Dyslexia: Genuine Classroom Strategies

He has been at school or under tutors since he was 7 years old, and the greatest efforts have been made to teach him to read, but, in spite of this laborious and persistent training, he can only with difficulty spell out words of one syllable

W. Pringle Morgan, M.B. (1896), “A Case of Congenital Word Blindness,” The British Medical Journal

This 120-year-old quote may be the earliest record of a medical practitioner identifying the symptoms of a condition we now know as dyslexia This also accurately describes our son, who was born in Sydney just 15 years ago.

Scott was diagnosed with dyslexia at six years of age. Unfortunately, both of the schools he attended knew nothing about dyslexia. Nothing. We heard what many parents of dyslexics hear repeatedly, “Give him time, he will catch on in his own time.” In the dyslexia community, this passive attitude is called ‘wait to fail’.

‘Wait to fail’ is destroying lives.

We were forced to explore alternatives ourselves. We were funnelled through tutors and programs, coloured paper and lenses, fail-safe diets, paediatricians, ophthalmologists, behavioural optometrists, more non-evidence based dyslexia ‘solutions’ and MRI scans. The list is bewildering and the costs have been astronomical. No standards or structure were available to help us filter out non-evidence based interventions.

By the beginning of 2012, Scott (aged 11) had been retained a year and probably should have been held back another (academically). He could not read, he was not learning, he was being teased and bullied, his confidence was in tatters, he had to leave school daily for external evidence-based tutoring, adding to his peers noticing a difference. Teachers did not know what to do with him. He was taken out of the things he loved (drama, dance, art) for time extensions and testing. To add insult to injury, the principal suddenly declared external instruction would no longer be allowed during school hours (without adopting any evidence-based strategies to compensate). All the while, the school and community had no genuine awareness of the humiliation our son was experiencing on a daily basis.

We researched and steadily, and accurately, came to the conclusion there were no genuinely sustainable education options for our son’s case in Australia. In 2012, we quit our jobs and moved to Austin, Texas, so Scott could attend a school calibrated for students with dyslexia. There, he was guaranteed to be surrounded by trained experts in global best practice.

Our son has flourished since. His reading has improved. He has discovered a love for learning thanks to the unhesitating use of evidence-based classroom strategies and technologies. He has restored the energy and optimism he displayed before his humiliating Australian primary school experience. We now get enthusiastic emails and photos of 100 percent marks in maths and science (his growing passions).

His school and the community deliver empowerment, vitality and growing influence. The school’s reputation for employing best-practice, evidence-based pedagogies has garnered national credibility. In 2015, Texas Representative Lamar Smith attended the school’s annual fundraiser. Lamar Smith is the Chair of the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology. He sponsored the Research Excellence and Advancements for Dyslexia Act, recently passed by both houses of congress and just now, as I edit this, signed by President Obama! This has the potential to help globally.

We, personally, are indebted to the global community of scientists who have methodically identified best-practice literacy pedagogies for dyslexic students and the educators at his school who are dedicated to applying and advocating for them.

It begs the question, WTF Australia?

Dyslexia in Australia

Dyslexia is, in my practical experience, an utterly useless word in Australia. It is made useless by the collective refusal to standardise and adhere to a scientific, evidenced-based definition that describes the very real learning challenges faced by approximately 10 percent of Australians.

For example, in February 2015, this publisher, Educational Technology Solutions Australia, contributed further to the perversion of the word dyslexia by publishing 10 Achievable Strategies to Tackle Dyslexia in Your Classroom and School by Michael Guy Clark. The articles promote strategies for students with dyslexia that are not science, not evidence-based and not recommended by the world’s most educated, principled and ethical literacy experts.

In Australia, there are some fantastic experts to guide parents and educators, including researchers who have advanced world knowledge in the fields of cognition and literacy and educators who tirelessly dedicate themselves to the adoption of best-practice literacy pedagogies in a quest to maximise the number of literate Australians.

These include:

Evidently, Australia is struggling to prioritise these experts as the primary sources of knowledge, strategies, tools and technologies. Instead, parents and educators remain poorly informed and trained and continue to allow the term dyslexia and dyslexia interventions to be perverted by imitators.

Here are a few practical points to note:

  • There is no mandatory dyslexia training in the required curriculum for university graduates in education. Educators are not grounded in the facts and fundamentals.
  • Whilst dyslexia is covered under the Disability Standards for Education, there is no specific legal definition and schools have no mandatory intervention standard for students with dyslexia.
  • The 2005 Report of the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy was ignored.
  • Best-practice, evidence-based literacy pedagogies are currently not being employed. Australia’s community of experts made recommendations 10 years ago that would have improved (and still will improve) literacy outcomes for all Australians, including students with dyslexia.
  • Australia is a free society and tolerates alternative philosophies. But in the field of medical practice, rigorous standards of practice are enforced that promote genuine evidence and efficacy above mere research and/or anecdote. Unfortunately, the community has refused to adopt and enforce similar standards of practice for interventions in the dyslexia community. Students, parents, teachers and even some doctors struggle to discern the difference between evidence-based interventions and the imitators.

Classroom Strategies

Given the less than ideal state of affairs, here are some classroom strategies to get teachers back on an evidence-based footing and genuinely improve the situation for students with learning difficulties, including dyslexia.

Strategy 1: Complete Best-Practice Professional Development Training and Apply It

To best serve students, teachers must have ready access to knowledge about dyslexia that is evidence-based and best-practice. The good news is, there is dyslexia training available to teachers that is recognised as best-practice amongst experts, fulfils professional development requirements and, in many cases, is free. Sign up for this online course: Understanding Dyslexia and Significant Difficulties in Reading.

If, for any reason, schools do not have access to this particular training course, here are some other low-cost resources a school should consider investing in:

Strategy 2: Accommodate and Fulfil Duty of Care

Schools have a duty of care to all students and must “provide an education and the tools required to participate in the education system”. Legislation also continues to tighten. For example, on 22 December 2015, Victorian Ministerial Order 870 was signed which explicitly binds “children with a disability” to a principle of inclusion. (The government also knows it has insufficient data on students with disabilities, so each school should ensure it is actively participating in the mandated Nationally Consistent Collection of Data).

Children with learning disabilities are frequently at risk of unnecessary humiliation in traditional classroom situations. Furthermore, children who are well behind their peers in literacy skills cannot be expected to ‘read to learn’. Some students who struggle to read are, nevertheless, bright learners. Teachers need to decouple the old adage ‘learn to read, read to learn’.

Susan Barton suggests classroom strategies to deal with these two challenges in this excerpt from the freely available video Embracing Dyslexia. This video is an example of how teachers can deliver valuable educational content in formats other than the written word.

Strategy 3: Do not Introduce Imitations

We personally wasted a lot of time and money on interventions that were not evidence-based. The imitations we tried cost our son years we will never get back. They were all no better than guesses and, by wasting our time on them, we made our situation worse.

“Children with reading problems can overcome their difficulties only if they are identified early and provided with systematic, explicit, and intensive instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension strategies. Early identification, coupled with comprehensive early reading interventions can reduce the percentage of children reading below basic level in fourth grade from the current national average of 38% to less than 6%” (Dr. Reid Lyon, 2001).

If teachers have students with dyslexia in their classroom, it is likely their parents are being funnelled through imitators just like we were. Sadly, some schools are working with imitators. Here is a report that identifies some imitators: Behavioural Interventions to Remediate Learning Disorders: A Technical Report. Please avoid them.

Strategy 4: Do not bring Headline Controversy into the Classroom

Dyslexia may not exist, warn academics” (The Telegraph).

This headline is a shocker and there have been many like it. In this case, the media misrepresented Professor Julian Elliot, who is challenging best-practice based on his own genuine scientific enquiry. Professor Elliot is attempting to advance knowledge of learning difficulties.

Reading the full article reveals what is genuinely going on, “…While the researchers do not question the existence of the real, sometimes complex, problems some people have with reading, they are critical of the term ‘dyslexia’ because it is too imprecise.”

The global scientific community has not yet come to this conclusion and they may not. Here is a more nuanced introduction from Sir Jim Rose.

I do hope parents and teachers can all dedicate themselves to learning from and deferring to the best and brightest.

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Chris Robertson

Chris Robertson

Head of Product Development at CompliSpace Pty Ltd
Chris Robertson is Head of Product Development at CompliSpace Pty Ltd, a leading provider of governance solutions. Chris started his professional career as an Aerospace Engineer working for Rockwell International on NASA's Space Shuttle program. He then moved on to a successful career in the financial markets, based in Sydney, working across many disciplines (programming and quantitative analysis; derivatives trading and risk management; e-trading platform development; sales and marketing). Chris's youngest son is dyslexic and lives in Austin, Texas with mum attending a private school dedicated to evidence-based education for students with dyslexia. Chris and his eldest son (completing his HSC) live in Sydney. The family are looking forward to reuniting back home in Australia soon. He can be contacted on Twitter @brooksbrokid
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