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Could dyslexia awareness save our educational system?

dyslexia awareness
Could dyslexia awareness save our educational system?

When we talk about the educational system today, it is rarely in positive terms. Praises for the efforts and achievements of individual teachers are often overshadowed by criticism, pointing out its many shortcomings. Recently, these criticisms have focused on two related issues: high-stakes testing, and the unacceptably low percentage of students who are able to reach proficiency standards.

While this debate has been going on in the general population, a powerful advocacy group has been materializing. Organizations like the state-oriented “Decoding Dyslexia” have a growing voice in state and national education policy, and for good reason: They represent the population of students who have, by far, the most frequently diagnosed learning disability. Moreover, it is a disability about which scientific research has made great strides, none of which have made their way into general knowledge among educators or administrators. The educational system has been incredibly unfair to this group, and has fewer and fewer reasons for being so.

Through no fault of their own, these students have trouble with words on the level of individual speech sounds. A neuro-biological condition has set them up for failure in activities that are seen as vital to educational success. But the recent attention they are garnering might bring about some salvation of the system as a whole.

Take the problem with high-stakes testing, for instance. The plight of students with dyslexia might just be what was needed to turn us back from such disastrous policy. Over-testing and punitive measures for not passing have a devastating effect on a student’s motivation to learn by creating anxiety and a sense of disconnection between education and life (“When am I ever going to need this except to pass a stupid test?”). So the impact is negative in general. Yet sympathy for students has been hard to come by. Enter the students with dyslexia, who have to put far greater effort into such foundational academic activities as reading and writing than typical students. Without appropriate instruction, these students have to fight the natural wiring of their brains just to perform. They struggle to demonstrate mastery of the content they’ve learned because of their inability to master academic skills, like reading and writing. What they know is not reflected on tests, leading advocates to rightly conclude that the tests are unfair, as are the consequences for not passing them. Their condition, which isn’t a rare one (current estimates say that about 20% of the general population struggles with some degree of dyslexia), has led many people to question the validity of high-stakes testing in general. Some states have started major overhauls, and the Federal ESSA law, which replaces No Child Left Behind, cuts them out of the equation completely, at least at the federal level.

This is not to say that everyone who struggles on standardized tests or reading fluency only does so because of dyslexia. Most educators, however, would say that a move away from high stakes over-testing benefits everyone involved. This action, which creates justice for one population, ends up benefitting everyone. This is also not to say that the growing advocacy movement for students with dyslexia was the deciding factor in this debate, but it definitely played a role in mobilizing parents and swaying policymakers.

But an even greater impact might be in the realm of reading proficiency. Research into how to teach those with dyslexia to read has been going on for decades, at first with only varying degrees of success. Research conducted in the late-1990s and early 2000s, however, found an astonishingly high level of success at not only teaching students with dyslexia to read, but preventing them from struggling in the first place. The approach taken has been called neuro-developmental, as it follows the same path that typical readers take in building reading skills, explicitly teaching skills that most reading instruction takes for granted. One study found that teaching kindergarten children to read with this approach yielded an incredibly high success rate of over 97% on or above grade level by Grade 2!1

We also know that science-based, neuro-developmental reading instruction also teaches those with naturally strong phonological systems to read. Neuro-developmental methods teach everyone to read. Imagine if we taught all children with methods based in the science of how brains acquire language skills. An action that would bring justice for one population would end up benefitting everyone.

Yet we continue to offer traditional reading instruction that only works for the 80% that have naturally strong phonological skills. But demand is growing for evidence-based practices in schools. Awareness of what is possible is growing. Imagine a school system where only 3%, instead of 30% to 50%, are struggling to read in 2nd Grade. Imagine the impact on classroom behavior. Imagine the improvement in attitudes toward learning in general. While this might not be a silver bullet that fixes everything, imagine the impact it could have.

1 Torgesen, J.K., Wagner, R. K., Rashotte, C.A., Rose, E., Lindamood, P., Conway, T., & Garvin, C. (1999). Preventing reading failure in young children with phonological processing disabilities: Group and individual responses to instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 579-593.