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TRIBUNE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - The tip of the pen that Emery Roberts uses contains a camera that copies her notes to her iPad. Such technology has helped her perform well as a student.The first time Lincoln High School senior Emery Roberts realized she was different was in kindergarten.

She and a “frenemy” were neck-and-neck in a reading contest. Emery even remembers which book proved an insurmountable hurdle; it had a tiger on the cover.

“I remember it very specifically,” says Emery, founder of the LHS Dyslexia Student Union. “I didn’t pass that book for months.”

The 17-year-old, who wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until the end of fourth grade, will graduate soon with a high GPA and a substantial amount of private tutoring under her belt. She’s hoping that the next generation of Portland Public Schools students will have an easier time of it than she did.

Two bills passed during the 2015 Oregon legislative session should help. Senate Bill 612 calls for at least one teacher in every K-5 school to be trained in teaching and identifying dyslexia; to screen all kindergartners and first-graders for dyslexia; and to designate a dyslexia specialist at the Oregon Department of Education.

House Bill 2412 directs the state Teacher Standards and Practices Commission to ensure that the 20 early childhood education programs in the state incorporate dyslexia training into their college curriculum.

“I’m very excited about what is within our grasp to accomplish for a huge number of kids and what the impact might be,” says PPS school board member Paul Anthony. “Mostly I’m so interested in it because it is such an easy fix for the district. It is such low-hanging fruit and it affects an enormous number of students.”

Because of the widespread lack of diagnosis, population estimates are tricky for dyslexia. Estimates from the National Institutes of Health range from 5 percent to nearly 20 percent of school children.

“That makes almost 10,000 (PPS) students impacted by dyslexia,” Anthony says. “No wonder our reading scores are so low.”

Understanding dyslexia

Dyslexia is probably not what you think it is. People with dyslexia are on a spectrum due to how quickly or well their brains process symbols, such as letters. They often have above-average intelligence or talents in other areas, but are poor spellers and slow readers.

People with dyslexia don’t always switch around letters or reverse letters, as is commonly assumed, but can have other neurological roadblocks that turn reading into a chore.

“I don’t even look at it as a deficiency. I just think it’s a difference in the way that information is processed,” says Ewan Brawley, PPS director of instruction, curriculum and assessment. “As you understand dyslexia, you understand what it takes to help kids read.”

Brawley says he is looking forward to the changes brought by the new legislation, adding that the district has already begun implementing professional development courses on dyslexia.

One of the district’s top goals is to improve third grade reading scores, which research has shown to be a canary in the coal mine for long-term academic performance and graduation rates.

“We have to think about what are some of the challenges that kids are having. And this pops right up to the center of the conversation,” Brawley says, adding that the new kinesthetic, multisensory approaches to reading are easy to deploy in a mainstream classroom. “The types of strategies that support kids with dyslexia are good strategies for supporting all kids.”

Lisa Lyon, a PPS parent who helped found Decoding Dyslexia of Oregon in 2012, says she appreciates the district’s accelerating efforts around dyslexia but many students remain unidentified.

“Students, parents and PPS administrators would all benefit if there was a comprehensive plan within the district to identify and serve these students,” she says.

“It’s not soon enough; it’s not fast enough,” says parent Laura O’Hern, who is taking her fifth-grade son out of PPS to attend private Park Academy in Lake Oswego, the only school in Oregon dedicated to dyslexic instruction. “2020 is really their goal for implementing change, and my son will be in high school.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Emery Roberts, 17, here with her mother Karen, will be a senior at Lincoln High School this year.

Lasting impact

Karen Roberts, Emery’s mom, tears up when she talks about the early years before she knew her daughter had dyslexia.

“I tortured her,” Roberts says. “I did. I tortured her. I made her write her spelling words 10 times a day.

“We were enthusiastic parents and we read to her like there was no tomorrow,” she adds. “Dyslexia doesn’t get better when you read more to them.”

Instead, young Emery would memorize entire books to be able to pretend to read or get through a spelling test using what she termed “muscle memory.”

Today, Emery says she doesn’t wish her brain were neurotypical, because she enjoys her extraordinary auditory memory and other talents she feels are unique to the way her brain is configured. But she does wish she had found out earlier, before all the shame and stress of feeling stupid through nearly five years of school.

“It’s more the emotional toll of those years where I wasn’t diagnosed, because that is unpredictable,” Emery says. She says she gets panicky about an English assignment or nervous about standing up to her teachers who are suspicious of her accommodations — such as an iPad or a Livescribe pen or an oral presentation of her knowledge rather than an essay.

The Roberts mother and daughter are clearly close and often finish each other’s sentences.

“All the signs were there in kindergarten,” Karen says, adding that if they had known it was dyslexia sooner, “the emotional baggage that’s piled up” .... “wouldn’t be there,” Emery adds.

“To know you’re smart and not excel at school ... “ Karen continues.

“... It’s frustrating,” Emery finishes.

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Some of the warning signs of dyslexia in kindergarten and pre-K

• First words delayed after first birthday or beyond.

• Mixing up sounds in multi-syllabic words, such as aminal for animal.

• Early stuttering or cluttering.

• Lots of ear infections.

• Difficulty mastering shoelaces.

• Directional confusion, left vs. right, etc.

• Late to establish a dominant hand

• Inability to correctly complete phonemic awareness tasks.

• Despite listening to stories that contain lots of rhyming words, such as Dr. Seuss, cannot tell you words that rhyme with cat or seat by the age of 4-1/2.

• Difficulty learning the names of the letters or sounds in the alphabet; difficulty writing the alphabet in order.

• “Immature speech,” such as trouble correctly articulating Rs and Ls or Ms and Ns.

Source: Bright Solutions for Dyslexia

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