Reading & Literacy

Prominent Literacy Expert Denies Dyslexia Exists; Says to ‘Shoot’ Whoever Wrote Law on It

By Sarah Schwartz — December 11, 2019 5 min read
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A group of teachers and literacy advocates are pushing back after one of the country’s most prominent experts on early literacy made inflammatory claims about dyslexia at a Tennessee literacy conference this week.

In an audio recording of the conference session, Richard Allington, a professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is heard saying he was “reasonably sure” that dyslexia doesn’t exist, and attacked proponents of legislation passed in the state to provide dyslexic students with targeted interventions.

“If only [Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam] had called me, I would have said, ‘Just veto it and shoot whoever made this bill,’” Allington said, of the Say Dyslexia law, passed in 2016. He said that Haslam would be “going to hell” for signing the bill into law.

He also criticized Decoding Dyslexia Tennessee, a parent advocate organization that pushed for the bill, saying that they “managed to find some idiot ... to put it into law.”

Allington, who is a past president of the International Literacy Association, was presenting at the organization’s affiliate conference in Tennessee. In the breakout session, “The Hidden Push for Phonics Legislation,” he dismissed the idea that students with dyslexia need explicit phonics instruction or additional supports to learn to read.

“Sometimes when I’m speaking, I get some of the dyslexia folks in the audience and they’re asking questions like, how come you don’t ... seem to know the research?” he said near the end of his presentation.

“And I say, no ma’am, I’m sorry, but if you think there’s some research out there that we’re ignoring, you must have been taking some kind of drugs before you came to this meeting. And I just want you to leave now, so that we won’t waste everybody’s else’s time.”

There’s a general consensus in the scientific community that dyslexia exists, and that children with this learning disability have trouble processing words that can make it harder to read and spell. In federal law, dyslexia can be categorized as a specific learning disability.

Earlier in his talk, Allington said that there was “no structural lack of access to instruction” for students with dyslexia.

But over the past few years, many parents have said that schools aren’t able to meet the needs of their dyslexic children.

See also: Meet the Moms Pushing for a Reading Overhaul in Their District

Parent advocates in several states have pushed for legislation that requires schools to identify dyslexic students and give them special support. In Tennessee, the Say Dyslexia law requires schools to screen students for dyslexia and then provide a dyslexia-specific intervention.

Allington is well-known as a proponent of independent reading and a critic of commercial reading programs, which he has said deliver “one size fits all” instruction. He has long disputed the existence of dyslexia, and the idea that dyslexic students as a category need a particular type of instructional support.

But Zack Barnes, an assistant professor of education at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, says that the research is clear that dyslexic students need systematic, explicit phonics instruction. (Barnes responded to Allington’s remarks on Twitter, and posted the audio recording of Allington’s presentation.)

“That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to have rich, beautiful books be read to them, and learning about comprehension, and enjoying reading,” Barnes said, in an interview. “But those students also do need that skill practice, because the research is clear on the importance those early reading skills have on later reading achievement.”

‘We Didn’t Expect That Type of Language’

Julya Johnson, the president of the board of directors of Decoding Dyslexia Tennessee, said hearing the audio recording of Allington’s comments left her “floored.”

“We’re okay with people disagreeing with us, but we didn’t expect that type of language,” she said in an interview with Education Week. Johnson has two children with dyslexia, and was one of the parents who pushed for the Say Dyslexia law.

“It’s hard to even say, but when he said that the people who wrote the law should be shot, it just shook us to our core. In this culture, you just don’t know who’s listening to those words, and who might take them seriously,” she said.

Allington did not respond to a request for comment before publication.

In response to Allington’s presentation, other reading researchers and school-based educators have condemned his remarks and called on the International Literacy Association to censure him for these statements, which they believe violate the organization’s code of conduct.

Melinda Hirschmann, the assistant director for educational services and school outreach at Middle Tennessee State University, sent a complaint to the ILA the day after the conference presentation, saying she was “stunned” by Allington’s “inflammatory, unethical remarks.”

Hirschmann spoke up at the end of Allington’s presentation, after he invited “dyslexia folks” to leave.

“I told him (using these or similar words) his manner was appalling, unprofessional and denigrating to educators [and] that his position on foundational reading skills and phonics was contradictory to the Literacy Brief published by the very organization which sponsored the conference,” Hirschmann wrote in the complaint, which she shared with Education Week.

In that brief, the ILA took a clear stance endorsing systematic and explicit phonics in all early reading instruction. It was a strong statement for the organization, where members have traditionally held a wide range of views on best practices in early reading.

See also: Influential Reading Group Makes It Clear: Students Need Systematic, Explicit Phonics

Reaction to Allington in the session was mixed, Hirschmann said in an interview with Education Week. Of the 50 or so people in the room, some seemed to support his remarks—there was laughter after his comment about shooting supporters of the Say Dyslexia law, Hirschmann said. But she said several people also walked out of the session as it was in progress.

ILA Executive Director Marcie Craig Post released a statement the day after Allington’s presentation.

“We have received messages from a number of you regarding inflammatory and inappropriate comments made at a recent conference hosted by a state chapter,” she wrote. “We want to make it clear that ILA does not tolerate speech that is harassing, threatening, or violent in nature.”

Post wrote that the organization was “taking the appropriate steps to address the situation,” and looking at “safeguards” to put in place for the future. In an email to Education Week, the ILA declined further comment.

“I think the time has passed for Dr. Allington to be speaking at these conferences,” said Barnes.

“He has been speaking for years about how dyslexia is a myth and is not real, and I think those comments are very harmful and shouldn’t be spoken in front of these teachers, because they are working with students with dyslexia and reading difficulties everyday in their classrooms.”

Image: Richard Allington —Chad Green, File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.