other kids. She's a leader of Decoding Dyslexia, Maryland. Decoding Dyslexia has chapters in all 50 states. They're pushing for things like universal dyslexia screening and mandatory teacher training.

As for Pam's son Dayne, things were pretty bad after he graduated from high school. His friends were going off to college, and he was at home, unsure what was next for him. But she says Dayne's doing better now. He found a job as an apprentice helper with the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union. His plan is to open his own business someday.

STEPHEN SMITH: That was correspondent Emily Hanford. You're listening to Hard To Read, a documentary from APM Reports. I'm Stephen Smith. Research shows that changing reading instruction to help students with dyslexia would help all kids learn to read better. Up next, we visit the Ohio school district Emily mentioned, where a group of parents hired a lawyer in response to the way their kids were being taught.

EMILY LONG: The way I was "taught", in quotes, to read was to look at the words on the page and to guess based on the picture that was next to them.

STEPHEN SMITH: We have more about this documentary on our website, There's an interview with Guinevere Eden on what scientists are learning about reading and the brain. And we have several podcast episodes about dyslexia.

This documentary is available as a podcast as well. You can go to to subscribe. We'd love to hear from you. Send us an email to or find us on social media. Support for APM Reports comes from Lumina Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. More in a moment, this is APM, American Public Media.

STEVEN JOHN: This is MPR News Presents.

SPEAKER: Programming is supported by our members and by volunteers of America whose older adult service and care programs employ more than 1,200 Minnesotans. More information online at

STEPHEN SMITH: Programming is supported by Bremer Insurance, providing insurance options for businesses of all sizes. Learn more about the suite of insurance solutions available at Bremer Insurance, for what's ahead.

This is Hard To Read, a documentary from APM Reports. I'm Stephen Smith. We're going to head straight to Upper Arlington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. The Trinoskey family recently bought a house in Upper Arlington and our correspondent Emily Hanford takes us there.

TESS TRINOSKEY: Oh, sorry. I just wanted to keep them.

KELLI TRINOSKEY: Tess says no. We're not collecting rocks in our mailbox.

EMILY HANFORD: Kelli Trinoskey just picked her twin daughters up from school. And now they're arriving home. Tess and Molly are 12. They're in sixth grade.





EMILY HANFORD: That's their dog, Macie. Macie is officially Tess's dog. She was a gift from her parents a couple of years ago when Tess was miserable in school.

KELLI TRINOSKEY: It's something for her to look forward to after school, right?


KELLI TRINOSKEY: Somebody to cuddle with, chase skunks with.

EMILY HANFORD: The Trinoskey family used to live in another Columbus suburb. But Kelli says her daughters weren't getting what they needed in the public schools. It's the same story I heard from so many parents, something was off with their kid, they didn't know what, and the school wasn't helping.

The Trinoskeys eventually paid for their own testing, discovered Molly has dyslexia, and Tess has an audio processing disorder that results in similar struggles with reading and spelling.

KELLI TRINOSKEY: Getting your tour guide hat?

EMILY HANFORD: Tess and Molly show me their new house.

MOLLY TRINOSKEY: This is our--

TESS TRINOSKEY: This is my room. I had a bunch of weird stuff.


So how does this house compare to your old house?

MOLLY TRINOSKEY: It's a lot smaller.

EMILY HANFORD: And that's Molly.



KELLI TRINOSKEY: And it's very-- yeah, it's pretty basic.

EMILY HANDFORD: The Trinoskeys were willing to trade down to afford a home in this affluent suburb because Upper Arlington is known around here for doing a really good job with kids who have learning disabilities, especially dyslexia.

KELLI TRINOSKEY: They get it, and it's just unbelievable.

EMILY HANFORD: Within days of starting school here, Molly was getting one-on-one tutoring from a teacher trained in Orton-Gillingham.

MOLLY TRINOSKEY: It's just like you're happier when you come home.

TESS TRINOSKEY: I love school.

EMILY HANFORD: Kelli is amazed by the changes she sees in her daughters. But things were not always like this in Upper Arlington. The district has been through two big battles with parents who accused the school system of failing to meet the requirements of Special Education Law. One of those cases made it all the way to the US Supreme Court. Meet the people who brought that case.

CAMERON JAMES: I'm Cameron James.

NANCY JAMES: And I'm Nancy James.

CAMERON JAMES: And I'm the father of four dyslexic children.

NANCY JAMES: And I'm the mother of four dyslexic children.

EMILY HANFORD: Nancy and Cameron started dating in high school in Upper Arlington in the 1960s.

CAMERON JAMES: When I went to pick her up for our first date, her father, Mr. Calderone, looked at me and he says, "If you kiss her, you marry her." And I did, and I did.

EMILY HANFORD: Nancy and Cameron are both dyslexic. Cameron went to public elementary school in Upper Arlington where he says teachers used the look-say method. Look at a word, say it. It's a whole language approach, and it didn't work for Cameron. He says he struggled with reading all through school. Nancy was taught to read differently.

NANCY JAMES: I started school in first grade at a Catholic school, taught by nuns. And they taught phonics. And by Christmas of first grade, I could read.

EMILY HANFORD: Dyslexia is hereditary. Scientists estimate that if just one parent has dyslexia, their child has a 40% chance of having it, too.

CAMERON JAMES: "Dear Dr. Schafer--"

EMILY HANFORD: This is Cameron reading a letter he wrote to the superintendent of the Upper Arlington Schools in 1996.

CAMERON JAMES: "Words can never describe how proud I am to be the father of Joseph Albert James."

EMILY HANFORD: Cameron can read, but it typically takes a lot of effort. He says for him, reading a newspaper article is like someone without dyslexia reading their mortgage. But this letter isn't hard for him because he's read it many times. It describes the ordeal he and his wife went through trying to get the Upper Arlington Schools to help their son Joe with his dyslexia. Of all their kids, Joe's dyslexia was the most severe.

CAMERON JAMES: "Joe's skills fell further and further behind those of his peers. He was a little boy with almost no friends. He refused to go to the shopping center with some boys once because he couldn't read the menu board in the restaurant in the food court."

EMILY HANFORD: By the time Joe was in fourth grade, his parents had given up hope that the Upper Arlington Schools would teach him to read. So they put Joe in a private school for students with reading disabilities. This letter was their request for the Upper Arlington Schools to reimburse them for tuition.

Federal law requires public schools to provide children with disabilities a free and appropriate education. Since Joe's education was not appropriate in the James's view, and getting him an appropriate education was not free, they wanted the school district to pay for it.

CAMERON JAMES: "I have invested in excess of $150,000 in Joe's education. This letter is to request a due process hearing--"

EMILY HANFORD: Their case was, at first, dismissed on a technical issue about whether they could seek reimbursement.

CAMERON JAMES: "Respectfully, Cameron James."

EMILY HANFORD: But they appealed and eventually got to the Sixth Circuit which ruled the Jameses had a right to trial. Then the school system appealed. So the case went to the US Supreme Court. And the high court let the lower court ruling stand, meaning the Jameses could go to trial. They started preparing.

NANCY JAMES: We were in the middle of depositions, and I had some health issues and a significant death in my family. And it just kept getting drawn out and more difficult. And Pete Wright--

EMILY HANFORD: Pete Wright was their lawyer.

NANCY JAMES: --said, let's do something else. So we came up with a settlement.

EMILY HANFORD: The settlement is supposed to be confidential, but APM Reports got a copy of it through a records request. It shows the Jameses did not get a single cent to reimburse them for Joe's tuition. What they agreed to, instead, was for the school system to train teachers in Orton-Gillingham and similar methods.

The Upper Arlington Board of Education admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to appropriate $60,000 a year for five years for teacher training. Records show the school district did train two teachers in OG. But the district didn't change the way kids were being taught to read.

GAYLE LONG: You know, my kids would come home and say, hey, Mom, I can read this book with my eyes closed.

EMILY HANFORD: This is Gayle Long. Her kids were in elementary school after the Upper Arlington Schools went through the battle with the James family. She says her kids were memorizing books rather than being taught to read them. This is her daughter Emily.

EMILY LONG: The way I was "taught," in quotes, to read was to look at the words on the page and to guess based on the picture that was next to them.

EMILY HANFORD: Emily and her three younger siblings all have dyslexia. They went to the same elementary school Joe James had gone to, so did Christine Beattie's son, Neil.

CHRISTINE BEATTIE: They wouldn't acknowledge that he had a problem. They wouldn't say the word dyslexia.

EMILY HANFORD: I wanted to question the people in charge at the time, but both the superintendent and the director of special education have retired. I tried to get interviews. The former superintendent declined, and the former special Ed director didn't respond.

I was able to talk to Joe Keith who was the psychologist in charge of testing students for learning disabilities at the school where Emily and Neil went. I asked him why parents were having a hard time getting their kids identified with dyslexia and getting them appropriate help. Here's what he said.

JOE KEITH: A lot of the complaints you hear about schools, well, they're public schools, and they only have so much. Knowing how many reading specialists you have, how many intervention or tutors that you have, it's not an endless supply.

EMILY HANFORD: I pushed him to be more specific. I wanted to know if the Upper Arlington Schools were refusing to acknowledge dyslexia so they didn't have to provide specialized education.

Were you facing pressure from above you to limit what you could give?

JOE KEITH: It's probably not a conversation to be had here.

EMILY HANFORD: So, nope. No comment?

JOE KEITH: That would be no comment, yes.

EMILY HANFORD: What Joe Keith will say is that the school district was wedded to the whole language approach when it comes to teaching reading. The district did have the two OG-trained teachers. But there were close to 6,000 students in the Upper Arlington public schools. If between 5% and 12% of children have dyslexia, that could be more than 700 kids. There's no way two teachers could meet the needs of that many students.

Gayle Long, Emily's mom, says she felt like she was in an alternate universe when she would say her kids needed different reading instruction. And school staff wouldn't even acknowledge her kids had dyslexia. She didn't know what to do. Then one day, sitting in her family room with her laptop out, she typed "dyslexia" and "Upper Arlington" into Google, and--

GAYLE LONG: All of these hits come up with a family named the James family.

EMILY HANFORD: One of the links was to that letter Cameron James had written about his son Joe.

GAYLE LONG: And as I started reading it, it all came together, Upper Arlington knew. They all knew. And they let my children suffer.

EMILY HANFORD: Gayle Long decided she was going to do something. She asked her kids, who are the other students struggling with reading in school? She got in touch with their parents. And in August of 2010, she invited them to a meeting at her house.

BRETT TINGLEY: And we all went around the room.

EMILY HANFORD: This is Brett Tingley.

BRETT TINGLEY: Everyone had experienced the same thing.

EMILY HANFORD: Their dyslexic kids were not being identified or given appropriate help. The parents decided to work together as a team. They ended up filing a group complaint against the school system, kind of like a class action. It wasn't a lawsuit, but they did hire a lawyer.

KERRY AGINS: I was not surprised that there was a group of students with dyslexia that were not getting the kind of instruction that they really needed.

EMILY HANFORD: This is their lawyer, Kerry Agins. She's helped a number of parents of kids with dyslexia file complaints against their school districts. She says parents typically fight special education cases alone, seeking remedies one by one. Group complaints are rare.

KERRY AGINS: It is very difficult when you have a law, like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to find an issue that is systemic in nature.

EMILY HANFORD: But she thinks public schools failing to address the needs of kids with dyslexia is a systemic issue. She urged the Upper Arlington parents to file a complaint with the state. One benefit of a state complaint over going to court the way the James family did, state complaint decisions get posted on a website for everyone to see. There would be no secret settlements.

If the parents won, it could send a message to other public school districts, change what you're doing when it comes to your students with dyslexia. 19 people signed the Upper Arlington complaint. In August of 2011, the state issued its findings. The parents won.

CHRISTINE BEATTIE: We felt vindicated.

EMILY HANFORD: This is Christine Beattie again.

CHRISTINE BEATTIE: Like, we aren't crazy. We know what we're talking about.

EMILY HANFORD: The Ohio Department of Education found the Upper Arlington Schools in violation of the law when it came to promptly and properly identifying students with learning disabilities and finding them eligible for special education services. The state issued a letter that included a list of corrective actions the school system had to take. That's how Molly, the twin you met earlier, ultimately ended up in Orton-Gillingham tutoring at Jones Middle School in Upper Arlington.

MICHELE JOUBERT: OK, let's do our phonogram drill. Ready?


MICHELE JOUBERT: Yeah, you're right. Do the long and the short vowel.

MOLLY TRINOSKEY: A, oo, and u. A, e.

EMILY HANFORD: We're in a small room. Molly is working one-on-one with teacher Michele Joubert.



MICHELE JOUBERT: So school-- you said u, and then book.

EMILY HANFORD: As you heard in the first part of the program, if you have dyslexia, your brain has a hard time understanding the ways that sounds and letters correspond. You have to be explicitly taught the way language works.

MICHELE JOUBERT: So show me the sounds in crack.



EMILY HANFORD: Molly is counting out the sounds with little blue blocks. Orton-Gillingham is what's known as a multi-sensory approach. Meaning that as students learn, they use tangible items such as blocks. The idea is the more senses you use when learning something, hearing, and seeing, and touching, the better you learn it.

There's something about activating multiple senses that helps carve new learning into the brain. Listen to how Molly is able to put it all together when she reads.

MOLLY TRINOSKEY: English people came to North America for looking a new land. They found a new land with people living--

EMILY HANFORD: Molly still stumbles sometimes over a word, but she can sound it out with a little help.

MOLLY TRINOSKEY: Jamestown was the first pernent and--


MOLLY TRINOSKEY: Permanent English colony.

EMILY HANFORD: Molly will always have dyslexia. There's no cure. But neuroscience research shows that good intervention can actually change people's brains. The earlier the intervention, the better. OG tutoring is not something the state of Ohio required the Upper Arlington Schools to invest in. But more OG-trained teachers is something parents push for after the complaint decision.

And in 2012, the district hired a new director of special education who was open to the parents' ideas. His name is Kevin Gorman.

KEVIN GORMAN: They gave me--

EMILY HANFORD: He pulls out a piece of paper.

KEVIN GORMAN: --this as what their criteria was of where they were hoping to go.

EMILY HANFORD: It's a list of things the parents wanted the Upper Arlington Schools to do. They handed it to Kevin Gorman his first week on the job. He agreed to a meeting with them, having no idea who they were.

KEVIN GORMAN: And I could see that they weren't a happy group, initially. But that they really had a cause, and they were passionate about it.

EMILY HANFORD: The parents were emboldened by their win. In addition to more OG tutoring, they wanted every kindergartener and all new students entering the district screened for dyslexia. The district now does that. The parents also wanted the district to change the way it teaches all kids to read. The district has done that, too.

SPEAKER: Now we're going to try some other sounds. Let's start with this one.

EMILY HANFORD: This is a class of first and second graders at Barrington Elementary School in Upper Arlington.

SPEAKER: Ck, sock.

STUDENTS: Ck, sock.

SPEAKER: What is ck, Jane?

STUDENT: A digraph.

SPEAKER: A digraph.

EMILY HANFORD: A digraph is two letters that appear together but make just one sound.

STUDENTS: Wh, whistler.

SPEAKER: Who can tell me what's the big difference between these two digraphs?

EMILY HANFORD: A little hand shoots up, Jacob.

SPEAKER: Jacob, what is it?

STUDENT: So the ck can only go at the end and the wh can only go at the beginning.

EMILY HANFORD: What Jacob said is ck can only go at the end of a word and wh can only go at the beginning. There are some words where ck comes in the middle, like chicken. But these kids haven't learned that yet. English gets a bad rap for being a language full of exceptions. But in fact, the vast majority of words follow set rules and patterns.

A tricky thing for kids learning to read, though, is that some of our most common words are the exceptions, words where the letter sound correspondence is wacky, like "the" and "because" and "school." The kids in this class work on memorizing those trick words.

STUDENTS: School. S-C-H-O-O-L, school.

EMILY HANFORD: You might think this lesson sounds kind of rote and traditional. One reason the so-called reading wars have been so intense is they're political with phonics being cast as a conservative approach and whole language as the more liberal, progressive way.

What's interesting at Barrington Elementary is that parents here can choose to put their kids in a progressive classroom where there's lots to play and hands-on learning. But all kids in the Upper Arlington public schools are taught to read the way you just heard. The class we were in, that is the progressive class.


What would it take for other school districts to do what Upper Arlington did? The biggest thing is probably teacher training because many teachers are coming out of teacher preparation programs without knowing how to teach kids to read.

ANDREA ROWSON: We learned a lot about creating a literature-rich environment, things like that.

EMILY HANFORD: This is Andrea Rowson again, the one who trains teachers in Upper Arlington. When she studied to be a teacher back in the 1980s, she says she learned nothing about phonics. In fact, professors were against it. It wasn't until she got Orton-Gillingham training that she learned how to teach kids to read. Amelia Smith got her teaching degree more recently.

AMELIA SMITH: When it comes to phonics, we weren't taught how to teach it. We knew what it was, but not how to teach it, and that there's a specific sequence in how it should be taught.

EMILY HANFORD: Back in 2000, the National Reading Panel identified phonics as one of five key components of effective reading instruction. 10 years later, the US Department of Education decided to find out if people coming out of teacher preparation programs were learning all five components. The answer, for the most part, was no.

And last year, the National Council on Teacher Quality, a think-tank in DC, analyzed syllabi from undergraduate elementary teacher preparation programs and found that most of them still don't cover all five components of effective reading instruction. Jule McCombes-Tolis says teacher preparation programs have resisted the findings of the National Reading Panel because there's still an ideological fight going on about whole language versus phonics.

JULE MCCOMBES-TOLIS: The division in higher Ed in reading is alive and well.

EMILY HANFORD: She's worked in teacher preparation for close to two decades. And she says many of her colleagues don't believe that kids need systematic, explicit reading instruction. Instead, in the wake of the Reading Panel report, many teacher-educators promoted the idea of balanced literacy.

TIM SHANAHAN: Balanced literacy began as the notion of a different attempt to try to settle the reading wars. It's supposed to be the best of both worlds.

EMILY HANFORD: Balanced literacy is basically whole language with some phonics mixed in, says Tim Shanahan. He's a literacy expert. He says the problem with balanced literacy is that it combines a whole bunch of things that don't work with a little bit of what does work, and that's not good reading instruction. He thinks many instructors and teacher prep programs just don't know the reading science that well. An instructor might be a PhD who's up on the latest research.

TIM SHANAHAN: On the other end, you could have somebody who essentially, we need somebody to teach this. This person teaches four other things for us. And we'll give them an extra course in reading instruction. They have last year's syllabus, and they do their best.

EMILY HANFORD: He says part of the problem is there are thousands of teacher preparation programs in the United States and very little oversight. Faculty members typically decide what gets taught. There is no one authority, no person to hold accountable for how teachers in America are being trained. States do have some power and several are trying to exert more control.

Some states have passed laws that require graduates of teacher preparation programs to pass science of reading tests before they get licensed. Teachers need to know the reading research, says Andrea Rowson, because when they don't, kids suffer and so do teachers. I asked Andrea what teaching kids to read was like before she knew the research.

Do you remember feeling, I don't know what I'm doing? Like, I don't know how to help this kid?

ANDREA ROWSON: Every single day of my career, yes. Yes, it was demoralizing. It was-- you felt so guilty and so bad because you were doing everything you could. It's not that people aren't working hard, people are trying everything that they were told to do. And it just wasn't working.


EMILY HANFORD: I've come to think of kids with dyslexia as canaries in the coal mine when it comes to how students are being taught to read in American schools. More than 60% of fourth graders are not proficient readers. Some of those students are kids with dyslexia who are not getting the right kind of reading instruction. But all of those struggling readers would likely do much better, if they got the kind of systematic, explicit reading instruction that kids with dyslexia need.

Nancy and Cameron James, who went all the way to the Supreme Court fighting for their son Joe, say they see signs that things are improving. They point to what's happened in Upper Arlington, for example, and the fact that some states are starting to take action when it comes to teacher preparation. But the Jameses aren't ready to trust public schools when it comes to teaching kids to read. They still have to think about this because now they have five young grandchildren.

NANCY JAMES: Our conversations go like this, ey, a, apple.

EMILY HANFORD: Two of the grandkids are already in private Orton-Gillingham tutoring. The James's children are taking no chances when it comes to making sure their kids learn to read. Cameron James says all children deserve better reading instruction.

CAMERON JAMES: If you want to affect poverty rate, if you want to affect homelessness, if you want to affect our prison population, teach every child to read. We know how to do it. We choose not to. And so that would be my prayer, is that every child would learn to read.

SPEAKER: A, apple, a.

STUDENTS: A, apple, a.

MILO PEKOW: Humpty Dumpty--

MOLLY TRINOSKEY: Some of these people were called pilgrims. They arrived in a ship called the Mayflower.

SPEAKER: I, itch, it.

STUDENTS: I, itch, it.

MOLLY TRINOSKEY: How will I tame the wild mustang, you ask? Well, I have done a lot of research. It'll take a while, but I will not let you down.

MILO PEKOW: All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty together again.


MOLLY TRINOSKEY: You've been listening to Hard to Read, a documentary from APM Reports. It's produced by Emily Hanford and edited by Catherine Winter.

TESS TRINOSKEY: We got research and reporting help from Curtis Gilbert, Josie--


TESS TRINOSKEY: Jeffrey Bissoy--

EMILY HANFORD: Bissoy-Mattis.

TESS TRINOSKEY: Bissoy-Mattis.

EMILY HANFORD: That's a hard one.

TESS TRINOSKEY: Josh Marcus and Lila--



TESS TRINOSKEY: Lila Cherneff--


TESS TRINOSKEY: Our web producer is Andy Kruse. Craig Thorson mixes our documentary, and Eva Dasher does the fact-checking.

MOLLY TRINOSKEY: Special thanks to Chris Julin and Liz Lyon. The APM Reports team includes Chris Worthington, Suzanne Pekow, Sasha Asla-- Aslanian, and Stephen Smith.

TESS TRINOSKEY: We have more about dyslexia on our website. Go to We also have a bunch of documentaries about education.

MOLLY TRINOSKEY: You can hear all about them by subscribing to our podcast, Educate. Find out how at

TESS TRINOSKEY: You can send us an email. The address is You can also find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. Search for Educate podcast.

MOLLY TRINOSKEY: Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. This is APM, American Public Media.

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