By the time Liz Barnes’ daughter was 4 1/2 years old, she had multiple early warning signs for dyslexia. Mary’s speech was delayed, she had trouble learning her letters and their sounds and struggled to grasp the concept of rhyming. And because Barnes’ husband was dyslexic, she had even more reason to worry. By the time Mary started second grade at a public school, it was clear things just weren’t clicking. After she turned 8, Mary transitioned to a private school for children with dyslexia. Soon enough, her confidence soared. Now 15, she continues to thrive at her school. Barnes understands that private school tuition isn’t an option for many parents of children with this diagnosis. Determined to do something about it, she joined forces with other parents in 2011 to form Decoding Dyslexia-NJ, a grassroots advocacy group. Decoding Dyslexia has since expanded to all 50 states and Canada.

As part of the group’s mission, Barnes pushes public school training for teachers so they’re equipped to screen and provide services to students with reading disabilities. She points to the South Brunswick School District as a model. While teachers there do not diagnose dyslexia, they’ve been trained to look for warning signs. “If we find enough indicators, we don’t wait to get an official label of dyslexia,” explains Allison Dubois, assistant principal at Crossroads North Middle School and a member of the district’s Team Dyslexia. “We try to find what the child needs to learn, [then] provide it and ride it till the wheels fall off!” Dubois and fellow Team Dyslexia members Laurie Faigin, a special education elementary supervisor, and Jodi Mahoney, principal of Greenbrook Elementary School, agree parents can make a big difference at home. Here’s what they recommend:


Early warning signs include speech delays until age 3, multiple ear infections and difficulty memorizing. School age signs include trouble remembering the alphabet, tying shoes, rhyming and recalling spoken directions.


If your child shows one or more signs, you should identify areas of concern in a written request asking for a dyslexia screening. Be sure to ask for samples of your child’s schoolwork. Include any family history of dyslexia in your request. Teachers and administrators might not always agree with you, so be persistent. Make sure to ask about the data your child’s school is using for eligibility. Standard IQ tests rely heavily on reading skills; they can’t accurately measure the IQ of students with dyslexia. “We embrace dyslexia as a learning difference, not a disability,” says Mahoney.


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) assures students with disabilities (including dyslexia) a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says that schools can’t discriminate based on a child’s disability. If your child’s needs are not being met through his or her public school, make sure to download a copy of The Right to Special Education in New Jersey at edlawcenter.org. Thanks to efforts by Decoding Dyslexia-NJ, there are three state laws you should know about:

  • The full definition of dyslexia is now in the NJ education code. Schools can no longer say dyslexia doesn’t exist.
  • Teachers of grades K-3 and specialists must receive at least two hours of training annually on the screening, intervention, accommodation and use of technology for students with reading disabilities, including dyslexia.
  • Children in kindergarten through the first half of second grade with one or more signs of dyslexia must be screened for a reading disability. If the child is determined to be at risk, she must be given an evaluation to establish eligibility for special education services, which could lead to creating an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Students with dyslexia need structured literacy instruction. Find out which phonics-based reading programs, such as Orton-Gillingham, are available at your school.


Have a conversation at the beginning of the school year to review your child’s IEP. These meetings should be held once a year, but parents can ask for additional meetings as needed.


Check out decodingdyslexianj.org/resources or Google learning tools like Learning Ally and Bookshare. Both provide audiobooks with guided highlights so your child can follow along as words are read aloud. This builds a child’s print vocabulary.


No matter how frustrated you feel, be respectful and professional. “Let the school know you want to be part of the solution; you’re not there to just point out flaws,” says Barnes. “Doing this will give you a better chance of success.”


Connect with other parents facing the same challenges and get to know support and educational groups like Decoding Dyslexia-NJ. Educators at South Brunswick’s Team Dyslexia know that advocating for a child with dyslexia can be overwhelming, but there’s reason to be optimistic. “We have a million tricks up our sleeves,” says Faigin, “and we’ll keep trying until we find what works.” For more information, visit decodingdyslexianj.org and understood.org. Children’s Dyslexia Centers, a project of the Scottish Rite Masons, offers free tutoring. Visit childrensdyslexiacenters.org for details.