By Sally Absher

Two weeks ago, The Focus wrote about KCS superintendent Jim McIntyre ending the very successful Reading Recovery® program in Knox County in 2011. We highlighted Mayor Burchett’s literacy grant funds, used primarily to hire coaches, many of whom have no direct contact with actual students, and teaching assistants, who often lack specific training in reading instruction.

But as successful as Reading Recovery was, it did not help certain children who struggled with reading. Jennifer Nagel, parent of a dyslexic third grader and founder of the Dyslexia Spot (, says, “Reading Recovery is not a program that will help the 20% of students with dyslexia. The founder of the program has even stated that it was not meant to help dyslexics.”

With all the emphasis on reading achievement today, what are parents of a struggling reader to do? Even with the newly mandated STAR universal screener assessment, given at least three times a year, a child has to “fail” in two tiers of intervention in order to be referred for special education evaluation and screening.

Nagel concurs, adding, “Making it harder for kids to get the help they need isn’t going to make dyslexia go away. Tennessee’s RTI2 (response to instruction and intervention) came about because the discrepancy model was the ‘wait to fail’ model. Well, RTI2 is too.”

Of course, not all children who struggle with reading are dyslexic, but statistically, one in five students have some degree of dyslexia. Decoding Dyslexia TN co-founder Jules Johnson says that 70% of students with dyslexia will never qualify for Special Education.

RTI2 is a 3 tiered system. All students start in Tier 1. A student who scores below the 25th percentile on the STAR assessment is placed in Tier 2. Children who score below the 10th percentile are placed in Tier 3. Only after going through Tiers 2 and 3 without responding significantly, are students referred for a special education evaluation.

Knox County Tier 2 reading intervention utilizes the Voyager reading program. But many parents say it is not working, and test results seem to support that. KCS does not test for dyslexia, but instead tests for severe learning disabilities. Students with mild to moderate learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, will not be identified in most cases.

SPIRE is being used as a Tier 3 intervention in KCS elementary schools. SPIRE is an Orton-Gillinghan reading method that has evidence-based research that proves it works for dyslexic students when used correctly by highly trained teachers. Johnson adds that some students may need Wilson Reading, a more intense program available to Special Education students.

Nagel says, “Having a Specific Learning Disability (SLD) like dyslexia is a real thing. It isn’t caused by teachers not teaching correctly. Dyslexia is an SLD that is neurological. These kids need highly trained teachers.”

And there’s the rub. Nagel points out that “all teachers should be highly trained in reading, but if they are teaching SPIRE, they must be highly trained in that method.” Nagel contacted SPIRE to ask what they considered ‘highly trained’ and was told the training should be at least a full day.

But SPIRE teachers at most KCS schools receive only 30 minutes to one hour of training in this reading method.  Some KCS coaches are “highly trained” in SPIRE, and they provide training to other teachers. Coaches in some schools work directly with students, but the majority do not.

At least the Reading Recovery teachers, who were highly trained, worked directly with students.

Johnson said, “Coaches are not enough by themselves; we need to spend some of the money on actual teachers who are specifically highly trained in the programs – teachers whose primary role is to work directly with struggling readers.”

She adds: “We have children with dyslexia who have been in Voyager for 3 years without making significant progress, and the intervention has not been changed. That shouldn’t be happening, and I know KCS agrees because I have discussed this with them. They tell me the programs cost money. But when I look at this grant and see how little money is going toward actual reading programs, I’m just very disappointed. I’d like to see that change in the future.”

“Dyslexia is the number one cause of student drop out nation-wide. We must pay attention to these kids,” says Johnson, adding, “80% of students who are classified as LD in schools actually have dyslexia, yet there is no specific program for dyslexics in KCS.  And, most dyslexics will never be identified as LD as only the most severe qualify for school special education services. If we don’t call it by its name, we can’t treat it.”

Mayor Burchett wants to see more kids reading on grade level by third grade. Johnson and Nagel support a ‘bigger toolbox’ to address reading disabilities.

“We’d like to see our literacy and mathematics toolboxes grow, so that if one intervention is not working, a teacher has other options. We’d like to see most of the literacy money go toward several reading intervention evidence based methodologies, hiring more direct-line teachers to reduce class sizes for struggling readers, and direct teacher training in the methodologies used so that these reading programs can be used with fidelity, in the way the research was conducted,” said Johnson.

In the meantime, there are steps that parents can take to supplement what is offered by the school system. Johnson and Nagel both strongly recommend that parents who suspect their child may have a reading disability such as dyslexia contact Middle Tennessee State University’s Dyslexia Center (for more information, see

The Center offers a full comprehensive evaluation. Only the most severe will qualify for Special Education, so MTSU will guide parents, and help them know what specific programs will help their child. The wait list is currently 6 to 12 months, but the assessment costs $30 as opposed to $800-1000 that a private psychologist would cost.

Finally, parents should trust their intuition, and ask questions.