Prepared answers for NPR Education Journalist Interview, July 2019
What is your line of work and why do you do it?
I am a licensed, certified teacher, holding a Master’s Degree in Teaching, a BA in Psychology with additional post graduate coursework in dyslexia interventions and advocacy. I provide services for dyslexia screening, consultations and I present at schools for teachers’ professional development. I spend the majority of my time working 1:1 with students of all ages, as an advanced certified dyslexia interventionist.
What is dyslexia? What isn’t dyslexia?
First, it is easier to say that dyslexia is NOT. Dyslexia is NOT a visual problem. They do not see things backwards. It is not just letter reversals. It is also not something that can be solved with vision therapy. If a student does any kind of vision therapy it is not for dyslexia itself, but is helpful for students who have specific eye issues such as convergence problems.
Dyslexia is not rare; statistics consistently record around 15-20% of the population; and this is not specific to the English language. 35 years of independent research backs this percentage.
Not an intelligence issue. You can have a low, to average, to high IQ and have a dyslexic brain. My daughter is considered ‘gifted’ but she also has a dyslexic brain.
Dyslexia literally means difficulty with language. Brain scans show dyslexic brains use different neurological pathways when processing language. In short, the circuitry they use to process language is not the same as those without dyslexia. We have labeled dyslexia as a disability because we do not enable them to learn to read the way their brains are wired.
The widely accepted definition of dyslexia is by the International Dyslexia Association:
“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”
Why are you in this field of work? Why do you think it’s important?
I am in this field because I was a regular classroom teacher with a focus in the upper elementary and middle school years and could not believe the number of kids who came to me, not able to read proficiently. I assumed by the time kids came to me, they would no longer be learning to read, but be reading to learn.
Also, selfishly, it is the most rewarding aspect of teaching I can imagine. I get to watch a student go from being extremely anxious, with poor self-esteem, and poor reading skills, to a student who understands not only whythey have not been able to keep up with their peers, but also help them catch up to those peers. It changes the entire trajectory of a student’s life when they realize they are smart enough to read and their previous struggles are not their fault.
This work is important to me and should be for everyone in society for the following reasons:
- There are correlations between illiteracy and those who end up on welfare and in prison. The U.S. Department of Justice suggests that upward of 85% of all systems-involved youth and more than 60% of all prison inmates are “functionally illiterate.” According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 70% of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a fourth-grade level, “meaning they lack the reading skills to navigate many everyday tasks or hold down anything but lower (paying) jobs.” What would our society look like if everyone could read? What would the welfare system look like? What would happen to crime rates?
- It is also important because currently statistics show high percentages of students in 4thand 8thgrades cannot read proficiently. According to the National Center for Education statistics, in 2017, 37 percent of 4th-grade students performed at or above the Proficient level, and 9 percent performed at the Advancedlevel. Only 46% of fourth graders were reading proficiently. This same study shows that only 36% of 8thgraders performed at or above Proficient, and 4 percent performed at the Advanced level. and only 44% of 8thgraders are reading proficiently.
- The field of dyslexia intervention is more broadly applicable because research on learning to read has revealed that we have based teaching approaches and methodology on false assumptions. The way we learn to read has always been thought of as a primarily visual task and research has and continues to demonstrate it is a connection between printed words anchoring to oral speech language in the brain. Those with dyslexia demonstrate a weak base of skills for the ability to make the connection of printed language to oral speech language.
What are teachers/schools getting wrong? What needs to change?
This is a complicated question, but the simple answer is this: educators are not using all of the current research we have about how we learn to read, to inform instruction. We are still operating under the false assumption that learning to read is primarily a visual task. If all educators truly understood how we learn to read; how we store printed words anchored to spoken language, then the approach to teaching all students to read would look different. If that approach is used, then not only would students with dyslexic brains not be disabled but all students would be better readers.
Schools and educators are missing signs and symptoms of those with dyslexia very early on. They still tell parents that a student will learn to read when they are “ready”—in my line of work, we call this the “wait to fail” model. Early intervention is key and screening all children no later than kindergarten is essential. Even better, not just early intervention, but informed, research-based reading instruction for ALL students. If all students are taught phonological processing skills explicitly, ALL students will be better readers. Furthermore, those with reading struggles, with or without diagnosed dyslexia, are only “dis-abled” by the methodology of reading instruction. So really, the instruction is disabling them.
What’s missing from the conversation we’re having about dyslexia?
Early identification and intervention is key. We can screen kids in pre-school and kindergarten and many states are moving toward making this a requirement. Also, an accurate understanding of what dyslexia is and is NOT is essential. Old ideas such as seeing things backwards need to be corrected. Equally important is a conversation that schools are NOT teaching reading based on what we now know about how the brain learns to read—reading requires awareness of the connection between written and spoken language.
I fully believe every single educator, whether they are early childhood or high school educators, must have the basic knowledge about how we have been entirely wrong about how the brain stores words we read. It’s not about who is at fault; the parents vs. the teachers. It’s about everyone coming to the table and having an honest look at how we teach reading in light of new understanding, and then making changes for all students. Therefore, it is not just about dyslexia, it is about best practices reading instruction based on the most up to date research.
If educators are taught the science of reading acquisition, their approach to teaching reading will change. Unfortunately, schools adopt canned programs that will work for a majority of students but leave 15-20% (or more) students behind. Can you imagine if doctors did not adjust the way they treat illness and diseases based on research? It is equally unacceptable to permit teaching that does not adjust to new scientific understanding of how the brain learns .
Of course, it is also about funding. To teach educators the most recent research, and ensure they truly grasp the implications of how our misunderstandings of the neural processes involved in learning to read, costs money. So, we must educate the taxpayers. Weigh the cost to the taxpayers to funding educators on how to teach reading using the most recent research, against the cost of our criminal court systems, prisons and programs that cost a lot of money to support individuals who cannot participate fully in society due to illiteracy. I am guessing the average tax payer would be happier to fund teacher education and professional development. Unfortunately, the connection has not been made clear enough to the public.