“Dyslexia is not a disease, and therefore, there is no cure. With proper diagnosis, appropriate and timely instruction, hard work, and support from family, teachers, friends, and others, individuals who have dyslexia can succeed in school and later as adults.”
All students can benefit from structured language instruction. Although a cure does not exist, there are proven, effective solutions to assist individuals who have dyslexia, allowing them to conquer literacy challenges and become more fluent readers.
In the early 1930s, Samuel T. Orton, a neuropsychiatrist and pathologist, and Anna Gillingham, an educator and psychologist, developed a method of instruction that simultaneously incorporates the visual, auditory, and tactile (kinesthetic) senses to help students with dyslexia understand the structure of the English language in a highly systematic way. Used in one-on-one or small-group instruction, this became known as the Orton-Gillingham based approach, O-G, or Multisensory Structured Language (MSL) instruction. More recently, it has been called “structured literacy.”
Wilson Reading System®, Just Words®, and Fundations® are scientifically based MSL programs that align with Orton-Gillingham principles. As such, they offer direct, explicit, and cumulative instruction.
Research has found that students who are identified early and receive appropriate multisensory structured language education will make gains in the early years of their education (Ritchey & Goeke, 2006). Moreover, early intervention can increase the activation of areas in the brain that are key for reading (Shaywitz et al., 2004).
With early intervention and effective strategies, struggling students can develop strong literacy skills before years of frustration and feelings of inadequacy take hold. Adults of all ages also can learn to read with proper instruction.
Students with Dyslexia
Providing students with dyslexia with the specific, intensive instruction they need requires the specialized skills of a highly-trained teacher. This specialization is necessary in order to understand the type of instruction a student requires, identify an appropriate intervention program, understand whether the program is working, think diagnostically about what to do when it is not working, and know how to provide the motivational support and educational guidance that many students need.
Both teacher knowledge and the practical ability to apply this knowledge in a real-life setting are crucial (Hattie, 2012). To successfully teach students with dyslexia, teachers must have in-depth knowledge of reading instruction, including the structure of the English language—meaning its phonology, morphology, and orthography. They must also be able to take this knowledge and successfully instruct a student who does not easily learn it. This second part is critical. Without it, teachers have the knowledge but not the skill to succeed.
Supplemental tools, such as assistive technology, can be combined with MSL instruction to meet students’ needs. Computers, mobile devices, and an array of applications can customize the learning experience to a student’s specific needs by adjusting for strengths and weaknesses. These rich and interactive learning experiences provide extensive practice of essential skills and can go more in depth than traditional methods, while giving teachers the control and support they need. Using these technologies, students can continue to learn and reinforce necessary skills before moving on to more complex skills.
Cognitive skills and classroom environment factors impact reading development, especially for individuals with dyslexia. Barbara Wilson explains the role of these in reading acquisition, the basic principles of structured literacy, and the importance of early screening and comprehensive evaluation in her presentation, “Foundations of Reading Acquisition and Dyslexia: Implications for Early Intervention,” given at the Dyslexia and Literacy: Differences within Differences conference at UCLA in 2018, organized by The Dyslexia Foundation.
Information about the components of systematic instruction necessary for students with dyslexia to gain word-level mastery for decoding and spelling can be found in Barbara Wilson’s article, “Teaching Total Word Structure: Systematic, Explicit, and Integrated Instruction in Phonology, Morphology, and Orthography.”
Teacher Knowledge and Skills
Scientific evidence shows that reading is the intersection of five critical components, and that teaching students to read requires instruction in each of these areas (Stuebing, Barth, Cirino, Francis, & Fletcher, 2008). To support all students in successfully learning to read, teachers must acquire knowledge and skills in these important areas.
- Phonemic Awareness
These components are specified as critical foundational reading skills in states’ college- and career-readiness standards, the National Reading Panel report (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000), and a review of research on adult and adolescent literacy instruction by the National Institute for Literacy (Kruidenier, MacArthur, & Wrigley, 2010)
The National Reading Panel cites that the best approach to reading instruction incorporates:
- Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness
- Systematic phonics instruction
- Methods to improve fluency
- Ways to enhance comprehension
Professional Learning for Educators
It is now widely recognized that teachers must have the knowledge and specific skills to apply when working with students with dyslexia and other language-based reading disorders. How can teachers be supported in acquiring these skills? One aspect of effective implementation is training.
Our experience shows us that teachers working with individuals with dyslexia need a clinical teaching experience (practicum) to be able to take book-learning and knowledge and translate them into practical application in the classroom. The practicum should be under the supervision of an experienced individual who has taught students with dyslexia how to read, and has attained a deep level of knowledge and experience.
Moreover, studies over the past four decades have found that knowledge is retained and programs are implemented more effectively when teachers receive coaching as part of their professional learning. For more, see The Center for Public Education’s report, Teaching the Teachers: Effective Professional Development in an Era of High Stakes Accountability.
The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) considers accreditation and certification to be key strategies for changing the way reading is taught. The IDA’s components of Structured Literacy are outlined in its guide, Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading.
Additionally, research over the past four decades by Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers, Jim Knight, and Jake Cornett, among others, emphasizes the importance of coaching and mentoring in teacher professional learning to improve program implementation and student achievement.
References (click to show)
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.
International Dyslexia Association. (2018). Knowledge and practice standards for teachers of reading. Baltimore, MD: Author.
Kruidenier, J.R., MacArthur, C.A., & Wrigley, J.S. (2010). Adult education literacy instruction: A review of the research. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.
National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. (NIH Publication No. 004769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Ritchey, K. D., & Goeke, J. L. (2006). Orton-Gillingham and Orton-Gillingham-based reading instruction: A review of the literature. Journal of Special Education, 40, 171-183.
Shaywitz, B. A., Shaywitz, S. E., Blachman, B. A., Pugh, K. R., Fulbright R. K., Skudlarski P.,… Gore J. C. (2004). Development of left occipitotemporal systems for skilled reading in children after a phonologically-based intervention. Biological Psychiatry, 55, 926-933.
Snow, C. E., Juel, C. (2005). Teaching children to read: What do we know about how to do it? In Snowling, J., Hulme, C. (Eds.), The science of reading: A handbook (page 518). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Stuebing, K.K., Barth, A.E., Cirino, P.T., Francis, D.J., & Fletcher, J.M. (2009). A response to recent reanalyses of the National Reading Panel Report: Effects of systematic phonics instruction are practically significant. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(1), 123-134. doi: 10.1037/0022-06126.96.36.199.