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4 ways to keep students with IEPs on track with remote learning

This is part 3 of a six-part series revolving around how to improve the classroom experience for students with dyslexia. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here. This article was originally published in Smartbrief.

Keeping a student with an individualized education program on track during distance learning, all while combating the traditional summer slide, is challenging. A recent report by NPR analyzed a survey by ParentsTogether, an advocacy group, that asked 1,500 parents from diverse socioeconomic, geographic, and racial backgrounds about their distance-learning experiences associated with school shutdowns. The survey found that the lowest-income parents, making less than $25,000 a year, were 10 times more likely than families making six figures and above to say their kids were doing little or no remote learning. Of the families with children in special education, four in 10 said they weren’t receiving any support. Additionally, just one in five reported receiving all the services their children were entitled to.

As a parent, administrator and educator, I’m concerned that these numbers will become standard. As forgiving as we all are (and should be) during this difficult time, schools should seek out solutions to these problems or they will be exacerbated as time goes on. Throughout the summer and by fall, there should be plans in place to guarantee that services will not be interrupted. Students with learning difficulties need a predictable schedule in order to thrive. With the early closing of traditional classrooms due to COVID-19 and then summer break, many students haven’t had a regular routine for months. Here are four ways parents and educators can keep their students with IEPs on track and combat the COVID slide before the new school year begins.

Connect With Your School

I would encourage parents to reach out to the school and make sure you’ve had your IEP meeting (probably virtually) or that it’s scheduled before fall. I would also make sure you have a plan for the possibility of some fall school closures, even if they’re temporary.

In Utah, where I live, the state board of education is leaving many of the day-to-day decisions in the hands of the districts. The reasoning is that each school has different needs and concerns. With this in mind, I would reach out to your child’s school and communicate any concerns or suggestions you may have regarding their return to schooling. Your comments will provide much-needed feedback for your local school, which is more than likely still in the process of making choices about what back-to-school will look like.

Establish Accountability for the Resources You Need

If your student is receiving services to improve reading skills, ask your school for access to any online programs that you can continue to use during the summer.

If your school doesn’t have any online resources, ask how you might be able to help them get those resources. Would a phone call from a parent to the district on behalf of the school be helpful? Many reading advocacy groups such as Learning AllyThe International Dyslexia Association, and the Reading League have suggestions for programs, and some even offer scholarships for schools and individuals to access audio resources and software programs.

If your school does have online resources, make sure the program teaches reading according to what we know about the science of reading. Is the program systematic and sequential, teaching foundational skills like decoding and spelling with a strong introduction and continued teaching of the sounds within words as well as individual sounds? Vocabulary, comprehension, and writing should also be addressed. How is your student being monitored? What is the protocol if your student isn’t making progress or seems to be backsliding? If you didn’t have a parent advocate before the pandemic, you should think about contacting the district to find out how you can get an advocate to help you with your IEP. You may be placed on a waiting list, but it’s worth getting in line.

Understand Your Student’s Goals

The goals in your student’s IEP need to be directly linked to what your child needs to become a proficient reader. If you don’t understand the goals, ask educators to explain them to you so you know what you should be supporting and how best to help. This is one of the most prominent disconnects I see with regards to IEPs for struggling readers.

If you have very generalized goals that mention reading so many words a minute in a certain level text with so many errors, ask for goals that address the actual skill that needs to be taught. In other words, before your student can read so many words a minute, he or she needs to be able to decode words—and before decoding words, your student needs to understand how the sounds in words can be identified and manipulated. This is the process a student should follow within Structured Literacy.

Connect With Other Parents and Educators

As challenging as this pandemic has been for education, it’s also a rare opportunity for people to come together to support students. Many technology businesses are donating their services to provide internet access and computers for all students. Education companies have provided free or drastically reduced programming for students. The best advice for parents and educators right now is to reach out to each other. If you have a need, ask the school. If you need to contact the district, call the district. Reach out to other educators for help and suggestions. Think about putting strong parent advocates in touch with parents who may need support. If you haven’t joined your local chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, now would be a good time. They may not be meeting in person, but their Facebook pages are active with conversations and suggestions.

Finally, while the country is focused on conversations regarding discrimination and marginalization, there isn’t a better time to come together to advocate that every student has access to excellent, appropriate literacy instruction. Everyone has the right to read, and we know how to teach everyone how to read. While the nation is in a process of self-examination, let’s push the conversation regarding literacy.

As Maryanne Wolf, the widely recognized reading advocate and researcher, wrote in her book Tales of Literacy for the 21st Century, “One of the most important contributions that literacy makes is the development and refinement of critical analytical skills.” She continued, “Literacy adds to the background knowledge of the literate person, which, in turn, changes the way that person thinks, reads, reasons, and dreams.”

Dreams belong to everyone, as Dr. Martin Luther King reminded the nation during the March on Washington in 1963. King’s speech and particularly the line “I have a dream …” is synonymous with the appeal for fairness and equality—for a world where opportunity is not for the few but for all. On a narrower scope, reading can be that portal for students around the country to dream and think critically. They just need the resources to learn.

Donell Pons is a reading and dyslexia specialist in Salt Lake City, Utah, with a master’s degree in education and teaching from Westminster College, along with a certification in special education. She started her career in education when her youngest son was diagnosed with dyslexia. She uses Reading Horizons in her one-on-one work with students. Connect with her at

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