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LDnet: The Science of Reading and Dyslexia

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The Science of Reading and Dyslexia

God gave us the tools to further understand how the brain works and how it learns. I believe we should continue to use this growing knowledge to improve outcomes for students. When we know better, we can do better.Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of state-mandated testing as the most accurate reflection of student achievement. However, as I have looked at data from the state of Indiana this last year, I continue to be alarmed. For the 2021–2022 school year, our state testing showed only 41.7% of third through eighth graders were at or above proficiency in the English Language Arts portions of the test. Before you point to the impact of the pandemic, this percentage was 47.9% in 2019. Still nothing to write home about. Less than half of the students in the state are at or above proficiency in reading and language arts? What about everything that is known about how people learn to read (and don’t learn to read)?

Your area of the country or world may have different levels of proficiency in these areas, but my guess is that it is still extremely concerning. Whether you work with preschool children or high schoolers, being informed about the Science of Reading is critical to understanding this reading crisis and implementing change.

width=400Depending on where you live and teach, you may have head more about the Science of Reading and state-specific dyslexia legislation. It can be easy to assume this is part of another pendulum swing in literacy, but it is important to understand what the Science of Reading is telling us about how all students learn how to read. This is even more imperative for students with dyslexia or for those showing signs of struggling with reading. God gave us the tools to further understand how the brain works and how it learns. I believe we should continue to use this growing knowledge to improve outcomes for students. When we know better, we can do better.

This research comes from the field of education and also cognitive and developmental psychology, implementation science, neuroscience, linguistics, school psychology, and communication science.First, despite the term Science of Reading seeming to be a relatively new term, the knowledge base behind it is not. The research on how all students learn to read—and how they don’t—has been building for the last 50 years, and it continues to develop. This research comes from the field of education and also cognitive and developmental psychology, implementation science, neuroscience, linguistics, school psychology, and communication science. I would highly recommend taking the time to watch this video from Dr. Stanislas Dehaene on how the brain learns to read. Many of us may not remember exactly how we learned to read. To some extent, it may have seemed natural. However, reading is not a natural process, and we need to have some knowledge of how we learn these critical skills.

It is also important to point out what the Science of Reading is not. It is not a specific program or a focus on only one component of literacy, such as phonics. To quote the renowned Dr. Anita Archer, “There is no comprehension strategy powerful enough to compensate if a student cannot read the words.” Students must be able to decode words. For students with dyslexia or with signs of undiagnosed dyslexia, difficulties with phonemic awareness and decoding are prevalent. This doesn’t mean that only students with dyslexia need to be taught these skills explicitly.

The Simple View of Reading shows that reading comprehension is the product of word recognition and language comprehension. Think back to your basic multiplication facts; if one of these elements is zero, reading comprehension will also be zero.

All students must develop increasingly automatic word recognition skills, including phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition of words. All students must develop increasingly automatic word recognition skills, including phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition of words along with increasingly strategic language comprehension skills, including background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge for skilled reading and reading comprehension to occur. It isn’t an either/or situation. Discussions surrounding the Science of Reading tend to focus on phonemic awareness and phonics more heavily than other critical elements of reading because these elements may be lacking in reading instruction, depending on the resources being used. These are also the skills struggling readers have not mastered, even those in high school! The Science of Reading does not discount the importance of building language comprehension skills, and it also has the desired outcome of producing skilled and fluent readers who can comprehend what they are reading.

width=400The other element you may be wondering about related to this is dyslexia screening and the legislation that many states are putting into place in public school districts. Let’s be clear about one thing first: If your school is implementing dyslexia screening, perhaps with one of your state’s approved dyslexia screeners, this is not diagnosing dyslexia! Some of you reading this have credentials to diagnose dyslexia; however, having a screening and sharing results with parents should never be telling parents that a student has dyslexia. Approved screeners are meant to assess key areas at specific ages that can be indicative of a student with dyslexia. Results are meant to drive instruction and intervention based on areas of strength and weakness, not diagnosis. After intervention, it may be the case that a student needs a referral for a diagnostic evaluation, but that should come later.

Most states require that approved dyslexia screeners address the following six areas for all students being screened: phonological and phonemic awareness, sound symbol recognition, alphabet knowledge, decoding skills, rapid naming skills, and encoding skills (spelling). These areas can indicate the presence of dyslexia, so it is critical that any universal screener address all, not just some, of these areas.

We have the knowledge to effectively intervene and improve reading outcomes for students with dyslexia. This may require significant changes to your school’s understanding and approach to teaching reading. It is critical not only for the students with dyslexia, but for all students.Students scoring at-risk or even at-some-risk in these areas should be provided with evidence-based intervention based on their individual scores. Progress should be monitored to ensure that the interventions are working and are effective. Between 15–20 percent of the population has dyslexia, although the severity and indicators may appear differently in each individual.

Through the Science of Reading and other research, we have the knowledge to effectively intervene and improve reading outcomes for students with dyslexia. This may require significant changes to your school’s understanding and approach to teaching reading. It is critical not only for the students with dyslexia, but for all students. Aligning our practices to the Science of Reading will benefit all students and develop more competent readers who can accurately and fluently decode text so that they can comprehend and love what they read.

I realize that this information is an abbreviated look into the Science of Reading, so I encourage you to check out the following resources to learn more and look at what your school is doing and how improvements could be made. First, read through the Science of Reading Defining Guide from the Reading League: https://www.thereadingleague.org/what-is-the-science-of-reading/.

The Reading League also offers some excellent training opportunities to help you further develop your understanding of the Science of Reading: https://www.thereadingleague.org/online-academy/.

Free online trainings are also available which can be valuable: https://www.readingrockets.org/teaching/reading101-course/welcome-reading-101 and https://www.reallygreatreading.com/workshops (some of the advanced workshops have a cost). Other low cost options are available here, depending on the length of your subscription: https://readingsimplified.com/academy/ and https://www.tools4reading.com/top-10-tools.

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  • What surprises did you find in this article about the Science of Reading and dyslexia?
  • What will you say, and not say, to parents whose child you suspect is dyslexic?
  • Which of the resources indicated in this article might you read first?

For a deeper dive into the reading crisis, listen to this podcast series: https://features.apmreports.org/sold-a-story/.

Also, investigate options your state may have for trainings on the Science of Reading and dyslexia screening. Some states include teachers in non-public schools, so it is worth exploring! However you decide to take the next step, let’s choose to embrace the knowledge God has given us about our amazing brains and how we can use this to develop our students’ abilities. Feel free to contact us at https://luthsped.org or email lsem@luthsped.org for more information!

Kara Bratton serves as LSEM’s Special Education Director. She has been with the ministry since 2001, first as a special education teacher, and then moved to a director role in 2013. She has an undergraduate degree in elementary education from Valparaiso University, a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Indiana Wesleyan University, graduate degrees in special education and gifted and talented instruction from Indiana Wesleyan University and Ball State University, respectively, and a Ph.D. in special education leadership from Concordia University Chicago.

Photos © iStock/Global Moments, Carla Castagno, Carolina Jaramillo.