At the end of October 2015, I attended and spoke at the annual International Dyslexia Association (IDA) meeting in Dallas. IDA remains the best interdisciplinary conference for all professionals, advocates, and families concerned with reading, writing, and language difficulties. IDA meetings, over the past three decades, are where I’ve obtained my real education.
This meeting was as informative as ever. We heard from neuroscientists, psychologists, directors of interdisciplinary research centers, researchers in language acquisition, experienced clinicians, education advocates, teacher educators, public school literacy leaders, and families affected by learning difficulties. Through diverse perspectives, one theme stood out for me: We will serve students and families better if we are informed by the facts. Romantic ideas, though appealing, will not serve the needs of students or teachers. Let’s examine a few beliefs that we’re better off without.
Dyslexia and Giftedness
Let’s start with the claim that dyslexia—whether mild, moderate, or severe—is a “gift.” This assertion appears grounded in the observation that some people who have trouble learning to read become very successful in life. People who have real trouble remembering printed words are said to “see things differently” or have special cognitive powers. Our best science indicates, however, that print recognition ability and most other visual-spatial, concept-formation, problem-solving, and creative abilities are dissociated. People with reading and spelling difficulties may be very good at mechanical problem solving, graphic arts, spatial navigation, athletics, or abstract reasoning—or they may not be. People who succeed in spite of their academic learning difficulties are a marvel—but their talents exist separate from, not because of, their language-based reading, spelling, or writing problems. We should avoid claiming that dyslexia and giftedness generally go hand in hand.
The association between “giftedness” and dyslexia is often made with reference to Albert Einstein. While obviously gifted, Albert Einstein was not dyslexic or learning disabled. Walter Isaacson’s definitive biography of Einstein affirms that he was “at the top of his class” in elementary school and, aside from a rebellious nature and oddities of speech, was academically outstanding.
Predicting Response to Instruction
Moving on to a second notion we could live without, responsiveness to instruction is not related to IQ, to IQ discrepancies, to patterns on psychological processing tests, or to family background. While the science of early identification of students with potential reading disabilities has evolved, our ability to predict who will respond well to instruction has not. Several researchers (among them Virginia Berninger, Jack Fletcher, John Gabrieli, and Jerry Ring) emphasized that there is no way to know which of our students who are at risk on screening will be able to overcome their difficulties once intensive intervention is provided. Therefore, we must implement excellent, systematic, informed reading and language instruction over a sufficient length of time to sort out whose reading and language can be normalized and who will be in need of an IEP and high levels of support for many years. As Jack Fletcher of the University of Houston said, screen children briefly; teach them early, well, and intensively; then test in more depth if necessary—don’t require lengthy, expensive testing as a gateway to effective instruction.
Phonological Awareness Tests
A third prominent idea that has been repeatedly challenged by evidence is the presumption that all students with reading difficulties will demonstrate a weakness or low score on a test of phonological processing or phonological awareness. While this is true for the group of poor readers as a whole, and while teaching phoneme awareness to groups of young children is of proven value for long-term outcomes, about 25 to 30 percent of students who have trouble learning to read do just fine on the phonological awareness tests. They look normal in that dimension of language processing—at least the way it is measured on tests commonly used. This has been found by researchers at the Luke Waites Center for Dyslexia and Learning Disorders at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children; the reading laboratory at Tufts University; the Hammill Institute on Disabilities, which develops the diagnostic tests of PRO-ED; and in the European studies of Franck Ramus. Such findings will eventually be explained by science. Meanwhile, let’s not hang our diagnostic hats on tests of phonological processing, and instead, let’s be ready to teach all students who are having trouble developing basic reading and writing skills.
Lastly, we should abandon the hope that serious reading disabilities can be fixed or remediated in a few short lessons per week over a year or so. Professor Devery Ward from Appalachian State University chronicled her work with one student who has been receiving an intensive tutorial twice weekly for six years. Slowly, slowly, he has gained word reading skills and better reading fluency, but at age 16 is reading 80 words per minute. That’s about half the rate of his peers. He’s much better, but not cured. With commendable persistence by everyone involved, tutorials and accommodations continue.
If data are going to drive our thinking, then all indicators point to this: screen the kids early; teach all the kids who are at risk, skillfully and intensively; and maintain the effort for as long as it takes. Meanwhile, nurture the students’ interests, aptitudes, and coping strategies and trust that most are going to make it in real life.
Watch Louisa Moat's webinar, hosted by District Administration, to learn practical, research-based strategies for supporting struggling adolescent readers.
Editor's Note: This blog is a re-post of one originally published on December 2, 2015.