For years, Shahayla Evans struggled in school. It wasn’t until the end of elementary school that a teacher saw signs of dyslexia and offered guidance. Now, as a second year student at Central Oregon Community College, Evans said that teacher changed her life.

While dyslexia does not affect general intelligence, the learning disorder makes it difficult to learn how to read, write and spell.

“I became very knowledgeable about what dyslexia was so that I could advocate for myself and how your brain works and how you learn with dyslexia,” Evans said recently. “It’s not something that you have to be defined by. You can beat it.

“There’s a way to understand it, and you can still learn.”

As a student in the college’s early childhood education program, one of her primary goals is to become an educator who can advocate for students with a learning disability like dyslexia, help them know what it means and provide them with proper instruction.

With the help of a $26,700 grant from the Central Oregon Health Council, the college recently began training students in Evans’ program to recognize reading difficulties among children they work with in Central Oregon schools and learn how to help them. The health council is the governing board that oversees the region’s Medicaid plan.

The training will include faculty members and is part of a project that will redesign curriculum and implement student instruction, all centered on improving third-grade reading proficiency and letter recognition among kindergarteners.

“We have always, as part of our early childhood education program, had courses and content that addressed the importance of early literacy,” said Amy Howell, director of the college’s early childhood education program. “But we’ve had more and more research coming out over the last few years, focusing on a body of work often referred to as the science of reading. It really hones in on the higher-than-we-realized prevalence of dyslexia and dysgraphia.”

Dyslexia and dysgraphia, another learning disability that affects writing, have been shown to be a common cause for why children experience difficulty learning. Research also shows that students who are not reading at grade level by third grade are among the most vulnerable to drop out of high school.

Howell said that if educators know early signs, they can help support students and impact their future learning experience. The college’s proposal for the grant included thinking about equity and literacy, she said. About 20% of the population experiences some form of dyslexia or dysgraphia, affecting children in every classroom, she said.

“We want to be really aware of that in kindergarten and in first grade,” she said. “So as we’re working with early childhood educators, we want them to be a part of that system of support for children and families, to be able to recognize some early signs that things could be going on, that the child might be having challenges certain ways.”

Lucy Hart Paulson, a speech-language pathologist and literacy specialist who has spent decades working in an early learning context, said early identification and intervention helps create a solid foundation. Without that foundation, children often are not able to catch up, she said.

“With the right kinds of very playful developmentally appropriate approaches, we can identify risk in children as young as 3 for later reading difficulties,” Paulson said. “We don’t diagnose dyslexia or reading difficulty at 3 years of age, but there surely are markers based on children’s oral language development, their understanding of language, their use of language that can be predictive of difficulty later down the road.”

She said a big indicator with children who are 3 and 4-years-old is how they say long words that they know. A typical example is when children say “aminal” instead of “animal.”

“And that’s fairly typical for children,” Paulson said.

The problem comes when there are a lot of those kinds of transposition of syllables and words, she said.

“Another thread of early identification is what children’s language, exposure and experiences are,” Paulson said. “And a risk factor that’s well proven is poverty.”

She said that while poverty does not cause language difficulty, if children are not exposed to good language models and expectations for talking it impacts the language environment.

The scope of the community college’s project includes the entire tri-county area as well as Warm Springs, and the funding will impact underserved and at-risk children throughout Central Oregon. Nearly half of the students enrolled in the college’s early childhood education program are working in classrooms with Native American and Latino children as part of their required work-study positions.

The college will also use the grant funding to expand its children’s literature collection at the Robert L. Barber Library called the Children’s Literature and Equity Resource Center.

The collection has books for children and young adults that focus on representation, equity, resilience and addressing areas that have been historically marginalized.

“We choose books that are centering on race, ethnicity, language, citizenship, ability, mental health — there’s a whole range,” Howell said. “We’ll be hoping to use some of the funds to enrich that space as well.”

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