OCEAN CITY - Educators in New Jersey are not doing all they can to properly identify and help children who cannot read, members of the New Jersey Reading Disabilities Task Force said at a meeting at the Ocean City library Wednesday.
Task force members said a top priority will be raising awareness of current research and teaching methods that are effective in helping the estimated 15 percent of all children who struggle with dyslexia or other reading disorders,
Formed earlier this year, the task force has a year to make recommendations to the governor. But members said they want to start raising awareness now so that parents and teachers can be better informed. They said one problem is that teachers are not getting the instruction they need to identify children at a young age.
Karen T. Kimberlin, who is representing the N.J. Speech Language Hearing Association on the task force, said there are early warning signs that includes family history, fine motor skill development and how children write and hold a pencil that can help identify students likely to have difficulty learning to read and write.
"The research is out there," she said. "But the information is not getting to the people who need it."
"And it is important to identify children while they are still young," said parent Beth Ravelli of Ocean City, whose daughter Samantha's struggle with dyslexia led her to fight for the law that created the task force.
Samantha was in third grade and still unable to read when her mother paid for private testing that determined she was severely dyslexic. The family moved to Ocean City, which offers the specialized Wilson reading program. Samantha, who will start high school in September, is now reading and taking college-preparatory classes. Ravelli said she wants every child to have the same chance to succeed.
The final recommendations are likely to address K-12 education and college training programs. Task force members said teachers should get more training while they are in college, and parents must understand the problem to properly advocate for their child.
"There isn't enough training for teachers at the undergraduate level," said Marilyn Gonyo, a retired professor at Georgian Court College who is representing the N.J. Learning Disabilities Association.
Students with reading disabilities tend to respond best to a curriculum that includes a lot of focus on the phonemic awareness of relating sounds to letters. If schools do not offer such programs, the child may not learn to read.
Gordon Sherman, a neuroscientist specializing in dyslexia and director of the Newgrange School in Hamilton, a private school for students with language-related learning disabilities, said children with dyslexia are often very bright and talented in other areas.
"There is nothing wrong with their brains," he said. "They just have a different wiring pattern. It has nothing to do with intelligence."
Sherman, who is representing the International Dyslexia Association on the task force, said reading disorders are ultimately a technology issue.
"Humans didn't always know how to read and write," he said. "It's a technical skill we developed. People who have difficulty learning to read or write often have other skills they use to compensate. Society needs those skills as well, but too often people dismiss their strengths and instead focus on the weakness."
Jane Peltonen of Brigantine, a retired reading teacher said advocates have been trying for years to spread the message that children with reading disorders can learn to read if the right methods are used. Now, she said, there is more scientific research to back up those claims. The task force is giving advocates a chance to shine a public light on dyslexia and other reading disorders.
"We want parents to join the army to fight for their kids," she said.
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