tutor working with student at a table

A Day School Tackles the Challenge of Literacy

By Lenore Layman, Director of Educational Support Services at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School

Can students with dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities flourish in a rigorous Jewish day school setting? How can students who are struggling to learn to read English in the primary grades also be expected to learn to read Hebrew? 

Questions like these are commonly heard from psychologists who assess students and from educators across the country who experience challenges in enabling struggling students to meet expectations in various aspects of language learning.  More heartbreaking is the question raised by current and prospective parents in our school community: “Will my child be able to stay in (or come to) your school with these struggles, and how will you possibly meet their needs?”

he Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD has been working to strengthen our educational support services in a number of ways so that we can confidently meet the needs of many students with  learning profiles that might otherwise preclude their inclusion in day school education. Our journey towards creating a strong support system has included expanding our Educational Support Services Department, together with ongoing and comprehensive professional development for all our faculty in differentiated instruction, executive functioning, and anxiety disorders as well as engaging our learning specialists in continuing trainings in a variety of literacy areas.

We revamped our support services model several years ago to include pull-out/push-in supports, a change that has greatly enhanced the effectiveness of our team approach in meeting the literacy needs of our students in both English and Hebrew. We have also restructured the Judaic Studies and Hebrew programs in our Lower School to create a new model for our students with more significant language-based learning disabilities in grades 3–5. These alterations were made possible by adding special educators from Israel with a background in remediation to our Educational Support Services team.

The literacy support we currently provide to students with language-based challenges includes:

  • Pull-out decoding groups for students in grades K–5, taught by our learning specialists using Orton Gillingham, Wilson and the DISSECT program
  • One-on-one fluency work outside the classroom using the Great Leaps program
  • Pull-out reading comprehension strategy group instruction and intervention in classrooms using Project Read Report Form and Story Grammar Marker
  • Pull-out writing strategy group instruction and intervention in classrooms using Project Read Framing Your Thoughts, Teaching Basic Writing Skills and other writing strategies, a program shared by Sarah Ward (a speech and language therapist in Boston, who has provided ongoing professional development to our faculty)
  • Strategy instruction in Hebrew decoding and fluency, using a variety of methods including Otiyot Medabrot
  • An alternative Hebrew and Judaic Studies class for children in grades 3–5, which employs a modified literacy curriculum developed by our faculty
  • Technology supports for reading, writing and presentations including use of Learning Ally, speech-to-text dictation and See Saw.

Through utilizing a number of these techniques in literacy instruction, we have experienced notable growth and skill development among many students who have mild-to-moderate language-based learning disabilities; but we are not done. 

When we have students who show improvement but still need more frequent intervention, we meet with families and ask them to consider hiring a specialized English or Hebrew reading tutor or speech and language therapist with literacy training to supplement the small group support that we are able to provide. On occasion, we have requested that a family hire a part-time or full-time instructional assistant (at their own expense) to be part of the student’s team, and to provide a higher level of scaffolding support in the classroom. These more intensive interventions can make a marked difference for individual students. 

Meanwhile, all our students have benefitted from the literacy support that our classroom teachers now regularly provide. This strengthened instruction in core classrooms has resulted from teachers’ commitment and from their participation in extensive professional development. The growth also reflects the ongoing partnership and collaboration among teachers and learning specialists. We are proud of the support services we are able to provide and are committed to continuing to improve and expand them to meet the literacy needs of Jewish students in our community.