Allegiance to the Facts: Best Approach for Students with Dyslexia

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January 2016

By Louisa Moats, Ed.D.

Moats 28

Louisa Moats, Ed.D.

In October, I attended and spoke at the annual IDA meeting in Dallas. I was honored to deliver the concluding Plenary Session address and here will summarize some of the main points of that talk…all directed at examining a few (still) popular myths. At the conference we were privileged to learn 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. From these diverse perspectives, one theme recurred: We will serve students and families better if we are informed by the facts. Romantic ideas, though appealing, may not serve the needs of students or teachers. Let’s examine a few beliefs that we’re better off without.

Dyslexia Is Not a Gift

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, write, spell, or use language become very successful in life. People who have 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 dyslexia 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 separately from, not because of, their language-based reading, spelling, or writing problems. Those who experience dyslexia often experience anxiety and other affective challenges and social consequences. We should not assert that dyslexia and giftedness generally go hand in hand, or that students are better off because they are afflicted with this condition. By the way, Albert Einstein did not have dyslexia or a learning disability. Walter Isaacson’s definitive biography of Einstein—Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007)—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.

Science Cannot Yet Predict Who Will Respond to Instruction

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. On another note, 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, Jerry Ring) emphasized that there is no way to know which of our students, who are at risk on screening tests, will be able to overcome their difficulties once intensive intervention is provided. Responsiveness to instruction is not related to IQ, to IQ discrepancies, to patterns on psychological processing tests, or to family background. 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, “Teach first, then test if necessary; don’t test in order to find out who or what to teach.”

Some Students with Reading Difficulties Do Fine on Phonological Processing 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% of students who have trouble learning to read do just fine on direct measures of phonological awareness. They look normal in that dimension of language processing—at least the way it is measured on tests commonly used. This has been documented by researchers at the Scottish Rite clinic in Texas; the reading laboratory at Tufts University; the Hammill Institute that publishes the diagnostic tests of Pro-Ed; and the European studies of Franck Ramus. Such findings will be explained by science eventually. Meanwhile, let’s not hang our diagnostic hats on tests of phonological processing, and instead, be ready to teach all students who are having trouble developing basic reading and writing skills.

Quick Fixes Do Not Exist

Lastly, we should abandon the expectation 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, he is reading 80 words per minute. That’s about half the rate of his peers. He has made progress, but he is not “cured.” With commendable persistence by everyone involved, tutorials and accommodations continue. If evidence is going to drive our thinking, then all indicators point in these directions:

  • Screen early.
  • Skillfully and intensively, teach all students who are at risk.
  • Maintain the effort for as long as it takes.

At the same time, nurture students’ interests, aptitudes, and coping strategies and trust that most of these students are going to make it in real life.

Reference Isaacson, W. (2007). Einstein: His Life and Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Click here to view Dr. Moats’ slides from her presentation “Let’s Engage the Dyslexia Debates: What’s Fact and What’s Not” at IDA’s Annual Conference in October 2015.

Louisa Moats, Ed.D., has been Vice President of IDA and Chair of the Standards and Practices Committee that developed IDA’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading. She has been author/coauthor of many articles and books on reading, spelling, language, and teacher training. Dr. Moats is currently President of Moats Associates Consulting, Inc.   

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