This article is being written in response to requests from teachers and parents for information on effective teaching approaches for children with a specific reading disability commonly known as dyslexia.
I am not a trained teacher and I was functionally illiterate until I was forty-four years old as a result of my having dyslexia. However, I am qualified to write this article because of my personal experience and my last nine years of intense research on the subject. I am also a current member of an "Early Identification Work Group" for the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Delaine Eastin.
I was taught how to read, write, and spell at age forty-four in a trailer on the campus of the Santa Barbara City College in 1987. Although it would have been nice, my teachers did not need a large building and a well-equipped classroom in order to teach me. My teachers, themselves, were well equipped with their training in several specific reading methods, all of which were based on a multisensory program which was published in this country in 1935.
As I write, I am also painfully aware of the parents and grandparents who will not be able to read this article. Parents who through no fault of their own, were born with a learning disability. Parents and grandparents born in California, whose teachers were not able to teach them how to read and write. These are the parents and grandparents, such as myself nine years ago, who will not be able to help their children or grandchildren who have dyslexia or assist their teacher in finding an effective reading program.
First we need to look at statistics on how prevalent learning disabilities are. The National Institutes of Health reported that 20% of our school-age children have learning disabilities and 80% of children with learning disabilities have their basic deficits in language and reading, which is commonly known as dyslexia. In the California public school system, over 80% of children in special education have learning disabilities. Although the numbers of children with learning disabilities are high in special education, the numbers of children with learning disabilities who are in the regular education classroom are greater. These are many of the children who slip through the cracks and are not identified until they reach the California Youth Authority or the mental health system.
Most professionals in the field of learning disabilities agree that no one program works for all children. Teachers should be trained in at least three methods of teaching reading, including the multisensory approach which has proven to be effective for students with dyslexia. Training a teacher cannot be accomplished in a few days, weeks or months. There is no such thing as a quick and easy way to train a teacher in these methods.
There are many multisensory reading programs that are effective in remediating dyslexia. The "Orton-Gillingham-Stillman Approach" is often described as the grandfather of many successful multisensory reading programs. The Slingerland Program. Alphabetic Phonics, Wilson Language Training, MTA, Herman Method, and Project Read are just a few that are based on the Orton-Gillingham-Stillman Approach. Many successful reading programs in Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are also based on Dr. Orton's work. In the early 1920's, Dr. Samuel Orton, a professor of neuropsychiatry and neuropathology at Columbia University, was the American pioneer in the field of dyslexia (named strephosymbolia, meaning twisted symbols). In 1925, Dr. Orton worked with Anna Gillingham and Bessie W. Stillman in developing a multisensory program which was published in 1935.
If the performance of students with dyslexia is to improve, so must the training of our teachers. Despite the overwhelming research findings being used in private schools for children with dyslexia, the majority of teacher training institutes have been unwilling to listen to the "outside" specialists in the field.
It is the teacher-training institutes that hold the key to our children's futures. Both special and regular education teachers graduate from the California University System unprepared to teach reading and writing skills to students who have dyslexia. Teachers are graduating with a masters degree in special education without proper training in reading programs. Teachers are blamed by the parents and the public for not being able to teach reading and writing to the their students. The fault does not lay with the teachers but with the California teacher training institutions.
There are wonderful, committed teachers in our public school system who can teach reading and spelling skills to children with dyslexia. However, they are only a small fraction of teachers who, by their own expense, have been trained by attending training workshops given by the private sector. It is very difficult for a teacher who has over thirty students in her class to find the time and energy after work to take extra training in specific reading methods. Training should take place before the teacher graduates from teacher-training institutions.
One good thing that has come out of the Inclusion Program is that it has brought the issue of inadequate teacher-training programs to the forefront. The public school system can no longer hide the fact from the public that there are so many poorly trained reading teachers. When the California Public School System rushed into their Inclusion Programs, they discovered that they did not have their teachers properly trained in reading programs. As a result inclusion has failed for many of our children with learning disabilities. Many regular education teachers are finding six or more children with learning disabilities in their classroom. These teachers openly admit that they do not have the proper training to teach them.
We are seeing districts across California rush to pacify parents and advocates by giving special education teachers one day to several days of training in a reading program. These programs in themselves may be good programs, but do not work without adequate teacher training in these programs. If the program fails because of inadequate training of the teachers, I fear that the district will not blame the poor and inadequate training of the teachers in these proven programs, but will blame the child. I fear the district will have just another excuse to say that the child cannot learn. One example of the results of inadequate training is found where I recently accompanied a parent to her ten-year-old son's Individual Education Program (IEP) meeting. The director of special education informed the parent that their special education teacher was fully trained in a multisensory reading program, "Project Read". Fortunately for the child, the special education teacher spoke up at the meeting and stated that she had only two days of training in "Project Read" and she did not feel qualified to teach the student how to spell or read. This particular teacher was very brave. Not all teachers can afford to take this risk for fear of their district retaliating against them. (When the Federal Monitors held hearings across California in the 1994-95 Federal Review, the monitors heard from an overwhelming amount of teachers across the state whose districts had retaliated against them for advocating for their students with disabilities.)
State Superintendent Delaine Eastin's "Reading Task Force" has recommended that the California Public School System return to teaching phonics. It is very important for individuals involved with teaching children and adults with learning disabilities to understand that just teaching phonics will not work for a person with a reading disability. The person with a specific language disability needs to be taught phonics from programs based on effective research-based programs for teaching reading recognition, reading comprehension, spelling and composition to individuals with dyslexia and related language learning differences.
Parents and advocates need to educate themselves in specific reading programs in order to understand how well the student's teacher has been trained. Unfortunately, parents cannot rely on school personnel to guide them. State Department of Education compliance officers, mediators, and due process hearing officers cannot guide a parent because many times they also have no knowledge of specific reading programs for students with dyslexia. It is ironic that many compliance personnel have no knowledge of reading programs considering that the majority of their cases deal with children who have a reading disability.
The following is an excerpt taken from an article I wrote on my personal story for The Gram in June, 1994.1 hope it will bring the reader back to the child in the classroom and help you look at and understand the serious consequences of the political games that are being played in our state.
. . . Every day I would sit in class and pray that the teacher would not call upon me to read out loud. I would go home from school every night and cry myself to sleep because I did not understand why I could not read or spell as well as my classmates. Some of the things I would say to myself, as I tried to spell and write legibly were: "I don't look retarded but I must be slightly retarded"; "I must have brain damage"; "The teachers say I can spell if I try harder, but I do try and it does not work"; "Maybe I can't spell because I was born during the war while they were bombing Liverpool (England) and somehow the noise of the bombs affected the way I can learn"; "Maybe I can't spell because I am the fifth of six children and they got all of the brains from my parents and left none for me"; "I must never have any children in case they inherit my damaged brains." . . .2
IF YOU WANT TO MAKE CHANGES IN TEACHER TRAINING PROGRAMS, PLEASE WRITE TO GOVERNOR PETE WILSON AND YOUR LEGISLATORS. IF OUR TEACHER-TRAINING COLLEGES ARE FAILING TO TEACH TEACHERS, YOU MUST WRITE AND ASK OUR LEGISLATORS TO LOOK INTO THE PRACTICES OF OUR COLLEGES. MAYBE OUR LEGISLATORS NEED TO INVESTIGATE AND LOOK AT THE PRIVATE SECTOR FOR TEACHER-TRAINING PROGRAMS FOR PREVENTING READING FAILURE.
To assist teachers in looking at effective teaching programs, the following information was compiled by the National Orton Dyslexia Society:
Joan Esposito, Past President of LDA-CA, is founder of the Dyslexia Awareness & Resource Center (DARC) in Santa Barbara. For many years, Joan has voluntarily devoted her time to helping others like herself and her son, both of whom have struggled with dyslexia.
Joan has given over 200 presentations to teachers, parents, legal professionals, and civic groups and has advocated for children and teenagers with dyslexia within the public school and court Systems. Joan has received numerous awards and commendations, including letters from The First Lady, Barbara Bush, and a commendation from President George Bush.
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