The colored tiles on a table at Riverside Middle School don't look like reading aids. There aren't letters or punctuation, and the sounds students string together come out like jibberish.
Teacher Gail Grossman leads a small group of students, matching three sounds to three different colored tiles: n-i-sh.
The exercises help students learn to break words down into sounds, something that's easier for some kids than others. The tiles and planned exercises are part of the Barton System, a program that helps students with dyslexia, a learning disability that causes students to struggle reading and writing.
Grossman leads students through different exercises, changing sounds and swapping out tiles, identifying where changes happen and helping students link the sound groups to common words.
She started using it in 2013, when grant funding paid for level 1 of the system. She bought the levels two and three herself, and after having success, applied for an Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools classroom grant to purchase levels four and five this year — a $600 ask.
Dyslexia affects between 15 and 20 percent of the general population, but affects up to 80 percent of those who struggle with reading. It's also likely under-identified, as those who struggle with reading often try to mask their difficulties instead of seeking help. Dyslexia doesn't affect intelligence, and students are often frustrated when they aren't comprehending words they read.
Montana is one of 12 states that doesn't have a law on the books about addressing literacy by third grade — a critical junction for student's future academic success. The state is one of 26 that don't have any-dyslexia specific legislation.
Arkansas, for example, requires screening and intervention for dyslexia. Oregon requires student screening, and school districts must designate and train a dyslexia specialist. Such requirements can come with additional resources. Without legislative backing, dyslexia can end up flying under the radar in a state like Montana.
Grossman removes the middle tile in a row of three, and asks students which sounds the remaining two tiles correspond with.
Dyslexia affects phonological processing — the manipulation of sounds. Often people who struggle with dyslexia will read over a word but can't comprehend what they just read.
"They can't discern the sounds within the words," Grossman said. "Without that ability to break words into discrete sounds, they can't read. ... I've had readers that can read fluently at fourth- or fifth- or sixth-grade level, but they lack the comprehension level."
Dyslexia, and all learning disabilities, aren't a matter of simply trying harder. Rather, students often can learn to use specific strategies to adapt.
In her first year of teaching about six years ago, Grossman was looking for a strategy, and a flexible one. Her job involves working with students who struggled with reading at several different levels — maybe one grade level behind, maybe three.
"I thought, I'm missing something, like, I'm missing a tool," she said.
She heard about the Barton System at a local church. The system adheres to already established principles based on using letters and sounds to break down reading and spelling, often using sight, hearing, touch and movement. And all students start at level one, so it can be used with students at different reading levels.
To be sure, Barton isn't the only tool Grossman uses. On any given day, her students work on reading and writing exercises, listen to audio books while following along with a text or draw pictures explaining non-literal phrases — showing that "you crack me up" doesn't refer to shattered human beings. She incorporates the first three levels with fluency and comprehension curriculum to help students round out reading skills.
"It gives me the options to expand what I do in the classroom," she said.
At least one Education Foundation funded program has had a way of permeating through SD2. Project Lead the Way started as a small pilot project in a handful of schools. Now, at least part of the math-and-science-based curriculum are in each Billings elementary school, paid for by a mix of donated funds and money from SD2's budget.
The group doled out about 80 grants for this school year, ranging from $100 to $3,000 for collaborative projects.
In her grant application, Grossman argued that Barton has helped her students improve reading scores as measured by NWEA MAP test. They also improve by her own weekly measures of in-class progress, but reading improvements can have test-score impacts beyond just reading and writing scores. Several studies have shown that reading ability affects students' multi-subject test scores.
She estimated that about 10 students use the system, but that she would use the materials year after year, multiplying that figure. With good progress, a new student can get through level three in one year. Grossman estimated that levels one through eight would be able to keep students progressing throughout their three years of middle school.
Almost any reading intervention is more effective if used with students as soon as possible. Third-grade reading level is often identified as make-or-break years for a student's future academic success.
Grossman said she would like to see access to the program expanded across SD2, perhaps following a similar trajectory to Project Lead the Way.
"That's my hope," she said.