Special Education Program Focuses on Strengthening Dyslexia Therapy

David Hanson is undertaking a special certification in dyslexia instruction at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children.
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David Hanson is undertaking a special certification in dyslexia instruction at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children.

Arkansas lawmakers have strengthened state law in the past few years to identify and help schoolchildren with dyslexia, and the University of Arkansas is strengthening its special education academic program to provide more well-prepared educators to teach these children.

David Hanson, a clinical assistant professor in the program, has undertaken a rigorous two-year process for special certification in dyslexia instruction. Officials at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children, a leader in the development of dyslexia therapy, invited Hanson to spend time over two summers at the Dallas facility as part of the process of earning a designation called Qualified Instructor. He will also spend a few days every month at the hospital in Dallas.

While there this past June, Hanson observed lectures in reading, spelling, multisensory instruction, alphabet, handwriting and the history of dyslexia, while also working closely with leading experts in the area of learning disabilities. Hanson explained that the neurologically based disorder affects language development and phonological processing, which is the ability to see or hear a word, break it down into discrete sounds and then associate each sound with the letter or letters that make up the word.

The Qualified Instructor credential is different from an academic degree because it allows Hanson to, in turn, train other individuals to be dyslexia therapists through the Academic Language Therapy Association, said Karen Avrit, director of dyslexia education at Scottish Rite's Luke Waites Center for Dyslexia and Learning Disorders.

"While David is in training to become a Qualified Instructor, he has to look at life from a whole different perspective," Avrit said. "It's not just how to reach children. You have excellent teachers working in schools for years but they want to become therapists. It's a therapeutic model and that's a huge paradigm shift."

The Texas Scottish Rite program usually invites Texas teachers.

"There is an interview process we use to determine whether they have the traits and abilities to take the training out into different parts of the country," Avrit said. "We feel like David has what it is going to take to supervise that training to allow the University of Arkansas to become an accredited trainer, and that is no easy task. It's a huge commitment on his part."

Hanson completed the process of becoming a Certified Academic Language Therapist four years ago. That included more than 700 hours of intervention to struggling readers while studying the history of dyslexia, the science of reading and the components of multisensory instruction. He has since worked with more than 80 students, recording more than 5,000 hours of intervention.

To earn the Qualified Instructor designation, an applicant must have already completed the two-year program of becoming a Certified Academic Language Therapist and put in an additional 1,400 hours of reading therapy classroom and practicum work. The Academic Language Therapy Association awards both certifications based on standards established by the International Multisensory Structured Language Education Council.

"The level of Qualified Instructor is considered by many reading experts to be the highest level anyone can reach in the area of dyslexia and reading intervention," Hanson said.

Arkansas has two people with the Qualified Instructor designation now, and neither works at a university, he said.

Two years ago, the Arkansas Legislature passed legislation that required school districts to screen students for markers of dyslexia. But, there are not enough people certified to provide the services for children with dyslexia once they have been identified, Hanson said. He joined the faculty of the College of Education and Health Professions in 2015 to teach courses in a new dyslexia therapist endorsement program that started the following spring.

Alicia Mari is a speech-language pathologist who earned the endorsement, which she called a game-changer.

"It is as if something has clicked and allowed me to organize all that I have read about reading over the years," Mari said. "I think the power behind David's teaching is that he is out in the field working with individuals that have dyslexia. Throughout each course, David is excellent at intertwining reading theory with practical knowledge."

Arkansas lawmakers passed an act in the 2017 regular session requiring that everyone who applies for an elementary teaching license or a special education teaching license successfully pass a standalone reading test and a multi-subject test as a condition of licensure. This is in addition to passing the Praxis test the Arkansas Department of Education already required of licensure applicants. The reading test will cover what Hanson called the science of reading. It will help teachers understand better how to work with students who struggle with reading.

The courses he created for the dyslexia endorsement will prepare students for the new test, and 82 percent of his undergraduate students who took a practice test last year after just one course passed the test. The multisensory approach of the endorsement courses and the test prepare teachers to teach reading to all students, not just those with dyslexia, Hanson said.

Dyslexia intervention changes a child's life, said Avrit, who is not only a dyslexia educator but also the mother of two grown children with dyslexia.

"It gives them the opportunity to receive the keys to the kingdom of reading and learning and exploring areas," she said. "Without the therapeutic model, they would not be able to read. Some children can get by with a tutor but if they truly have dyslexia, they deserve the opportunity to be taught the way they learn. We can reach them in a multisensory, structured, cumulative way so they can read and spell."

Some of the parents of children with dyslexia that Hanson has worked with said similar things about the impact he had on them.

"(My daughter) has developed the specific skills necessary to become a successful reader, both word attack and fluency skills," said Courtney Schaefer, whose daughter began working with Hanson when she was in first grade. "When I asked her how Mr. David has helped her, she said, 'I used to get frustrated when I was reading at school but now that I know the rules, I can read the books and not get frustrated. I know all the sounds and syllables so it is a lot easier.' "

Isaac and Erin Daniel said Hanson is the reason their son overcame his struggles with dyslexia and can now read. Their son benefited from Hanson's "gift to tailor his teachings in a way that benefits each individual's needs and creates the opportunity for success."


Heidi S. Wells, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions
479-575-3138, heidisw@uark.edu


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