Education Opinion

Needless Battles on Dyslexia

By Gertrude M. Webb — February 19, 1992 6 min read
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Gertrude M. Webb is director of the Learning Center at Curry College in Milton, Mass., and founder of Curry’s Program for Advancement of Learning (PAL), the nation’s oldest college-level program for learning-disabled students.

On the one side are the number crunchers, with standardized tests as their basic diagnostic tool. On the other side are the practitioners who believe that we need to listen to what teachers and parents say about the way children perform and factor these insights into our diagnostic evaluations. For the sake of the children in our schools, these two groups need to learn to communicate and collaborate better.

One finding of the Yale research team has particularly wide-reaching implications for how we teach dyslexics, and must be examined in more detail. This is the conclusion that dyslexia is not a separate, “all or none” phenomenon, “but that it occurs in degrees as part of a normal continuum of reading abilities.” This finding was based in part on results which seemed to show that dyslexia diminished over time, with only 28 percent of children diagnosed as having dyslexia in the 1st grade so classified in the 3rd grade.

It hardly needs to be spelled out what such a finding might mean for special-education programs that serve these students. If dyslexia is the lower end of a normal range of abilities, and may diminish over time, the study could lend support to a growing movement to curtail support programs for the learning-disabled. This would be a mistake.

The work my colleagues and I have done indicates that this learning disability, if correctly diagnosed, cannot be grown out of, it can only have learning strategies built around it. Our college-level program for learning-disabled students, the oldest in the country, is based on a philosophy that real language difficulties do not disappear over time. To be empowered, the affected students need to become aware of their unique learning strengths, so that they may apply them effectively while strengthening the lagging areas.

The Yale study’s finding that “dyslexia occurs along a continuum” is not a new revelation. It reinforces special education’s long-accepted diagnostic markers of degree, known as “mild, moderate, and severe.” On this long-recognized continuum, both camps would agree.

Because our program also prepares teachers to meet the needs of the mildly dyslexic child in the classroom, we have gained an appreciation for the role of the self in energizing learning, and the potential damage to the sense of self-worth that comes from labeling. We have resisted labeling children early on, focusing instead on their strengths. We urge that teachers stimulate and appreciate dyslexic children’s thinking as the foundation for their language abilities, and that they have flexibility in their expectations regarding these children’s development of decoding skills such as reading.

I am reminded of the 4-year-old described in the book Genius at Wyrks who was exasperated when he could fit get his mother’s attention. In desperation, on a large piece of paper, he scrawled, “ARE You DF?” More-flexible thinking needs to find its way into the criteria we use to diagnose reading abilities. It was not in evidence in the current study.

The authors rightly take issue with the methodology of earlier studies in which group reading tests were used. But this does not mean they have avoided all the methodological pitfalls themselves. They used the discrepancy between individual reading and intelligence tests as the determinant for labeling students as dyslexic. I would question the adequacy of these measures alone for labeling 6-year-olds as dyslexic.

Frances Ilg and Louise Bates Ames noted in their book School Readiness that our school-entrance age of 6 is one year earlier than that of many other developed nations. They suggested the need to mesh the child’s growth, uniqueness, and environment in our evaluation of each child.

Labeling at kindergarten or even 1st grade needs to be inclusive. There is much potential danger of misdiagnosis at such an early age. Such misdiagnosed labeling may be the beginning of improper educational tracking and may lay the foundation for later school “dropouts,” or more correctly, school “pushouts.”

There are many causes for beginning readers’ difficulties. For some students, American schools’ expectation that all children begin to decode letters on the printed page in the 1st grade is the real problem. About 10 percent of 1st graders are just not ready to recognize, label, and match our alphabetical letters to their sounds, nor to write those letters so that others may read them successfully.

Pediatricians are well aware of this. Any grandmother could tell you that boys develop language more slowly than girls. (Even some researchers are aware of this, as the work on infant language development by Jerome Kagan shows.) Why should all boys be expected to begin decoding successfully at 1st-grade level, and if they cannot, be labeled dyslexic? I would question how many were so labeled (or mislabeled) in the Yale-based study’s sample, large as it was.

Was there any attempt to incorporate teachers’ behavioral observations into the diagnostic criteria? Teachers familiar with the true dyslexic usually know of related family history of language disorders, and notice confusion in the orientation of the presented letters reading from right to left. They are also sensitive to the failure to see and hear similarities in letters or words and the inability to pronounce unfamiliar words, which are crucial to reading and writing.

Joey, a 6-year-old 1st grader, revealed how since his 4th birthday he had been playing the billy-goat character in the story of Billy Goat Gruff, stomping over the bridge under which his sister and brother, fearful of him, had crawled. He knew that story by heart: He could tell it to you, design the setting, and play each character’s role. In 1st grade, at age 6, the visual images of oa in goat and uff in gruff didn’t fit any patterns he knew; they didn’t make any sense to him; and so he flunked reading. Yet it was clear he had mastered the story.

What is the place of"getting the message” in our diagnostic measures of reading? Broadening and deepening of the criteria used by the Yale research team might well have lowered the number of children in their sampling diagnosed as dyslexic based on the criterion of standardized testing.

The finding that many children seemed to outgrow dyslexia by the 3rd grade should come as no big surprise if one subscribes to a developmental model of growth which anticipates the role of maturation. The information that the girls among the 414 children sampled exceeded the boys in reading ability, in conjunction with the possibly misdiagnosed 1st graders described above, simply multiplies the questions surrounding the methodology of this study.

Certainly, it is important to know whether dyslexia falls within a normal continuum or separately. In order to correctly answer that question, however, we must broaden the criteria we use to look at this phenomenon. If we answer it incorrectly, we could end up limiting the help we give each learner as he or she grows from strength to strength with our encouragement and guidance.

Though I respect the work of these researchers laboring quantitatively and urge its continuance, I hope that the qualitative knowledge of practitioners will be sought to enrich their work. Such teaming, I believe, would reverse the spirit of potential battle created by this study.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 1992 edition of Education Week as Needless Battles on Dyslexia


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