Beyond the Progress in Dyslexia Legislation: Keeping IDA’s Mission in Mind

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Volume 7, Issue 2
April 2018

By Nancy Chapel Eberhardt

From 2013 to 2017, the number of states passing legislation focused on measures designed to support identification and treatment of children with dyslexia grew from 22 to 42. This expansion of legislative action is cause for celebration, and is well documented in reporting by Martha Youman and Nancy Mather. (Go to for their articles from 2013, 2015, and 2018.) In addition to highlighting the efforts for early identification and treatment of dyslexia, the authors review how the dyslexia laws are affecting school practices, including the following:

  • dyslexia awareness,
  • pilot programs for screening and intervention,teacher training,
  • provision of interventions and accommodations,
  • and the overall rights of individuals with dyslexia (Youman & Mather, 2018).

But as we acknowledge this growth in legislation as a significant accomplishment, we must also remain focused on IDA’s mission: “Until everyone can read.” To achieve this goal, we cannot be satisfied with legislative action that focuses only on dyslexia; we must also attend to the three key points below.

1. The urgency to apply what we know about teaching beginning reading until it becomes the norm for typical literacy practice (Spear-Swerling, 2018).

Science has provided us with sufficient evidence to allow educators in the United States to dramatically improve the number of students who learn the fundamentals of reading and spelling (Seidenberg, 2017). Additionally, researchers and educators have clearly articulated the features of instruction that benefit not only individuals with dyslexia but also others in general education who are at risk in literacy learning for a variety of reasons (Spear-Swerling, 2018). The use of this kind of instruction can effectively reduce the referrals for intervention and evaluations.

In the absence of evidence-based instruction in general education, the consequences are all too often “too many referrals for intervention and under-achievement for the class as a whole” (Moats, 2017). The bottom line: Good reading instruction is good for everyone (M. Gillis, personal communication, March 1, 2018).

2. The ongoing need to communicate clear and consistent definitions of dyslexia and Structured Literacy in legislative language.

If not from IDA, then from whom? The current definition of dyslexia remains valid. (See for definition.) Evidence about dyslexia continues to distinguish it from other reading problems; namely, it is a condition in which readers struggle with word reading caused by a phonological-core deficit. The use of the term dyslexia to encompass other types of reading problems is inaccurate, can be misleading, and should be avoided.

Efforts to clarify the definition of dyslexia in legislative language have important instructional implications. Individuals with dyslexia benefit from instruction designed to meet their needs. Structured Literacy instruction, which is often recommended for those with dyslexia, emphasizes the following principles of instruction:

  • explicit, systematic, and sequential;
  • cumulative;
  • high rates of teacher-student interaction;
  • use of examples and non-examples to solidify concepts;
  • use of code-emphasis text to provide practice with learned content and skills;
  • and prompt, corrective feedback (Spear-Swerling, 2018).

Clarity in this type of instruction is essential if teachers are to be prepared—both in pre- and in-service training—for this type of literacy instruction. In addition, clarity about the definition of dyslexia and Structured Literacy can contribute to more precise instructional treatments for other types of reading difficulties. The reality is that evidence-based reading instruction, what IDA and Spear-Swerling refer to as Structured Literacy, will work effectively for the majority of students who aren’t reading proficiently (M. Gillis, personal communication, March 1, 2018).

3. The use of implementation science and accountability measures tied to dyslexia policies and bills.

Implementation science goes well beyond the selection of an effective assessment or instructional practice. Implementation science encompasses all of the factors required for successful and sustained change (Duda & Wilson, 2015). Application of this knowledge about implementation is critical to close the gap between dyslexia legislation and positive results on behalf of those with dyslexia. The reality is that great state legislative language is only as good as how (and if) it is implemented.

Accountability measures, a component of any implementation plan, can provide the necessary criteria to monitor progress toward the desired goals. Without accountability measures and consequences, the likelihood that these policies can be implemented with fidelity and sustainability is greatly undermined. This is true for both in-service and pre-service aspects of the legislation. For example, even if there are clear guidelines for districts to follow regarding how to implement universal screening for dyslexia, select and provide interventions and accommodations, and train and maintain professionals’ knowledge related to dyslexia as outlined in statewide handbooks and guidance documents, a lack of accountability measures potentially weakens the quality of their implementation. And, in the case of pre-service preparation, the absence of clear standards and requirements for knowledge and practice to teach reading is especially detrimental.

Without consequences for noncompliance on the part of teacher preparation institutions, some lack the incentive to meet the requirements of the legislation (A. Quirion, personal communication, February 15, 2018). Consequently, too many teachers continue to begin their careers ill-prepared to teach reading. The good news: Improvements in teacher preparation to teach individuals with dyslexia have the potential to elevate reading instruction for many more students.

Clearly, progress on behalf of individuals with dyslexia has been incredible, thanks to the persistent and collaborative efforts on the part of researchers, educators, parental advocacy groups, and legislators. This is most certainly cause for celebration. While we applaud these accomplishments, we cannot rest “Until everyone can read.”


Duda, M. A., & Wilson, B. A. (2015). Using implementation science to close the policy to practice gap (A Literate Nation White Paper). San Francisco, CA: Wilson Language Training Corporation.

Moats, L. (2017). Can prevailing approaches to reading instruction accomplish the goals of RTI? Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 43(3), 15–22.

Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Spear-Swerling, L. (2018). Structured literacy and typical literacy practices: Understanding differences to create instructional opportunities. Teaching Exceptional Children. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/0040059917750160

Youman, M., & Mather, N. (2018). Dyslexia laws in the USA: A 2018 update. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 44(2), 37–41.

Nancy Chapel Eberhardt, M.A., is currently an educational consultant with 3T Literacy Group. Her professional experiences include special education teacher, administrator, and professional development provider. She also contributed as author and co-author to the development of the literacy curriculum LANGUAGE!, a comprehensive literacy intervention curriculum, including Categories and Sortegories. She co-authored RtI: The Forgotten Tier with Joanne Allain. She is currently working with Margie Gillis to develop the Literacy How Professional Learning Series to support a structured literacy plan of study for teachers. She also is a member of IDA’s Perspectives Parent/Practitioner Publications Editorial Board for which she has been co-theme editor for four recent issues and contributed an article, “Syntax: Somewhere Between Words and Text,” as well as several book reviews.

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