kitchen table math, the sequel: Can the method cause dyslexia?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Can the method cause dyslexia?

As I alluded to in my sight word post, I believe the answer is yes, the method used to teach reading can cause dyslexia.

As I said in my sight word post,
I give reading grade level tests to all my friends who have children, and through our moves have tested (directly and indirectly) hundreds of children from several different states. In my informal survey, I have found that the more sight words taught in a school, the higher the percentage of children who are reading below grade level.
I also found that schools that taught with completly whole word methods fared even worse in my informal assessment. And, the better the phonics program used and the less sight words taught in that phonics program, the better the percentage of students that were reading above grade level. I haven't found a single child taught with A Beka or with whatever phonics program the local Catholic school uses who was not reading above grade level. I thought I had found one student at the local Catholic school who was the exception to that rule but I later found out that she had transferred into the Catholic school from an out of state public school that used whole word teaching methods.

Several of my remedial students were supposedly "dyslexic," yet I have not yet found a single "dyslexic" student who learned to read phonetically. However, I find it best not to argue with people who think they have dyslexia--the methods used to remediate someone are the same regardless of how they obtained their dyslexia, and they are more willing to be helped if you do not argue with them. After teaching them for a while, I just mention the fact that all of my "dyslexic" students came from some kind of sight word or whole word background and that, while they probably do exist, I have not yet found a single "dyslexic" student from a low-sight word phonics background.

My dyslexia page goes into more detail about how teaching methods can cause dyslexia, and also explains the nature of sound and how to remediate dyslexia (both organic and method induced.) Here again are some excerpts:

According to Dr. Robert Myers of the Child Development Institute in his web page about Dyslexia & Reading Problems, "Children who have an average or above IQ and are reading 1 1/2 grades or more below grade level may be dyslexic. True dyslexia affects about 3 to 6 percent of the population yet in some parts of the country up to 50% of the students are not reading at grade level. This means that the reason for most children not reading at grade level is ineffective reading instruction. The dyslexic child often suffers from having a specific learning disability as well as being exposed to ineffective instruction."

Dr. Reid Lyon, in his article "Reading Disabilities: Why Do Some Children Have Difficulty Learning to Read? What Can Be Done About It?" talks about phonics training and the prevention of reading failure through proper training:

On the other hand, the early identification of children at-risk for reading failure coupled with the provision of comprehensive early reading interventions can reduce the percentage of children reading below the basic level in the fourth grade (i.e., 38%) to six percent or less....

These studies strongly suggest that such programs [systematic phonics] if implemented appropriately, could reduce the number of children who fail to learn to read well below the 38 % rate currently observed nationally. [6]

In France, it was proven that schools that taught with phonics produced less dyslexic students than schools that taught with whole word methods. Acording to Geraldine E. Rodgers,

However, the true sight-word method was generally discredited in Europe by the 1970's. Change was brought about by such things as those reported in a 1950 Enfance article. In France, 2% of dyslexic children were discovered in schools that used the phonics approach, but 20% of dyslexic children were discovered in schools that used the global [whole word] approach. [7]

Unfortunately, like us, the French have not learned from their history of education and keep repeating the same kinds of mistakes. According to several people I know, Global [whole word] and "mixed" (I assume the equivilent of "balanced literacy") methods are back in force in France today. This website, Lire-ecrire, is a website promoting the return of syllable-based phonics methods in France and warns of the dangers of Global methods and how to prevent them by teaching syllable-based phonics at home. (At least, that's what I thought from my auto-translation, I could be wrong!)

As I explain in my dyslexia page, I think that Webster's Speller is probably the best method for remediating dyslexic students. Through its focus on spelling, it may also help prevent dyslexia even more than regular phonics methods. If you can write and spell a word correctly, there should be less chance of reversing or confusing it.

There is also a teaching explanation to explain away some of the genetic connection for dyslexia. If your parents can't sound out words and you are taught with whole word methods, your parents can't sound out words for you when you're confused by poor teaching methods which have not clearly and explicitly taught you letter sounds and how to sound out words. I got a tiny bit of phonics in Kindergarten, then whole word methods in first grade. My parents would sound out words for me when I didn't know them. Parents who don't have a clear knowledge of the sounds in words and how to teach with phonics can't do this.

(This lack of explicit, complete phonics instruction left me a good reader but a poor speller. After learning the phonetic spelling rules and the sound/spelling patterns of phonics, I am now a pretty good speller, although not as good of a speller as people I know who were trained with a good phonics program from the beginning.)


Catherine here, diving into Elizabeth's post. Here's the link to Ed's translation of the brief Nouvel Observateur article on the increase in dyslexia amongst French schoolchildren.

Le scandale de l'illetrrisme (nouvel obs: the scandal of illiteracy)
dyslexie, vraiment? ) (nouvel obs: true dyslexia?)
Comment en est-on arrivé là? (nouvel obs: How did we get here?)

Lucy Calkins on teaching children to write

instructional casualties in America
curriculum casualties: figures
forcing hearing children to learn as deaf children must
Rory: I frickin' hate whole language!

thank you, whole language


Anonymous said...

I think that by widening the definition of dyslexia to include all those children that are reading below grade level because of poor instruction you are diluting the population of dyslexics to the point that actual dyslexics are harder to identify. I have seen a much better term used that I think will strengthen your discussion and keep people like me who want to see the best information about dyslexia provided limited to facts about dyslexia.

You are actually writing about situational dyslexia. The qualities of dyslexia are internal to the individual where situational dyslexia ( even without being defined) is clearly a condition caused by external factors.

I highly recommend that you visit which is a public television series about how children learn to read the code and the results caused by difficulties in instruction as well as many other facets of the complex skill of learning to read.

Any good definition of dyslexia includes the requirement that the individual has received proper instruction to weed out those that are simply poor readers because of poor instruction.

It is true that you would expect that the population of dyslexics would become concentrated into the population of situational dyslexics caused by poor instruction. While phonics intervention is likely appropriate and all that is necessary for situational dyslexics the dyslexics in the group need a higher level of intervention because of their learning disability.

I deal with a subgroup of dyslexics that have visual problems that make reading difficult. I sell dyslexia glasses at that remove any described visual problems that cause reading difficulties for visual dyslexics. I have to qualify that my glasses only help visual dyslexics every time I write about them because dyslexics in general do not benefit from the glasses because most don't have visual problems.

Just as visual dyslexics describes the group I work with better than dyslexics, situational dyslexics describes the group better than dyslexics. I do stop short of calling the glasses visual dyslexia glasses because I feel glasses infer vision problems but whenever I write about them I always explain that they are for visual dyslexics and not all dyslexics.

I totally agree that situational dyslexia is a real problem.

ElizabethB said...

That's quite an interesting article. Thanks for translating, Ed.

The speech therapy point was interesting.

Two friends of mine who used to teach Kindergarten with explicit phonics said that they noticed a difference in their students' speech before and after phonics.

I also noticed an improvement in my 2 year old son's speech after he learned all his letter sounds from "The Talking Letter Factory." If you scroll through the amazon reviews (200+ mostly positive reviews!) of the movie, you'll see that a few other parents have noticed the same speech improvement with their children.

Liz Ditz said...

1. Pete Wright (the special education law attorney at calls it not situational dyslexia, but dysteachia.

2. On the French, see the discussion at Language Log:

Globalization of Educational Fads and Fallacies
and The Teaching of Reading. I followed up those posts with one of my own, on the fad of whole language