Four out of five of the children labeled “learning disabled” are placed in that category due to dyslexia diagnosis. And learning-disability diagnoses have steadily increased in the past several decades, especially for non-physical disabilities. But, as a recent PBS report shows, most dyslexic children are not actually brain-impaired (although a minority are). What has handicapped them is bad reading instruction.
It took years of pushing from upset parents to get Arkansas to start getting public school instruction in line with what research has shown for decades is the most effective way to teach reading: phonics. Phonics was standard in the United States until the 1950s and 1960s, when it was deemed “uninteresting” and “rote memorization” due to political ideology that controls teacher’s colleges, and shelved. Phonics resurged in the 1980s but faded again, replaced with “whole language” programs and lately programs called “balanced literacy” promoted as in line with Common Core.
“While the schools are trying to figure their way, these kids — they don’t have time to wait,” Audie Alumbaugh, the aunt of a dyslexic-labeled child, told PBS. Audie’s niece “is not a strong reader still because of our delay in figuring out what was going on…and I saw how it impacts every fiber of the family, and there’s just no need.”
PBS notes that even with a massive legislative overhaul to reading instruction, it will take Arkansas teachers three to five years to be teaching children using the most effective methods. That means tens of thousands of Arkansas children will keep learning to read through the methods that create reading difficulties until state schools finally get in gear.
Most states do not require research-supported phonics instruction, and most teachers are not taught how to do it. Because teacher’s education is highly politicized, teachers are taught to be disposed against these methods. A recent Education Week article notes: “approaches to reading based on the mechanics of language don’t appear to be consistently taught in teacher-preparation programs or in early reading professional-development opportunities.” That includes Indiana. Our state standards do not explicitly require systematic phonics instruction.
“What have we done for generations of kids that we didn’t really teach to read?” asks Stacy Smith, the assistant commissioner for Arkansas’s state Department of Education. Parents should consider the potential effects of poor instruction on their children and take care that their child’s school uses only the most effective method to teach reading. Reading is one of the most fundamental of skills that affects almost everything else in a child’s academic life. It’s crucial to get it right the first time.
But even for kids with deficits, there is hope if parents can get them effective help. Remedial phonics instruction can cure kids’ dyslexia, and many other reading difficulties. When reporter Lisa Stark asks parents of dyslexic children how phonics tutoring has affected their families, one answers, “Life-changing.”