A Two-Pronged Approach for Dyslexia Intervention

A Position Paper Presented to
The Tennessee Branch of the International Dyslexia Association
By Mike Matvy



In our last board meeting, I recommended that we take the leadership in making accommodations and the use of assistive technology a major thrust for TN-IDA. This paper is to spell out that recommendation.

This paper does not attempt to address all types of reading disabilities. However, the largest group, students who can understand and process oral language, but cannot "decode and recognize single words rapidly," make up the largest group--perhaps 15% of student populations. For these students, we have an opportunity to move them from failure to success.

The Need for Change

Our current approach to dyslexia intervention has one main thrust, remediation. This remedial approach to dyslexia intervention needs to be complimented by an equally robust program of accommodations. This two prong approach to dyslexia intervention would ensure that students (1) become the best visual readers they can be and (2) function up to their intellectual ability by making full use of print in regular classes.

What is Happening Now?

While the research 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. For these students, success is too often defined as making passing grades in remedial level classes rather than learning skills that will lead to success in college and professions. We know that when reading is slow and labored, all attention and energy is devoted to decoding, leaving little or no opportunity to contemplate, comprehend and process what is being read.

For students with dyslexia who are in the first and second grades, we have choices: (1) keep them in this developmental academic stage, (2) have them skip this stage so they can go on to develop skills of the higher-level stages, or (3) have them continue to build their basic reading skills with methods that work while using assistive technology for reading and writing that enables them to learn at their intellectual levels.

For students with an IEP or 504 plan, assistive technology needs must be considered. Additionally, standardized tests are currently required to include read-aloud testing as an allowable accommodation However, in most cases, school personnel gloss over these options and offer extended time for completing work, an appropriate accommodation for students who have delayed response or processing issues, but not for removing the barriers caused by print. Most standardized testing protocols require that the student show a history of using read-aloud as an accommodation in their daily work. Unfortunately, while the student would get the same excellent benefit from using read aloud in their daily work, this accommodation is usually not being used, often making the students ineligible for the accommodation on the standardized test.

New technologies that make oral writing and aural reading possible mean that anyone who can understand spoken language can independently "read" that same print language aurally at 250 to 350+ words per minute with good comprehension. Anyone who can speak to tell a story, to answer a question, or to explain how to do a job or how to solve a problem can also, at 100 to 170+ words per minute, produce a written document giving that same information, using talk-to-type technology. However, only a few of the many students with dyslexia currently have an opportunity to use these technologies for accommodations.

These are not remediation strategies; they are alternative strategies. They are alternative ways of reading if you define reading as understanding what the author said. They are alternative ways of writing if you define writing as producing written documents.

The False Narrative

The primary obstacle to making full accommodations available for students with dyslexia is the false narrative. The accepted narrative generally is "Dyslexia is a problem with reading that can be overcome with hard work in a good remedial reading program, and any student can learn to read." A phrase needs to be added to that narrative, saying, "...but not adequately." This incomplete but accepted narrative dictates treatment protocol with devastating effects on work habits, learning, literacy, self-esteem, and career development.

Teachers who believe the false narrative do not have an accurate picture of students with dyslexia. They see no need for doing anything other than continuing the remediation only approach, because they believe that this will lead to an adequate reader, if not this year, next year.

Often, a student with dyslexia comes to the conclusion that: "I will never become an adequate visual reader." Since the previously stated false narrative does not include this possibility, parents and educators do not consider it, address it, or talk with the student about it. We need a new narrative that explains accurately what dyslexia is, and what kind of future a person with dyslexia can expect.

A better narrative would be: "Yearly monitoring of phonological skills from first through 12th grade show that the disability persists into adulthood. Even though many dyslexics learn to read accurately, they continue to read slowly and not automatically"(Shaywitz).

If we used this amended narrative, we would be making different decisions. We would come to recognize and value those other parts of reading which our students can demonstrate once the print word is spoken: word recognition, word meaning, language comprehension, analysis of character, plot, setting, point of view, etc. We would acknowledge what the students already know about their limited ability to use print, and we would make plans to keep those limitations from becoming barriers to the print language in the classroom. Therefore, for dyslexic students, it is important that, in the early years, parents or other student advocates request full accommodations and direct that no modifications of standards be made in the academic curriculum.

Student Resistance and Social Pressure

Students will always resist attention that they perceive as negative and avoid activities that set them apart from their peers. Implementing programs of assistive technology and other accommodations are often met with initial skepticism. It's difficult to sell a student on an old idea: "Here's a program that is going to solve your reading problems." However, students who begin with skepticism but start using assistive technology systems, for instance reading their audio text books from Learning Ally, often report within a week or two that their test scores have gone up. Improved performance on reading and writing usually occurs rather quickly for students who are trained and fully accommodated. However, damage done to a student's self-confidence, self-image, and work habits take longer to heal, and persistence and commitment are needed so that these obstacles too will be overcome. For this reason, follow-up support is needed to ensure that when students run into obstacles, perhaps social or perhaps technological, they do not fall back into old habits of avoiding reading and writing tasks and pretending to be like everyone else. Long-term goals, objectives, training, and regular monitoring is needed to ensure success and provide needed support.

Although students and educators do not yet understand how to optimize this kind of technology, it is possible to enable students to process print language at a rate and comfort level which is commensurate with their non-disabled peers and to use a screen reader in combination with voice recognition to have a writing experience that is similar to a normal writer – talk to type, hear sentences voice back immediately, and quickly re-read for editing, etc.

What Can We do to Make Full Accommodations a Reality?

"A rising tide raises all ships." The tide of technology can dramatically change the fate of students with dyslexia, pulling them from the darkness of slow inadequate visual reading and sweeping them to the top of a wave alongside their peers. The new digital technology has changed all of our lives, but it has opened up tremendous opportunities for persons with dyslexia and others with print disabilities. Our organization has an opportunity to provide the needed leadership to bring about profound change to the lives of students with dyslexia.

I recommend that we form a committee to consider a campaign to encourage a two-pronged approach to dyslexia intervention, one prong to continue remediation and a second prong to provide full accommodations to all students with dyslexia.Accommodating philosophy