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Dealing With Dyslexia

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Dyslexia is a lifetime affliction, and some researchers estimate that 4 to 5 percent of children may never learn to compensate for it.

Joseph Torgeson, a Florida State University psychology professor, undertook a similar experiment with 60 4th graders ranked among the bottom 2 percent of readers in their grade level.

The students were divided into two groups. One was taught using a program called "embedded phonics," which gave them lessons in the letter-sound relationships they had not yet mastered, as well as extensive writing practice.

The other children were taught using a method known as "auditory discrimination in depth." The program essentially teaches children to feel the sounds in words, emphasizing, for example, the shapes of their mouths and tongue positions when they pronounce an ''l'' or a ''v.''

Both groups received two hours of lessons a day. After eight weeks, both groups had moved up into the average reading range--an improvement of 1 1/2 to two grade levels. But a higher proportion in the group that was taught embedded phonics--26 percent--were still substantially impaired.

By comparison, 9 percent in the group taught by auditory-discrimination techniques still had serious reading problems.

"These gains are strikingly different than what is typically obtained in the regular resource room. Typically, kids' standard scores don't change that much," Mr. Torgeson said. "People are afraid of one-on-one instruction because it's very expensive. But our rationale is, well, you need to know what you can accomplish. Why take two years when you can do it in eight weeks?"

Larger Reading Issues

None of the strategies in the new studies worked for all students. Dyslexia is a lifetime affliction, and some researchers estimate that 4 percent to 5 percent of children may never learn to compensate for it. But the gains the studies document represent, for the most part, big improvements over typical practice.

What is more, most of the studies point to a clear strategy for teaching reading-disabled children. Regardless of the specific method used, they suggest that, at a minimum, poor readers need explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, in phonics, and in the structure of language. And they need enough practice to enable them to use those skills automatically.

The problem, the researchers say, is that schools have been moving in the opposite direction--away from phonics-based approaches and toward whole-language methods of teaching reading. The latter approach maintains that children learn to read naturally and calls for immersing them in good literature, rather than pacing them through repetitious phonics drills.

The NIH researchers argue that learning to decode and sound out words may be the gateway that children must first cross if they are to read at higher levels.

Whole-language proponents attempt to teach phonics as well, but they embed those lessons in the context of the stories children read.

"The problem in teaching reading is that we go from one extreme to another," Mr. Vellutino said. ''We need a diverse set of strategies and a balanced approach to reading instruction."

Given the large proportions of students with reading problems, the researchers have suggested, why not teach all children to read using methods that incorporate phonics and phonemic awareness with rich, engaging stories and writing?

Broader Application Questions

As Mr. Lyon and other researchers have lobbied for such an approach with policymakers around the country, they have also gained some critics from within the education research community.

Richard L. Allington, an education professor and the chairman of the reading department at SUNY-Albany, said they may be overreaching by trying to apply findings drawn from poor readers to the regular classroom.

Besides, Mr. Allington noted, many of the improvements the NIH researchers have documented have come on tasks measuring students' ability to read nonsense words or on phonological-awareness tasks, rather than more sophisticated stages of reading.

"They don't have reliable results on real-word reading, fluency, and comprehension," he said. "The last time I looked no one had targeted children with disabilities' primary need as being able to pronounce nonwords."

The NIH researchers, for their part, argue that learning to decode and sound out words may be the gateway that children must first cross if they are to read at higher levels.

Gerald Coles, an educational psychologist in Ithaca, N.Y., and the author of a forthcoming book on literacy, says the NIH studies may also be exaggerating the extent of reading problems across the nation.

Because one-fifth of the children in the sample Dr. Shaywitz studied were dyslexic, that doesn't mean the same proportion exists in the general population, he said.

MRI Technology Applied

"I think the overwhelming number of children identified as learning disabled or as dyslexic have problems that come primarily from instruction or pressures that don't allow families to provide the early literacy experiences they need," Mr. Coles said.

The NIH-supported research program has yet to have the last word on the subject. Studies begun this fall are using magnetic resonance imaging to look into the brains of children who are poor readers--both before and after they have undergone tutoring.

Previous studies using the technique, which is harmless, have already suggested that the metabolic activity that takes place in the brain as a poor reader tries to read is different from that of able readers. Now, researchers are looking to see whether successful reading interventions can change those brain-activity patterns.

Researchers are looking to see whether successful reading interventions can change those brain-activity patterns.

Meanwhile, Ms. Swift continues to wrangle with her school district over how to introduce some of the new research findings into her son's education. Her uphill battle may not be unusual.

Louisa C. Moats, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center whose work is also being funded by the NIH, reviewed four of the most popular textbooks used in reading education courses for aspiring teachers.

"None of the texts contained accurate information about phonology and its role in reading development, and none of them explained with depth or clarity why many children have trouble learning to read or what to do about it," Ms. Moats told a congressional committee this year.

Similarly, among the hundreds of teachers she has surveyed informally, fewer than 10 percent could name major contributors to the field of reading research.

"It was astonishing to me the ignorance of the field about this," Ms. Moats said in an interview.

Disappointing Goals

At the Swift family's expense, Toby received private tutoring last year through the same auditory-discrimination program used in Mr. Torgeson's study. Ms. Swift says the lessons helped.

After the Swifts argued with school officials, the district spent more than $6,000 to train several teachers and classroom assistants--including Toby's teacher--in the techniques of the auditory-discrimination-in-depth program.

Cathy Shehan, the coordinator of special education services in the Bonita Unified School District, where Toby is a student, said the district has also formed a committee to explore other techniques for helping struggling readers and to set up a reading curriculum for special education students.

The district balked, however, at the Swifts' request to continue Toby's tutoring over the summer.

For now, 10-year-old Toby, who has also been formally identified as gifted, will get his auditory-discrimination-in-depth lessons at school five days a week. But Ms. Swift is concerned that the half-hour lessons provide too little, too late.

She says that in the 8th grade special education class she teaches, she knows that most of the children are there because they cannot read.

"I have a very bright little boy," Ms. Swift says, "and if I'm not careful he'll be lost to the education system."

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