Searching for Struggling Readers, One School at a Time

Anthony Cruz used to complain about going to school. His failing grades on reading assignments shook his confidence and made him wonder whether he was not as smart as the other children.

Anthony, 8, bounced around between public and private schools in New York City. Everywhere, he struggled with sounds and letters. He often added extra sounds to the ends of words like “what.” His mother sought help, and he was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia.

That might have been bad news in a city where students with dyslexia and other reading issues often fall through the cracks, according to parents and education experts. But Anthony was starting third grade at a public school in the Bronx just as the city was launching a new reading initiative in his school, along with a handful of others across the city.

As many as 10 to 20 percent of New York City students could have dyslexia like Anthony, according to some estimates. New York has begun trying to find more of them and help them catch up.

Mayor Eric Adams announced Thursday that two new specialized dyslexia programs are opening, in addition to two others announced earlier this year — part of what officials hope will become a major effort to overhaul citywide reading instruction. Dyslexia in particular has been a centerpiece of the administration’s educational agenda, and the issue is personal for the mayor: His own dyslexia went undiagnosed until college, and he has cast the efforts as essential to fixing inequities that add to steep literacy gaps for Black and Latino children.

“Far too long, children across the city suffered in silence as they struggled in school with an undetected learning disability,” the mayor said in a statement.

Anthony was diagnosed with dyslexia at the end of second grade.Credit…Thalia Juarez for The New York Times
Anthony’s mother, Alana Ambrose, said he has started to make progress at his new school, where he is seeing a reading specialist regularly.Credit…Thalia Juarez for The New York Times

The two new programs will open in Brooklyn’s District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park, and will join two others in Harlem and the South Bronx. Many teachers at the schools will be trained in a phonics-based approach based in research on how to help struggling readers; at other schools, reading specialists work with struggling students.

Five months in, some families have begun to see slow progress. Anthony was assigned to the new specialist at his school in the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, P.S. 11, and has grown more confident in his schoolwork.

“He’s telling me, ‘Mom, I got this,’” his mother, Alana Ambrose, said. “And he does.” 

The city’s dyslexia efforts have gained steam as New York and many school systems across the country are confronting longstanding literacy crises that often worsened during the pandemic.

Beyond the city’s dyslexia efforts, the schools chancellor, David C. Banks, has pushed schools to move away from “balanced literacy” — an approach to teaching reading that focuses on exposing children to books, with less attention to sounding out words through phonics-based instruction. Research shows phonics can be important for beginning readers, while some of the strategies used in balanced literacy lessons, including guessing words, are problematic for students who struggle.

Mr. Banks has said that balanced literacy, which the New York City Education Department once promoted, has failed many Black and Latino children. Just under half of New York City students passed state reading tests last spring.

A teacher at P.S. 11, Emma March, works with students, including Anthony, center.Credit…Thalia Juarez for The New York Times
Anthony stands with his friends in the school cafeteria. He used to worry he was less smart than his classmates because he struggled with reading.Credit…Thalia Juarez for The New York Times

Traditional public schools have also typically struggled to identify students with dyslexia and to provide them adequate support. Lower-income families often face the steepest challenges in receiving help for children with dyslexia, advocates and education experts say.

The city has already announced it plans to start its first full dyslexia-focused district school in the Bronx, following a longtime push from parent leaders. The administration has also screened many first through fifth graders for dyslexia at about 40 schools so far this school year. It will roll the screenings out to 120 additional schools in the winter and spring.

On one recent Friday back at P.S. 11, Anthony left his morning reading class about halfway through, as his teacher began running through flash cards on phonetic sounds, to head to his special literacy lesson with another student.

The two children practiced saying words like “rust” while removing the “s” and “t” sounds, or changing letters to form new words. “Now, we’re going to change ‘run’ to ‘rut,’” the reading specialist said at one point, moving around letter tiles on the table.

Anthony looked puzzled — which might have been overlooked in a large classroom. “What?” he said. “Listen. Look at my mouth,” the specialist replied, before slowly enunciating it again. She told Anthony to use his fingers to break down the words, sound by sound, a method central to the Orton-Gillingham approach, which underlies the program and which is popular for children with dyslexia, though some research has questioned its effectiveness.

Later, Anthony smiled as he read sentences like “it is not fun in the hot sun” and was asked to connect the phrase to his own experiences.

In his intervention sessions, Anthony practices enunciating words slowly, so he can differentiate the sounds the letters make.Credit…Thalia Juarez for The New York Times
Anthony’s mother, Alana Ambrose, says her son now tells her “Mom, I got this,” when it comes to reading.Credit…Thalia Juarez for The New York Times

For Anthony, who participates in the sessions for 20 or so minutes daily, with a low-stakes assessment every five days, building up literacy skills to his grade level will be a long-term effort. But he said he has become more assured in his reading since he started.

At his old school, he said, he felt like he was not progressing. Now, he enjoys reading ghost stories and books about airplanes.

“Now, I say to myself ‘I can do it,’” he said.

The city’s effort to overhaul its literacy instruction and its approach to dyslexia represents a substantial undertaking for a system that has long lacked a comprehensive approach to curriculum and was often viewed as inadequately preparing teachers to be effective in the classroom.

“We’re just reminded all the time of how much larger New York City is than all of the other districts,” said Carolyne Quintana, the deputy chancellor of teaching and learning.

This spring, all elementary principals are expected to begin a training course focused on the fundamentals of the science of reading that many school systems around the country use . Still, many schools are deeply loyal to the approaches to teaching reading that the schools chancellor hopes he can persuade them to leave behind.

Susan Neuman, an early literacy development expert at New York University, said she is concerned that the efforts could ultimately fall short without a stronger emphasis on broader change.

“Every time there’s been some attempt to create a consistent curriculum, there’s been pushback — and the effort collapses,” said Ms. Neuman, a former U.S. assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. “I worry we’re going to fail again.”

Now that his reading has improved, Anthony loves to read books about ghosts and airplanes.Credit…Thalia Juarez for The New York Times

Many parents of pupils with dyslexia have sought options outside the traditional public school system. At Bridge Preparatory Charter School, which opened four years ago on Staten Island and largely enrolls low-income Black and Latino elementary students, all children spend about an hour each day on Orton-Gillingham-based instruction.

Timothy Castanza, the school’s executive director, said that many families have had to grapple with the reality that when children come to his school several years behind, gaps may not be fully closed by the time they leave fifth grade. The school does not solely enroll students with dyslexia, but most have special education plans.

“There’s a lot of pressure on Chancellor Banks as the system leader — and me, as my mini-system leader — to deliver immediate results for kids who really need it,” Mr. Castanza said. “And it takes a lot of work.”

At the moment, Anthony is the only student at P.S. 11 with a dyslexia diagnosis. But when he learned that the mayor shares his learning disability, a bright grin washed over his face.

“I feel like I’m the only one who has dyslexia,” he said. “So I was really happy.”

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