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Making Sense of Dyslexia Laws


January 15, 2020

Until recently, Montana was one of several states with no dyslexia laws on the books. All that changed when Senate Bill 140 (SB 140), the Montana Dyslexia Screening and Intervention Act, was signed by Governor Steve Bullock on May 1, 2019 and passed into law during the 66th Regular Session of the Montana Legislature.

The Act, which requires screening and assistance for students with dyslexia. applies to school years beginning on or after July 1, 2019, the Act’s effective date. Furthermore, no later than September 15, 2020, the Office of Public Instruction (OPI) and the Board of Public Education shall report to the Education Interim Committee on progress made in addressing dyslexia pursuant to this Act.

The drafters of HB 140 formed the bill from three premises, “that reading is fundamental to developing a person’s full educational potential; that dyslexia can impede a person’s ability to read and is one of the most common learning disabilities, with some estimates as high as one in five people having dyslexia; and that early intervention will ensure that Montana students with dyslexia receive appropriate educational services so as to maximize their educational potential.”

SB 140’s primary sponsor was Cary Smith, a Republican from Senate District 27. In addition to its requirements for screening and assistance, the Montana Dyslexia Screening and Intervention Act (MDSIA) provides a definition of dyslexia and reiterates the existing obligation of school districts to identify students with dyslexia and to evaluate them for special education and related services. With this focus, the Act is in alignment with the existing requirements of the federally defined Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

IDEA lists thirteen conditions that identify students as eligible for special education. One of these is referred to as a specific learning disability, or SLD. IDEA lists dyslexia as a type of SLD. As a disorder, an SLD is unrelated to intelligence, motivation, effort, or other known causes of low achievement. A child with an SLD struggles in certain areas of learning, such as reading, writing, or performing in math.

According to the MDSIA, on the other hand, dyslexia is defined as “a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin and characterized by difficulties with accurate or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede the growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

Shirley Mackenzie, a retired educator from the Chinook School District who also attended Susan Barton Training during her service to the district and performed dyslexia screening for Chinook Schools, stressed the importance of this legislation: “The law now dictates that identified students receive intervention services and that we educate pre-service teachers about dyslexia. Anyone without dyslexia but possessing the training and an understanding of the science of dyslexia can provide these important intervention services,” Mackenzie stated.

Not all students with dyslexia require the same type of support and intervention. But under the provisions of IDEA, they should have the same level of support, no matter where they go to school or in which state they reside.

Author of the book The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education, Amanda Morin worked as a classroom teacher and as an early intervention specialist for ten years. She also has two children with learning differences. On the subject of state versus federal laws, she said: “State dyslexia laws aim to provide more detail than IDEA. These laws try to give students with dyslexia added rights and protections. And they want to make sure that the schools within a state operate the same way.”

In addition to requiring school districts to screen students for dyslexia and to address the needs of students identified with dyslexia, the MDSIA obligates the OPI to assist school districts in this process. Under the provisions of HB 140, OPI must raise statewide awareness of dyslexia, as well as provide guidance to school districts related to the early identification of students with dyslexia. This includes making school districts aware of best practices for universal, valid, and reliable screening methods and other assessments.

Although the MDSIA states that these methods and assessments should have minimal or no cost to a district since these tools are able to be integrated with a district’s existing reading programs, interventions and student support services require personnel, and personnel translates to dollars.

Finally, Montana’s Legislature urges all entities within the state with authority over, or a role to play in, teacher preparation and professional development to ensure that teachers and other school personnel, especially those in the early grades, are well prepared to identify and serve students with dyslexia.

See Page A6: Making Sense of Dyslexia Laws

To support the goal of the people of Montana to develop the full educational potential of each person and to ensure early identification and intervention for students with dyslexia, the MDSIA states that a school district shall utilize a screening instrument aimed at identifying students at risk of not meeting grade-level reading benchmarks: “The screening instrument must: (i) be administered to: (A) a child in the first year that the child is admitted to a school of the district up to grade 2; and (B) a child who has not been previously screened by the district and who fails to meet grade-level reading benchmarks in any grade; (ii) be administered by an individual with an understanding of, and training to identify, signs of dyslexia; and (iii) be designed to assess developmentally appropriate

phonological and phonemic awareness skills.”

Founder of Bright Solutions for Dyslexia and recognized internationally as an expert on dyslexia, Susan Barton publishes a list of Warning Signs of Dyslexia. In the preschool years, those warning signs are

• delayed speech

• mixing up the sounds and syllables in long words

• chronic ear infections

• severe reactions to childhood illnesses

• constant confusion of left versus right

• lateness in establishing a dominant hand

• difficulty learning to tie shoes

• trouble memorizing address, phone number, or the alphabet

• inability to create words that rhyme

• possessing a close relative with dyslexia

If a child has three or more of these early indicators, Barton encourages that child’s parents and teachers to learn more about dyslexia.

Chinook Superintendent of Schools, Darin Hannum has been in contact with Educator Licensure Program Manager, Kristine Thatcher at OPI, who has alerted the school district to various screening tools.

“What we plan to do is use Barton the way we used to but to broaden how we use it,” Hannum said. “This law is a good way for us to get back on track with our intervention tools, to retrain staff, and to secure new, updated materials.”


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