By Sally Absher

If you are the parent or teacher of a child who struggles with reading or comprehension, spelling, math facts, telling time, counting money, or written expression, mark your calendar for October 22 to attend the “Spotlit on Disleksia” seminar from 6-8 p.m. at Westminster Presbyterian Church (6500 S. Northshore Drive in Knoxville). Sponsored by the Knox County Council of PTAs and KCEA, the seminar will be led by Jennifer Nagel, local certified dyslexia advocate and certified dyslexia consultant.

Nagel is a parent of a fourth grade student with dyslexia. Two years ago, she didn’t know what dyslexia was. She became interested in dyslexia awareness and advocacy back in February 2014 when a friend suggested she “take a look at these warning signs” and her daughter had almost all of them. (See the list here: She now realizes her son, a freshman in high school, has dyslexia. “Looking back, the signs were all there in kindergarten,” she said.

When Jennifer realized her daughter might have dyslexia, she started researching to learn everything she could. She read everything she could about dyslexia, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Response to Intervention (RTI), 504 – anything she could do to help her daughter get the education she deserved. “All I wanted was for the school to teach my daughter to read.”

She went to seminars and took courses. She is now a certified dyslexia advocate, and a certified dyslexia consultant with training from The Dyslexia Training Institute and from Susan Barton, founder of Bright Solutions and Barton Reading.

As an advocate, Nagel can attend IEP meetings with parents to make sure that the IEP follows the law as well as best practices and current research on dyslexia. As a consultant, she is able to screen for dyslexia as well as give talks and conduct training on the subject.

In her first blog post (, Nagel wrote, “The biggest thing about dyslexia, and probably what makes it the hardest for schools to understand it is that dyslexia is different in everyone that gets diagnosed with it. Dyslexia is a spectrum, one child can have mild dyslexia and another can be severe. The important thing to remember is this, 20%. One in five students have dyslexia. That means in the average classroom there are probably 2 or 3 kids with dyslexia.”

While she has a basic understanding of other disabilities, Nagel focuses on dyslexia, and ADHD. She says the two are linked, with 40% of people with dyslexia also showing symptoms of ADD/ADHD. But, she laments, “In Knox County Schools, for every child (with dyslexia) I help, there are approximately 2,000 I am not helping.”

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month. Many parents don’t know about dyslexia. They may have a “gut feeling” that something isn’t right – usually triggered by their child struggling to read, although there are many other characteristics of dyslexia. But they don’t want to question their child’s teacher or the school system, assuming that with all the emphasis on screening assessments and RTI, the school will take care of any problems. “Parent awareness and teacher training is so important,” Nagel said.

RTI came about because the discrepancy model (based on IQ) wasn’t proving an effective means to identify specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. IDEA added RTI into the law in 2004.

RTI is now technically RTI2 – response to instruction and intervention. All students (including high school next year) are in RTI. Most students will be in Tier I – general education instruction. Students in Tier 2 and 3 are in intervention for at least 30 minutes each day. Students who score below the 25th percentile on a screening assessment (KCS uses the Star Renaissance universal screener) are in Tier 2, and those who score below the 10th percentile are in Tier 3.

Nagel said that dyslexia is very genetic. So if a child is identified in Kindergarten with possible symptoms of dyslexia, look at the family. Is a parent dyslexic? Did an older sibling have difficulty with reading or math or spelling? This will help separate developmental issues from dyslexia issues. A child with dyslexia won’t “just grow out of it.”

“What I would love is for Knox County to start screening for dyslexia in Kindergarten,” Nagel told us. “We have RTI, and if you think about it, Tier 3 is mostly dyslexic children. We have a great Orton-Gillingham (O-G) method we are using for Tier 3.  If we could screen in Kindergarten, we could catch it earlier and help these kids a lot sooner. It’s not that they will be “cured” of dyslexia, they won’t be, but we can save their self-esteem.”

Nagel said, “If we can get teachers trained to know what it look like, and understand it, and the simple things they can do to avoid the embarrassment…because the older a child gets, when a child in third, fourth or fifth grade is already saying how miserable they are, and how stupid they are – that’s hard to get back, once a kid thinks that about themselves.”

Depending on the severity of the dyslexia, O-G will help a child read on grade level in between 18 and 36 months. But the program is expensive, and the training required is extensive. Nagel believes that KCS has about a dozen O-G certified instructors, although many more have some training. Knox County O-G reading programs include Spire and Wilson.

One frustration Nagel has with RTI2 is what she calls “watch them not make progress.” Students in Tiers 2 and 3 meet in small groups, and undergo progress monitoring at least every two weeks. KCS generally wants to see 16 – 20 data points. That’s potentially 32 weeks – almost an entire school year – to document progress. But there is a difference between making progress, and closing the gap.

All students in a school should be making progress through the year. The Tier 2 and 3 interventions are effective if the student is closing the gap – catching up to his Tier 1 peers. Data teams, consisting of the principal, grade level teacher, psychologist, RTI specialist, and literacy coach, meet every 4 ½ weeks. Nagel said, “I believe that if she is not closing the gap, the student should undergo a full evaluation, consisting of WISC 5 (IQ test), Kaufman (KTEA) and/or Woodcock Johnson (WJ), two tests that dig deeper to identify the issue.”

Nagel emphasizes that the state RTI2 manual is ONLY a guideline. “Exceptions can be made. Exceptions need to be made. Not every child fits into the box and making a child wait a full year to show very little progress is not fair to that student. We can see if a child isn’t going to make progress after 4 data points. We don’t need to wait 32 weeks.”

Nagel said, “I think that everybody downtown that is involved with RTI is trying to do their best with what they have. I’m just not sure that it is all getting to the schools.” She added parents need to know what their rights are with regard to RTI. Come learn more at Spotlit on Disleksia on October 22.