Showing posts with label dyslexia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label dyslexia. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Decoding Dyslexia: A Rose by Any other Name

Teacher Question: As I watch the Dyslexia Awareness movement gain momentum and grassroots organizations such as Decoding Dyslexia spur the movement on... I am feeling an increased urgency to take a long hard look at students under my watch that struggle with reading and are eventually diagnosed with a “specific learning disability.” I find myself in agreement that so many public school structures and teacher awareness do NOT include dyslexia. In fact, the term is avoided. I am interested in becoming trained in literacy instruction methods that are geared toward the dyslexic brain and I am looking into Orton-Gillingham training since it is focused specifically on the needs of dyslexics. Why don’t reading professors and reading specialists emphasize dyslexia?

          Dyslexia is a serious problem and one deserving instructional attention. The term dyslexia has been, justifiably, controversial, and has consequently been avoided by most reading educators—including me. The reason for its gingerly handling is that it is a description of reading disability that includes etiology; that is, an explanation of cause.

          Dyslexia refers to a neurologically based disorder. The idea is that dyslexic students’ brains fail to process information properly or well, and that this causes their difficulty in learning to read. The definition is somewhat circular because the purported brain problem is not actually measured… it is inferred from the reading problem. Thus, neurological processing problems cause low reading ability and we know the student has a neurological processing problem because he is struggling to read.

           Contrast, dyslexia with its well-respected sister alexia. Alexia is a reading problem caused by a neural injury. The person could read or seemed to be learning to read just fine, then a spike went through his/her brain and since then, there has been a reading problem. Alexia is a learning problem acquired through neurological injury, while dyslexia is a learning problem caused by an assumed neurological problem. That’s why dyslexia is sometimes referred to as “minimal brain dysfunction” or “minimal brain injury.” (Even with all of the new brain technology and research, we do not have a procedure that can reliably identify which brains are going to struggle in learning to read.)

           That would all be fine if neurological problems were the only phenomenon that interrupts literacy learning. Unfortunately, they are not. For instance, poverty can disruptive learning, and, of course, there is just good old lousy teaching (dysteachia? J).

           Under U.S. law, dyslexia does not include learning problems that result from “visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.” This meant, for example, that kids could not receive special education for dyslexia if they had low IQs, because their reading problems may have been due to their limited mental functioning.

           But what constitutes cultural or economic disadvantage? What a strange brain malady, indeed, that can only be acquired by those whose families have lots of money—flying over the houses of boys and girls living in want.

          I’m not claiming dyslexia doesn’t exist or that no reading problems are neurological in nature and genetic in basis—yes, Virginia, I do believe in dyslexia. But labeling kids as having neurological deficits is not helpful unless there is some specific teaching response that diagnosis instigates.

           That’s where Orton-Gillingham supposedly comes in. But before dealing with whether O-G is the one true way to teach dyslexic students, let’s take a last detour in thinking about dyslexia.

           There are scads of studies revealing that dyslexia is phonological in nature. That is, students with this disorder have a particularly difficult time perceiving phonemes and coordinating this perception with the letters on the page. English is an alphabetic language, so not being able to easily connect these bits of information neurologically is a real problem.

          But doesn’t that mean that I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth? Didn’t I just say that a problem with the dyslexia diagnosis is that it doesn’t tell you what or how to teach, and then I turned right around and said that dyslexia is basically a decoding issue? If that’s the case, then why not just teach these students phonics and be done with it?

           The problem with that reasoning is that NICHD research suggests that when elementary kids have reading problems, they tend to be problems with phonological awareness and decoding about 86% of the time. That means that it is an instructional need of most young kids who struggle to read, no matter what the etiology. Even those who are struggling due to poverty or bad teaching are likely to get tripped up by their decoding needs.

           But wasn’t Orton-Gillingham created to address the specific phonics needs of kids with dyslexia? It was. It was created in the 1920s and was aimed specifically at helping children to see words properly (at the time they thought dyslexics were seeing words backwards—that’s not the case, which shows how dicey this whole idea is of prescribing instruction aimed at particular brain maladies).

            In my reading of the research, I see that O-G has been effective, in some cases, in improving the reading ability of struggling readers. I have also seen research in which it was not so effective (though in fairness, O-G has been evaluated with disabled readers whose difficulties were particularly severe).

           But there is no research showing that O-G is more effective than other thorough, structured programs aimed at teaching phonological awareness and decoding. In fact, there are many such programs available (look at the research evidence provided by the What Works Clearinghouse).

           I have heard from many parents during the past year providing testimonials to O-G based on their experiences (which usually included fights with their local school to obtain a sufficiently thorough and powerful decoding program for their child). That O-G worked with their child demonstrates that it can work, that O-G has not consistently done so in the research shows it is not the cure all some may claim, and that research has supported the effectiveness of so many other instructional procedures (including those that are not multisensory) for teaching such children, suggests that O-G may not even be the best response to their needs.

          What should not be happening is fights between parents and schools over whether to address these children's decoding needs. Whether we call it dyslexia or just a reading problem, it will not likely be outgrown and explicit teaching of decoding skills is most often an appropriate part of the solution.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Odds and Ends

This has been a very busy week or two, and here it is Friday and I find that I have left some promises (to keep).

Last week I spoke to English language educators in Oregon about vocabulary. English learners benefit more from vocabulary instruction more than do native speakers (and it helps us too), and given the role vocabulary plays in reading comprehension, it would be wise if our schools got intensive about teaching vocabulary to such kids. Unfortunately, there aren't many studies to go on, so I rely heavily on the native speakers studies and color my efforts with the bit of information from the English learner vocab investigations. The major differences in vocabulary learning across these groups: (1) the words may differ (English learners are likely to need all of the words that native speakers do, but also some language that we learn just from experience with English; (2) the instruction may have to be more explicit about the grammatical function of the new words (it really does make sense to show them the word in different forms and tenses, and not just assume they will make the generalization); and (3) the use of more pictures and motions (and even the home language) to help explain the words meanings. Below you can find my presentation on vocabulary.

I also met with two groups of teachers in Minnesota who are in the process of identifying schoolbooks that will support their efforts to improve achievement. I shared with them my take on the research and my experiences in raising achievement in Chicago. That presentation is below.

Finally, I met with a bunch of teachers, coaches, and other educators in Long Island, NY (congratulations Yankee fans) to talk about adolescent literacy. They want me to come back and talk to their principals and superintendents and school board members (which I am happy to do--we really have to get moving on the adolescent literacy problem).

Oh, one more thing: yesterday, a teacher contacted me wondering what she could do for a severely dyslexic fourth-grader. She wanted me to weigh in, and told me which programs he had failed with and what he couldn't do. What she did not reveal is what he could do. I wrote back and told her that I could provide no help without an honest appraisal of what this young man could actually do with decoding, sight vocabulary, phonological awareness, fluency, listening comprehension, writing, vocabulary, etc. Teaching is different than doctoring... you rely even more heavily on what kids can do than on what they can't (we don't look for symptoms as much as strengths).

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Dyslexia Conference October 3

The Dyslexia Foundation is sponsoring an online conference on October 3. I am not part of this, but it can be accessed free and a few colleagues whom I deeply respect are presenting (Brett Milller, Laura Justice, and Rick Wagner); I don't personally know the other presenters, but they look to be good as well.

You can watch any or all of the presentations, and soon a DVD will be available. The link to Harvard's website for the live WEBCAST is

Once on Harvard's site look for the link that says "Webcast Info." On that page are the instructions on how to view their webcast (if you don't have Real Player, you will have to download it; there is a link at the site). It is best if you go on ahead of time just to make sure you have everything you need to see the broadcast.

Here is a brochure about the conference:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Interventions for Young Learning Disabled Children

Although I have designed instructional programs for teaching reading to older students who lag in learning, I have never tried to design a beginning reading intervention for such students. My AMP program skips phonics and phonological awareness not because I don't think these are critically important reading skills, but because most students in middle school and high school won't lag seriously in these skills. (I didn't say no older students struggle in these areas. A small percentage, maybe 1 in 7 of strugglng secondary school readers, still will need help with alphabetics. But even low middle school readers usually can read at 3rd grade level or above, and by that stage of reading development, phonics doesn't help much according to the National Reading Panel.

(My program can be found at:

Pearson Publishing also has supplementary phonics materials that could be used with those older struggling students).

But what about young readers who struggle (or older ones who are far below level)? It is estimated that more than 85% of those children have problems with the phonological aspects of reading; and instruction, if it is to be successful, is going to have to address these phonological problems explicitly and thoroughly.

Recently, I received a heart-rending letter from a mother with concerns about her daughter:

I located your name and vita on the internet and was hoping with your education background that you might be able to direct me to documentation that would be helpful towards making education decisions for my daughter. ________ hit her head on a fire hydrant at school and now has a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) and a Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD) diagnosis in 3 deficient areas: Auditory Decoding, Tolerance-Fading Memory, and Integration Type-1.

Are you aware of any data that compares Fast ForWord and Earobics Reach? Are you aware of any studies using either program (Fast ForWord [FFW] and Earobics Reach) for students with TBI and/or CAPD ?

_______ is 9 years old and currently has the auditory processing ability of a 5 year-old as a result of the accident.

Any information or guidance would be greatly appreciated.

An expanded version of my response follows.

Dear Mrs. ________:

I only know one study that directly compared Fast ForWord and Earobics...

Pokorni, J., Worthington, C., & Jameson, P. (2004). Phonological awareness intervention: Comparison of Fast ForWord, Earobics, and LiPS. Journal of Educational Research, 97, 147-157.
This study compared the performance of younger (7.5-9.0 years old) language-impaired poor readers. After 60 hours of training, there were no differences in any measure between Earobics and FastForward (the Lindamood-Bell group did a bit better on one measure of phonemic awareness, blending. But that was it: no reading or language learning differences among these groups.

Then, I checked the What Works Clearinghouse (this is the U.S. Department of Education site that reviews research evidence:
It listed one study of Earobics that met their research standards, and it reported small positive effects for Earobics on children’s learning of alphabetics and fluency, with no evidence of any impact on reading comprehension or writing. Fast Forword had six studies that met the WWC criteria, and these reported positive effects with regard to the learning of alphabetics and mixed effects for reading comprehension. (I also came across a new study on Fast Forword by Gilliam, et al., 2008 and it found no benefits to Fast Foword).

What these studies suggest to me is that both of these programs CAN have a positive impact upon students’ auditory processing skills (at least with regard to phonemic awareness), but that does not automatically transform into better reading achievement. It is not clear whether one of these program is actually "better" than the other given this evidence, but there is no reason from these research studies to conclude that one is consistently superior to the other (which mans that price and motivation should be big factors in the choice--if one costs much more than the other, save your money, or try out both programs with your daughter to see if she likes one better than the other).

Whichever of these programs may eventually be used with your daughter, it must be supplemented by a serious effort to teach her to read and write beyond the alphabetics work in these programs. Your letter does not tell her reading level, but given her age and auditory processing levels, I assume she is very low in reading. That would mean I would work hard to teach her beginning sight vocabulary (build up a long list of words that she can recognize quickly and easily, no matter what her alphabetic skills), involve her in lots of writing activities (with invented spelling where she tries to spell as she thinks the words sound), oral reading fluency work (reading while listening or repeated reading), and reading comprehension too (having her reading stories and trying to retell them or to answer questions about them).

It is important that students learn to decode (to sound out words), but those skills are only part of a larger constellation of skills that must be developed. Although for most children, the development of these phonological skills presage growth in oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing, with disabled children, sometimes these other skills precede and even support the development of the phonological skills. I recommend a full instructional response to your daughter’s needs—not just a targeted, surgical strike at the auditory problems that you describe.

Good luck to you.

Friday, December 21, 2007

What Do I Do about My Reading Disabled Son?

I often receive letters from parents or teachers with instructional concerns about reading. I received the follow plaint from a concerned mother:

     I have a son who had a hard time in Kindergarten and 1st grade. He didn't know his 
     alphabet when he left Kindergarten he went to summer school for 6 weeks in the       
     summer. When he started 1st grade this year he only knew a few of his letters and 
     numbers. In the past few months with extra help from his teachers, at home, I hired a 
     private tutor and bought a computer online program Head Sprout he now knows all of 
     his letters and their sounds so, he now can put words together to read. The School 
     wants to start Reading Recovery with him. He is a level 3. I guess the rest of the class 
     is at a level 10. Will that reading program benefit him? Is there more I can do at     
     home? I am very concerned about my son I want to do whatever I can to help him.

Here is my response:

Dear Concerned Mother:           No program with any integrity can guarantee educational success. However, Reading Recovery is a good approach that has helped many children, and so there is a real possibility that it could help. A colleague and I published a critical analysis of the research on Reading Recovery (Shanahan, T., & Barr, R. (1995). Reading Recovery: An independent evaluation of the effects of an early instructional intervention for at-risk learners. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 958-997). In that review, we determined that Reading Recovery was effective—though perhaps not as helpful as it proponents sometimes claim. There is a more recent analysis of some of the Reading Recovery research on the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse WWC Reading Recovery Report. They, too, concluded that Reading Recovery can help.

             So, given that research, if I were in your place, I would not hesitate to have my child placed in Reading Recovery. However, let me add a caveat to that. Although Reading Recovery is meant to be individually tailored to a child’s needs, there still has been a tendency for it to ignore phonics instruction or to downplay such instruction. This is unfortunate because perhaps 85% of children who are struggling with reading at this age level will have decoding problems. One study has even shown that adding a more direct version of phonics instruction to Reading Recovery can speed children’s learning gains (Iverson & Tunmer, 1993). So, I would not hesitate as a parent to approve a Reading Recovery placement, but I would hedge my bets by giving some additional phonics help at home (there are also research studies indicating faster Reading Recovery progress when parents provide additional help).
           I don’t know the program that you mentioned and it might be a good one for continued work in this area. There are some others that I think highly of and that I suspect you could make work at home, too. One is something called LeapFrog and the other is Earobics. Both of these are computer based and are designed for youngster’s your child’s age. They are both well-designed and should support sound continued decoding progress for the next year or two. If you do purchase something like that (or if the program you have purchased has lessons that will take your child through the vowel variations, etc.), I would suggest that you work with him on it, rather than just shunting him off to the computer. Better progress is almost sure to result.

          There is a book that you might want to read:
Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz. It can be of some assistance to you as well.

          One final caveat about Reading Recovery. Although it has been successful, it (like any other program) cannot ensure your son’s long term success. In other words, even if the above regimen catches him up this year, you will need to continue to be vigilant during coming years, making sure that sufficient attention is given to his reading so that he continues to succeed (reading problems are rarely “fixed” in that sense). Once he can really read stories and books, it would be helpful for you to listen to his reading and to guide his practice in rereading until he can do a really good job with a text.

Learning problems are rarely "cured," but they can often be overcome. Good luck to you.