OECD Primer on Dyslexia

On July 29, 2011, in Uncategorized, by Dare

Dyslexia Primer


Christina D. Hinton

The purpose of this primer is to answer frequently asked questions regarding dyslexia and direct the reader towards further resources on the subject.

Christina Hinton works on issues at the nexus of education and neurobiology in affiliation with the OECD and Harvard Graduate School of Education. The following is, in great part, taken from “Overcoming Dyslexia” by Sally Shaywitz (Knopf, 2003).

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Particularly salient are the following quotes:

    If dyslexia is brain-based and hereditary, is treatment futile?
    The notion that genetically-influenced, brain-based characteristics are deterministic and fixed is a dangerous misconception. The structure of the brain is a function of a synergistic interaction of genetics and experience. Neural circuitry is continually constructed and reconstructed in response to experience. Consequently, while genetic predispositions influence the architecture of the dyslexic brain, there is considerable potential for functionally-significant structural modification (Shaywitz, 2003). Therefore, it is crucial that individuals at risk for dyslexia receive effective treatment. There is evidence that phonologically-targeted treatment can enable young individuals to sufficiently develop neural circuitry in left hemisphere posterior brain systems and to read with accuracy and fluency (Shaywitz et al., 2004). It is also possible for the dyslexic brain to construct alternative, compensatory right hemispheric circuitry; this circuitry seems to enable accurate, but slow, reading (Shaywitz, 2003).

    What indicators can help identify dyslexia?
    Individuals with dyslexia will have a specific phonological weakness, with intact thinking and reasoning skills. The combination of symptoms varies from case to case. The following is a list of clues affecting spoken and written language that can signal dyslexia (taken from Shaywitz, 2003, pp. 122-127):
    • Family history of dyslexia
    • Slight (several month) delay in beginning to speak and in progressing to the use of phrases
    • Difficulties with pronunciation of many words after five or six years of age
    • Insensitivity to rhyme in early childhood (i.e. inability to recite nursery rhymes or to identify rhymes)
    • Failure or delay in acquiring the ability to learn the names and sounds of the letters of the alphabet
    • Confusion of words that sound alike (i.e. tornado/volcano)
    • Frequent usage of imprecise words (i.e. stuff, things, etc.)
    • Tendency to “talk around” a word by describing it with indirect words
    • Speech littered with hesitations or pauses
    • Difficulty with articulation
    • Avoidance of public speaking or reading
    • Use of word substitutions while reading (i.e. car for automobile)
    • Difficulty reading small function words (i.e. in, on, the, that, an)
    • Inability to read with appropriate speed or fluency
    • Hesitant and choppy rhythm of reading, with words omitted or misspoken
    • Poor spelling
    • Highly variable performance on exams, with time as a strong predictor of performance
    • Poor handwriting
    • Reading easily disrupted in a noisy environment
    • Diminished self-esteem
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by Arlene W. Sonday

Experts agree that a multisensory, structured, systematic phonic approach is the best way to teach students with dyslexia. The National Reading Panel has published its findings indicating that effective reading programs should include phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. (A free copy, useful in teaching children and adults, of Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read, can be obtained at EdPubOrders@aspensys.com). The research recommends using a reading program for all students that includes a spelling component and multisensory reinforcement. It appears that what works for students with dyslexia also works best for all readers. Students with dyslexia, however, usually need different pacing with more time and practice and, in many cases, additional expertise from a reading therapist/educational specialist. The same general principles are effective for students whose first language is not English but who need to learn to read, spell and write in English.

Teaching the code of the language is the solution. Reading is talk written down in code. By learning the code and how to use it, students have the necessary tools to decode (read) and encode (spell) words. Teaching the sound-symbol connections, blending sounds into words for reading, segmenting words into sounds for spelling, and learning the basic rules will integrate reading and spelling instruction. Combined with multisensory practice, learning is cemented into long-term memory.

In pre-reading instruction, emphasis is on teaching students phonemic awareness, which involves the sound system of the language. Students need to know that sounds are represented by the letters of the alphabet, that sounds blended together make words and that words can be separated into sounds. Research indicates that the ability to play with words is the most reliable predictor of reading success.

Students need beginning instruction in systematic, explicit phonics, therefore, letter-sound connections for letters and combinations of letters are directly taught and practiced in the context of words in word lists and in text. Card decks with sounds and with words can be used to help build mastery. Manipulatives for controlled reading provide an opportunity for practice to the beginning reader who is mastering an important skill. Students should be encouraged to use the letters to unlock the sounds of each word.

An important component of reading programs is spelling. Spelling can be taught in conjunction with reading, moving from basic sounds, patterns and rules to more complex elements. Spelling is a multisensory activity involving three learning pathways‹visual, auditory and kinesthetic/tactile. Segmenting words into sounds, a phonemic awareness task, helps the student break up each word into recognizable parts and the sounds can be written in the correct sequence. Using a segmenting strategy, learners assign one sound to each finger, and then spell the sequence of sounds to create a word. Finger segmenting sends a strong message to the brain. Adults and teens can do segmenting on their fingers by applying pressure to the finger when the hand rests on the table or on the leg. As soon as they learn to segment they can do it vocally, then subvocally, then mentally. When teaching a phonic approach with a spelling component, the multisensory practice involved cements into long term memory the skills needed to read fluently with good comprehension and to communicate with others in writing.

To provide an effective instructional program, every teacher needs to have knowledge and expertise in delivering an alphabetic-phonic approach. Without this, students lack the firm foundation needed for reading success. Teachers often need to develop new instructional approaches. They need the time and opportunity to understand the structure and rules of the English language, phonemic awareness and multisensory instruction as well as the specific strategies and techniques that make learning effective for students learning to read, write and comprehend English in print. Since this is often not a part of teacher preparation, it is necessary for districts, schools or individual teachers to seek out the training, professional development, and the tools, curricula, that will fill in the gaps for learners who need to know the structure of the language in order to manage written language skills.

About the Author

Arlene Sonday is a Founding Fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators. She is an instructor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey, and Hamline University, Minnesota; a member of the Advisory Council, Scottish Rite Children’s Learning Centers; past Vice-President, The International Dyslexia Association; author, the Sonday System ­ Learning to Read, a reading/spelling curriculum, www.sondaysystem.com; and consultant for the software program, Ultra Phonics Tutor, www.prolexia.com.

    TWO concerned western suburbs [Melbourne] mums are banding together to get the Baillieu Government to recognise dyslexia as a learning disability.

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N.B. It seems that Victorians are under some misapprehension concerning the situation in NSW. Perhaps this is another case of the grass appearing greener on the other side.

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McArthur GM, Ellis D, Atkinson CM, Coltheart M. “Auditory processing deficits in children with reading and language impairments: can they (and should they) be treated?” Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science, Macquarie University, NSW 2109, Australia.

    AB: Sixty-five children with specific reading disability (SRD), 25 children with specific language impairment (SLI), and 37 age-matched controls were tested for their frequency discrimination, rapid auditory processing, vowel discrimination, and consonant-vowel discrimination. Subgroups of children with SRD or SLI produced abnormal frequency discrimination (42%), rapid auditory processing (12%), vowel discrimination (23%), or consonant-vowel discrimination (18%) thresholds for their age. Twenty-eight of these children trained on a programme that targeted their specific auditory processing deficit for 6 weeks. Twenty-five of these 28 trainees produced normal thresholds for their targeted processing skill after training. These gains were not explained by gains in auditory attention, in the ability to do psychophysical tasks in general, or by test-retest effects. The 25 successful trainees also produced significantly higher scores on spoken language and spelling tests after training. However, an untrained control group showed test-retest effects on the same tests. These results suggest that auditory processing deficits can be treated successfully in children with SRD and SLI but that this does not help them acquire new reading, spelling, or spoken language skills.

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Styles of Learning to Read:
A False Dichotomy

by Dr. Patrick Groff
NRRF Board Member & Senior Advisor

Dr. Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus San Diego State University, has published over 325 books, monographs, and journal articles and is a nationally known expert in the field of reading instruction.

One of the corollary tenets of the new empirically discredited Whole Language (WL) reading instruction scheme is that each child inherits a distinct learning style (LS). Within the WL movement the two most celebrated and influential promoters of this notion are Marie Carbo and Rita Dunn. They contend that by the time of his or her birth each child has developed a LS composed of some peculiar combination of 21 elements or preferences for learning.

Moreover, a LS is said to be so immutable that it predestines how an individual young child will best learn to read. Reading instruction in school thus must be tailored so as to match each child’s unique LS, Carbo and Dunn propose. This demand is made in spite of the calculation that the varied combinations of the 21 elements of LS can number into the thousands. There thus is a huge number of supposed LS’s.

This LS theory is capitalized on by the WL movement as a means to defend its guiding principle that school children best learn to read in the same informal way they previously learned to speak at home, as preschoolers. However, because of the massive number of potential learning styles that children purportedly bring with them to school, leaders of the WL movement argue that predetermined reading instruction for children is inconceivable, and therefore improper.

Advocates of WL instead advocate the idea that children should be “immersed” in written language in school, and then be allowed to infer from this free- wheeling experience whatever their novel LS’s indicate they personally need to know in order to learn to read. There is no room in this proposition for direct and systematic teaching of a prearranged hierarchy of discrete reading skills, WL advocates emphasize.

There is agreement among members of the WL movement, however, that young children are able to introspect their inner thoughts so as to identify what are their personal LS’s. As for Carbo, it is her conviction in this regard that most children are not born with auditory-type LS’s. She therefore believes that only a few children have inherited an LS that makes learning and application of phonics information compatible for them.

Statements in favor of LS theory are made in a bold and confident manner. There are even more impressive indicators, however, that the kind of self- analysis Carbo and Dunn claim a child can make to discover his or her peculiar LS, actually is beyond a child’s powers. Young children have great difficulty in making accurate and objective self-examinations of their mental states, it consistently is reported outside the LS literature. These youngsters ordinarily have not developed either the cognitive maturity, or life experiences extensive enough to make credible probes of their inner thoughts.

There are yet other negative criticisms of the LS assumption that assessments of young children can bring to the surface their otherwise submerged preferences for specific kinds of teaching, and teaching environments. Children’s inherited physiological, emotional, and sociological propensities for learning supposedly develop these preferences. A compelling negative critique of these matters is found in S. A. Stahl and M.R. Kuhn’s recent article in School Psychology Review (1995, vol. 24, pp. 393-404).

After consulting the pertinent experimental evidence, these University of Georgia researchers conclude that children’s expressions of favored LS are not reliable, i.e., they change frequently. Questions asked of children about their LS also often are answered in the same way by nearly all respondents. This factor also has a negative effect on the reliability of LS assessment.

The LS theory is highly vulnerable to yet another reproof. This is that it artificially categorizes children as either visual, auditory, or tactile/kinesthetic learners. The relevant experimental studies persistently indicate, on the other hand, that children’s acquisition of reading skills is facilitated greatly by the integration (not the separation) of all their sensory avenues of learning. Thus, multisensory teaching (combining visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning) produces the greatest growth in children’s reading competency that is possible.

The separation of the channels of sensory learning that is involved in LS also holds little promise, Stahl and Kuhn correctly report, because “learning appears to be really a matter of substance over style.” The substance of beginning reading instruction is to make children aware of the alphabetic principle, i.e., that letters consistently represent speech sounds. But children who have difficulty in learning this phonics information are classified by LS theory as “visual” learners, ones who cannot profit from phonics teaching that has been proved experimentally to be productive.

It is far more likely, however, that the LS theory has incorrectly analyzed the needs of these students. What such pupils truly need is some effective phonics instruction. In LS theory a confused judgment therefore is made about children’s abilities as versus their so-called learning preferences. Children who report themselves as having difficulty in decoding words (sounding them out) immediately are categorized as global learners, ones who need to be taught to read words by sight.

It thus is not surprising, as Stahl and Kuhn observe, that experimental research “has provided no evidence to indicate that the matching of learners to particular instructional methods [e.g., auditory versus visual methods] is an effective strategy for improving reading ability.” What, then, can be made of the claims to the contrary by those ideologically committed to LS theory?

Like the evidence offered in support of WL practices in general, that cited as confirmation of LS also turns out in general to be qualitative, i.e., it is made up of anecdotes, case studies, narratives and testimonials as to the perceived superior effectiveness of matching children’s LS’s with the kind of instruction given them. Also, information regularly is dragooned into the defense of LS that was not originated for that purpose. It thus is apparent that “research” by LS advocates often is viewed as a tool for the selling of the idea to teachers and school officials. This “research” thus frequently relates what LS theory looks like in its applications, but provides no statistical evidence that it is unmatched compared to other teaching approaches.

The disclosures here about the LS theory unfortunately do not represent the kind of information about it that teachers and school officials customarily are offered. Rather, popular teacher education journals for some time have assumed a protective editorial attitude toward both LS and WL. The pages of these publications have been filled with fervid declarations of the extraordinary merit of these two radical innovations. Only rarely in journals that teachers consult for guidance about instruction will they find any reservations made as to the merit of the LS idea and the WL approach.

This situation largely accounts for the popularity that LS and WL have enjoyed of late. Add to this pot the historical fact that educators are highly susceptible to charismatic purveyors of educational panaceas, such as those offered by LS and WL enthusiasts. Educators appear more inclined to jump on the bandwagon of unverified educational innovations than they are to discover and apply what the experimental research has found about effective instruction. In this regard, enormous amounts of teaching time are lost as a result of educators’ engagements with educational crazes. As a consequence children, as victims of this academic malpractice, are denied full opportunity to learn to read.

The only saving grace of this deplorable condition is that no empirically unverified educational fad has ever survived the test of time. This is small consolation, however, to the child whose academic success is put in jeopardy by educators’ devotion to uncorroborated schemes such as LS and WL. BR03

The National Right to Read Foundation
P.O. Box 560
Strasburg, VA 22657

Unless otherwise noted, you may copy and distribute any information on this site as long as The National Right to Read Foundation at www.nrrf.org is given credit. The National Right to Read Foundation is a 501(c)(3) publicly supported organization.


On 7 March 2011, the UK Education Department released its landmark schools White Paper: The Importance of Teaching. Amongst other recommendations, that White Paper calls for systematic synthetic phonics to be employed throughout early literacy instruction.

DARE Co-Trustee Antonia Canaris said “The general policy thrust of this White Paper would be extremely helpful if employed in Australia. Synthetic phonics is currently in use in many reputable private schools around Australia, including amongst many others Ascham, Newington College, Tangara School for Girls and St George Christian School. DARE considers it inequitable that students in other systems are deprived of rounded and thorough synthetic phonics instruction. The education of our children is a matter of too great importance to be left to the whim of entrenched educational ideologies.”

    Wollemi College is a small private school which uses the Spalding Method. Its NAPLAN results are nearly all substantially above the results of all Australian schools. This is remarkable considering that its demographic profile is quite close to the average for all Australian students and is lower than for the average private school:

      18% – Bottom quartile
      16% – Lower-middle quartile
      33% – Upper-middle quartile
      34% -Top quartile

    The average distribution is 25% in each quartile.

Antonia Canaris added “It is important for the Department of Education to lead in this field as it serves most students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. These students are the least able to access private remediation, and are at risk of substantial educational underachievement and entrenched socio-economic deprivation.”

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