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Recently, the PBS News Hour aired a report about the parents of children who suffer from dyslexia. Their kids weren’t being taught phonics and weren’t learning to read. When phonics instruction was provided, they did better, and so the moms were pressuring their state to ensure other kids wouldn’t face the same neglect. It was a classic story of public institutions (in this case schools) not adequately serving and the public rebelling against the bureaucratic neglect.

The report was rebuked by a group of reading professors. The fact, that I hadn’t signed on to that protest, provoked comment in this space and on Twitter. Readers wanted to know why I wasn’t part of their protest.

Not interested in joining the melee, I was willing to make a formal state of my take on the various topics at issue. This is the second installment of that explanation that began with last week’s blog entry.

Last week, I considered whether there is such a thing as dyslexia, whether everyone who struggles to learn to read is dyslexic, and whether phonics instruction is a particularly effective or specialized approach for dyslexics.

Here are some issues to consider.

Does a diagnosis of dyslexia suggest a particular instructional treatment?

No, unfortunately, it does not.

Although the PBS report may have implied that if a child is dyslexic then phonics instruction is the only way to go. But the term is often used generically to mean nothing more than “reading problem”.

As one of my colleagues pointed out recently: “Do you know how many neuropsych evals I’ve seen where the kid’s phonological awareness is a STRENGTH compared to their other assessment data and they still have a dyslexia diagnosis????”

The most rigorous and accurate approach to dyslexia diagnosis that I’m aware of is that developed by Ginger Berninger and her team. It includes analysis of genetic alleles, brain structures and functions (fMRI), and eye movements; well beyond the scope of a typical neuropsychological evaluation (and beyond what I have ever been able to do in my professional practice).

As much as I’d like dyslexia to be reserved for those disorders that include disruptions of phonological processing, that as yet is not the case. That means that if a child is described to me as being dyslexic, I still need to test and probe to find out what is likely to be most beneficial instructionally.

Thosee kids that PBS focused on all apparently benefited from the addition of explicit phonics to their instructional regime. That, to me, is prima facie evidence that phonics was a good call in their cases — it worked! That, however, doesn’t mean that is the only or the best response that would make sense in all cases. Berninger, for example, distinguished between dyslexia and oral and written language learning disability; in my understanding, both of those would be classified as developmental learning disorders by the American Psychiatric Association, but my instructional responses to them would be quite different.

When phonics is the solution, is there a particular kind of phonics that works best?

Although the “science of reading” makes it pretty clear decoding is deeply implicated in the reading process and that phonics instruction facilitates such learning, it is largely silent about which approach is best.

Studies that directly compare different phonics programs just don’t exist, and there aren’t enough studies of any particular phonics method to support an informative meta-analysis.

The National Reading Panel (NRP) concluded that explicit phonics was beneficial for kids in both regular classrooms K-2 and for struggling older readers. (Later the National Early Panel broadened this to include preschoolers, too).

NRP found that systematic phonics is best, that is there should be a sequential phonics curriculum to guide teachers’ instruction.

But NRP found no statistically significant difference between synthetic phonics (teaching each orthographic/phonemic element and how to blend these together) and analytic phonics (teaching larger spelling units including syllables and rimes, or word analogies). Proponents of each get pretty heated, despite the fact that there is no evidence that their way is the only way or the best way to help kids to become readers.

The PBS report showed some video of kids being taught phonics by a multisensory approach (involving tactile-kinesthetic responses). Again, such approaches have fervent proponents, but not research evidence that has shown them to be better than any other approaches (nor any worse, I might add).

The best statement about quality phonics instruction that I’ve found is the Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teaching of Reading from the International Dyslexia Association. They don’t endorse any particular phonics product, but their instructional principles concerning structured phonics instruction are impeccable and sensible and, until we gain more empirical evidence, I think they should be the standard.      

But if the term dyslexia doesn’t describe a specific learning problem or fails to lead to any specific diagnosis then isn’t it non-scientific?

Since the dawn of science, it has been accepted practice to identify physical or mental conditions long before we have gained sufficient knowledge to use these categories practically. Cancer was first identified in 1775; and the first effective cancer treatment was found in 1956. Schizophrenia was first identified in 1908 (really 17 years earlier, but there was an all-too-familiar argument over terminology); we’re still figuring out that one more than a century later. There are a large number of physical and mental conditions that, though identified, do not yet allow for a precise prediction of what treatment would be best. Learning disorders is one of those conditions.  

A term like dyslexia is a scientific hypothesis that over time gets described, used to categorize experience, refined, and used to guide scientific exploration. Nothing unscientific about any of that, but currently I wouldn’t trust its diagnostic value (beyond the idea that these kids are really having persistent trouble learning to read).

How many dyslexic kids are there in the U.S.?

Perhaps the best estimate we have is from epidemiological studies conducted by the Mayo Clinic. Their estimate is 20% (the figure that PBS used). That sounds a bit high to me since I’ve heard estimates from 5-35% over the years; though, admittedly, those haven’t seemed as thoroughly grounded as the Mayo numbers. Nevertheless, I suspect many of those kids who struggle in reading do not really have a developmental disorder. In many instances, they just haven’t been taught well and, perhaps, if we take addressing their learning needs seriously, we may refine those estimates downward.

The letter from the reading professors touted the idea that there are lots of ways to teach reading. How can you support phonics if there are so many good alternatives?

I’m not going to pretend to have understood that portion of the complaint to PBS. It was vague and ambiguous. Rather than trying to parse the equivocal and confusing language, let me respond this way.

Yes, indeed, kids can learn to read without phonics instruction. Again, and again, I hear supposed dyslexia “experts” and advocates claim that phonics is essential or that learning to read can’t happen without phonics.

As my granddaughter Emily says with as much skepticism as a 5-year-old can muster: “Come ooooon.”

In other words, this is so obviously not the truth that when it is stated half the people in the room grab their wallets.

I’m a big supporter of phonics instruction. The nuns taught me phonics in the 1950s. It was a late addition to our Grade 1 curriculum, and it helped.

The first book I ever read about reading instruction (in September 1969) was Why Johnny Can’t Read, a pro-phonics polemic. I tutored a struggling reader in Pontiac, Michigan in phonics the next day.

I taught phonics in my first- and third-grade classrooms, though it was not part of the curriculum at the time.

I wrote about the value of phonics when I was still a graduate student — back in the days when that position was not a popular one, and I included phonics measures in my doctoral dissertation.

And, I served proudly on the National Reading Panel on the alphabetics committee that reviewed the research on phonemic awareness and phonics — which found them to be valuable in teaching reading (and I have the stripes to show for it).

But let’s be perfectly honest. There have been entire generations that have learned to read English without phonics instruction. Research studies show that kids who have been taught little more than word memorization have learned to read.

Let’s be careful with our language and circumscribed in our claims. To do this it can help to distinguish phonics, which is a type of instruction, and decoding (which is the ability to read words based on the spellings).

Learning to decode is an essential of reading. If you don’t learn to decode, you won’t learn to read. (There is more to reading than decoding, so decoding is an essential, but not sufficient condition for reading).

Phonics instruction can help kids to figure out how to decode. As such phonics is helpful, but not necessary. That is, it is possible to figure out decoding without explicit instruction in phonics.

Phonics helps many kids to figure out decoding earlier and easier than would be the case without it, and there are kids who would never figure it out without that help (like those kids on PBS). For them, phonics is truly essential.

That sounds pretty straightforward. Some kids need phonics instruction, and some can get by without it. So, all that teachers need to do is identify who will benefit from what and then provide such teaching.

But that’s the crux of the problem. We have no way of sorting out ahead of time who needs phonics, who would gain some benefit, and who would do fine without it.

This is similar to the issues of vaccination. We don’t know which kids are going to be exposed to polio and who is susceptible to it, so we vaccinate everyone.

The PBS report included a teacher who said she hadn’t been trained in such teaching. No excuse for that.

It reported on five kids who received inadequate phonics instruction in the early grades. No excuse for that.

Despite the need for “extraordinary support” for these children, their schools apparently provided no phonics interventions. No excuse for that, either.

The reading experts were not wrong in their claim that kids can learn to read in other ways (e.g., without explicit phonics instruction), but they missed the point that those other ways hadn’t served these children well.

Phonics instruction needs to be a universal element of reading instruction in the primary grades, and primary grade teachers need to know how to teach phonics. That protects the largest number of children.

And those children also need instruction in oral reading fluency, reading comprehension (including both cognitive strategies and language skills like vocabulary, morphology, grammar, cohesion, structure, etc.), and writing. Remember phonics is neither a panacea for all reading problems, nor a sufficient response to the reading needs of all of our children. A science of reading would definitely include phonics because research shows that such instruction is widely beneficial. But that science would require these other elements as well, and for exactly the same reason — empirical research shows their benefits.

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About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
June 11, 2019