This article has been repurposed from “Allegiance to the Facts: A Better Approach for Dyslexic Students” by Louisa Moats, from the January 2016 edition of IDA’s Examiner.
From the diverse perspectives of experts throughout the National Conference in Grapevine, one theme recurred: We will serve students and families better if we are informed by the facts. Louisa Moats breaks down five of the realities about dyslexia that parents and professionals must embrace.
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 real trouble remembering printed words are said to “see things differently” or have special cognitive powers. Our best science indicates, however, problem-solving and creative abilities are not more dominate because a person has dyslexia. 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 separate from, not because of, their language-based reading, spelling, or writing problems. Those who experience dyslexia often experience anxiety and other affective challenges. We should not assert that dyslexia and giftedness go hand in hand, or that students are better off because they are afflicted with this condition.
Albert Einstein was not dyslexic.
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. There are several websites that list famous people with diagnosed dyslexia, but Einstein is not one of them.
We cannot predict who will respond to instruction.
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 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. 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.
Phonological processing tests are not enough.
Not all students with reading difficulties will demonstrate a weakness or low score on a test of phonological processing or phonological awareness. While teaching phoneme awareness to groups of young children is of proven value for long-term outcomes, about 25 – 30% of students who have trouble learning to read do just fine on direct measures of phonological awareness. Such findings will eventually be explained by science. Meanwhile, we must be ready to teach all students who are having trouble developing basic reading and writing skill despite test results.
Quick fixes don’t work.
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. If evidence is 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.
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