Fine Print: State Lays Out Guidelines for Complying with New Dyslexia Law

John Mooney | April 25, 2014 | Education
Memo to school districts gives details of requirements for screening children, training teachers and staff

What it is: The state Department of Education last week sent a memo to school districts about how to comply with new legislation that requires schools to specifically screen for reading disorders like dyslexia and to provide services for students and training for teachers.

What it means: It is the first directive the state has sent out regarding what will likely be an extensive array of requirements related to the package of dyslexia-related legislation laws enacted last year. Advocates have said that the new laws are only the first step, and that implementation and enforcement by the state and school districts will be critical. The law goes into effect next fall.

The legislation: The bills enacted by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Christie were long-sought by parents and advocates. The legislation was seen as a breakthrough for families who contended that dyslexia addressed inadequately by the state’s schools.

The laws specifically require that teachers receive at least two hours a year of training in reading disorders, including dyslexia, and that students be screened for the disorders by the end of the first semester of second grade.

Specifics: The state memo provides the definition of dyslexia that is written into the law and should be used by districts. That’s a key first step, say advocates, who contend too many schools failed to recognize the disorder at all.

Teacher training: The memo also notes that all general and special-education teachers and reading specialists in kindergarten through third grade will be required to receive at least two hours of training annually in addressing reading disorders, including dyslexia. The requirement will be part of the existing 20-hour –a-year professional development mandate for all teachers.

Screening and intervention, with more to come: The central piece of the legislation is its new requirement for specific screening of reading disorders, and the use of intervention strategies for children found to have symptoms. The state Department of Education says that many districts may already conduct such screenings, but it will be providing resources and guidelines in coming months to help districts that may not conduct screening.

It’s a start: “We are glad they are finally talking about it and contacting the schools,” said Liz Barnes, a founding member of Decoding Dyslexia New Jersey, a grassroots group of parents that lobbied hard for the bills.

“We wish the DOE gave the districts more specific information and guidance on interpreting the laws. We have to hope that the districts will make good choices and do the right things for our dyslexic kids.”

Educating parents: “The big job will be informing and educating the parents so they know what they can and cannot ask of their districts. DD-NJ will try to educate parents to the best of our abilities and resources,” Barnes said.

“We’ve said all along that these laws will not fix all our problems, but it is a good beginning. Just having school districts use the word ‘dyslexia’ is a huge step forward for many parents.”