It’s been almost a week since someone shared the International Literacy Association’s Research Advisory paper on Dyslexia on one of the listservs I’m on. I am not 100% satisfied with my response, but I am 1 person doing this in my spare time not a whole panel of experts, and I still feel that I have a more nuanced view of the issues than the paper conveyed (this is not meant as an insult to any individual, but the paper as a whole is a disappointment). I have rarely felt such a shift in tone and research validation over a 2-page span. Basically, I agree with everything on page 2, and almost nothing on pages 3 and the top of 4… but this is not just about my “feelings” and whether or not I “agree” with what is written (in fact, they acknowledge the emotionality of the issues right in the first sentence!). Instead, I’d like to delve deeper into my critique of the piece in my:
Response to the ILA Research Advisory on Dyslexia: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Again, page 2 is stellar in its recognition of the diverse types of dyslexia. I’m also impressed with the paper invalidating vision problems and a slew of other supposed indicators of dyslexia (including handedness and clumsiness or attention deficits; read my latest Noodle article about the differences between ADHD and Specific Learning Disabilities, including dyslexia). Per a number of academies committed to the study of children and their vision, “Vision problems can interfere with the process of learning; however, vision problems are not the cause of primary dyslexia or learning disabilities.”
The need for evidence-based instruction for all students
Quote from ILA: “When beginning literacy instruction is engaging and responsive to children’s needs, however, the percentage of school children having continuing difficulty is small (Vellutino et al., 1996; Vellutino, Scanlon, & Lyon, 2000).”
This aligns with Response to Intervention (RTI), and I appreciate that it acknowledges that all students are currently not receiving evidence-based instructions. Dyslexia is neurological thus not preventable, per se, but some of the symptomology and frustration could certainly be prevented for individuals with dyslexia, if they received structured, hierarchical, multi-sensory reading instruction from the get go (particularly as compared to whole language instruction). Appropriate instruction could also prevent individuals with reading disorders from developing these reading disorders (reading disorders differ from dyslexia in that whereas a diagnostic criteria in dyslexia is “effective instruction,” the determining feature in someone having a reading disorder is not receiving effective instruction).
Quote from ILA: “For instance, research does not support the common belief that Orton-Gillingham–based approaches are necessary for students classified as dyslexic (Ritchey & Goeke, 2007; Turner, 2008; Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2003). 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. 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).”
This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the goal of Orton-Gillingham based reading programs. While at my school, comprehension is often laid on top of the OG program that is used (PAF), the primary goal of OG is to support decoding and encoding development.Further, I’m surprised at how relatively few studies are in the reference list of this paper; I am unsure if it is an oversight or purposeful selection, but the reason why some OG research studies are low very clearly explained in the National Reading Panel’s paper about all things reading-related. From the fluency chapter, they write the following about OG: “Effect sizes ranged from a high of d = 0.68 for the Lippincott program to a low of d = 0.23 for the Orton-Gillingham-based programs. Possible reasons for lower effect sizes in the case of Orton Gillingham comparisons are evident in Table 6 (Appendix F). Class-based instruction predominated, and this instruction was tested exclusively with older students (2nd through 6th graders) many of whom were poor readers. These conditions may have made it harder to produce substantial growth in reading.” (National Reading Panel, 2000) Not to mention, that there are studies that have shown OG’s merits (including Joshi et al, 2002).
On Intervention in General
Quote from ILA: “Some have advocated for an assessment process that determines who should and should not be classified as dyslexic, but this process has been shown to be highly variable across states and districts in the United States, of questionable validity, and too often resulting in empirically unsupported, one-size-fits-all program recommendations.”
Orton Gillingham based reading instructions are not one-size-fits-all programs. At my school, students are consistently assessed to ensure they are in appropriate intervention groups. Further, each teacher alters their PAF group as needed. When one group of students have more severe language disorders in addition to their decoding/encoding difficulties, then their is necessarily vocabulary instruction and a recognition of multiple meaning words, etc. plugged into their teaching. Simply because something is structured does not mean that it is one-size-fits-all.
Quote from ILA: “Optimal instruction calls for teachers’ professional expertise and responsiveness, and for the freedom to act on the basis of that professionalism.”
It is misleading and dangerous to say that teachers can decide what reading programs are best for their students with dyslexia. Not everyone has adequate training. Also, it is untrue that we don’t really know what works for student. Although older than I like references to be, the National Reading Panel’s phonics instruction chapter is well-researched and makes clear conclusions about what types of phonics instruction works. Plus, the National Reading Panel’s other chapters highlight how to teach fluency and comprehension effectively, too (the fact that dyslexia also includes difficulties beyond decoding is beyond the scope of this blog post/rant).
Quote from ILA: “Assessment that gives us data on how to support instruction that is responsive to individuals’ needs and comprehensive in scope is more useful in meeting students’ needs (Vellutino et al., 2004). So it may be that not using the term dyslexia would, on balance, benefit the teaching/learning process: Professionals’ attention would be turned away from an arbitrary cut-off point for making decisions about a learner and toward a focus on what that learner is ready to learn and, from there, on to how to provide beneficial instruction.”
I agree with the “arbitrary cut-off point” idea; as with ADHD, dyslexia is on a spectrum, so I am happy to accept a shift in terminology to reflect that. However, to argue against the use of the term dyslexia is offensive and counterproductive. It seems to miss that dyslexia is not a dirty word: Dyslexia is a diagnosis, yes, but it isn’t just a diagnosis.