Why, for so many, is access to an education that recognizes the science of reading limited to private programs? My son experienced this as a reader struggling with dyslexia, and my sister experienced this as an aspiring teacher wanting to help all her students learn to read.
I remember my son’s early reading experiences well. As a 4 year old, he listened to the first few chapters of “My Father’s Dragon” and said, “Mom, each chapter this kid is going to take something out of his backpack to save the day. Let’s guess what he’ll take out and see if we are right.” I was thrilled to see that he understood foreshadowing.
But he couldn’t hear rhymes and hated Dr. Seuss. He hated Sesame Street, but liked the shows that had a plot to follow. His public pre-K teacher was concerned he didn’t know his colors, although his health form stated that he was colorblind. She didn’t mind that he had no phonemic awareness. Did she know that it was a pillar of literacy? She did say he was bright and a joy to teach.
His kindergarten teacher at our progressive public school, Central Park East Two (CPE2), said the same thing—he was bright and a joy to teach. The books he brought home from school got memorized quickly and exchanged. He listened to his father and me read third- and fourth-grade level books to him at home at night.
When he was in first grade, we read ever more advanced books out loud, but he was still not learning to read or write. Our school’s response? They had our son attend a one-week summer program at school for teacher professional development.
In second grade, he received a school-based evaluation that said he was bright but he couldn’t read or express himself in writing. We heard the evaluation and mentioned to the school team that dyslexia runs in our family. The school told us he would do fine in an integrated co-teaching class (ICT) where a special educator and a general educator would teach all the children together. But he didn’t do fine.
My Son’s Public School Teachers Didn’t Know How to Teach Him to Read
Thus began our journey into the private sector for his education. Our first stop was a private evaluation. We learned he was decoding and spelling at kindergarten level, as though he had never gone to school, yet he could comprehend at the 12th-grade level. My son is dyslexic.
His teachers at CPE2 had been trained at prestigious institutions, including Bank Street College of Education and Teachers College at Columbia University. My son was learning comprehension skills and great content. Yet he kept falling further and further behind his friends in reading, and was beginning to suffer from anxiety. I was taken aback: I could not believe the teachers did not know how to teach him to read.
By third grade, we found more private resources: tutors. We also sent him to a private summer camp at Diana King’s Camp Dunnabeck at the Kildonan School for children with dyslexia. The tutors from Kildonan’s Teacher Training Institute worked with dyslexic students one-on-one for an hour a day. Later, students attended a study hall session to practice what they learned. It was a sleepaway camp, so my son rode mountain bikes, rode horses, worked on telling stories with video cameras and editing software, swam and more. His self-esteem came back. He learned cursive. His reading and writing improved. But he slid back in fourth grade, and depression set in. He wanted to kill himself. He was 10 years old.
Again we turned to private resources. He began CBT with a psychologist, and we enrolled him in the Windward School, which has its own Teacher Training Institute. They use direct instruction; they teach decoding rules. Now he knows how words work. He can read. He’s learning how to write, research and take notes. But now the content in social studies and science isn’t as deep as he wants. After reading for homework, he independently seeks out information from the radio, newspapers, from podcasts, and from books on Audible or Learning Ally. We take trips to the museums. Certainly, it’s easier for a parent to introduce a kid to content than to teach them to read.
Few Colleges Prepare Public School Teachers in the Science of Reading
Meanwhile, across the country in Arizona, my sister took charge of a class of struggling readers. Though she arrived armed with a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Arizona, a master’s in education from Northern Arizona University and further graduate classes leading to a reading specialist certificate, she had heard the term dyslexia only once, and it was defined as processing words backwards.
My sister had not learned about direct instruction and the five pillars of literacy but was a assigned to a sixth-grade class of struggling readers. She had not learned how to assess for phonemic awareness or phonological skills. While some students made progress in the small class, others did not. To meet their needs, she too turned to the private sector and learned the Barton System. She then learned the Wilson System.
Hungry for more, she also took a nine-day course in the Orton-Gillingham method of teaching connections between letters and sounds. At the course, my sister learned the theory behind reading programs like Barton and Wilson. She got a deeper understanding about multisensory learning. She learned how early phonemic awareness will put kids on a path to be strong readers, and how easy it is to add to a play-based curriculum. And she learned how to assess and tailor reading education for those who have already been left behind. Mastery is key, and using a spiraling scaffold means you can return to a skill to help students “remaster” it before building on it.
Meanwhile, I took a year off from work to find out more about dyslexia. I found out how few teaching colleges are preparing teachers the way Windward teachers and Kildonan teachers are prepared. I learned that the private specialized schools for dyslexic kids in and around New York City can help only about 2,000 children a year, yet 200,000 or more in the area need such help. I learned that 50 percent of prisoners are functionally illiterate due to dyslexia. I gained a deeper understanding of dyslexia as a language processing problem in the brain.
Now, I wish my son could have gone to a school that offered direct instruction with systematic phonics in reading and writing coupled with progressive, inquiry-based instruction in subjects like math, science and social studies. But a school like that doesn’t seem to exist.
I wonder why the only way to access the science of reading is through private, specialized schools, staffed by privately trained teachers. Why must teachers find private professional development to learn this crucial information? Why isn’t this science recognized in public K-12 schools and teacher colleges?
Specialized schools don’t serve enough of the population, and professional development is not systematic or sustainable. By confining the science of reading to expensive private schools and colleges, we increase the Matthew Effect riddling education that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. I’m committed to changing this.