Dyslexia facts, myths and strategies

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I’ve just listened to a great Ontario IDA Reading Road Trip podcast, in which the IDA’s Kate Winn interviews Dr Jack Fletcher about dyslexia facts, myths and strategies. Click here to listen to the whole thing yourself, and/or read the transcript, which includes references. For the time-poor and my own learning, here’s what I thought were key takeaways.

Defining and diagnosing dyslexia

Dyslexia is a word-level reading and spelling problem which results from a combination of biological and environmental factors. It’s a persistent inability to respond to the kind of explicit, intensive, instruction that works for most people.

Instructional response is the most important criterion for diagnosing anyone with a Specific Learning Disorder, especially dyslexia. Diagnosis should be based on multiple criteria, including progress monitoring measures from intervention, and norm-referenced achievement testing. Specialist dyslexia assessment tools aren’t helpful or necessary. Cognitive tests are only useful in identifying kids who are at risk in the first two years of schooling. After grade two, assessment should be focussed on academic measures of reading, spelling, and writing.

It’s not valid to diagnose dyslexia based on a discrepancy between cognitive skills and academic performance. Kids with reading problems with high and low IQs have the same difficulties with phonological awareness, rapid naming and so on. IQ tests have racial and social bias, so there are social justice issues associated with their use. A Pattern of Strengths And Weaknesses model is also a discrepancy model, is typically inaccurate and grossly under-identifies kids with learning disabilities. We also need to be aware of English Language Learners when identifying at-risk kids, so they’re not misidentified.

Related/co-occurring difficulties

Other kinds of learning disorders and difficulties often co-occur with dyslexia, such as problems with writing or mathematics. Kids with dyslexia often also have difficulties with attention and/or language needing separate intervention. Stimulant medication can help a child pay attention but it won’t teach them how to read. Learning to read words doesn’t guarantee you’ll know what they mean.

About 25% of kids with dyslexia have clinical levels of anxiety. Anxiety predicts a poorer response to intervention, so one US expert, Sharon Vaughn, has introduced five minutes of mindfulness meditation at the start of intervention sessions, to reduce anxiety.

Psychiatrist Shepherd Kellam studied an approach which prevented behaviour problems, but found this didn’t help kids improve their reading. So he introduced a reading intervention, and found that when they became better readers, the girls were less depressed and the boys were less disruptive. He also found that kids all knew who was struggling with reading, and that this was a source of anxiety.

Can dyslexia be prevented?

Many severe reading problems can be prevented if kids get the right kind of explicit instruction and reading experience in their first three years of schooling. About 40% of kids find it hard to learn to read well without really explicit and fairly intense instruction and early reading experience. This makes them aware of the sounds in spoken words and helps them grasp the idea that these sounds are what letters represent (the alphabetic principle) and develops their brains as mediators of reading. Early access to print gives the brain the kind of visual experience it needs to become an automatic reader.

If kids don’t learn to read in the first three years of schooling, it’s very hard for them fully develop their neural system and get the reading experience and vocabulary they need to become skilled, automatic readers. They can be taught to decode, but end up with persistent reading problems. Intervention in first and second grade is twice as effective as intervention after the third grade. It’s hard to differentiate reading problems due to biology and those which are due to environment. Brain scans of third grade poor readers who were not taught well and third grade poor readers at biological risk of dyslexia look the same.

Poor instruction is unfortunately still quite common, though teachers are not to blame, they always have good intentions. They just may not have the training and the knowledge that they need to be effective instructors for kids who are at risk. Improving and maintaining high-quality instruction, including classroom management, needs to be an ongoing priority.

What kind of intervention?

Explicit, systematic instruction in the general early years classroom works for everyone, but works twice as well for the at-risk kids (see this research by Barbara Foorman et al). There should be systematic, explicit phonics: teaching the relationship between what words sound like and what they look like. There should also be cumulative practice of skills to automaticity, and work on comprehension. Reading and writing strengths and weaknesses should be monitored, and intervention adjusted accordingly.

If you are including all these elements and collecting data towards your benchmark, and making good progress, then you should just continue until students achieve the benchmark.

Research by the late Carol Connor suggests decoding/word level intervention is about four times more effective in a small group (3 or 4 children per teacher) than a large group, as long as the groups are well matched and managed. This makes sense, as in phonics lessons, teachers have to listen closely to each child, and notice and correct their errors. There’s no evidence that individual phonics instruction is better than this kind of well-matched small group work (click here for information about upcoming Spelfabet holiday groups). The best indicator of which kids should be grouped together is their reading fluency.

Meaning-based instruction, on the other hand, can be done equally well in small or large groups. For English Language Learners, quality of instruction seems to make more difference than language of instruction.

Myths about dyslexia

Dyslexia is not a gift. The myth that people with dyslexia have special talents might result from individual differences and the natural orientation of development towards strengths.

People with dyslexia don’t see letters backwards. As we learn to read, we see mirror images of words in both sides of the brain, which gradually lateralises to the left side of the brain. This happens more slowly in people with dyslexia.

Other myths include: that coloured lenses or overlays help with reading; that dyslexia is a reading comprehension problem; that it’s rare; that people grow out of it; that Brain Training programs not involving reading instruction work; and that improving home literacy will overcome dyslexia. See the blue box on the right of Fletcher and Vaughn’s interesting article titled “Identifying and Teaching Students with Significant Reading Problems for the full list of 18 myths Dr Fletcher refers to in the podcast.

Thanks a quintillion to Kate Winn and Ontario IDA for this interesting podcast series, I’ll be going through the back catalogue in coming weeks, and just noticed a new 4 March 2024 episode pop up, with Australia’s own Dr Jennifer Buckingham. One for tomorrow’s morning dog walk, methinks.

Ten cheers for our new Children’s Laureate!

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I was so excited to be invited to the launch of Sally Rippin’s two year program as Australian Children’s Laureate on Tuesday, though surprised to spot a former colleague in the crowd who was once staunchly anti-phonics and pro Reading Recovery/Fountas and Pinnell.

Then I realised: Sally is the Perzackly Perfect Person to cheer people off the sinking Balanced Literacy ship (especially since the Grattan Institute’s Reading Guarantee report), and onto ship Structured Literacy, so all kids can hurry up and start enjoying wonderful stories.

Sally isn’t just an author of great kids’ books, she’s the mum of a neurodivergent kid who struggled to read and spell, and a staunch advocate of making sure all kids are taught to crack our spelling code, instead of being encouraged to memorise and guess words. Her book for adults about this, Wild Things: how we learn to read, and what can happen if we don’t, should be in every school and local library. Here she is at the launch with queen of our activist dyslexia mums, Dyslexia Victoria Support founder Heidi Gregory.

Sally’s term as Children’s Laureate is the perfect time for a strong push to dump dross like predictable/repetitive texts and rote-memorisation of high frequency word lists, and promote things like decodable texts and systematic, explicit phonics teaching in Years F-2. It’s also the perfect time to improve early identification and intervention for neurodivergent kids in schools, and knock down barriers to reading for all kids.

The Grattan Institute report (there’s a podcast about it here, and a 20-minute YouTube summary here) says kids with poor literacy currently in school could cost taxpayers $40 billion over their lifetimes, not to mention the personal cost to those kids. I cannot think of a better use of my taxes than ensuring all schools use literacy-teaching methods that are based on the best available evidence, and that struggling and neurodiverse kids whose parents can’t afford high-quality private intervention don’t miss out on it.

At the launch I also got a copy of Come Over To My House, a picture book co-authored by Eliza Hull, full of stories about making the world more accessible for everyone. It’s perfect for our waiting room. I also got some School Of Monsters compilations for our lending library, signed by Sally and illustrator Chris Kennett (who also drew little bats on them). Chris taught everyone at the launch how to draw a monster, which was rather hilarious.

Sally will be travelling all over Australia in the next two years, so make sure you find out when she is coming to a town or city near you (the ACLF newsletter and social media information is here), and spread the word. It’s a story well worth telling.

Benchmark Assessment: often wrong

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It’s the end of the school year in Australia, so children are getting their end-of-year reports.

Many Australian schools use the American Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System (BAS) to evaluate reading skills, but a new American Public Media (APM) report says it fails to identify most struggling readers.

If teachers rely on the BAS results, they will be advising many parents not to worry about their children’s reading skills, though there’s good reason to be concerned.

If you’re in this situation, please seek more reliable and valid assessment. Early intervention is highly effective, and ‘late bloomers’ are more likely to wilt and suffer than catch up.

There are plenty of more cost-effective, efficient, reliable, valid literacy skill assessments available for school use. The excellent, Australian Reading Science in Schools website has an assessment list you can download here. Chances are that teachers using the BAS don’t know about researchers’ adverse findings on it, or good alternatives. Do them a favour, send them the APM report and RSS assessment list.

If your school can’t provide valid, reliable reading/spelling assessment, try asking local Speech Pathologists, Educational and Developmental Psychologists or Specialist Educators for a second opinion. Very young kids can do quite a lot of learning in the summer holidays with good professional guidance and/or by attending programs like our holiday groups. The sooner they catch up with peers, the happier they’ll be in 2024.

Free & cheap word-building games

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It’s the silly season, time to play more games. Excellent Spelfabet Speech Pathologists Georgina Ryan and Elle Holloway have devised and tested a set of download-and-print word-building card games which are now available in the Spelfabet shop. Each game can be printed on 3 sheets of A4 cardboard and handed to a group of kids to cut up and play, or you can laminate them first, if you want them to last.

The simplest game is free, and requires learners to add productive suffixes -ed and -ing, and Olden Days suffix -le (not used to produce new words any more, but still in heaps of words), to base words with ‘short’ vowels, adjacent consonants and the consonant spellings ss, sh, ck, ng, and tch. Here’s a video of how to play it:

Here’s a video of the other Initial Code game in the set, in which players add the suffixes -ed, -ing, -er, -y and -s/es to base words, doubling final consonants if required. If they have both -y and -er suffixes, they can stack these to create words like ‘bumpier’ and ‘jumpier’, changing -y into i before adding the -er.

Here are videos of two other games in the set, we hope this gives you the idea of how they work, and that they will work well with your learners. The whole set is available here. Happy silly season from all of us at Spelfabet!

Summer holiday groups at Spelfabet

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Bookings are now open for our intensive explicit, systematic synthetic phonics therapy groups in the week of 15-19 January 2024.

These are for young children (in school Years F-2 in 2023) who need extra help with learning to read and spell words by sounding them out.

Each group will run for an hour a day, and include plenty of games and fun. We will provide daily homework to complete and bring to the next session.

The groups will be:

TimeSkill levelExample words targeted
8.45am to 9.45amBeginners: VC and CVC words.at, in, hop, bus, red, fan, big
10.15am-11.15amAdding common suffixes to base words, doubling final consonants as needed. Introducing three “long” vowels with consonant-e/split/silent final e spellings, and when to drop final e before adding a suffix.
NB if you have a Year 3-4 child who needs this level of work, we may run a second group for them at 11.45am.
bat-batting, swim-swimmer, hop-hopped, run-runny, shade-shady, time, timer, hope, hoping
11.45am to 12.45pmAdjacent consonants: CVCC, CCVC, CCVCC, CCCVC, CVCCC.help, list, trap, stop, crust, strip, jumps
2.00pm to 3.00pmConsonant digraphs.wish, chat, fetch, this, when, quick, sing

We will provide all the necessary resources, including specialist take-home readers. We have a maximum of four children per speech pathologist in our groups, to keep the pace/intensity high. We match children carefully and ask that everyone comes prepared to attend all sessions and do all the homework.

Our groups will be held at our North Fitzroy office in Melbourne’s inner north, with attendance by appointment only. Spaces are limited, and upfront payment for all group sessions is required to secure a child’s place.  The cost of a week’s program is $720, which covers all sessions, materials and planning time, plus a brief final report with recommendations. Missed sessions are non-refundable. Private health rebates may apply, depending on your level/type of cover, but Medicare only provides rebates for individual therapy sessions.

Children not already known to us need to attend an assessment session with us before joining a group. This allows us to check whether we have a suitable group, and helps us cater for any special needs/interests. If we don’t have a group matching a child’s skills and needs, we can usually suggest other intervention options.

Please contact Tiana Knights on admin@spelfabet.com.au, (03) 8528 0138 or text 0434 902 249 if you’d like to find out more about these groups, or book an assessment for a struggling reader/speller.

Therapists’ duty of care means we must recommend evidence-based teaching

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A local school leader recently contacted me ask that my colleagues and I delete one of the recommendations we often put in assessment reports, because it is prompting parents to question the school’s teaching approach.

The recommendation reads:

(Child name) should not be taught using a ‘whole language’ or ‘balanced literacy’ approach (Reading Recovery, Leveled Literacy Intervention, Guided Reading, PM Readers, Running Records, etc.) as this approach does not control adequately for word structure and phoneme-grapheme correspondences, and encourages the strategies of weak readers, such as guessing and rote-memorising words. This approach is not explicit or systematic enough in its teaching of sound-spelling relationships or word structure.

The school leader explained that her school system requires staff to use approaches we recommend against, so our reports were putting their Reading Recovery teachers and other staff in a difficult position.

We have no desire to put anyone in a difficult position, but our duty of care is to our clients. We must make recommendations which are in their best interests, based on the best available scientific evidence.

It’s completely unfair to a child to have one set of adults teaching them to sound words out, and another set of adults teaching them to memorise and guess words. Memorising and guessing words are the habits of weak readers, but are encouraged when high-frequency word lists are used as spelling lists, and children are given predictable/repetitive texts containing spelling patterns they’ve never been taught.

Undoing bad habits and building strong foundational skills is hard work, especially when we only see clients for 40 minutes once a week or fortnight. They’re at school five days per week. It would be professionally irresponsible not to tackle this issue in our reports.

I agreed to send the school leader evidence supporting our recommendation, but this is the second request of this type, so it probably won’t be the last. Answering the question in this blog post, and linking to it in our reports, should help parents argue kindly and clearly for science, and help school leaders learn about reading research, and discard programs and practices that don’t help children thrive.

Reading Recovery

Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI)

  • Research its authors call the independent, gold standard evidence for LLI received funding from the program’s publisher, and was published on a university website, not in a peer-reviewed journal. The valid, reliable, objective measure of progress used in this research – DIBELS – showed that LLI was not effective. Children only improved on the subjective, LLI-devised measure. Here’s a video explanation.
  • Pedagogy Non Grata’s Effect-Size-based meta-analysis of LLI research is here, which concludes, “The program is not research based”. The author discusses this analysis in this video.

Fountas and Pinnell Classroom

Other balanced literacy strategies/resources

Science of Reading

  • American Public Media journalist Emily Hanford’s* six years of reporting on this issue, including her podcast Sold a Story, can be found here. Recently interviewed in New Zealand, home of Reading Recovery (now rapidly being replaced by Better Start and other programs), Hanford said this:

Switching to evidence-based teaching

I hope leaders of Australian schools still using balanced literacy (an ill-defined mishmash of things that work, and things that don’t, some of which can be harmful) find the knowledge, resources and inspiration to switch to science based teaching of reading and spelling in 2024.

* No, Emily Hanford and Pedagogy Non Grata’s Nathaniel Hansford (who writes/speaks as Nate Joseph) are not related.

A Voice on First People’s literacy and more

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Australians will soon vote on whether to recognise our First Peoples in our Constitution, and set up a permanent indigenous advisory committee (Voice) to Federal Parliament.

An estimated 40 per cent of indigenous Australian adults have minimal English literacy, and it can be as high as 70 per cent in many remote areas. According to Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2021 data, our Year 4 First Nations students scored 491 points on average, while students from other backgrounds averaged 547 points. It’s a similar, shameful story for most other indicators of wellbeing: First Nations Australians get a raw deal.

Respected indigenous leader and Senator Patrick Dodson explains some of the appalling back story, and the evolution of the referendum proposal, in this podcast. There’s a shorter video explaining the referendum here. No-one seems to be arguing against Constitutional recognition, but there is a campaign against an indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Some progressives, like Senator Lidia Thorpe, say the Voice will have no actual power, so governments will be able to ignore it if they don’t like its advice. That’s true. Within the limits of the Constitution, Parliament has the power to make, amend or repeal any law, and the Voice won’t change that.

Some conservative opponents argue the proposal is divisive and lacks detail, so “If you don’t know, vote no”. I’d rather finish the sentence, “If you don’t know” with “find out”. The Voice proposal is not about detail, it’s asking about an in-principle decision. Ballot papers will say: “A Proposed Law: to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. Do you approve this proposed alteration?”.

Sadly, some opponents are saying things which are not true. It’s legal to spread campaign lies.

However, it seems clear that the majority of First Peoples support the Voice proposal, the first step in a process towards truth and treaty outlined in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. There’s been a surge of electoral enrolment in areas with high First Peoples populations. High-profile non-partisan First Nations people like Cathy Freeman and Michael Long, and most First Peoples organisations, seem to support a ‘yes’ vote.

I want to be an ally to First Nations people in their quest for educational and other justice, so I need to listen to the majority. If I pick and choose which First Nations opinions I listen to, I’m really just listening to myself.

Speech Pathology Australia, my professional association, has taken a stand on the upcoming referendum, saying, “Speech Pathology Australia stands with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities in favour of both the Voice and Treaty.”

In primary school, I made friends with Gunditjmara and Kirrae Whurrong artist Fiona Clarke. Victorians might have seen her public art in train stations and elsewhere, and if your Victorian school would like a colourful mural on a dull wall or water tank, please let her know. Her designs have also appeared on Australian Cricket Team outfits. I was delighted to catch up with her at a “Vote Yes” concert organised by her brother on the weekend, where we put our heads together to say this: