The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) represents a large community of professionals and educators who, on a daily basis, face the challenges of teaching children with dyslexia to read. This community has many differences of opinion on many issues. But there is no difference of opinion about the best method for teaching children with dyslexia to read. That method is systematic, explicit, phonics-based reading instruction. It is the same approach to reading instruction that was recommended for all children by the National Reading Panel (2000) in its landmark report.
The International Dyslexia Association supports the efforts of other organizations to raise awareness of dyslexia and the importance of research in informing instruction; however, we are concerned that the recent research advisory by the International Literacy Association (ILA) offers guidance that conflicts with the research.
Our purpose is not to criticize the work of ILA and other organizations with missions similar to ours, but instead to encourage frank discussion that will lead to the best solutions for the very serious challenges we face in education today. ILA has highlighted important concepts related to dyslexia in its Dyslexia Research Advisory; however, IDA has a responsibility to clarify the implications of the research cited for the parents, professionals, advocates, and legislators who rely on IDA for guidance in applying research to practice.
IDA agrees with ILA that…
- Beliefs and practices should be grounded in available evidence. (See IDA Resources below.)
- Boys and girls have difficulty learning to read regardless of levels of intelligence and creativity.
- Engaging early intervention that is responsive to the child’s instructional needs is key.
- “Evidence does not support what many take to be indicators or predictors of dyslexia, including clumsiness, fine motor problems, attention deficits, creativity, or handedness.”
- “Dyslexia, or severe reading difficulties, do not result from visual problems producing letter and word reversals.”
- The estimates of the incidence of dyslexia vary widely. (See How widespread is dyslexia? for more information about the range/spectrum of dyslexia.)
IDA does not agree that the research cited in the ILA research advisory supports ILA’s statement that “…there is no certifiable best method for teaching children who experience reading difficulty (Mathes et al., 2005).”
Mathes and her colleagues asked IDA to publish the following clarification of the purpose of their study:
“The purpose of the study was not to determine the best method. To date, no researcher has sought to determine the best method. Even so, there is a convergence among findings from many studies that provide clear evidence as to the nature and content of instruction needed to overcome reading difficulties. The purpose was simply to compare two approaches. One was a Cognitive approach, in which highly expert teachers designed lessons following very specific guidelines after observing students’ errors. The second was a Behavioral/Direct Instruction approach, in which instruction was carefully designed to reduce errors from happening in the first place.”
Providing further explanation of the two approaches in their study, Mathes and colleagues add:
“While there were clear differences, the two interventions were actually more alike than different in terms of their actual delivery. Both were very explicit; emphasized alphabetic knowledge and skills; and integrated the various components of reading including: phonemic awareness, alphabetic decoding, automatic word recognition, text fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies.”
“In short,” Mathes and colleagues add, “both [approaches in the study] were very consistent with what we understand about what constitutes effective instruction for struggling beginning readers. The study suggests that the behavioral approach was better for a small set of students.”
IDA does not agree that “Reviews of research focusing solely on decoding interventions have shown either small to moderate or variable effects that rarely persist over time, and little to no effects on more global reading skills.
Mathes provided the following from the Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology (Mathes & Fletcher, 2008)
“Currently, the theory that dyslexia is the result of weak phonological coding has accumulated substantial and converging scientific evidence to support it (see Vellutino et al., 2004; Fletcher et al., 2007).”
“Evidence to support this theory comes from two sources. First, a relation between phonological coding and dyslexia can be inferred because children with dyslexia have consistently been found to perform significantly below normal readers on different assessments of phonological processing (Blachman, 1997; Bowers & Wolf, 1993; Katz, Healy, & Shankweiler, 1983; Siegel & Ryan, 1988; Snowling, 2000; Torgesen et al, 1994; Vellutino, 1979; 1987; Vellutino & Scanlon, 1987; Vellutino et al., 1995a, b, 1996; Wagner et al., 1994; Wolf, Bowers, & Biddle, 2000).”
“There is controversy over the exact manifestations and contributions of different phonological processing domains, but the link of word reading and phonological process, and the extrapolation to dyslexia, is widely recognized as a major scientific discovery (Stanovich, 1994).”
“More recently, a series of studies have been conducted to determine the impact of carefully designed instruction on phonological coding on the brain activation patterns of children with or at risk for dyslexia. In each of these studies, the brain activation patterns of children at risk for dyslexia (i.e., 5 and 6 year olds) or identified as dyslexic (i.e., 7 to 17 year olds) show predominantly normalizing patterns after well designed, intense interventions (Simos, et al., 2002; Simos, Fletcher , Foorman, Francis, Castillo, Davis, Fitzgerald, Mathes, Denton, & Papanicolaou, 2002; Simos, Fletcher, Sarkari, Billingsly-Marhsal, Denton, & Papanicolaou, 2007; Shaywitz et al., 2004).
The researchers conclude, “Environments that provide repeated and careful opportunities to practice phonological coding will result in a decreased expression of dyslexia. Further, dyslexia is treatable, even among older children, although outcomes are generally better for younger children.”
IDA does not agree that the research cited in the ILA research advisory supports ILA’s statement, “Rather, students classified as dyslexic have varying strengths and challenges, and teaching them is too complex a task for a scripted, one-size-fits-all program (Coyne et al., 2013; Phillips & Smith, 1997; Simmons, 2015).”
Coyne, Simmons, and colleagues asked IDA to publish the following clarification of the results from the study cited:
“Interventionists in the study started with an empirically-validated program to which students responded strongly. The study showed that intensifying an already strong program systematically can result in value-added outcomes—not that the ‘scripted’ program wasn’t effective when implemented with fidelity.”
Coyne and Simmons also clarified that students in their study were not identified as having dyslexia; rather kindergarten students were identified based on early indicators of reading risk. Some students may have eventually been identified as having dyslexia but not at the time of the study.
IDA does not agree that the research cited supports the statement, “Optimal instruction calls for teachers’ professional expertise and responsiveness, and for the freedom to act on the basis of that professionalism.”
Coyne, Simmons, and colleagues asked IDA to publish the following response to that conclusion:
“The study did not investigate teachers’ professional judgment to design or modify intervention. In the cited study, decisions on how to respond to student performance were informed by researcher-collected data and decisions to adjust intervention were determined by established, standardized decisions.”
Dyslexia is, above all, a condition that impedes reading acquisition. ILA’s Dyslexia Research Advisory will find little support among professionals in our field. To say that there is not broad agreement on how to teach reading to children with dyslexia is a disservice to the children and families whose lives are affected by this condition. It is our hope that we can work with ILA and other organizations to clarify these keys points to move forward together in our efforts to provide effective instruction to all students.
- Effective Reading Instruction—A fact sheet describing the components of Structured Literacy instruction.
- Annals of Dyslexia—An interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the scientific study of dyslexia.
- Perspectives on Language and Literacy—A quarterly publication featuring articles for educators and other professionals dedicated to the identification and intervention of dyslexia and other related learning differences.
- Examiner—a monthly e-letter reporting on dyslexia and literacy-related events and information in the field and around the world.
- Basic Facts about Dyslexia—a book by Louisa Moats and Karin Dakin distilling the most significant research in the field.
- Expert Perspectives—a collection of articles by leading authorities on dyslexia and other reading problems
- Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading—standards for classroom educators and dyslexia specialists that define what all teachers of reading need to know to teach students to read proficiently.
Blachman, B. A. (1997). Foundations of reading acquisition and dyslexia. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Bowers, P. G., & Wolf, M. (1993). Theoretical links among naming speed, precise timing mechanisms, and orthographic skill in dyslexia. Reading and Writing, 5, 69–85.
Coyne, M. D., Simmons, D. C., Hagan-Burke, S., Simmons, L. E., Kwok, O.-M., Kim, M., Rawlinson, D. A. M. (2013). Adjusting beginning reading intervention based on student performance: An experimental evaluation. Exceptional Children, 80(1), 25–44.
Fletcher, J. M., Lyon, G. R., Fuchs, L. S., & Barnes, M. A. (2007). Learning disabilities: From identification to intervention. New York: Guilford Press.
Katz, R. B., Healy, A. F., & Shankweiler, D. (1983). Phonetic coding and order memory in relation to reading proficiency: A comparison of short-term memory for temporal and spatial order information. Applied Psycholinguistics, 4, 229–250.
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Mathes, P. G., & Fletcher, J. M. (2008). Dyslexia. In N. J. Salkind (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology (pp. 289–293). Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
Mathes, P. G., Denton, C. A., Fletcher, J. M., Anthony, J. L., Francis, D. J., & Schatschneider, C. (2005). The effects of theoretically different instruction and student characteristics on the skills of struggling readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(2), 148–182. doi:10.1598/ RRQ.40.2.2
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