Moving Bright Students with Dyslexia from Mediocrity to Excellence

Mike Matvy, Ed.S., N.C.S.P. (Ret.)
School Psychologist (Ret.)/Assistive Technology Specialist/Teacher
Knoxville, TN

Excellence just ahead

Traditional educational practices used in this country with bright students with dyslexia have devastating effects on their 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 (Shaywitz, 1996). While the literature is clear that persons with dyslexia have a permanent condition, parents and our educational culture 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 programming 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, we don't have that choice. Longitudinal studies show that children who are reading disabled in the third grade, 74 percent remain disabled in the ninth grade (NIH, 1994). 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.(Shaywitz 1996) These students are, inadvertently, trapped in a world without access to print, sometimes, in the misguided hope that this will force them to become adequate visual readers out of necessity.

The intelligence of bright students is often overlooked if they can not decode print adequately. But 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 (Shaywitz, 1996). However, placement decisions communicate different messages. Our culture's well meaning attempts to help bright students with dyslexia, predominantly 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 bright students in class work based on their low visual decoding ability gives them little or no access to the 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 classes 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 (Koppitz 1977), they appear either bright and normal, or 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, i.e., class discussions. Written work is like currency in the traditional classroom, and, while they may be among the brightest in the room, they are paupers in this system.

While these students usually have robust oral language, their written language lags behind for years because they lack the rapid encoding (spelling) and decoding (reading) required for effective authoring. 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, these bright students cope with their inadequate reading by writing short, simple sentences that they can spell and read instead of writing what they are capable of saying. If they are willing to attempt to write what they can say, the combination of inadequate spelling and inadequate visual decoding makes it impossible for them to effectively check what they have written by reading phrases and previous sentences rapidly as they write them. Assuming that the students' spelling is accepted as-is, the students who have trouble reading standard spelling have at least as much trouble reading misspelled words as a normal reader, even if they did write the misspelled words. This inability to read causes inadequate writing, that at best lacks the accuracy in word use, organization of ideas and presentation and at worst is incoherent and unreadable.

To understand the impact that inadequate reading has on the writing process, imagine that you are attempting to write in a foreign language where words are spelled phonetically about 60% of the time, and your phonetic skill are not strong. You are using our standard alphabet but after you write three or four words you often cannot reread the previous words accurately. But, if someone asked you what your writing says, you can quickly say the sentence that you intended. And, if you have written a paragraph this way you can look at what you have written, sentence by sentence, and say, aloud, exactly what you were wanting to communicate. You might say that while your foreign host cannot read what you have written you can read it, except, you notice, that after a week or so you also find it difficult to reread, and after a month has passed most of it is lost when you try to reread it. Despite hard work and determination you cannot improve. Your foreign peers can see that your writing is confusing and inadequate and you realize that it is very difficult and time consuming to write a sentence and know that what you intended to say is what others will read. In an attempt to cope, you restrict your writing to basics and simple expressions, avoiding lengthy writing and complex ideas. Later you start avoiding basic communications and never attempt to write lengthy nor complex language. The inability to quickly and accurately read the words that they have written has this same effect on the students with dyslexia who have good oral language skills. 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 parents and 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 this bright 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 phrase or 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, assuming of course that this inefficient method can be maintained for the entire length of the task. Years of participation in these types of futile activities take a toll on the students, wasting valuable time that could be spent developing the students' intellectual talents instead of frustrating them with tasks that they have little chance of benefiting from.

How can bright students with dyslexia avoid this cycle of failure and 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" (Lyon, 1996). 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 35 to 75 words per minute can use aural decoding of print at rates of 250 to 350 words per minute (time-altered or compacted speech (Gade, 1989)). Using audio textbooks (Learning Ally), computers with screen readers (VoiceOver on Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, WindowEyes on PC), and other assistive technology systems that can speed up speech, bright students can use their aural/oral channels for rapid, effortless "reading" -- Aural Reading. Using voice recognition (Dragon on iPods, iPads, iPhones, Macs, PCs), screen readers on computers for aural proofreading and editing, and internet support, these students can use their aural/oral channels for fluent efficient writing at 100 to 170 wpm without spelling nor typing -- Aural Reading (or Reading by Listening) and Oral Writing (or Writing by Speaking).

By understanding and accepting that students with dyslexia have persistent decoding and encoding inadequacies, teachers in mainstream classes can remove the barriers to print that these students experience and 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 for, using aural reading and oral writing. This does not mean avoiding use of print; it means learning to "read" print aurally. It means " decode and recognize single words rapidly, accurately , and fluently" using auditory perception rather than visual perception (Lyon, 1996). It means teaching the student to dictate for writing with voice recognition (writing by speaking), to use a computer word processor with voice feedback from a screen reader to do "trial and error spelling," to "read" and "reread" what is being written, and to "read" spell check, dictionary, and thesaurus programs using aural reading rather than visual reading (Matvy, 1998). It means learning to "read" e-mail, web pages, teachers' handouts tests, The ACT, 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. A school system in Tennessee has demonstrated how this can be done in a public school setting.

The Knox County School System in Knoxville, TN has developed a program called Alternative Methods of Reading and Writing, and has found dramatic improvements when students use assistive technology for decoding, spelling, and writing, enabling participation in curricula designed for high aptitude students like themselves (Matvy, 1998) (Matvy, 2000). Using devices that read print out loud, 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 at 250 to 350 words per minute with good comprehension. They are completing high school CP classes having read all the assignments and written all the papers (using dictation) before going on to complete college programs. These successes were possible because parents and teachers stopped requiring that reading and writing only be done the usual (visual) way and started expecting high levels of academic performance from these bright students as they learned how to accommodate themselves with reading by listening and writing by speaking.

Appendix A:

How to determine if your bright student might benefit from Oral Writing and Aural Reading

How can you tell if your student might be able to use this kind of assistive technology? For persons who suspect that their bright students are not preparing themselves academically and who might want to consider their students for this kind of assistive technology intervention, they need only ask two questions: (1) Is my student performing at the same academic level as his/her peers who have the same intellectual ability? (2) Is my student's reading and writing ability adequate for doing grade level or above work?

To answer the first question one needs to know the student's intellectual level as indicated by the I.Q. and other indicators of intellectual functioning. Then one needs to look at the school academic tasks that his/her peers with the same I.Q. level (intellectual peers) are completing. Do not compare your student with the students he/her is grouped with unless they are roughly at his/her same intellectual level. If his/her I.Q. is 103 he should be expected to learn the same science, social studies, etc. skills as his/her peers whose ability is at the 103 I.Q. level; or, if she is intellectually at the 135 I.Q. level then she should be producing the same quality of written work, science, etc. as her peers who have an I.Q. level of 135. Do not look at grades and think that good grades mean that your bright student is preparing for the future, because s/he may be performing well compared to lower ability peers. One must look at the curriculum and ask if the student is acquiring the academic skills, today, that will put him/her on an academic track for success with long term goals like his/her intellectual peers, i.e. business, engineering, medicine, etc. If college is part of that goal, then ask, "Will my bright student with dyslexia be ready to excel in the first semester of college history, science and English composition?" If the answer to this first question is yes, then there is no need to address the second question.

However, if your bright student is not performing like his/her intellectual peers then examine the second question and look at his/her functional reading and writing performance. Can s/he read grade level print at a rate and comfort level that will let him/her complete reading tasks in a timely way without undue concentration and energy required for decoding. If his/her decoding requires excessive time or energy, then there will be less time and energy available for comprehension.

Don't confuse good learning ability with good decoding ability. Some teachers report that these students can not decode words rapidly but get much better scores on the comprehension portion of reading tests. The brighter the student, the better the comprehension (in spite of inadequate decoding) because brighter students can take inadequate decoding and use prior knowledge and excellent reasoning to draw good conclusions, making one think that adequate reading has been done. They outsmart the test. Another clue to what is going on here is that the student, making summaries, may give information that is true but not what was stated by the passage. Looking closely one will see that the specific detailed information contained in the passage is not being understood and reported, assuming that this detailed information was not already known by the student and recognized by the few words decoded. In contrast, when the same kind of material is read aloud or discussed in class your student will understand and report on it with good detail and will have less need to fill in with prior knowledge and good guesses. But, the main question is: Can your student keep up with the reading requirements of the classes that his/her intellectual peers are taking and, if college is a goal, will s/he be able to keep up with those peers when they are taking Western Civilization or English literature the first semester of college? If the answer is no, then your student's visual reading is inadequate for meeting his/her intellectual needs.

The other half of question two is, can your student produce written language that is grade level or above? Ask yourself if your student can produce written language at least as good as his/her spoken language, or are his written stories, answers, etc. as good as his oral ones? Can he/she write a paragraph or paper that is as good as his intellectual peers'? If the answer is no, then your student's written language is inadequate for meeting his intellectual needs.

If your bright student's reading and writing ability is not good enough to complete and keep up with grade level or above tasks then he/she is missing out on important educational experiences, and his/her print disability has become a barrier to his/her success in school. However, if your bright student's ability to learn by listening is as good as his/her peers, but his/her visual reading is inadequate, and/or if your student's ability to express language orally is as good as his/her peers but his/her writing is inadequate, then Reading by Listening and Writing by Speaking offers a way of removing those barriers so your student can become a good reader and a good writer, enabling him/her to join his/her intellectual peers in challenging classes that prepare him/her for a bright future based on his/her intellectual talents. 

Check out this video to see how it works


Works Cited

* Gade, Paul A.; Carol Bergfeld Mills. Perceptual and Motor Skills, April 1989 v68 n2 p531(8))
* Koppitz, Elizabeth Munsterberg, The Visual Aural Digit Span Test, 1977)
* Lyon, G. Ried citing Stanovich, The Current State of Science and the Future of Specific Reading Disability, 1996
* Lyon, G. Reid citing Yale, Stanovich & Siegal: Research in Learning Disabilities at the NICHD)
* 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.
* Matvy, Mike, Exceptional Parent Magazine , A Silicon Bullet For Dyslexia: A New Solution For An Old Problem, November. 2000, pp52-56
* "Learning Disabilities: Multidisciplinary Research Center", NIH Guide, Volume 23, Number 37, October 21, 1994
* Learning Ally (formerly Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D)), 20 Roszel Road, Princeton, NJ 08540, 1(800) 221-4792, Audio Textbooks on tapes and CD's
* Shaywitz, Sally E. Ð Scientific American: Dyslexia: November, 1996
* Shaywitz, Sally E., M.D., The New England Journal of Medicine: DYSLEXIA, Jan 29, 1998, v 338, #5, pp 307-312 )
* Mike Matvy can be contacted at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., 1 (865) 630-0003