Cracking The Code

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"These gains are strikingly different than what is typically obtained in the regular resource room," Torgeson says. "People are afraid of one-on-one instruction because it's very expensive," he adds. "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?''

None of the strategies in the new studies worked for all students. Dyslexia is a lifelong affliction, and some researchers estimate that roughly 5 percent of children may never learn ways to compensate for it. But the gains the studies document represent, for the most part, big improvements over typical practice. What's more, most of the research points to a clear strategy for teaching reading-disabled children. It suggests that at a minimum poor readers need explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, and the structure of language. And they need enough practice to enable them to use those skills automatically.

The problem, the researchers say, is that over the past decade schools have moved in the opposite direction—away from phonics-based approaches and toward whole language methods of teaching reading. Proponents of the latter maintain that children learn to read naturally and call for immersing them in good literature rather than putting them through repetitious phonics drills. Although whole language educators often include phonics in their lessons, they do so in the context of stories children read.

What we need, Vellutino says, is "a diverse set of strategies and a balanced approach to reading instruction."

In arguing for balance, Vellutino isn't just talking about children with reading disabilities. Along with Lyon of NIH and other researchers, he believes that all young children would benefit from an approach that includes phonemic awareness, phonics, engaging literature, and lots of writing. They suggest that learning to sound out words may be the gateway children must cross if they are to read at higher levels.

'We need a diverse set of strategies and a balanced approach to reading instruction.'

Frank Vellutino,
professor of psychology

As they've lobbied for this approach around the country, however, such ideas haven't always been well-received, particularly within the education research community. Richard Allington, an education professor and the chairman of the reading department at SUNY-Albany, says the researchers may be overreaching by broadly applying to all classrooms their work with poor readers. Many of the gains documented by Vellutino and other NIH-supported researchers, he argues, have come on sound-awareness tasks or exercises that ask students to read nonsense words. "They don't have reliable results on real-word reading, fluency, and comprehension," he says. "The last time I looked, no one had targeted children with disabilities' primary need as being able to pronounce nonwords."

Meanwhile, additional NIH-supported research on reading disabilities is on the way. 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 intensive tutoring. Previous studies using the technique, which is harmless to the kids, have already suggested that the metabolic activity in the brain of a dyslexic child trying to read is different from that of other children. Now, researchers are looking to see whether successful reading interventions can change those brain-activity patterns.

After learning about the NIH-supported research, Angela Swift began wrangling with the Bonita Unified School District, where her son goes to school. She wanted the district to introduce some of the new reading strategies into Toby's education. It was an uphill struggle.

That wouldn't surprise Louisa Moats, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the Houston Health Science Center at the University of Texas. As part of her research, Moats 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," she told a congressional committee this year. "And none of them explained with depth or clarity why many children have trouble learning to read or what to do about it."

Among the hundreds of teachers Moats has informally surveyed, fewer than 10 percent could name major contributors to the field of reading research. "It was astonishing to me," she says, "the ignorance of the field about this."

'None of the texts ... explained with depth or clarity why children have trouble learning to read or what to do about it.'

Louisa Moats,
professor of pediatrics,
University of Texas

Frustrated by their son's lack of progress, Swift and her husband decided last year to hire a private tutor for Toby, who has been formally identified as gifted. The tutor used the same auditory-discrimination technique that proved so successful in Torgeson's study. It helped, Swift says.

Finally, after months of pressure from the Swifts, the district agreed to train several teachers, including Toby's, in the technique. It also formed a committee to explore other methods that might help struggling readers and to create a reading curriculum for special education students.

As for Toby, he now gets auditory-discrimination lessons at school five days a week. His mother is pleased about the development, but she is concerned that the half-hour lessons are too little, too late.

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

The "Research" section is being underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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