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What about that PBS News Hour Report on Dyslexia and the Controversy It Set Off?
Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

What about that PBS News Hour Report on Dyslexia and the Controversy It Set Off?

Recently PBS News Hour broadcast a segment about dyslexia and reading instruction. In response, 57 members of the Reading Hall of Fame submitted a letter of complaint, which has since been posted publicly.

Here is a link to the PBS segment and the letter is posted in the comments section following the video segment on this site: What parents of dyslexic children are teaching schools about literacy (opens in a new window).

I also have provided a link from a response to this letter by Steve Dykstra (opens in a new window).

These postings have prompted several inquiries this week as to why I didn’t sign the group letter.

I usually don’t sign such letters.

I prefer to speak for myself.

Groupthink requires too many compromises: even if you fully agree with the thoughts being expressed — and in this case, I did not — should you be uneasy about obvious factual errors, the prosaic writing, or the fact that the complaint missed the point of the original report? Or, sadly, that it neglected the anguish and frustration of the parents and kids interviewed by PBS?

I could devote this space to a point-by-point refutation of both the PBS report and my colleagues’ letter, knit-picking every error, insensitivity, vagueness, bias, or pomposity. But I don’t see any real benefit in that kind of exercise.

It’d be better, I hope, to explore some of the issues raised by this futile exchange with as little finger-pointing or score-keeping as possible.

I’ll explore those issues in this and in my next blog entry — too many important issues for a single posting.

Does dyslexia even exist?

Yes, indeed, dyslexia exists.

There is a group of learners who struggle in learning to read not due to any environmental problem or crummy parenting/teaching or low intelligence. There are learners who struggle, not because they aren’t smart and not because they are incapable of other kinds of academic learning. But these individuals, for some organic or developmental reason, can’t master reading without extraordinary effort.

Whatever is disrupting the learning of these kids is within them, not around them.

This malady has been recognized for almost 150 years and it has been identified in multiple languages and cultures.

There have been scads of brain studies showing both organic and processing differences between successful readers and certain struggling readers, and other studies revealing a genetic basis for at least some reading struggles.

I could wade into a useless and possibly damaging — to the interests of struggling readers — debate over whether it is best to use the term dyslexia, specific learning disability, specific learning disorder, reading disability, developmental reading disorder, congenital word blindness, learning difficulty or any other term you might have heard.

But why? What’s the point of that? Who benefits?

Dyslexia is a term used to refer to a “specific deficit in an individual’s ability to perceive or process information efficiently and accurately.” This definition of “specific learning disorder” is drawn from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders the American Psychiatric Association (DSM 5) which has long been accepted as the arbiter of such issues, and they use this term interchangeably with dyslexia when it comes to specific deficits of reading (as opposed to math or writing).

This group of struggling learners has been acknowledged, albeit by a variety of terms, for more than a century in medicine, psychiatry, psychology, and education.

I personally don’t use the term dyslexia because I’m unable to diagnose it. I’m not a physician or a psychiatrist and have no access to fMRIs or to maps of kids’ genetic codes. I accept that there are too many children (and adults) who fail to learn to read and that there are a range of reasons for this failure, including processing or developmental factors within the individual.

Can someone be a struggling reader and not be dyslexic?

Yes, not all struggling readers are dyslexic. The PBS report indirectly acknowledged that in its report. It stated that 40% of American kids were struggling with reading (based on NAEP statistics), and that 20% of kids suffered from dyslexia (based on what I have no idea — more on this point later). Getting this point depends on a fairly simple inference: at least half the American reading problem must be due to something else.

One of the problems with any public report of any disorder is that many people start diagnosing the problem themselves. If doctors on Gray’s Anatomy diagnose a brain tumor, everyone with a headache calls the doctor. This kind of discussion may convince a lot of parents that their kid has a developmental disorder, when the problem is that junior hasn’t cracked a book all year.

Poverty, lack of sufficient linguistic and academic support in the home, weak teaching and other factors might be a better place to look in many cases.

Who benefits from phonics instruction?  

The PBS report made it sound like phonics instruction was the cure for dyslexia and that if schools would just teach phonics then the problem would be solved. Is phonics really a “silver bullet” for the problems that bedevil dyslexic kids?

Also, it sounded like phonics was mainly for those dyslexic kids. What about everyone else?

Many studies of reading problems have suggested that dyslexia is particularly disruptive of decoding and spelling, and for such children, phonics instruction is definitely beneficial. Many independent studies have shown that children taught phonics systematically and explicitly do marginally better than those who don’t get such instruction. The National Reading Panel found that phonics was beneficial both to the general population and to struggling readers.

Steve Stahl long ago showed that phonics was particularly helpful to kids who were struggling with literacy due to poverty. It is not a well-honed or specialized solution.

Interestingly, phonics instruction has been found to exert a bigger impact on the learning of regular kids than on struggling readers. Upon reflection, this shouldn’t be too surprising. According to the DSM 5 manual, dyslexic kids only improve through “extraordinary effort.” That means phonics instruction is good idea for kids who are struggling with decoding — whatever the source of the problem — but it is certainly not a magical cure for the problem.

Another point to consider: According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, when such children’s decoding problems are successfully addressed, the kids often continue to be dogged by other language deficiencies (that may have always been there, but too subtly to be measured; that were late developing; or that resulted from the limits on learning exerted by the original reading disorder).

Those kids in the PBS report apparently started improving when they received phonics instruction. I see nothing surprising in that. I can’t understand why they weren’t receiving phonics throughout the primary grades. However, if all they do for them is provide additional phonics, some of them are likely to get a rude awakening up the road.

Recently, Rick Wagner has identified significant populations of kids who are able to decode reasonably well, but whose reading is disrupted by language deficiencies. As beneficial as quality phonics instruction is for the general population and for strugglers with particular deficiencies in this aspect of their progress, such instruction will be insufficient to address these language needs.

More on related issues next week.

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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 3, 2019