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Mike Matvy, Ed.S., N.C.S.P.
School Psychologist/Assistive Technology Specialist
Knox County Schools
Eastport, 2036 Bethel Avenue
Knoxville, TN 37915-2036
Traditional educational practices used with bright students with dyslexia have devastating effects on language development, work habits, learning, and literacy. “Dyslexia is persistent; it does not go away... Even though many dyslexics learn to read accurately, they continue to read slowly and not automatically (1).“ While the literature is clear that persons with dyslexia have a permanent condition, educators, however, ignore this data and follow the belief that given enough remedial training, persons with dyslexia will, someday, have “something click” enabling them to read like their peers. This unrealistic belief leads to unrealistic expectations and school programing that focuses all the students efforts on learning to decode print visually at the expense of developing higher level language, problem solving, and cognitive skills.
If we had a choice, we would have bright students with dyslexia be able to decode words automatically like all good visual readers do. However, “ longitudinal studies show that children who are reading disabled in the third grade, 74 percent remain disabled in the ninth grade (2).” Bright reading disabled students need to make progress in visual reading and get as good as possible at decoding and “sounding out words”. These reading skills will be invaluable in their academic and personal lives, but, at best, reading will be accurate, but slow. They will never get to the level of rapid, automatic decoding and without “...automaticity...reading remains effortful, even for the brightest people with childhood histories of dyslexia (3).” These students are trapped in a world without access to print, apparently, in the hope that this will force them to become adequate visual readers out of necessity.
“Intelligence is in no way related to phonological processing, as scores of brilliant and accomplished dyslexics—among them William Butler Yeats, Albert Einstein, George Patton, John Irving, Charles Schwab and Nicholas Negroponte—attest (4).”, however, placement decisions communicate different messages. Our school’s well meaning attempts to help bright students with dyslexia, predominately place them with students who need content presented at a slower rate, in simplified language. Whether in the 3rd, 5th, or 11th grade, placing these students in class work based on their low visual decoding ability gives these bright students little or no access to literature, science, and other rich text material that is commensurate with their high intellectual ability. The result is that they never get to develop their talent for higher order thinking and problem solving, they feel inadequate, and, erroneously, they learn that they are “not too bright”. They learn to cope with their inadequate visual reading, often in ways that we don’t like, such as giving up, depression, delinquency, dropping out, or gross under achievement.
Although “ability tracking” was rejected years ago, the practice is still occurring in the name of placing students where they “can be successful”. For bright students with dyslexia, unfortunately, success is, to often, defined as making passing grades in remedial level classes rather than learning skills that will lead to success in college and professions. This practice is most obvious in high school when they are placed in “basic” classes rather than in college preparatory (CP) classes. But it also occurs on a daily basis throughout the elementary and middle school years when students participate in class without fully reading their textbook assignments because their visual reading is slow and labored. They miss out on the experience of reading a passage and pondering its meaning, concepts, or images. When reading is slow and labored all attention and energy is devoted to decoding, leaving little or no opportunity to comprehend and process what is being read. As one father said about his son’s visual reading: “He is paying so much attention to decoding that he can not pay attention to what it says.”
Bright students with dyslexia have two very different levels of functioning which confuse parents and teachers alike. Depending upon which channels they are required to use the aural/oral channel or the visual/written channel (5); they appear bright and normal; they appear slow and disabled. Because school programs rely on the visual/written channels for students to complete work, they must assume their slow and disabled identity for most of their time at school. They can only assume their bright and normal identity outside the classroom or for brief periods when they participate in activities using their aural/oral channels. Written work is like currency in the traditional classroom, and, while they may be one of the brightest in the room, they are pulpers in this system.
While these students usually have robust oral language, their written language is neglected for years because they lack the rapid encoding (spelling) and decoding (reading) required for effective writing. Typically, these students cope with words that they can not spell by substituting simpler words. While most people recognize the obstacle that inadequate spelling presents, few recognize what is perhaps the larger obstacle to developing writing ability, inadequate reading ability. When writing they cope with their inadequate reading by writing short, simple sentences that they feel they can read instead of expecting that they can write what they can say. The result is written language that in the words of one elementary teacher “looks like the work of a student who is mentally retarded”. Years of this kind of functioning stunts the students’ written language development and leaves them believing that they cannot write.
Failure to recognize and understand the specific deficits caused by dyslexia leave teachers puzzled when students fail at seemingly simple tasks like copying from the board, organizing homework, writing complete sentences, completing grade level reading assignments, etc. But, when one understands that these students do not have automatic visual decoding and encoding ability, one can see that a task like copying from the board is extremely difficult because the student can only read and “chunk” one, two, or three letters at a time for copying. While the normal visual reader, who can “chunk” an entire sentence at a time and rewrite it accurately, completes the copying of a three sentence paragraph in three or four “chunks”, the student with dyslexia may have to use 30 or 40 “chunks” to complete the same task if this inefficient method can be maintained for the entire length of the task. Years of participation in these type of futile activities takes a toll on the students, wasting valuable time that could be spent developing the students’ talents instead of frustrating them with tasks that they have little chance of benefiting from.
How can bright students with dyslexia meet the reading and writing demands of a college preparatory curriculum? “Unless would-be-readers learn to decode and recognize single words rapidly, accurately , and fluently, information will not be easily available to them through print (6).” Therefore, bright students need a way to do “speed reading”, if they are to get the science, literature, and social studies preparation needed for success in a demanding college program. This author’s research shows that students who decode print visually at rates of 50 to 100 words per minute can use aural decoding of print at rates of 250 to 350 words per minute (time-altered speech (7)). Using audio textbooks (8), computers with screen readers, and other assistive technology systems that can speed up speech, bright students can use their aural/oral channels for rapid “reading”.
By understanding and accepting that students with dyslexia have decoding and encoding inadequacies, teachers in mainstream classes can stop making unrealistic requirements for normal visual reading and spelling from these students. Simultaneously, teachers can expect that bright students can excel with higher order thinking skills like their intellectual peers when these two inadequacies are accommodated. This does not mean avoiding use of print; it means learning to “read” print aurally. It means “...to decode and recognize single words rapidly, accurately , and fluently(9)” using auditory perception rather than visual perception. It means teaching the student to use a computer word processor with voice feedback from a screen reader to do “trial and error spelling(10)”, to “read” and “reread” what is being written, and to “read” spell check, dictionary, and thesaurus programs. It means learning to “read” e-mail, web pages, and database text at rates of 250 to 350 words per minute. It means producing high levels of “reading” and writing by changing the way work is produced.
Alternative Methods of Reading and Writing (11)(12), a program in Knox County Schools, Knoxville, TN, finds dramatic improvements when students use assistive technology for decoding and spelling, enabling participation in curriculum designed for high aptitude students like themselves. Using computers that read print outloud, audio books, and other alternative approaches, students learn ways of quickly and effortlessly “reading” their favorite novels, magazines, newspapers, and all their grade level textbooks. They are completing high school CP classes having “read” all the assignments and “written” all the papers before going on to complete college programs. These successes were possible because teachers stopped requiring that reading and writing be done the normal way and started expecting high levels of academic performance from these bright students.
Endnotes and References
(1) Shaywitz, Sally E. – Scientific American: Dyslexia: November, 1996
(2) Lyon, G. Reid citing Yale, Stanovich & Siegal: Research in Learning Disabilities at the NICHD)
(3) Shaywitz, Sally E., M.D., The New England Journal of Medicine: DYSLEXIA, v 338, #5,pp 307-312 )
(4) Shaywitz, Sally E. – Scientific American: Dyslexia: November, 1996
(5) Koppitz, Elizabeth Munsterberg, The Visual Aural Digit Span Test, 1977)
(6) Lyon, G. Ried citing Stanovich, The Current State of Science and the Future of Specific Reading Disability, 1996
(7) Paul A. Gade; Carol Bergfeld Mills. Perceptual and Motor Skills, April 1989 v68 n2 p531(8))
(8) Recondings for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), 20 Roszel Road, Princeton, NJ 08540: Audio Textbooks on tapes and CD’s
(9) Lyon, G. Ried citing Stanovich, The Current State of Science and the Future of Specific Reading Disability, 1996
(11) Matvy, Mike, Closing The Gap: “A Silicon Bullet For Dyslexia: A New Solution For An Old Problem”, Volume 17, Number 4 (1998), 4 pp, 1, 16, 17, & 44.
(12) Matvy, Mike, Exceptional Parent Magazine , “A Silicon Bullet For Dyslexia: A New Solution For An Old Problem”, November. 2000, pp52-56
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