Decoding Dyslexia: A Rose By Any Other Name

  • 16 December, 2015

Blast from the Past: First published December 16, 2015; re-issued September 13, 2017. This explanation of dyslexia seems especially pertinent given the recent documentary from American Public Radio (go to Publications: Audio/Video on this site to listen to that). It elicited a lot of comment at the time and the only thing I would change in it now is the estimate of the phonological/phonemic awareness role in reading problems. There are some more recent data in relatively large studies suggesting a somewhat lower incidence of these problems at least with some populations; that wouldn't change the overall thrust of this much, but it would be, perhaps, more accurate.


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?

Shanahan response:

          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?).
           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. (The research also suggests that is not the only problem--at least in the long run).
          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--that has not been true of other phonics-based approaches). 
           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 (though we don't know that yet).
          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 quite often an appropriate part of the solution.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Harriet Apr 10, 2017 08:14 PM

In Progress in Understanding Reading: Scientific Foundations and New Frontiers Keith Stanovich supports your conclusion. As for dysteachia, in Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us About How to Teach Reading, Diane McGuinness traces reading difficulties back to two sources: our English spelling system and how it is taught. In the introduction to McGuinness's Why Our Children Can't Read and What We Can Do About It: A Scientific Revolution in Reading, Steven Pinker says “Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on. This fact about human nature should be the starting point for any discussion of how to teach our children to read and write." That's why I teach letter sounds but not names.


Tracy Brazda Apr 10, 2017 08:15 PM


Thank you for mentioning Orton Gillingham. AFTER 16 years as an elementary general and special education teacher with a master's degree in curriculum and instruction and an educational specialist's degree in teaching reading, I discovered OG. It rocked my professional world, and I never looked back. In my experience, OG effectiveness is directly correlated with the therapist's training record. Have you knowledge of research that dis-aggregates OG success rates based on the amount of teacher training in the classic OG model? I have yet to meet the student fo whom a true OG approach failed.

Tracy Brazda
K-12 Instructional Coach
Carmel, IN

Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:15 PM

No, no such research has been reported. The one pattern that I have seen is the one mentioned in the post--when OG has not been effective in studies that I have read, the population of students has been especially disabled and it is unclear if anything else would have worked (or if a better trained contingent of OG instructors would have been any more effective).


Unknown Apr 10, 2017 08:16 PM

Dear Shanahan on Literacy - I run a dyslexia therapy center in Iowa, and I am an active member of Decoding Dyslexia. I want to thank you for being so honest in your article, and asking the deep questions that many in literacy have about dyslexia. Especially those who have not been trained in dyslexia, and are just starting to delve into this. I want to take the time to answer some of your questions. Dyslexia can be diagnosed by a Speech-Language Pathologist. At our clinic we give about 6-7 hours of testing, and we look at discrepancies in the child's listening comprehension and oral comprehension versus their reading comprehension. Most of our kids show a large discrepancy. We check phonological wiring using a state of the art test called the CTOPP2. Usually the kids show abnormally low skills in this. Then we use the Woodcock Johnson tests and a few others to measure their reading, writing, spelling and processing speed. From these tests, we can see a well-rounded picture of if the child has dyslexia. They usually have normal intellect, can comprehend what is being said in the classroom, but can not read, write and spell at a level that is indicative of their IQ. This is tell-tale dyslexia. Dr. Orton, who studied stroke victims, saw this same phenomena, and he developed his OG system to address the neurological weaknesses of dyslexia. When science could view the reading brain via fMRI's, it could see that his structured, systematic, multi-sensory approach to teaching the structure of the English language actually changed the wiring in the dyslexic brain and forced it to go to the left side area that is best for reading. These programs do work, because they do address the exact etiology of the disorder. We can see, without a doubt, from birth, that children with dyslexia, have a different brain structure. They have less neural wiring to the left side of the brain, and they have more wiring on the right side of their brain. When learning to read, their brain tries to use centers on the right side of the brain. Science has come to learn that the most efficient areas of the brain to use for reading is the left side. The OG programs force the student to have to start going over to the left side of their brain to read. Given 100-300 hours of OG, the child will build the wiring over to the left side of the brain, and begin to read this way. I get my research from Dr. Nadine Gaab, Dr. Joseph Torgesen, Dr. Stanislaw DeHaene as well as the Shaywitz's, Dr. M. Casanova, and Dr. MaryAnne Wolf. Google any of these researchers, and you can spend 7-8 years reading a plethora of fascinating data. I have two dyslexic, and one not. The dyslexic child had to learn how to read using an OG program. The non-dyslexic program was too much detail, an overload, not what she needed. When I tutor dyslexic kids, they may spend 12 months mastering the short vowel sounds and diagraphs (the severe ones). Yes, this is truly a wiring difference in the brain. The disorder does tell us how to teach. It tells us that a multi-sensory, systematic, cumulative and STUDENT-paced program will build the wiring to the most efficient centers in the brain to read. My son wanted to know why some words end in ck (like sock and luck), and others didn't (like junk and dark, and panic). We have 9 different ways to spell the long e sound in the English language (e, ey, y, ee, ea,ei, ie, e-e, and i). Currently our spelling programs try to teach this to kids in a matter of 2-3 weeks in a hodge-podge of methods. A dyslexic kid will spend months trying to sort through the logic and illogicalness of this spelling system.


Heidi Kroner Apr 10, 2017 08:17 PM

The OG based programs work, because they teach it systematically. But, because these children do have a wiring difference, they will take longer to master this than a kid without the wiring difference. If we teach OG to everyone, we will still have 80% of the children who pick it up fast, and the other 20%, the dyslexics, taking longer to master it. Not because it doesn't work, but because they are wired differently. We do know that whole word DOES not work with these kids. When we don't address the etiology of the condition, these children will max out their reading at around a 3rd-4th grade reading level, and never go past it because they will be reading with the right side of their brain, and that is the best that side can perform at. With an OG program, they will attain grade level reading because it forces them to build neural connections to the left side areas of the brain that are more efficient at reading. I hope this helps answer your questions. Google "Catch them before they fail" by Dr. Joe Torgesen. Excellent article. The National Reading Panel states that OG works, its just the literature doesn't call it OG. They call it "multi-sensory, systematic, cumulative, and student paced" and even then I am forgetting the fifth description for the program when they don't call it OG. Heidi Kroner, please feel free to contact me.


Kelli Apr 10, 2017 08:17 PM

It will probably surprise some people, but I agree with much (not all) of what you are saying. I have recently tried to remind the dyslexia community that we should not be naming interventions, we should be describing them. We also have to remember that it is not human nature for one intervention to work for everyone. While I have personally seen OG work better for my students than anything the school provides, I also think Structured Word Inquiry (not a program, but an approach) is equally as powerful and has the added bonus of being more accurate about how the English language is actually structured, it's morphophonemic, not an alphabetic principle. One thing you did not address is that the intervention is only part of the equation, if a teacher is not knowledgeable about dyslexia and/or how English is structured, just handing him or her a script is not going to help.Teacher awareness is a huge missing component. They need to understand why consistency and explicitness are so important. Then there is the issue of the influence of Reading Recovery on our teacher training, that is not helpful for kids with dyslexia yet widely used. In my experience most teachers do not know how to help these kids but desperately want to learn. A teacher who is educated about dyslexia could be the one person who is the difference between that student's academic failure or success. I trust teachers and I think we owe it to them to share with them what we know about English and how to teach it to struggling readers and spellers. Universities need to step up the training in this area or nothing will ever change. The bottom line is that students are struggling in schools in every district in this country and they don't need to be, let's just get them some quality intervention based on English orthography. Lastly, this article is very reminiscent of another one posted by ILA that also stated, let's get passed what to call it and just help:


Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:18 PM


Thanks for your comments. The point that you make about the importance of understanding the structure of English is one that I'm on the fence about. As a teacher and teacher educator, I'm very pro-knowledge (teachers should know everything--wish that we did). Some of my dearest colleagues are big proponents of your position (writing books on it, providing such training). However, to be as honest as possible, I know of no research study that has found any benefit from that level of understanding--many studies, more than 100 with young children and disabled readers--showing the benefits of various regimen of teaching decoding, but none that manipulated the amount of teacher knowledge about the language. That doesn't make your point wrong, but I personally will continue to approach that issue with greater caution.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:18 PM


Some misinformation in your comment: (1) No, the National Reading Panel did not conclude that O-G worked, nor did it conclude that multi-sensory programs necessarily worked. In fact, if you look at the studies reviewed by NRP on this topic, the few studies that were not supportive of systematic phonics instruction were studies of O-G. I helped write that part of the report. In fact, there is some very persuasive evidence showing how confusing multimodal approaches can be done by Joanna Williams, another member of the NRP. (2) At the time Samuel Orton was doing his work (100 years ago), scientists believed that memory was stored in both the left and right cerebral cortex. According to Orton, the reason that dyslexics saw words backwards was due to processing the information with the wrong cortex. We now know that dyslexics do not see mirror images of words, and that memory and the brain don't work like that. The idea that the problem is in one particular location in the brain is not consistent with the science (many neurological differences have been identified consistently and they are not all in the left cerebral cortex). Who knows, but my money is on Maryanne Wolf's explanation that it is an information coordination problem (involving the temporal combination of signals from multiple parts of the brain).

Heidi Kroner Apr 10, 2017 08:19 PM

I think that what really matters is you find the kids who are having a hard time with reading, writing and spelling, and you work with them till you find the method that works. At my center, we find kids who show a profile where OG will work with them, and that is what we teach them. We do look for a specific profile, and I have had wonderful results getting 10th graders reading at a 4th grade reading level to be reading at a 12th grade level in a period of 18-24 months. I have done this with multiple kids. Do we catch all of Do we catch those that will benefit from OG? Yes, and we give them what works for them. I guess in the end that is what matters. Find the starfish, and throw them back in the ocean. I am in business because the schools are not doing this. I only serve the upper middle class because that is all that can afford it. Hopefully, I will get through the paperwork to scholarship some of our services, and help more. But right now, I am helping some starfish. We do look for a specific profile, and we give to them what works based on their profile. We need to work together to fix the problem of 25% of 12th graders not reading at grade level, and stop picking each apart over who's science is right. I'm for helping starfish. You can rake the scientists over the coals from your ivory tower. Heidi Kroner


Heidi Kroner Apr 10, 2017 08:19 PM

HI Tim - Yes, I think the brain science is far from over. I really liked a study by this Dr. Manual Casanova that takes off on the RAN/RAS studies showing that neurons in some brains are thicker and longer, and thus the gyral area of the brain where the neurons come out is bigger, and this may cause the brain to structure differently. The big question is why, evolutionarily does the brain structure differently in people? We are only noticing this phenomena because it is impacting reading, writing and spelling. The larger, thicker neuron idea, forcing the brain to structure differently is very intriguing, and its affect on RAN/RAS. It may also tie into AD/HD and the co-morbidity with dyslexia. It ties into Dr. Gaab's latest research on the structure of the brains of newborns. I think, maybe we all get so polarized, because when we all want kids to read, and when we see something work for some kids, we want that for all kids. And, when we see what we do work, we are passionate for what worked for us. We can all keep plugging away, and trying to find what works. I like OG. It works for the kids we tutor at my center. But, we actually screen kids and look for a specific profile that we know will respond to this treatment. Heidi Kroner. Sorry I got snarky in the last response. Heidi Kroner 12/17/15

Kelli Apr 10, 2017 08:20 PM

Just to play Devil's Advocate, do we really need research to know that those who are teaching reading and spelling need to understand the underlying structure of English to teach it, especially to our most struggling readers? In my experience, I have been floored by the fact most educators in resource positions don't know syllables types, let alone understand the starring role morphology and etymology play in English. They don't understand why a student might write as * and they can't explain why there is a in , I don't think we need research to know that if we are going to teach it, we must understand it. Without that understanding they can't be explicit in their teaching and they are left to follow a script - where is the actual teaching in that scenario?

Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:20 PM


It's a fair question, Kelli. My take is that to provide the kind of teacher knowledge of English that some envision it is fairly expensive, and one wonders how knowledgeable those teachers are at the end of the day. But, yes, it would be very interesting to find that if teachers had a course of study on the English language that they taught students more effectively. It would make it easier to argue for such an expense. On the other hand, if teachers following a good program that they were trained to teach did equally well, then one might not try to provide such an extensive amount of background training. (I wouldn't be willing to pay for a study on whether teachers who are trained to use a particular program would do better than those who didn't have such training, but I would definitely be interested in whether that kind of background knowledge led to significantly better teaching.)

thanks. 12/17/15

Cheryl Apr 10, 2017 08:21 PM

To quote Dr. Louisa Moats from webinar Wanted: Teachers with Knowledge of Language recorded February 18, 2014 by the Upper Midwest Branch of the International Dyslexia Association,

“One of the key aspects of the definition of dyslexia that we commonly use are that poor readers with the symptoms of dyslexia are typically, and notice that word typically, are not wired for phonological processing and/or automatic word recognition. And why do we use the word typically? Because there are students who experience reading difficulties that don’t necessarily involve overt problems with phonology, but that involve fluency in text reading and/or that involve access to critical language constructs that enable them to comprehend, so reading difficulties are not simple, and they tend to be more complex than we want them to be. (minute mark 6:55-7:58)

Reading difficulties should be differentiated. Dyslexia often is associated with problems with phonologically based word recognition, but the reality is that dyslexia also includes a subgroup of fluency based problems and problems with memory for words so that words are not recognized quickly and words are not recalled accurately for spelling. And we have underestimated both the prevalence of that subtype and the difference in methodologies that are required for that subtype. And then language comprehension problems overlap with these so that many students who deserve the label of dyslexia often have co-existing problems with language comprehension, with language processing, with language expression and that is why the word dyslexia is such a good word because it means difficulty with language. So if what we are talking about, whether it is in more specific terms or more general terms, pertaining to all of the kids who struggle with reading, and that is a very large proportion, at least 1/3, it is much more than the 5-10% as ever getting the label dyslexia. If we, as professionals, are going to be ready to really teach this population in a way that they can learn and we can move them ahead and facilitate their progress with this otherwise difficult thing, we need to be prepared to help all of these subgroups and identify all of these subgroups.” (minute mark 19:05-21:00)


Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:22 PM

These claims are fine, but they are not agreed upon by such experts as Joe Torgersen or Reid Lyon. These percentages of dyslexics runs far higher than any study would lead one to believe. I don't like made up statistics. These are made up and there is no source nor reasoning nor outside study being referred to. It's like when cab drivers tell me that half the people they drive are retarded. It might be true, but given actual data it seems a little hyperbolic. I'm not arguing whether Louisa said that, but as you see she provides no basis for the claims.


Cheryl Apr 10, 2017 08:24 PM

There seems to be a huge knowledge gap between what researchers know about how to teach reading effectively to ALL students, and what teachers know and actually employ in the classroom when teaching reading.

As Louisa Moats said, "teachers, not programs, teach students to read. The fundamental variable here is the teacher, and the teacher's knowledge, skill, and dedication to the implementation of the instruction. It is really hard work, it takes: time, energy, know-how, support, and good tools."

It is the teacher's knowledge, or lack thereof, which is a huge variable. Teachers cannot be expected to teach what they themselves have not been taught, and many are lacking knowledge in the structure, orthography, and morphophonemic nature of the English language. Many have not been exposed to the science of reading, many have little to no understanding of where the breakdowns in reading may occur and how to address them, and even fewer understand the crucial role that language processing plays in not just reading, but literacy.

Language is the crucial, underlying skill required for reading. If there is a breakdown anywhere in the processing of language, reading will be impacted. Deficits in language, whether they stem from underlying language processing problems like dyslexia, or word gap due to lack of exposure from poverty/environment, need to be addressed to ensure students become proficient readers.

Students with dyslexia are like the canaries in the coal mine. If the canaries were alive, the air was safe for the miners to breathe. The type of evidence-based, explicit, systematic, structured language instruction that is crucial for the success of dyslexic students also improves the literacy skills of ALL students.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:24 PM


What makes me think this is an argument against research. Let's not try to actually understand these things, but let's just assert them with feeling. Researchers and practitioners usually disagree on that kind of strong ideological belief as well.


Harriet Apr 10, 2017 08:25 PM

I agree when you say that "if teachers following a good program that they were trained to teach did equally well, then one might not try to provide such an extensive amount of background training." I have had success training the K-2 teachers at my school to use the phonics booklets I've put together which cycle through activities that reflect the three principles of our alphabetic code: 1) Letters are pictures of sounds; 2) There is variation in the code (10 ways to represent the /ee/ sound; 3)There is overlap (the spelling "ow" can represent either /ou/ or /oe/. It's not easy, but it's simple.

Kelli Apr 10, 2017 08:25 PM

Building on Cheryl's comments, what about the fact that educators are still teaching the alphabetic principle when we know (and linguists have always known) that English orthography is not based on syllables, but based on morphemes? If we are truly going to help these kids with, whatever we decide label their reading and spelling struggles, why don't we teach English as it actually is instead of how we wish it were (I can't take credit for that last statement, I heard it somewhere regarding the morphophonemic system of English and it was spot on). The research on teaching morphology to the youngest and most at-risk does exist. This goes back to professors of teaching not even understanding this fact about English. It is bordering on irresponsible. Reading and spelling teachers should be trained by linguists so they can teach with accuracy and beginning in kindergarten.

Kelli Apr 10, 2017 08:26 PM

If this comment were true, 'if teachers following a good program that they were trained to teach did equally well, then one might not try to provide such an extensive amount of background training' then kids in special education for reading and spelling issues would not spend their entire academic career there. If good scripts worked, these kids would be in and out of special ed in no more than 3 years and if done early, would step foot in special ed. A script without background knowledge is like a surgeon without medical school - it's dangerous.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:26 PM


The issue is how much knowledge and knowledge of what do teachers need to know to teach reading successfully, including to dyslexic students. The difference between what medical researchers know about particular parts of the body and particular treatments and what physicians know could fill a book--but the physicians are able to carry out the regimens of treatment successfully anyway. If there were proof that completing the LETTRS training or some comparable regime led to better achievement on the part of kids, then I'd be for it.


Lex Apr 10, 2017 08:27 PM


Your comments about dyslexia and the word "dyslexia" are appreciated in my corner. I refrain from offering an opinion on what schools do or don't do with it, but your discussion on it here is clear and well-supported.

I would like to address your claims about teacher knowledge of the writing system. You said in your response to Kelli, "I know of no research study that has found any benefit from that level of understanding--many studies, more than 100 with young children and disabled readers--showing the benefits of various regimen of teaching decoding, but none that manipulated the amount of teacher knowledge about the language."

I'd really appreciate it if you could specify what you mean by "that level of understanding." Kelli mentions that English is "morphophonemic." Is that the "level" of knowledge you know of no research about? And, are you saying that you know of no specific research that addresses the need for teachers of literacy to understand the writing system they are teaching? Or that you know of no specific research that shows outcomes for children who study the writing system as it is (morphophonemic)? I'm not sure that Kelli specified a "level" of knowledge that teachers need -- she simply stated a fact about the writing system. Why would one ever suggest that teachers of literacy don't need the most basic fact of the English writing system: that is it organized and delimited by morphology?

Your own piece says that English is an "alphabetic" language, but that says nothing about its actual orthography. It uses an alphabet. So what? So do Turkish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Finnish, and Hmong -- most of them use the same alphabet as English -- but none of those have a fig to do with English. The fact that English uses an alphabet is not the point; the point is HOW does English use the alphabet? What purpose(s) do the letters serve? The linguistic evidence is that phonology is only one of the purposes of the writing system of English, and not the primary one. How many studies do we need to argue that teachers of literacy should understand that letters can do more than just reflect phonology?

The vast majority of the studies you reference "showing the benefits of various regimen of teaching decoding" are based on a flawed understanding of the writing system: the erroneous assumption of phonological primacy. When the researchers who design these studies misapprehend the writing system themselves, of course they won't recognize that the teachers that are leading children in "decoding" exercises are totally misapprehending it too.

Here's a really good way for a field to get stuck in neutral: decide that teachers don't need to understand what they're teaching because there are no studies proving that they need to understand it.

While researchers figure all this out, I'll be studying the eye-opening facts of English orthography with any and all interested parties. The good news is that the writing systems works the same way regardless of one's age, ability, or "level" of knowledge.

Thanks for your consideration.


Unknown Apr 10, 2017 08:28 PM

You don't have to publish this...I just want to give you food for thought. I have two more comments. First, the dyslexic learner, as defined now, will take longer to teach and become a skilled reader, no matter what program is used...LETTRS, Wilson, Barton, Phonics, etc. And the teachers trained to teach them, do need extensive training, because the severe ones are hard to teach, and the mild ones, will take off too fast, and the un-experienced teacher will not spend enough time in the early levels to keep them from developing reading patterns that won't serve them long term. Teachers who want to teach these kids, need more than one class. What the dyslexic community would at least like, is enough education so that teachers can spot those at risk, and ask that they be tested outside the school, instead of passing them from grade to grade, hoping they will "outgrow" their problem. We often debate this at our center...can the gen ed classroom ever teach the moderate to severe ones successfully, if they are not separated out, because these kids take some intense work in sound-to-symbol, and the severe ones, even more. However, the way special ed is structured now, the teachers are pulled in way too many directions, and in rural areas like Iowa, they serve too many different disabilities in one setting, and give no one what they truly need. Plus they have very few tools in their tool box to teach the dyslexic reader, due to lack of acknowledgement of the disorder, as we know it, at the University level. My second comment is we track the standard scores of all of our students...both at intake, and once a year. We have about 70 kids in our database. Not all of our dyslexic kids have RAN/RAS issues. I would estimate 50% do. Some of our students who have classic dyslexic symptoms, as defined by the IDA and ASHA, have RAN/RAS scores (CTOPP2, WJIV and RAN/RAS) well above SS 100. I can't wait till we have enough data to do some good studies on our own data. Anyway, food for thought.


Heidi Kroner Apr 10, 2017 08:28 PM

One more anecdotal story. One of my colleagues was a SPED teacher in an urban Iowa area, grades K-3. She did that for about 7 years. She then was moved to Jr. High SPED, and she had all her old students back. She was so surprised, because she thought "she had fixed them" years ago. That is when she began researching dyslexia to find out why the programs she used in K-3 didn't fully solve the problem. Heidi Kroner


Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:29 PM


There are a number of claims out there that teachers need to have an extensive knowledge of the history and structure of the English language if they are going to teach decoding or beginning reading successfully. They definitely have to be able to hear the sounds and recognize what sounds match up to particular letters or spelling patterns, and understanding some basic information about syllables and morphemes would make a lot of sense too. The issue really comes down to how much of this kind of knowledge is needed. Few teachers have it, of course, and most kids learn to read--so the issue is if we were to add a couple of graduate level courses in such training to their development, would their students do better or not?

tim 12/18/15

Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:29 PM


That anecdote plays out a number of ways... for example, NICHD found that it was possible through early intervention to help dyslexic children to decode effectively... but, nevertheless, they continued to lag later on with comprehension. It is unknown whether this later lag is due to a Matthew effect (that is, since these kids could not read early on, they didn't get as much language development as their peers and this holds them back) or whether there are really multiple disabilities or limitations in the processing of language, phonological processing just being one of these. This says to me that anyone who thinks a particular phonics program alone will fix the problem haven't seen what these first-graders look like when they get to seventh grade.

Kelli Apr 10, 2017 08:30 PM

I would really love to hear your response to LEX's comment:

'Your own piece says that English is an "alphabetic" language, but that says nothing about its actual orthography. It uses an alphabet. So what? So do Turkish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Finnish, and Hmong -- most of them use the same alphabet as English -- but none of those have a fig to do with English. The fact that English uses an alphabet is not the point; the point is HOW does English use the alphabet? What purpose(s) do the letters serve? The linguistic evidence is that phonology is only one of the purposes of the writing system of English, and not the primary one. How many studies do we need to argue that teachers of literacy should understand that letters can do more than just reflect phonology?

The vast majority of the studies you reference "showing the benefits of various regimen of teaching decoding" are based on a flawed understanding of the writing system: the erroneous assumption of phonological primacy. When the researchers who design these studies misapprehend the writing system themselves, of course they won't recognize that the teachers that are leading children in "decoding" exercises are totally misapprehending it too.'

Isn't it worth some investigation - not research - but investigation into actual linguistics.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:30 PM


The definition of "alphabetic language" is a language that uses an alphabet to represent phonemes (as opposed to syllables or morphemes).


LEX Apr 10, 2017 08:31 PM

Thank you for responding. I'm not sure where you find the claim that teachers need "extensive knowledge of the history and structure of the English language," but it wasn't in my post or in my work. The problem isn't that teachers don't have "an extensive knowledge;" it's that they lack even the most basic knowledge about how English works.

Years of studies and metanalyses offer compelling, convergent evidence that morphological study, even at a basic level, benefits all learners, especially the youngest and the most at risk. That's the same youngest and at-risk learners that you suggest can get by with teachers who target "decoding" and really don't (need to) know how the writing system works. How can they study the morphological basics if their teachers don't understand them? The "sounds" (phonemes) represented by "letters and spelling patterns" (graphemes) are constrained and delimited by morphemes. That's not a program or an approach or an opinion; it's an uncontested, demonstrable, empirical fact. And it's not a fact that most teachers, or researchers (as evidenced by your comments) are even remotely aware of.

You also articulate that many folks don't know what "first-graders look like when they get to the seventh grade." That is so true -- when all we do is decode, we misrepresent the writing system and end up with 7th graders (and beyond) who may be able to read, but who can't spell and can't engage deeply with writing. When you say, "most kids learn to read," you're assuming that the only desired end of accurate language study is "learning to read." I respectfully disagree. For starters, we do a poor job of achieving proficiency in spelling, script, grammar, and composition; anyone who's taught a college course knows that. A populace that can read but not write well can only consume the public discourse, not contribute to it. That's not literacy; that's only half-literacy. The phonological bias is only one from which this body of research suffers; the other is a readingward bias that too often treats spelling like the hired help.

If people need to be able to "hear the sounds" to learn to read, then how do deaf people learn to read? Which "sounds" do people need to be able to hear? Whose pronunciation? I can read Italian and understand it, but I am not sure how it's pronounced. A colleague can pronounce Korean text correctly, but has no idea what it means. Which one of us is "reading"?

You continue to walk right in step with the assumption of phonological primacy by placing "decoding" and "beginning reading" together. But to teach "decoding" (that is, orthographic phonology) absent a morphological framework is to misrepresent the writing system to its youngest and most at-risk learners. And to claim otherwise is to ignore the growing body of research into morphological instruction and intervention that demands the attention of any serious literacy researcher who plans to still be in the field 10 years from now. Literacy researchers who are looking forward are looking at morphology; researchers who continue to insist on phonological primacy are, more and more, just looking backwards.

You frame the issue as "how much of this kind of knowledge is needed." This is a straw man; the real issue is how much it's okay for teachers, teacher educators, and researchers to continue to misunderstand and misrepresent how English works to its youngest and most at-risk learners. How the writing system works is really not up for grabs any more than how planetary orbits or logarithms work. The teachers who taught the children in the studies that show clear evidence of the benefits of morphological study. How might you propose these children learned morphology if their teachers didn't study it?

Thanks again for your consideration and open dialogue. I appreciate it.


LEX Apr 10, 2017 08:32 PM

Tim, sorry, but an "alphabetic language" can also use alphabetic letters to represent syllables (consider the monosyllable 'I' or the Spanish 'y') or morphemes (the suffix es -s, -t, and -a; the prefixes a- and e-; the base element 'd' in 'date' and 'condiment' and many other words). Just because 'I' is a single phoneme doesn't mean it's not also a syllable.

An "alphabetic language" can also use alphabetic letters to mark etymological information, as in 'doubt,' 'two,' or 'island.'

English does all of those things, as I demonstrate above.

Not only that, but "alphabetic languages" can and do use alphabetic letters to represent things like tone (Hmong does this), or phonological effects on other graphemes (like the 'i' in 'special' or that weird Turkish 'g'). "Alphabetic languages" can and do also use many characters that are not in the alphabet; for example, the apostrophe in English is part of the possessive suffix, and many other alphabetic languages use diacritics.

Moreover, some "alphabetic languages," like Arabic or Hebrew, do not represent all their phonemes with letters. Vowels are part of the phonology, but not always part of those alphabetic orthographies.

Your definition of an "alphabetic language" as "a language that uses an alphabet to represent phonemes (as opposed to syllables or morphemes)" is not only inadequate; it's demonstrably false.

I'm sorry, but how does continuing to teach and promote a demonstrably false "definition" help teachers, students, or researchers? You've written a blog post here on definitions and the use of words like "dyslexia" -- shouldn't we be careful how we use the word "alphabetic" and the word "definition" too?


Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:33 PM

We are disagreeing. Let's be clear on the alternative claims:
I'm saying that we don't know how much teachers need to know about language to teach phonology, orthography, and morphology successfully. You are challenging that position and saying teachers need to know a lot of that kind of information (though you are not specifying how extensive a program of linguistics would be required). Your evidence intrigues me. Yes, you are right that there are many studies of the teaching of morphology, and the studies show that such teaching has a clear impact on beginning readers, particularly with regard to word recognition, but a much lower impacts on the reading of older students, and and no positive significant outcomes with reading comprehension or writing (counter to your claims). The kicker however is that the studies with positive results did not provide the teachers with extensive courses of linguistic training. On that basis I could argue that no such training is needed. That isn't my position. I'm saying that the effectiveness of those programs of study being sold to schools aimed at providing teachers with extensive knowledge of language structures have not been studied. Your arguments for why such training must be effective is charming, but not persuasive, just like your notion that early attention to phonology and orthography is misplaced (there is just too much empirical evidence to dismiss it like that).


Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:34 PM


Alphabetic languages use an alphabet to refer to the pronunciation of a language. That doesn't mean there is a one-to-one relationship between each letter of an alphabet and the phonemes of a language. Linguists typically contrast alphabetic languages with logographic languages.

good luck.


LEX Apr 10, 2017 08:35 PM

We are indeed disagreeing. You continue to focus on claims *that I am not making* about methodology and teacher training. I have made no claims about teacher training or methodologies; only claims about how the writing system works and doesn't work, and about metanalytical evidence about the benefits of morphological instruction/intervention.

My discussion about "alphabetic languages" doesn't assert anything about one-to-one anything; it takes exception with your claim -- and I quote -- that an alphabetic language "uses an alphabet to represent phonemes (as opposed to syllables or morphemes)." I'm very familiar with the traditional divide that educators make between alphabetic and logographic languages; however, this false binary that has such a foothold in reading education really isn't a big part of linguistic discourse, which also discusses syllabaries, semi-syllabaries, and segmental writing systems other than true alphabetic systems (like abjad or abugida systems). I get that this level of linguistic discourse is beyond most educators; that doesn't make it okay to continue making false claims about what linguists actually understand, let alone about what language is doing.

Finally -- and this is key -- I never said that early attention to orthographic phonology is misplaced; I said that unless it's built upon a morphological framework, it's going to be erroneous. This kind of error is all over the place in reading programs that think there's an 'ie' digraph in 'cried,' or that 'does' is an irregular word. My claim is that the 50+ years of phonological studies we have rest on a misapprehension of the structure and purpose of written English. I get that a lot of people have built their whole career on a foundation of this flawed understanding of English and it's scary for people to have to question what they already believe to be true. But that's not science.


Jason Volmer Apr 10, 2017 08:35 PM


Thanks for your article. I find it sad that we have to label students as dyslexic (even though I self-identify as someone with dyslexia), in order to get them explicit, systematic decoding instruction. That said, I have personally come to the conclusion that it appears to be necessary. 36 years ago as a 3rd grader I was taught reading in the 1st grade classroom. My mother fought to get me explicit instruction from a good teacher (fortunately one of those 1st grade teachers was one by the time I was in 3rd grade). We knew then and now how to successfully teach struggling readers. In the absence of people lobbying for a specific approach education systems have often done more of what has not worked in the first place, mistakenly thinking that more of what works for some will work for all. So, after 36 years, I have concluded that even NCLB has not caused systems to effectively implement what we know about reading for students who struggle (although it got a lot better in manny places). Now, speaking for myself, I have decided that if jumping on the Dyslexia wagon can help ensure that all students that need it get some sort of systematic explicit instruction in decoding—so be it. I am fortunate to be in a position to make sure the students in our district will receive the instruction they need. I do not think OG is the only way, but it is a good one. What is most important is that we be relentless in problem solving until we achieve for each student. I do not believe there are many we cannot teacher to read if we do all we can. The challenge is managing systems at scale to reliably do that. As the Coordinator of Special Education for a district I am pleased to have the opportunity to lead a system in this improvement effort.

I hope your excellent description of the research and issues involved will enlighten many.



Peter Bowers Apr 10, 2017 08:36 PM

I'm a late comer to the discussion between LEX and Tim here. I'd like to add some thoughts building on my own extensive research and instructional practice in this exact area. Understanding the interrelation between morphology and phonology that is central to this discussion requires examples to explain so this response is necessarily a bit lengthy in order to be effective. I've divided my comments in to parts. This is a key discussion in the literature. Thank you for offering this forum for discussion.

Tim wrote to LEX:

"Your arguments for why such training [in extensive linguistic orthographic understanding] must be effective is charming, but not persuasive, just like your notion that early attention to phonology and orthography is misplaced (there is just too much empirical evidence to dismiss it like that)."

I'm taking your use of the phrase "phonology and orthography" to mean "letter-sound correspondences". Is that fair?

Regardless, I know that LEX in no way suggests that instructional attention about how phonology is represented by the orthography is unimportant. It seems clear to me that the basic premise LEX is putting forward is this: literacy instruction should accurately represent how our writing system works.

If we accept that premise, instruction should not result in the foundational misunderstanding that the primary purpose of spelling is the representation of sounds. Instead, instruction should represent the fact that meaning representation is the overarching purpose of English spelling (see C. Chomsky, 1970; N. Chomsky & Halle, 1968; Venezky, 1967, 1970, 1990). Of course one of the means by which this purpose is achieved is via conventions for grapheme-phoneme correspondences. The position that accurate instruction of grapheme-phoneme correspondence should be a basic feature of formal instruction from the start of formal literacy instruction is in line with LEX's recommendation of instruction -- but is sadly this is not possible through instruction which fails to teach how grapheme-phoneme correspondences operate within the context of our morphophonemic language.

For example, ask any student (or teacher) what the most common way to write /z/. Almost all who have had phonics instruction/training will say Z -- despite the fact that Z is by far the most common way to represent this phoneme.

Just one way to introduce this idea from the beginning of schooling is to teach words like CATS and DOGS with word sums (DOG + S --> DOGS and CAT + S --> CATS). With that orthographic structure established, we can investigate the phonemes represented by this final S. We find that in CATS the final S represents /s/, but in DOGS it represents /z/. When we ask students why we use S rather than Z for the /z/ in DOGS, we can discover that we use the S as a suffix to mark "more than one" no matter how it is pronounced. (Note: The -S suffix is only one context in which the S grapheme represents /z/, but it offers a productive place to introduce this grapheme-phoneme correspondence in a meaningful context.)

However, most students and teachers refer to /z/ as the " sound". How can that be helpful? Do I need research to show that teachers should not use the phrase "Z sound" to refer to a phoneme that is overwhelmingly represented by the Z grapheme?

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. What children are taught to think of as the "T sound" is represented by the D in words where the -ED suffix is pronounced /t/ (I suspect a third of the time). What is regularly called the "SH sound" is commonly represented by the T grapheme in words like ACTION, the C in MUSICIAN, or the SS in DISCUSSION. How could referring to this phoneme as the “SH sound” help a student understand their spelling?

(Comment continued in Part 2)


Peter Bowers Apr 10, 2017 08:36 PM

Part 2: Continued from previous comment...

Instruction that teaches spelling as though it is a sound representation system can’t explain countless spellings. Thus in phonics instruction, words like DOES and SIGN are taught as though they are irregular. But actually, when a hypothesis fails to account for data -- scientists should not be blame the data for being “irregular”. Instead of calling these words “exceptions”, we should see such words (and countless other spellings) for what they are -- falsification of the hypothesis that spelling is primarily a sound-representation system.

We can invoke Carol Chomsky’s (1970) point that a morpheme does not have a pronunciation until it is in a word -- and show that DOES is just the base spelled DO with an -ES suffix. Consider DO + ES and DO + ING which parallels GO + ES and GO + ING. Just like we don’t know how the -ED suffix is pronounced until it is in a word, we don’t know how the base spelled DO is pronounced until it is in a word. Similarly, the base SIGN uses this spelling regardless of its pronunciation (DE + SIGN; SIGN + AL).

Again, I cannot imagine that misrepresenting DOES or SIGN as irregular sight words that have to be memorized is justifiable once teachers understand these spellings. And understanding how phonology works in combination with morphology in these words is a doorway to understanding and teaching how the spelling system really works.

I will add one more comment regarding the research question next...


Peter Bowers Apr 10, 2017 08:37 PM

This is my third comment in response to the discussion between Tim and LEX. Here I focus on the research part of the discussion.

Tim wrote:

“...there is just too much evidence to dismiss it like that”

I take you to mean that LEX is dismissing the importance of the teaching of how the orthography represents phonology. First of all, I hope that I have made it clear (in the previous comment) that this is not what I read in LEX’s comments. Instead I take her argument to be this…

Literacy instruction should accurately represent how the writing system works from the beginning of instruction.

English is a morphophonemic language.

Thus it is a non-negotiable fact that for instruction to accurately represent how phonology is represented by the orthography -- it must explicitly address how orthography represents the interrelation of morphology and phonology.

Phonics instruction that teaches about letter-sound correspondences without reference to morphological or etymological constraints necessarily misrepresents how spelling works.

Secondly, I want to emphasize that I agree that there is a great deal of research evidence showing that literacy instruction that explicitly targets letter-sound correspondences is more effective that instruction which emphasizes the whole word level and under-emphasizes common sub-lexical letter-sound associations.

It is essential to acknowledge that this mound of evidence offers zero evidence about the effect of morphological instruction.

Here is the logical implication I draw from this evidence:

If instruction that targets something about letter-sound associations is more effective than instruction that does less of this -- we have an obligation to look at the effects of teaching orthographic phonology accurately. This means we need to test the effect of teaching how phonology operates in the presence of morphological and etymological constraints.

You are right that we don’t yet have research evidence of how best to teach morphology. But I can’t think of a rational argument to avoid teaching the interrelation of morphology and phonology as represented by orthography.

You rightly point out there is very little research evidence of an effect of morphological instruction on reading comprehension. This is striking since in predictive studies, untaught morphological knowledge predicts reading comprehension after controlling for major factors of reading including vocabulary and phonological awareness. However, we need to consider the quality of the morphological instruction in these studies. In the meta-analysis I was involved in (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010) we found that only 5 of the 22 studies we found even mentioned the interrelation of morphology and phonology.

And what did this meta-analysis and two by Goodwin and Ahn (2010, 2013) find? Contrary to the suggestion from Adams (1990) that morphological instruction may be a mistake for less able and younger readers -- we found that the less able and younger students gained the most from this morphological instruction. It’s worth keeping in mind that a decade after Adams suggestion, the National Reading Panel did not even mention the word “morphology”. And a decade later, hugely influential research-based approaches to helping struggling readers like RTI make virtually no reference to morphology in their instruction.

It seems to me that we are way past time of accepting the assumption -- now contradicted by the most current research -- that it is appropriate for literacy instruction to teach about phonology without reference to morphology.


Peter Bowers Apr 10, 2017 08:38 PM

And finally, I do know of one intervention that is the best test of the instruction that LEX and I are describing compared to phonics instruction that is considered to be “best practice”. Devonshire, Morris, & Fluck (2013) compared two treatments in 5-7 year-olds in the UK. One group received a researched based phonics treatment, while the other was taught about the interrelation of morphology, phonology and etymology with the help of word sums. The linguistically based intervention had significant effects over the phonics condition in standardized measures of spelling and word reading.

As far as I can see, whether we are talking about the phonics vs. whole language debate or this (oddly) new proposal of comparing phonics instruction to instruction which more closely represents how the writing system works -- literacy effects improve whenever the instruction more accurately represents how the writing system works. I’m interested in seeing more research on these questions, but I’m not going to wait on research for more confirmation that we should do whatever we can to deepen teachers understanding of the writing system.


Empower Learning Center Apr 10, 2017 08:38 PM

I am very late to this debate and discussion but have been following from afar within various groups with which I am affiliated, one being in the world of dyslexia as a parent, teacher, state leader and as a newly-minted, never looking back special education teacher who now teaches with structured word inquiry (see comments above by LEX, Kelli and Pete Bowers). While the research does not yet exist that may answer the proposed quest of how much teacher knowledge in the area of linguistics does a teacher need--I can certainly speak to this from a teacher's perspective and experience.
I have been a teacher for a little over 20 years in the field of Special Education at the elementary level (2 years in General Education 2nd gr). I've taught various OG methods and a wide variety of big-box programs in my career. I could see value in the OG programs and the benefits to my students but did not have enough time with students. OG is not for every student or teacher for that matter, if the many rules and exceptions and trickery to learn the phoneme-grapheme relationships is a challenge to remember, how effective is the instruction going to be?
Having a child with severe dyslexia was an eye-opening experience for me as an educator. I was fortunate to be my son's SE teacher and quickly saw that all the hard work I was doing as a teacher just wasn't cutting it. I could remove the biases and variables often attributed to students who just aren't progressing the way we expect because I was the parent and the teacher, I knew I'd given him the richest upbringing along with the richest knowledge & talent with a fully-vested teacher and parent and yet it wasn't enough. I began to learn all I could about dyslexia, none of which I was taught in my education courses/PD. This all led to better understanding of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. I thought I'd found all I needed, but as someone posted earlier, our students leave our classrooms at some point, except I have this lense with which I feel so privledged to look through, my son, who had gone onto middle school. So, again, I needed to find another way.
This quest, led me on a journey of discovering the most freeing and meaning-filled method of teaching: teaching how the written word works. In the year since I've been learning and using the knowledge I've gained about English as a morphophonemic language, my student gains in reading, spelling and self-esteem are the highest I have ever experienced in all my years. Since working with word sums and consistent, explicit evidence-based spelling conventions, my students feel so smart and make connections with words' meanings. The really amazing thing is they express their gratitude for learning so much knowledge.
So, back to the question of how much teacher training is needed ... so much more than we currently have but you can start teaching with the most basic knowledge. This has been a "learn as I go" year. I have invested in a handful of classes and resources this year and every one of them has deepened my understanding and led me and my students on a more well-traveled path. My students are intrigued at what we might learn, they are hooked on not having all the answers handed to them. We are free to hypothesize and find evidence to prove or disprove their theory about a spelling convention or a base word or affix. They are discovering their own knowledge and adding to it along the journey.
I used to believe English was an alphabetic/phonemic language, I do not believe that any longer and I have evidence of this belief and I know that my students are making better and deeper and richer gains because of it.
Lisa Barnett, SE Teacher, Founding Member of Decoding Dyslexia MI


Anonymous Apr 10, 2017 08:39 PM

I can't talk to all Dyslexia curriculum efficacy. But, Texas Scottish Rite Hospital in Dallas researches and has their curriculum documented.

Additionally, The state of Texas, has created a handbook. Not endorsing any given curriculum or diagnosis process; they have used the characteristics of Dyslexia and Comprehensive Dyslexia curriculum to create a process for early identification, appropriate remediation and ongoing accommodation of struggling readers based in the civil right that every child in America deserves Free Appropriate Public Education. In 2009, the ADA broadened their definition of a disability. A child who can not read at grade level is substantially limited in a major life activity (going to school 30 or more hours/week, being required to think, read, communicate and focus); therefore, children who struggle to read can be regarded as disabled and the school should be using appropriate curriculum to teach them to read.

How much training is needed? enough that the teachers can understand there are more effective methods beyond those taught in their universities and every child deserves to learn to read. Nationally, students can be retained for "not learning to read," therefore, even if they do not qualify for Special Education, shouldn't schools be interested in teaching children of at least average intelligence to read?


Peter Bowers Apr 10, 2017 08:39 PM

I'm so glad you shared your own personal story here Lisa. I will restrain myself and just make a couple of comments.

Firstly, I want to highlight your response the question of how much training is needed? I agree entirely with your "learn as I go" approach. It is exactly what I did, and exactly what I see the most successful teachers do. I think that this frame offers the only possible answer I can see to this question. Any new and more accurate understanding of how our writing system works that a teacher gains, offers better learning opportunities s for students. The danger of attempting to identify "how much" understanding is that it gives the impression that starting the process of teacher learning is not productive unless that threshold is reached. In line with your story and my own, I would suggest that one of the very earliest things teachers need to gain that is typically absent from education training is a confident understanding of the interrelation of morphology and phonology. Thus working with the matrix and the word sum is a useful early target for teacher learning.

Secondly, since a lot of my work is in the research world, I know that many would read your story and argue that this is anecdotal evidence, not real evidence. I understand that argument. I see lots of anecdotal evidence for claims that I judge to be without merit. So how much weight should a reader give to a personal story like this? My recommendation is that we treat stories like these as reason to investigate the ideas behind them further. Scientists should not draw conclusions on someone's account of a personal story. But you have added to the large evidence bank of individual stories of teachers claiming to have had much improved success when they take on the personal learning goal of deepening their understanding of the morphological, etymological and phonological influences of spelling. It turns out that the research that has looked at these questions corroborate your experience. We need more research to dig down deeper -- but personal stories like yours might be the spark that gets that effort going. Similarly, your personal story may be the spark that gets a teacher to have a go in their on context.

In either case. I'm so delighted that you have shared this inspiring story.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:40 PM

At the moment, there is no better answer than "learn as you go." However, in lots of endeavors folks have made a point of trying to figure out how much training is needed to actually do the job well. This has been true in some fields of medicine (since an undertrained pediatric neurologist will kill more people) and it has been true in determining how much training is needed for soldiers going into combat (since less training means higher mortality for the men themselves). Everyday state educational authorities, colleges and universities, and C&I and PD directors in school districts have to make determinations about how much training to require or to provide. It is a big investment and it makes sense to link decisions about it to children's outcomes.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:41 PM


Peter Bowers made a small mistake in one of his earlier postings and I didn't catch it before it was posted here. Normally that would be no big deal since most comments are short. However, in this case, his comment had to be divided into three postings and there have been comments since. Apparently there is no way for either of us to make the correction to the original (I could delete it, and start over, but that has its own problems.

In any event, here is the correction:

In the second last paragraph of Peter's first comment above "December 19, 2015 at 12:13 PM" he wrote the wrong grapheme in his discussion of the S and Z graphemes for /z/. Here is how that paragraph should read:

However, most students and teachers refer to /z/ as the " sound". How can that be helpful? Do I need research to show that teachers should not use the phrase "Z sound" to refer to a phoneme that is overwhelmingly represented by the S grapheme?


Tricia Skinner Gerard Apr 10, 2017 08:41 PM
Here is a study that shows which methodology works best. We need more like this one, perhaps HR 3033 READACT will provide.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:42 PM

I have my doubts about support for that kind of research... the feds appear to be cutting back on their funding of educational research, not increasing.


Rosie Apr 10, 2017 08:42 PM

My sister has dislexia and her son does as well. She struggled in school and in college. Her son is having the same experience that she did in school. He feels like he is incapable of doing well academically. He has an IEP for his learning problems, but now that he is in high school, he seems to be getting very little in terms of accommodations. His teachers are not understanding of his disability.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:43 PM


Dyslexia, being a brain-based disorder, is, not surprisingly, a genetically-linked condition. This problem does run in families.


Mary Apr 10, 2017 08:43 PM

Research indicates that explicit,systematic phonological awareness and phonics instruction taught by a teacher who has been trained and coached in the field will prevent a "dyslexia" diagnosis in all but about 5% of students. Bringing those 5% of students who truly have dyslexia to a 3rd or 4th grade reading level, is the greatest instructional challenge in the reading field. I've included a helpful link. Despite what the O-G people claims, there is a paucity of research on which explicit, systematic reading curriculum is more effective and from my experience, it depends upon the skills students bring to the school setting.

One of the biggest problems is that up to 30 -40% of students by middle school will "appear" to have dyslexia unless they had carefully designed early reading instruction. Special educators use the term “dysteachia” to describe why these students struggle to read. In the wealthy northern Chicago suburbs, Lindmood-Bell was used with a high success level among highly verbal students who initially struggled to read wtih its Socratic questioning methods. In a blue collar rural setting, I observed the structure of a Wilson RTI intervention have the same type of results. In high poverty urban settings, Direct Instruction (when the spelling programs, language programs, vocabulary, and writing programs as well as the decoding/phonological awareness programs are used) has had the same success.

Unfortunately, instruction in today's "balanced literacy" programs includes instructional components that ensure that these potentially “dyslexic” students will never be skilled readers. Many of these students have working memory issues, so learning letter names and letter sounds together results in them learning neither. Thus, intensive early reading programs that are effective, focus only on the letter sounds in the beginning, so these students can start reading. Later, once the sounds have meaning, the letter names will be easily learned. Many of these students need systematic phonological practice (first learning how to identify first sound in words, then learning how to identify first sound and vowel, then later identifying several sounds in a word and finally learning to manipulate them.) Their instruction in blending needs to be as systematic. Without that approach, they do not gain the needed PA skills. It often takes this group of students up to 50 encounters decoding (sounding out and reading) a word until that word is in long term memory followed by practice reading those words in decodable books where the words and decoding patterns in those words are repeated. Eventually, these children will process those words as units and be ready for reading long vowels, vowel combination, and multisyllabic words. Use of leveled rather than decodable books ensures that these students will not gain automaticity decoding words, because of they do not provide enough practice. Marilyn Adams has documented the damage that the 3-cueing strategy presents these students, since guessing is the hallmark of the struggling dyslexic reader. To teach those skills to these children is only to reinforce the difficulty that reading presents and cements in that guessing rather than automatic decoding. It is impossible to discuss Dyslexia without discussing Dysteachia or the percentages of children rise well above the 5% that we know are truly dyslexic.


Harriett Apr 10, 2017 08:43 PM

My year in kindergarten absolutely confirms Mary's point that "instruction in today's 'balanced literacy' programs includes instructional components that ensure that these potentially 'dyslexic' students will never be skilled readers. Many of these students have working memory issues, so learning letter names and letter sounds together results in them learning neither. Thus, intensive early reading programs that are effective, focus only on the letter sounds in the beginning, so these students can start reading." During my year of living dangerously, I asked myself whether and when I would introduce letter names. By the end of the school year, I realized that doing so would simply confuse my struggling students and teaching letter names was completely unnecessary for those children who were successfully cracking the code. Needless to say, it's been an uphill battle trying to get this message across, that what is essential for struggling readers is actually helpful for all beginning readers. Since we can't predict which students will go on to struggle, it makes most sense to teach in a way that prevents reading difficulties right from the beginning.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:44 PM


There are some confusions between letters and names, and yet, research does not appear to support this claim that teaching letter names and letter sounds together is problematic for dyslexics or other beginning readers. In fact, research shows just the opposite--adding letter names to a phonological awareness curriculum raises achievement significantly across the board.


Harriett Apr 10, 2017 08:44 PM

Tim, I'd love to look at the research you cite. I've been working with 24 struggling first graders this year, and only the three that came from my kindergarten class don't attempt to decode using letter names--which means I spend valuable time disentangling the confusion. Neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene, The Reading Brain (2009), states: "The names of letters . . . far from being helpful, may even delay the acquisition of reading . . . Letter names cannot be assembled during reading—the hookup only concerns phonemes. But phonemes are rather abstract and covert speech units. A true mental revolution will have to take place before the child finds out that speech can be broken down into phonemes." Since letter names are for the most part syllables, they can impede this process of "hooking up" with phonemes. I would love to look at the research you mention. I do know that most of the research on letter names shows correlation rather than causation, and my experiences last year certainly supported Dehaene's conclusions and made my teaching life easier since I could cut to the chase and focus on phonemes. Thanks.


Timothy Shanahan Apr 10, 2017 08:45 PM

Look at the report of the National Early Literacy Panel. You can find it online, and there are links to it on my website (on the right hand side, down under stuff i'm involved in). Many scholars (e.g., Venezky, Ehri, Dehaene) have weighed in with opinions over the years on the potential impact that letter names might or could be having on reading development. There are no studies of the impact of just teaching letter names, however (as you indicate most of the work on letter names has been done correlationally). However, there are studies in which phonological awareness/phonemic awareness is taught alone and other studies where it is taught accompanied by letters. The impact on learning is much higher when those are combined. Dr. Dehaene has his well-reasoned opinion, but it doesn't actually work that way in the English language when teachers teach children.


Harriett Apr 10, 2017 08:45 PM

Okay--excellent point and one that I definitely agree with. Yes, the research(especially that by Ehri) does show that reading acquisition is boosted when phonological awareness/phonemic awareness is taught accompanied by letters, and that's how I taught it to my kindergartners, but that doesn't mean the teacher has to use letter names. For example, instead of using the name "wy" when having students practice saying, writing and manipulating sounds, I displayed and referred to /v/, and I did this for all letters that we practiced. I love your last line. It is precisely because I was working with real children that I was very mindful of what I was doing and saying that might lead to confusion. When one of my struggling kindergartners wanted to write the word "toy" and asked me how to write the /oy/ sound, I didn't say "oe" "wy". I wrote "oy" on his white board and simply said this is what /oy/ looks like. Frankly, I find this emphasis on phonemes and how we represent them in English far less confusing for student and teacher alike. I will look up the Early Literacy Panel report. Thanks.


Harriett Apr 10, 2017 08:46 PM

Oops--correction. I meant instead of using the name "vee" I used /v/.


Harriett Apr 10, 2017 08:47 PM

Mary writes: "Marilyn Adams has documented the damage that the 3-cueing strategy presents these students, since guessing is the hallmark of the struggling dyslexic reader." I looked up this reference at and found the points that Adams makes raise the same concerns that I have had. If you are so inclined, I would love to see a blog post on this topic, especially given the current popularity of the Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention Program, which relies on the 3-cueing system. Thank you. Harriett


Luqman Michel Sep 14, 2017 04:20 AM

Hi Timothy,
I would be very grateful if you could elaborate on the following please:
:....the only thing I would change in it now is the estimate of the phonological/phonemic awareness role in reading problems."

Wish you well,

Darlene Bacon Sep 14, 2017 06:01 PM

Both my kids have dyslexia, yet expressed it differently. Over the years, I have purchased at least 7 reading programs: 100 lessons to teach your child to read (my daughter learned how to read with this; my son did not), Spell to Write and Read (Wanda Sanseri), The Writing Road to Reading (Romalda Spalding), I Can Read It! (John Holzmann), Phonics Pathways (Dolores G. Hiskes), Wilson Just Words Instructor's manual (more recent purchase), Words Their Way, Winning (Sue Dickson), and The Phonic Zoo (James B. Webster). I am working through these to develop lesson plans as well as the professional development list that the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators Society has on their website.

This past year, I went to O-G training, which brought what I was reading alive, and expanded my knowledge of morphology. Speech Language (how to position the mouth to say sounds), learning English as a second language, and linguistic videos have been extremely helpful on youtube. I am creating lesson plans starting from preschool (priming the ear for phonemic awareness) and beyond. My goal is to synthesize the different methods into a product that I am comfortable with teaching. It also empowered me to stop signing my son’s IEP because none of the accommodations addressed his phoneme/grapheme skills associated with low phonological skills.

While talking with another substitute teacher about the lack of knowledge I have experienced in the public schools for helping my son (his phonological needs were being address by reading his test aloud to him). She indicated Lindamood Bell was recommended to her when her daughter was young. Creating a costly consequence, we did the intensive training this summer and made great gains in decoding and confidence. Encoding, spelling, was not a part of instruction due to timing nor was writing. I had never heard of Lindamood Bell before, but was willing to give it a try based upon my own struggle (organization of thoughts for writing/speaking), and the desire to lessen my kids’ burden.

The kids and I did work on Wanda Sanseri's program last school term and the reviewing of spelling rules have been helpful. I continue to go back to her book because she uses less sight words and discuss the origin of words to explain their unique spelling.

Perseverance is my motto, yet I understand kids do not have that foresight and many times act out in response to frustration. Janice Dalton, a principal, would say: "kids do not come to school expecting to fail." I agree and feel we owe it to them to do better. I have learned to share my dyslexic experience with others because it lessons my burden to feel like I need to be perfect, and have learned to laugh at myself rather than be mortified that I still let a mistake(s) get away after many edits, get tripped up on words when I am talking or forget how to pronounce a word.

I was reprimanded for suggesting a kid may have dyslexia and on a separate occasion reprimanded for clarifying that phonological deficit was not the same as executive functioning. As a novice teacher, I’m learning as much as I can about this process because it is personal. I know most schools stop teaching how to read in 3rd grade, so if a student has phonological issues pass this point, It does not seem productive to wait for a doctor to label it as such. Just as we screen students for gifted classes, it has been proven that those who have problems with phonological skills in first grade are predicated to struggle later. It would be wise to have at least thirty percent of our teachers at every school trained through a program like AOGPE (their program seem like the best design). Why? If twenty percent of the population is dyslexic, it would give schools an overlap for continuity. We were told my son school had someone trained in Wilson then that person moved before the start of school.

Many schools are using Lucy Calkins, which is good structure to give both new and old teachers a blueprint for creating a reading workshop. For that purpose and the purpose of exposing students to rich diversity of literature, it works. In addition, I have learned a lot from her annual Saturday Workshops, as well as her youtube videos about how to create short 15 minute lessons and pack them with a punch. My concern is with those undiagnosed and diagnosed dyslexic students. They have great comprehension skills, yet have weaker inferencing and phonological skills. Tragically, the specific method of teaching dyslexics has not been a focus that I have witness. I have seen lessons given to students using Words Their Way (student gets a list of words and attempts to construct meaning), maybe so students will learn through that constructive method, I am afraid many students and teachers will not.

I propose having teachers truly trained in Orton-Gillingham method, so they feel comfortable with the material. This will take time, but that does not mean they are not still teaching; life is messy. That is the elephant in the room. Let us not draw this out like the U.S. system of measuring versus the metric system because we refuse to change. The long term consequences for that is too detrimental. Let us face the other elephant in the room: it is not just in places like Baltimore or Washington, DC. I did expected so much more from the DMV because of its proximity to the NIH, ASHA, the Lab School, the speech language communities at George Washington, Howard, and Gallaudet Universities. Even if districts did not have teachers coming to them with dyslexic awareness, creating partnerships so teaching and learning was shared with both seems like a win-win. I was on the verge of be coming a cynic when I heard Arlington dyslexic parent group share they had started asking for help with their now college students when their kids were in elementary school in Fairfax, VA. They moved to a new district, and had to sue their new district, Arlington, VA, to get teachers trained in O-G methods. Logically, I still find it hard to believe, yet this year’s VA pilot program to get 80 teachers trained in the state of VA would not even encompass one teacher at each of the almost 200+ schools in Fairfax alone!

We know what we are doing now is not working. A specific method to address those who have a problem with words has been established with glorious gratitude to Samuel Orton, Anna Gillingham, Diana Hansbury King, Romalda B. Spalding, Walter T. Spalding, Wanda Sanseri, Louisa Moats, Maryanne Wolf, Nanci Bell, and many others who saw the problem and was compelled to act. We could continue to inquire about research and studies, but why? We have spent enough without properly addressing the need. May I say: “let’s just do the work based on their established foundations and see what happens.” Just as Hurricane Katrina exposed our nations need to fix infrastructure and the lingering problem with Flint Michigan’s water system, we could and should reach out to form partnerships. Places like AOGPE, ASHA, and the surrounding universities to make both teachers and students learning more effective.

Luqman Michel Sep 14, 2017 07:58 PM

Hi Timothy,
Thank you for this post. You said ".... the only thing I would change in it now is the estimate of the phonological/phonemic awareness role in reading problems. There are some more recent data in relatively large studies suggesting a somewhat lower incidence of these problems at least with some populations; that wouldn't change the overall thrust of this much, but it would be, perhaps, more accurate."

I wrote many articles and made many comments in blogs and web-sites disputing "Phonological awareness deficit" as the major cause of dyslexia in 2010. At that time I had only taught 22 'disengaged kids' (I believe i was still using the term 'dyslexic kids at that time).

I wrote to many of the professors who had written on 'Phonological awareness deficit' as a cause of dyslexia. Some of the professors with whom I had written via emails in 2010 are Professor Bill Tunmer,Dr. David Boulton, David Rayner, Dr, Keith Rayner, Duane Smith, Professor James Chapman, Dr. Sharon Vaugn, A.R Wright, Prof. Asma Ismail, Dr. Brett Miller, Dr. Peggy McCardle, Dr. Joseph Torgeson, Maryanne Wolf, Zenna Atkins, Michelle Pentiliuk and a few other professors.

Most of them replied and did not agree with me. A few did not respond. Two professors - Chapman and Torgeson - after several exchanges of emails were kind and suggested that I should write a thesis and send my counter arguments in a paper for review and publication in the journals in which they had published their research.

I was told by well meaning friends that I'll have to wait for doctorate students to do research on this matter and it is useless to write to professors who have written on this subject.

I also wrote to many universities to no avail. It was at this time I saw many activities in my blog from a few universities - probably by some doctorate students.

I believe the research done by these students resulted in what you have written in your first paragraph above.

Not convinced? Google 'Phonological awareness Luqman' and you will see many of my posts and comments in blogs in the internet as early as in 2010.

I am not after name or fame. I am passionate about giving proper education to kids to alleviate illiteracy.

You are in a position to instruct doctorate students to do research on what I have said but instead you dismiss without looking at the logic of what I have discovered and written. You have dismissed collaborative evidences I have given. Unfortunately you are unable to connect the dots.

'Children of the Code' management is now working on some programme based on my suggestion to them in my comments in their web-site and my blog. My comments on their web-site were deleted. However, what they are producing will not be effective and is a waste of public funds as I later found out from my students.

My friend, I pray that we will both live long enough to see research reports on matters I have said.

Even if you think this is just my opinion I look forward to a response from you.

Luqman Michel Sep 15, 2017 10:28 PM

Correction please. I meant to write corroborative evidences and wrote collaborative evidences instead.
Wish you well.

Jenn G. Sep 22, 2017 01:32 AM

As a reading specialist, I loved this post and reading the debates between commentators. I hate using the word "dyslexic" because I am not a doctor researching the brain. I am a firm believer that sometimes people want to label things that they don't understand because then it can take on an identity that we are not responsible for. If a child is struggling with reading, and has not made growth despite age/grade/listening comprehension ability, it seems logical to most to blame that struggle on something. There must be a problem with THEM. We can't see it as teachers but it must be their brain. It couldn't possibly be us. Why are we not looking at individual areas of strength and specific deficits to target? Have interventions been deliberatly tracked, modified, and personalized? Explicit phonics instruction, regardless of method, should be intensive and intentional. I find that many of the parents that come to me concerned use the word "dyslexic" because they don't know what else to call it. I believe we need to begin looking at our systems in education in order to track student experience in foundational reading skills. We need better ideas of student literacy profiles. We need to stop searching for a label as an excuse and start teaching. Stop wasting time fighting with each other about what to call the difficulty and start teaching to it. I'm not disagreeing that dyslexia exists. I am, however, saying that the term is overused and seems to be an excuse for lack of purposeful instruction.

Timothy Shanahan May 14, 2023 06:48 PM


As far as we know, students just need to be able to easily segment words into their individual phonemes and to be able to blend individual phonemes into words. Those skills both underlie decoding and have functional value (along with research evidence attesting to their importance). The idea that greater degrees of phonemic awareness might be needed has been hypothesized by David Kilpatrick for a particular group of dyslexic children. That idea has generated some controversy, but as yet no independent research evidence supporting the idea. I've attached a link to an earlier piece on that, that David helped me write. Until there is evidence, I would recommend that you focus on decoding and text reading fluency.

Good luck.


Dawn DeLorenzo May 12, 2023 02:43 AM

Dr. Shanahan - something that has been perplexing for me as a special education teacher working with students classified as having a specific learning disability in the area of reading is that it is VERY typical for them to have very low Phonological Memory. This is part of working memory, correct? Dr. Kilpatrick has emphasized the that students with poor PA skills will struggle to read fluently. My own daughter has horrible PA skills on the PAST and yet she reads fluently. My students, however, have reached a level of proficiency with PA skills on the PAST, and ARE making progress, but they are still not on grade level and I feel it is due, in part, to their poor Phonological Memory. I don't think continually doing PA and sound drills will move them further ahead, yet everything I read says working memory can't be improved. So, what is one to do with students that progress with OG, but not at the rate you hope for? I always feel like something is missing.

Lindsey Jun 07, 2023 09:47 PM

I am taking a class on dyslexia and one of the assignments was to find and respond to a blog post about it. I got my Masters in Reading in 2013 and during that class, I learned of this blog. I knew you were well respected and never too one-sided (even though it sure would be easier for us teachers if it was lol.)
The year is 2023 and this blog from 2017 ... have you changed your thoughts at all on this post? Dysteachia should be a term... Do you think teacher education on how the brain learns to read would help the students? Or would it not matter if they cannot teach it appropriately, understanding all the nuances in children?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 07, 2023 10:19 PM


Yes, this is still very up to date. Good luck.


What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Decoding Dyslexia: A Rose By Any Other Name


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.