School Committees & Elected Officials

Literacy Instruction and Dyslexia

Summary of Concerns

Image used with permission by Dr. Fumiko Hoeft

School Committees and School Boards can play important roles to ensure all students have the ability to become proficient readers. Please read this section to be better informed on how to support your schools.

The Right to Read Act 2019 will bring important changes. This website can be a helpful resource for your districts.

Core Issues:

Decoding Dyslexia supports and appreciates the hard work an effort of edcutors. However, teacher preparation programs have left

  • Core instruction does not align with the cognitive processes involved in reading. Teachers may not understand the interdependent nature of decoding and oral language comprehension.
  • Schools are not screening effectively for sub-skills that can be predictors of future reading challenges.
  • Response to Intervention is a process schools use to provide interventions for students with learning and behavior needs. MTSS is a framework that provide targeted support to struggling students focusing on the "whole child." RTI/MTSS frameworks are not using evidence-based interventions for students with word-level reading challenges/dyslexia. Scarborough's Reading Rope (shown below), describes the underlying skills involved in reading reading comprehension. The core deficits are not being addressed. Please read the Assessing & Addressing Dyslexia Section . Many unidentified dyslexic students cycle in and out of the RTI/MTSS framework as a result.
  • Districts fear identifying dyslexic students may be too costly and increase the number of students identified with a specific learning disability. Research shows, that screening, scientifically-based core reading instruction, and evidence-based reading interventions can reduce costs (see graphic).
  • Teachers were not taught that dyslexia is on the lower-end of the literacy continuum. The strategies dyslexic students need are the same that all students need to attain automaticity with word-level reading, dyslexic students will need more exposures and greater intensity because of their phonological core deficit to map words like typical readers. The trouble occurs when a student experiences a literacy curriculum that does not include an explicit, direct, systematic, and multi-modal structured literacy component.
  • Waiting for children to fall behind their peers impacts a student's social emotional well being.
  • Parents are being told dyslexia is a medical diagnosis, this is false.
  • Schools will not use the term dyslexia
  • Special Education programs do not train teachers in Structured Literacy, yet dyslexic students are one of the largest populations of students diagnosed as SLD.
  • Not all schools have a reading or literacy specialist. Some schools have reading specialists, but they are not trained in Structured Literacy/Orton-Gillingham approach for word-level reading instruction.
  • Literacy is the gateway to equity. The choices schools make, despite the greatest intentions, can have serious consequences for students especially those who have been historically marginalized such as brown, black, and students born with learning differences.
  • Many programs for intervention will claim to be research-based, explicit, and systematic. It is important to understand these nuances to avoid expensive programs that will still leave students behind (view the video by Dr. Steve Dykstra below).

Next Steps

  • Review your district's comprehensive literacy plan
  • How are students at risk of having difficulty learning to read being screened? Are the right markers being monitored. Example: Looking at reading comprehension scores from a test like NWEA would not be ideal. The K-2 questions on this assessment are read to students. Please find helpful information on this topic under the Assessing & Addressing Dyslexia Section.
  • Ask when teachers administering literacy screening were provided updated professional development and training.
  • Ask about your district's RTI/MTSS System. How are these systems serving students who are struggling with decoding or word-level reading? How are middle schools and high schools identifying students who were missed in elementary school?
  • Are literacy specialists and special educators trained in Structured Literacy/Orton-Gillingham approach to reading? A common problem that occurs for dyslexic students is that the underlying deficits that cause these students to struggle to read were never properly identified. Reading interventions are not targeting the right deficits to allow students to become fluent readers. Students instead are forced to compensate while they read which is exhausting and ineffective. Many dyslexic students can then cycle in and out of this system for years.
  • Does the core curriculum for English Language Arts align with scientifically-based reading?
  • Ask how many students in your district are currently receiving services for dyslexia (RTI/MTSS or Special Education)?
  • Most importantly, ask how your can support educators and district leaders to meet the needs of all students.


Issue 1: Teacher Preparation

  • Despite their dedication and commitment to early literacy, many educators were not taught about the cognitive processes involved in how children learn to read. (Please see: Scientifically-Based Reading).
  • Teachers may be aware of the five components of reading outlined by the National Reading Panel, but many teachers were not taught about the interdependent nature of these components of reading or the significance of phonological awareness.
  • Skills are often taught as a checklist to measure standards. The focus is on teaching literacy skills in a "balanced" way instead of teaching foundational skills in a structured, explicit, and diagnostic way as part of a comprehensive English Language Arts curriculum.
  • Teachers have also been taught to focus on comprehension skills rather than the components that influence comprehension (decoding, background knowledge, language structures, vocabulary knowledge, etc.).
  • Balanced literacy sounds like an effective approach, but has left too many students behind (see NAEP Scores).
  • Poor preparation makes it difficult for educators to identify why a child is struggling with reading (see Assessing and Addressing Dyslexia). Reading comprehension is the end result of many interdependent sub-skills (The Simple View of Reading).
  • Many teachers were not taught about dyslexia
  • An entrenched belief system exists that schools must wait to identify a child with a reading disability until 3rd or 4th grade, interventions are provided after the most ideal time for remediation to occur. This is called the dyslexia paradox.

Issue 2: Curriculum and Instruction Does Not Align with the Research

Curriculum and Decoding Words

The video on orthographic mapping below breaks down how the brain maps words to long term memory. Structured Literacy is an essential component of word-level reading (decoding) to help students understand the structure of our language. Some schools may have a formal phonics program, but the rest of their English Language Arts programs rely on leveled-literacy and reading workshop models. Why is this a problem? In part of the lesson kids may be taught how to sound out words to decode, but the strategies they are taught in other portions of their literacy block do not reinforce phoneme (sound)-grapheme (letter) correspondence necessary to attain automaticity for fluent reading. Instead students are taught to be "problem-solvers" when they struggle to recognize a novel word. Using context clues is meant for understanding what a word means, not how to decode which is a necessary step to map the word to long-term memory.

Key Takeaways

  • Reading relies on a students ability to quickly and effortlessly read the words on a given passage and map those words to those they have heard.
  • If students are struggling to read and comprehend text, the strands can be used to help identify areas for interventions.
  • All Tier 1 instruction should have explicit systematic phonics for decoding. Language comprehension can be strengthened through read alouds and content rich curriculum.

Warning Signs

If teachers are using the following methods to help students decode words, they are essentially teaching children to bypass orthographic mapping making word-level reading challenging:

  • Use picture cues
  • Asking kids to guess by using question prompts like "what word makes sense in the sentence?" (This technique is often called "problem-solving")
  • Look at the first letter (then guess/"problem-solve")
  • Look at shapes of words
  • Asking students to "memorize" whole words/sight words without paying attention to sound-letter correspondence

Beware of curriculum that asks students to look away from the word when they don't recognize it!

These practices are devastating for students who struggle with word-level reading/dyslexia.


Curriculum and Knowledge Building

Many popular reading programs focus on independent reading in leveled books instead of thematic units that build content knowledge. Background knowledge is one of the strongest components of reading comprehension once students learn how to decode words fluently. Curriculum that aligns with scientifically-based reading would include complex and content rich texts that can be done by the teacher reading aloud to students to build knowledge and to strengthen their vocabulary.

Watch this video to understand the current challenges with poplar curriculum and reading practices that do not align with decades worth of research.

Issue 3: Addressing Reading Challenges

Lack of teacher preparation in the science of reading, which is a body of research that explains how children learn to read, has been a contributing factor to stagnant reading proficiency rates across the country. Pedagogy alone will not be the solution, there are no silver bullets; however, instructional practices that align with evidence increases the chances of a child becoming a proficient reader. Instructional practices that align with belief systems, will make reading a privilege, especially for our most vulnerable students. Please view the Assessing & Addressing Dyslexia Section to understand the profiles of struggling readers.

Popular Reading Programs Do No Align with Scientifically-Based Reading

A meta-analysis comparing intervention studies of at least 100 sessions reported larger effect sizes in kindergarten and first grade than in the later grades. Furthermore, a meta-analysis across six studies revealed that when at-risk beginning readers received explicit and intensive instruction, 50 to 90% of these children reached average reading performance levels (Torgesen, 2004).