Lack of funding in B.C. makes helping students with dyslexia a challenge

Click to play video: 'North Vancouver tests for dyslexia early'
North Vancouver tests for dyslexia early
In the final instalment of our three-part series on dyslexia, Jennifer Palma reports on how the North Vancouver school district is testing students earlier, hoping to help them learn to read and write at a younger age – Nov 9, 2017

Every three months seven different kids cycle through the doors of Susan McLean’s classroom.

In all, she will teach 21 Grade 3 students, each with their own set of challenges, including dyslexia.

“We want them to be able to think about their thinking and express what’s difficult, and choose strategies that are going to be able to help them,” she said.

McLean is a teacher at the Literacy Centre Program at Montroyal Elementary School in North Vancouver. The intense three-month program helps children from across the district acquire basic reading and writing skills. After three months, the students return to their home school.

The program also runs in Sherwood School.

Part 1: Children with dyslexia falling through the cracks

Click to play video: 'Dyslexia Part 1: Children falling through the cracks'
Dyslexia Part 1: Children falling through the cracks

The district does early assessments in kindergarten in the hopes that early detection can help kids better access focused learning strategies.

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“We believed if you just simply read to kids with good literature they would learn to read through osmosis..but that’s not true,” Joanne Robertson of the North Vancouver School District said. “All kids, all kids, need good instruction.”

Dr. Linda Siegel, professor emeritus in the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Education and author of Not Stupid, Not Lazy, followed 1,000 North Vancouver students from kindergarten to Grade 7. It was found 20 per cent of students needed extra help in kindergarten. By the end of Grade 7 only 1.5 per cent of that group needed further focused instruction.

Often those with dyslexia are quiet and overlooked, as they try to hide from the teacher’s view so they won’t be called upon to read, or interact. They easily fall through the cracks of the education system.

The outlook, according to Siegel, can be grim, saying “75 to 95 per cent of people in prison have some sort of a learning disability.”

It’s a number not lost on Greg Epp. He lives with dyslexia and wasn’t getting the help he needed. It finally came when his parents placed him in a specialized school, James Cameron Middle School in Maple Ridge.

Now he’s an entrepreneur, owner of Adventure Marine.

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“I know for sure without James Cameron I would not be where I am today. I might be in jail…who knows where I would’ve ended up.”

B.C.’s public school system is struggling to help kids with learning disabilities. Many educators and parents like Cathy McMillan, a parent advocate with Dyslexia BC, says it’s even worse for those who have dyslexia.

Part 2: The challenges of dyslexia 

Click to play video: 'The challenges of dyslexia Part II'
The challenges of dyslexia Part II

“If they were addressing these reading issues at school early parents wouldn’t be running around like we were in Grade 1. I don’t think parents should be left holding the bag for all of it.”

The province concedes there are issues that need to be addressed. Education Minister Rob Fleming says work is being done on a review of special education funding.

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“There have been long-standing complaints and resources,” he said. “Those are questions our government hopes to answer and to solve.”

The issue is gaining traction in the U.S. where more than 40 states have developed laws to ensure students with dyslexia get timely help, and teachers receive proper training.

Keith Gray with Dyslexia Canada says the situation in Canada, meanwhile, is a “living tragedy, what it does to kids.”

READ MORE: This simulation shows what reading can be like when you have dyslexia

Gray said he would like to see a four-pronged approach that would include early assessment in kindergarten, instead of the current wait-and-see approach. He’d also like immediate action taken to help children learn to read and write, and have proper training for teachers.

A lack of special education funding has made it tough for public schools to teach kids with dyslexia. Fleming says $1 billion is spent to help students with special needs, but adds dyslexia may require specific interventions. He admits graduation rates of students in B.C. with special needs are not good.

Many parents feel the public education system does not do enough to help their child succeed, forcing them to look for private education, assessments and tutors, which can cost thousands of dollars.

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Epp can’t believe this is still an issue, and has started his own website  to bring awareness and show the world those with dyslexia are smart, creative, born leaders.

“These problems are still here! Nothing has changed. So here I close my eyes to it, and I realize maybe I can make a change…get the word out.”

Here are the responses from Metro area School Boards. All were contacted about the action taken to help those who have trouble reading and writing. Not all responded to inquiries from Global BC. 


Dyslexia is a language-based disorder that falls under the umbrella of a learning disability.  The severity of impact of the disorder varies for each individual.  In Langley, when students struggle with literacy skills staff identify a progression of support for the student, starting with classroom instruction and teacher interventions.  As the learning difficulties exceed the demands of the learning environment or grade level, students may be referred through their school-based team for additional assessments to determine if they have a learning disability.  Students identified with a learning disability receive an individual education plan with goals to meet their needs, again these vary for each child.  Goals for students with dyslexia may include: phonemic awareness, decoding, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, self-advocacy, and strategies for compensation of skills.  Each child’s needs are different and therefore their instructional plan and goals vary.

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As early identification and intervention, Kindergarten students are screened by their teachers to identify those who need additional instruction.  For struggling first graders, all elementary schools in Langley have a Reading Recovery teacher.  Reading Recovery is a highly effective short-term intervention of one-to-one teaching for the lowest achieving first graders.  Students work daily with a highly skilled teacher for 30 minutes of individual instruction.  This is part of comprehensive literacy instruction provided by classroom teachers to target early learners in struggles they may have with literacy acquisition.

New Westminster

The New Westminster School District strives to be an inclusive learning environment where all students are meaningfully engaged in all areas of school life. We offer a continuum of support for students to maintain our commitment to ensuring equitable educational experiences for all.

Our students do not need a formal diagnosis to be provided with additional support. We have recently introduced a “kindergarten screener,” developed in-house, in an attempt to identify those students who may struggle with reading so that early intervention can occur.

Beyond the classroom interventions that our teachers provide for all students, further referrals to the School-Based Team (SBT) can be made. The SBT is primarily made up of an administrator, learning support teacher, counselor, and classroom teacher. The SBT suggests additional strategies and interventions, such as support from a Learning Support Teacher. The SBT may also ultimately choose to refer a student for a psychoeducational assessment by a school psychologist.

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It is the school psychologist who is qualified to diagnose learning disorders, such as those related to reading and writing. The school psychologist, based on the student’s learning profile, will also recommend a number of teaching strategies and accommodations to further support the student, such as access to assistive technology. We are excited by our recent purchase of a district license for Read & Write, a fantastic assistive word processing tool that includes text-to-speech, dictation, word prediction, and a number of other features that help students read and write.

We also support Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) in our elementary schools. LLI provides targeted reading support to students reading below grade level. Though not specifically designed for students with learning disabilities or disorders in reading, it serves as an additional screener for those students who may need a psychoeducational assessment to help determine underlying learning issues.

West Vancouver

In January of the Kindergarten year, we administer our K/1 Literacy Assessment which looks at how well students grasp the following concepts:  Phonological awareness (isolating, blending and segmenting of sounds), letter/sound correspondence (early phonics) and print awareness.  The assessment provides teachers with a clear idea of where they need to focus their instruction.  The assessment is re-administered in April of their Kindergarten year; and those students who haven’t yet met the criteria receive additional support from the classroom teacher and this may be supplemented by pull out support by our Learning Support Teachers.  In Grade 1 we re-administer those parts of the assessment that show students haven’t met criteria to determine the need for further targeted support.  We are also strongly encouraging our schools to administer the Dynamic Indicator of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) to our primary students in Grades 1 and 2 to determine if students are on track for early literacy benchmarks and identify those who may need further targeted support in the classroom or supplemental targeted pull out support.  We have an Early Literacy Support Teacher who works closely with our classroom teachers at the school level to ensure that the literacy programming being implemented is systematic and using research based practice.

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We do have a program for those students in Grade 2 who are struggling with literacy.   Students who are significantly struggling at the end of their Grade 1 year can be referred at school request to our District Reading Advancement Program (RAP).  Six or seven students are selected by a screening committee and the parents of the selected students are offered a spot.  This program focusses on intense literacy instruction using research based programming (Fast ForWord, Reading Mastery and Reading Assistant).  The program runs from early October through to early February four mornings a week.  The students then return to their home school and recommendations are made to both the classroom teacher and Learning Support Teacher as to how to provide the needed support.  Some students make so much progress in the program that further targeted support is unnecessary.

We are a Response to Instruction (RtI) district and believe strongly in putting in any needed supports as soon as students begin to show a need.  Our goal is to provide effective, systematic, well-researched instructional practice within all our classrooms to ensure literacy success for our students.

For any students that are still struggling with literacy in Grade 3 and above we use well-researched direct instruction programming (Fast Forword, Corrective Reading) that is targeted to their literacy needs.



The Surrey School District continually monitors student progress and employs a targeted model of intervention and support. Classroom teachers are adept at recognizing and addressing student learning needs, and trained in the differentiation of instruction. Where learning difficulty persists despite targeted support, teachers discuss their concerns with parents and caregivers, as well as the School Based Team (SBT). The SBT is an inter-disciplinary working group that includes the school principal and/or vice principal, Learning Support Teacher, and registered School Psychologists who are trained to use specialized assessment measures that identify and assess specific learning disorders . For students identified as having a significant learning disability, Surrey offers intensive literacy support. Parents and caregivers who have concerns about the progress of their children at school are strongly encouraged to speak with their child’s classroom teacher(s).

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 The Surrey School district has also developed supportive programming such as:

  • PALS (Parents as Literacy Supporters): provides parents and caregivers with strategies to support their preschool (age 3 & 4) children’s learning. The sessions focus on play-based learning and include time for parents and caregivers to work with a facilitator as well as time for adults and children to learn, play and have fun together. PALS is a culturally responsive program and welcomes families to partner with teachers and early childhood educators in a supportive school setting;
  • Early Literacy and Early Numeracy Teachers (ELTs/ENTs): ELTs and ENTs work with classroom teachers to provide additional strategic, in-class support for “at promise” students in kindergarten and grade one;
  • Changing Results for Young Readers refers to collaborative teacher inquiry teams focus on reading success for vulnerable learners;
  • District-wide implementation of ELPATS (Early Literacy Phonemic Awareness Test Surrey) indicates a significant reduction at year-end in the number of kindergarten students experiencing difficulty with acquisition of phonemic awareness skills.




Our mission is to ensure quality learning opportunities for all students of all ages, and to that end we provide services and resources to assist students in their learning including students with dyslexia. These include:

  • School based learning assistance services in all schools.
  • District based itinerant staff to support schools.
  • Intensive district based programs (Teaching and Evaluation Centre / Language Class).
  • Assistive technology services that support students in their learning using assistive and adaptive devices.
  • Community groups and agencies who offer seminars to generate awareness and provide information on available services in the community.
  • Strategic focus on our early literacy programs through professional development opportunities. Part of this focus includes the development of an early literacy screener for kindergarten children.


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Dyslexia is a term that is quite broad, and has different definitions depending upon who you are speaking to, or where you are searching for information. We address students with a variety of specific learning disabilities as identified by a school psychologist through a  psycho-educational assessment.  Those students with a specific learning disability in the area of reading, which I believe you are asking about, often have difficulty with accurate and/or fluent word recognition, have challenges with spelling, decoding, and often with writing.

We have a number of supports and interventions that are student specific, and follow the recommendations listed in the student’s  psychoeducational assessment.  We develop Individualized Education Plans for students with identified learning disabilities collaboratively with families and community agencies that may be involved, e.g. The Learning Disabilities Association.  Throughout the IEP process as well as throughout the year, we use the BC Ministry of Education Learning Disabilities Instructional Planning Tool and look at each domain (Academic, Cognitive Functioning, Self-Determination/independence and Social/Emotional) to determine students strengths and needs, as well as to determine whether the student’s level of functioning is mild, moderate or complex.

Our school psychologists summarize their assessment findings orally to school teams and families, as well as help in the development of programming and planning.  Following are some of the interventions and/or supports that could be in a student’s plan.

  • Reading Recovery – intensive, 1-1 support by trained reading recovery teachers.
  • Direct instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
  • Fast ForWord
  • Classroom supports and adaptations – visuals, graphic organizers, text to speech readers, tech devices to support spelling, alternate ways to receive/understand content area material, as well as alternative ways to show learning.
  • Direct instruction in areas of strength to enhance reading comprehension.

In addition to the classroom teacher, additional school based and district staff may be involved:

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  • Learning Support Teacher small group, 1-1, and/or in class support.

In a secondary school, could be a support block as well as outreach support in the classroom. As well, we have specialists trained in  Orton Gillingham methodology.

  • Speech and Language Pathologists
  • Reading Recovery Teacher Leaders
  • Early Literacy Helping Teachers
  • Literacy Consultant
  • District Learning Support Teachers
  • School Psychologists
  • District Staff

Maple Ridge

In the Maple Ridge – Pitt Meadows School District, initial classroom-based assessments for possible learning difficulties in the area of early literacy skills and reading occur in the early primary grades, with added support directed to those students who are struggling. In situations where concerns remain as a student progresses through the primary grades, referral may be made to the school-based team for consultation involving the school psychologist. This consultation may result in a recommendation for a formal psychoeducational assessment by the school psychologist.

A formal psychoeducational assessment would identify whether a specific learning disability is indicated, provide a profile of learning strengths and weaknesses, and include specific recommendations about programming to support the student’s learning. The timing of this assessment would depend entirely on the child, and would be undertaken as concerns arise. Throughout the process there would be ongoing communication and consultation with parents/guardians.

Like other students with special needs, students with a learning disability in reading would have an individualized education plan (IEP) prepared. This plan would be developed in response to the needs identified in the assessment, and would outline specific learning goals, objectives and strategies, as well as supports and assessments to be used. The IEP would also include adaptations to support meaningful participation in classroom learning generally. Because every student’s profile is unique, the goals, strategies, objectives, adaptations and supports outlined in this IEP may look quite different from student to student.

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In cases where specific learning needs have been identified, classroom teachers work to implement the strategies outlined in the individualized education plan. In Maple Ridge – Pitt Meadows public schools, literacy helping teachers, special education helping teachers, learning support teachers and education assistants support the work of the classroom teacher. Our mission is to support all individuals in their development as successful learners.


Delta School District is committed to enabling all learners to succeed and contribute their full potential to the future.

Delta’s Learning Services personnel work collaboratively with school teams, parents and community partners to create supportive, inclusive, and caring learning communities where all children, with a emphasis on children with exceptional learning needs, have opportunities to achieve their full potential.

Our team endeavors to provide support and services to students via programs spanning early learning through Grade 12 and beyond. This support includes direct support to school personnel, families and students, professional learning opportunities and the provision of a range of human and learning resources in schools.

Delta’s tiered model approach focuses on the student in order to build the appropriate support and services from a series of progressively intense and targeted instructional and positive behavioural supports.

Parents who are interested in learning more about support systems and programs for students with Dyslexia are encouraged contact Joanna Angelidis, Director of Learning Services – Inclusive Learning, at or call 604-952-5057.


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