Research on how kids learn to read has not always penetrated the teaching profession, though that’s generally no fault of the teachers. It’s because approaches to reading based on the mechanics of language don’t appear to be consistently taught in teacher-preparation programs or in early reading professional-development opportunities.
While this has been a longstanding problem, it’s entered the national agenda again.
But there’s one thing that’s changed since the last skirmish in the reading wars: social media.
Now, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have exploded with parents, researchers, and educators advocating for a systematic approach to teaching reading. One of the most successful pushes has come from the dyslexia community: Grassroots groups like Decoding Dyslexianow claim chapters in all 50 states.
A key point advocates for these approaches make is that, while phonics and phonemic awareness are mandatory for dyslexic students, they’re also best practice for teaching all students.
To find out what this kind of advocacy looks like on the ground, Education Week talked with two mothers in the Tredyffrin/Easttown district in Pennsylvania who started a local group, Everyone Reads, which has been urging their district to overhaul its literacy program.
Jamie Lynch knew nothing about the “whole language” vs. phonics debate when her son started struggling to read. As she tried to figure out how to help, she found a lifeline when she discovered research on dyslexic students. Kate Mayer, a former elementary teacher, came to the district with two children who struggled with reading, including one who had received an individualized education program for dyslexia. (Whole language is an approach that emphasizes learning through context and picture clues, while phonics focuses on the explicit teaching of sound-letter correspondences.)
The women’s advocacy has been a bit of a thorn in the side of their district. They’ve written several open letters asking the district to rethink its curriculum and provide more classroom-level data on reading outcomes. The district, for its part, says it adheres to quality instructional practices, and it’s also training a number of teachers in a longstanding reading approach that emphasizes systematic phonics and decoding.
This Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity and space.
You both mentioned that there was this immediate sort of visceral discomfort with the word dyslexia when you approached the school about your kids’ reading problems. Why do you think that is?
Mayer: I think the uncomfortableness around the word from the professionals in the school was around resources. There were some directives around using the word because then if it was used, the evidence, the research shows that there’s a specific type of instruction that should be used and while they might provide that, they didn’t want to commit to providing that officially.
The telling thing that happened to me, and I think this is when I moved here and I came in with my IEPs from Wilmette (Ill.) and I put them down on the table. And I just looked at everyone and I said, “Before we start, I want to use the words dysgraphia and dyslexia so that we know that we’re talking about the same thing.” And the school psychologist—who was a smart lady—she looked at me and she said, “Mrs. Mayer, you would not want us to use the word autism if your child had autism, would you? We don’t use the word dyslexia. We want to talk about your child individually.” And at that moment I was like, “Heck yes, I would want you to tell me my child has autism!”
Lynch: I was asking innocently because I had a friend in high school who was dyslexic. So it was the only thing I knew about reading that could be a problem. I asked, ‘Could it be dyslexia, what is dyslexia?’ And I was immediately dismissed by the reading specialist: “We do not call it that anymore.”
And I went home and started doing all the online research and found all the great places that had tons of information about dyslexia. [The district rejects the claim that it is uncomfortable with the term dyslexia.]
What kinds of resources did you look for and compile as you put together this group of parents that were struggling with these issues?
Mayer: Well, I think that that was a journey, right? So both of us have been at this for five-plus years. And so there were several stops on the resource path and the first one was digging into all those online dyslexia resources that give you some of the evidence base, the research behind why kids respond to the type of instruction—the systematic, explicit instruction. And then as I moved through it, I started looking for communities of people I could connect with. Because I think this is true for almost everyone who encounters a struggling reader: Every parent, there’s this isolation you feel when you find out about it because the information coming from the school is not aligning with what you’re learning outside of the school.
As you’re trying to understand the instructional piece in school, you start to encounter professional resources. That for me was an ‘aha’ moment because I was trying to reconcile the parent piece and the teacher piece, and came to the conclusion that I really had been a crappy reading teacher. And then, in the middle of the night when I was on Facebook searching for something, I encountered the Reading League. The Reading League is a group of teachers and other professionals, and they put together these videos of teachers talking about the moment they realized that they hadn’t been taught the evidence base on early reading.
When did you tumble to the conclusion that your district was using balanced literacy and that it was not particularly effective for decoding for your kids?
Lynch: The fall of 2017 for sure, because we were digging and looking and reading. Like, why isn’t this working? Why are 20 percent of our kids in general education reading support?
Mayer: I was excited when we moved here because there was an actual program, and I came out of the [federal] Reading First era where we did a marriage of Open Court and Readers and Writers Workshop [respectively, a phonics-based basal reading program and a balanced-literacy program], and I was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to come in and there’s going to be some structure and all the teachers are going to be teaching similar things.’ And I quickly learned that for my 3rd grader there was no real phonics, phonemic awareness, or structure—even in writing.
What kinds of questions should parents whose kids are having problems decoding, or just problems with early literacy, be asking?
Lynch: Well, a really easy question that they could ask is for progress-monitoring data so that they could see how their kid is growing and what the protocol is that the school’s following for monitoring their kids. So many, many schools do that and they give a report and it helps them to understand what area is the struggle and then they can ask the question, how is that particular need being supported and are there more concerns? We know that in 1st grade, if you looked at a chart of numbers, that’s where, like, the big growth happens for most kids. And that’s also where struggling readers get really left behind.
And then the other thing is to see what local resources they can find. I mean, we find we have to [help] the parents a lot to find resources to get their kids that instruction in those areas of weakness before too much time passes. Because the later that intervention happens, it’s so much harder.
Mayer: My biggest piece of advice would be to trust your gut. So you’re with your kid until they get to kindergarten. And if you notice something that just doesn’t seem right or they seem to struggle a lot of times, you’re right, and the school just might not be equipped at that point to identify that need. But you can, and there are a lot of resources outside of the school that can help you to support their early literacy skills.
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as Meet the Moms on the Front Lines of the Latest Reading Wars