Several years ago, I found myself a parent of a struggling reader. My son was attending a very well-regarded NYC public school, but the teachers could not help my son learn to read or write.
Because I was a “natural reader,” it was a journey for me to understand my son’s issues and find the resources to help him. This struggle, which has been a success for my son so far, led me to realize that he is extremely fortunate. I had the wherewithal to support my son.
I began to wonder what becomes of families where parents work several jobs and barely have time to meet with the teachers. What happens when parents can’t find, much less choose and pay for a psychologist to do a costly neuro-psych evaluation? What becomes of families who can’t afford an attorney to help them fight for a free and appropriate education?
I also wondered about what we teach teachers about reading. Could a trained teacher have known that the struggles my son had in pre-K were due to dyslexia? Could such a teacher have put us on the right path early?
Most experts agree that dyslexia and related language-based learning differences account for 80 percent of all learning disabilities. The share of the population affected by dyslexia could run as high as 15-20 percent.
Experts Wrote the Memo on Phonics, But Many Teachers Didn’t Get It
While people of means can find tutors and specialized schools for their kids, as well as relief for the anxiety and depression that comes with failing, too many other families are left behind. Ultimately, we see terrible outcomes for the least advantaged in our society.
Unsurprisingly, people who are homeless and incarcerated show higher rates of illiteracy due to dyslexia than the population as a whole. We also see clear links between the struggle to read and mental health issues.
Back in the 1990s, when California’s students experienced a notable decline in reading proficiency, Congress called for a National Reading Panel of experts to examine best practices in reading instruction. The panel reviewed 100,000 studies and published a comprehensive report. Panel member Tim Shanahan later published a useful summary of the report, geared to teachers.
Perhaps most notably, the report concluded that explicitly teaching the relationship among sounds, letters and spelling patterns is important in teaching all beginning readers, not simply those with dyslexia. These elements of reading instructions must be accompanied by access to books, learning vocabulary, teaching comprehension and practicing to achieve fluent reading. They can’t do the whole job on their own, but they can’t be left out, either.
Unfortunately, 20 years after the report was published, we’re still trying to find the right balance of reading strategies, and teaching the science of reading—how to crack the code of print—is being left behind. Emily Hanford’s recent radio documentary, “Hard Words,” explains that teachers aren’t being trained to teach systematic phonics, the key to helping beginning readers crack the code of written English.
To Help More Kids Learn to Read, Better Teacher Training Is a Must
Teacher training is a critical missing link in helping children learn to read. The International Dyslexia Association has identified only 25 colleges in the U.S. that prepare teachers to work with dyslexic readers. The schools that specialize in helping dyslexic students train their own teachers, and it’s extremely rare for that training to reach elementary and high school teachers in ordinary public schools.
I have discovered other disturbing challenges, too:
- School psychologist training programs do not include assessing for dyslexia in the curriculum, so neither school psychologists nor teachers can help students.
- Social workers and occupational therapists also learn nothing about dyslexia in their training.
- Though it runs in families, pediatricians do not ask the families of their young patients about any family history of reading struggles.
- Students’ frustration is misdiagnosed as an attention issue.
- Reading science continues to be pitted against false assumptions about the naturalness of reading, as reported in the recent radio documentary, “Hard Words.”
The lack of support for dyslexic students is systemic. Although a huge professional development industry exists for tutors and a handful enlightened schools around the country, none of this addresses the systemic issues. Parent groups have successfully lobbied for “dyslexia laws,” yet too often they are unfunded mandates.
To bring reading science to every teacher, colleges and universities must step up and prepare teachers and school leaders with the knowledge and skills they need. University psychology departments should help not just the teaching colleges, but the families in their communities who struggle to understand their child’s challenges.
Universities can also arm social workers with information on dyslexia so they can direct families to resources. Medical schools can inform every future pediatrician that dyslexia runs in families, and we can add questions about reading challenges to family history.
Change is already starting to come. Mississippi—traditionally dead last on many measures of academic achievement—is leading the way in revamping teacher training, and they’re seeing results. Let’s make that happen across the nation.