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Utahns with dyslexia rally for support of enhanced teacher training

Published: Sunday, June 29 2014 10:33 a.m. MDT

A Utah senator is planning to back a bill that would provide school districts with funding to better train teachers to identify and help treat dyslexia.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Trevor Alvord had no idea he was dyslexic until he graduated high school.

"I just thought I was stupid," he said, adding that his mother had to read all of his homework and reading assignments to him in order for him to understand and succeed through the years of grade school and beyond.

Now, his 9-year-old twin sons are inflicted with the same hereditary learning disorder, and he finds himself reading to them, as expensive tutoring is out of reach.

"It's hard, because they look normal," Alvord said. "There's no visible difference for them, but, internally, they don't have the same capability as other kids their age."

About one in five people is dyslexic, according to the National Institutes of Health, but many live without a diagnosis, which is sometimes difficult to obtain. And without a diagnosis, the proper interventions cannot be put into effect, causing set-backs in learning and discomfort in educational settings.

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, hopes to change the outlook for dyslexic Utah children.

He plans to back a bill that would provide school districts in Utah with funding to better train teachers to identify and help treat dyslexia.

"If we can get to a child early in their education, they have a better chance of mainstreaming with other kids their age and we save money down the road," Osmond said during a rally to raise awareness of dyslexia at the State Capitol on Saturday. "It's an important investment and it is important to provide the necessary services for these kids."

"Our districts can afford to do this, we just need to show them there is a benefit to do so," he said. About a third of dyslexic kids receive the help they need and only one in 10 qualify for special education interventions, according to DyslexiaHelp, an organization of the University of Michigan.

"I had my run-ins with teachers, but the best teachers were the ones who understood that I was unable to do what other students could do in the same time frame," said Alex Nikols of Draper. "Some just didn't get it."

Nikols remained undiagnosed until the fourth grade, despite all kinds of testing and psychological trickery, including a stint of homeschooling and advice to read with tinted glasses.

"I've just come to realize that whatever I try, I've got to work harder than most people and I have to persevere," Nikols said. He uses electronic devices to record his classes and have notes read aloud to him for study. Even with dyslexia, Nikols graduated high school this year with an advanced diploma and college credit. He plans to attend Salt Lake Community College before pursuing a mechanical engineering degree from Utah State University.

Dyslexia is neurological in nature, and is exhibited most commonly with reading, spelling and word recognition difficulties. It can be associated with other conditions, such as attention deficit disorder and is a lifelong issue, according to DyslexiaHelp. Children with dyslexia often have trouble applying phonetic learning methods that are taught in traditional schools.

"They need to be taught each sound and how that sound fits with the letters," said Karee Atkinson, who has dyslexia and is vice president of the Decoding Dyslexia Utah chapter.

Up to now, she said, the only way for Utah kids to get help is through special education, for which they sometimes do not qualify because they aren't far enough behind their peers or have learned to hide or cope with their deficiencies.

"These are brilliant kids," Atkinson said. "You don't want to miss these kids. Society needs these brains."

The local organization aims to garner more support for kids and adults with dyslexia, who struggle to learn to read. Hopes are that as awareness of the disorder grows, so will available resources, as Alvord said his boys basically had to start over after moving a few years ago to Utah from Virginia, where the school system worked with them often.

He said his sons' disorder is often exploited by peers and teachers who don't understand dyslexia very well, which "also needs to change."

"It's hard to find a tutor who is trained to teach the way these kids learn," said Maja Wells, of Sandy. While she navigated the educational difficulties of her first dyslexic son along, she estimates she has spent more than $20,000 on tutoring for the three of her four children who are dyslexic in the last seven years.

"They can be taught," she said, adding that she believes non-dyslexic kids could learn to read better and faster using phonemic methods used to teach dyslexic children.

"Them knowing at a younger age gives them more strength and understanding," Alvord said. He and his wife, Randa Alvord, president of Decoding Dyslexia Utah, have another daughter who is not dyslexic and he said she is close to surpassing her brothers in reading ability.

But the boys don't let it bother them too much.

"I think it rocks," said Damon Alvord, 9. "You can't read as good, but you know more math and can do more stuff in other subjects."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards

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