George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Cause and Elimination of Reading Disability

The Cause and Elimination of Reading Disability

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The vast majority of reading disability stems from the way we typically teach reading. Neuropsychologists speak of the indirect phonological route to meaning which in Education terms translates into phonetic decoding. The printed word is converted to its sound and from that sound we derive meaning. It is rather convoluted but amazingly effective. I learned that way and so did many others. It has advantages in case you come across an unfamiliar word that is in your auditory vocabulary and is phonetically regular. One disadvantage is that it must be unlearned for someone to practice speed reading. But the major disadvantage is that some people cannot make that conversion and we label them as reading disabled. Teach to strength is a primary directive of education, but with respect to phonetic decoding this is ignored. An exception is the deaf for whom phonetic decoding makes no sense. But in general remediating the defective system is the establishment approach. Organizations such as Orton Gillingham are based it. Books and courses are based on fixing a broken system. Why can't reading disabled students have the same advantages as deaf students?

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Quinn Kelley's picture
Quinn Kelley
High school Study Skills and Reading/Writing teacher near Atlanta, GA

The speech pathologist at my school recommended the Gillingham training, though getting it paid for by the system could be difficult. I've worked with SRA and Read 180, and Read 180 was the better of the two. However, I really want a more effective way of teaching reading intervention, especially at the high school level.

I've never thought about how we teach decoding to deaf students; how DO we teach it? (Thanks for the post!)

Kristen Hamer's picture
Kristen Hamer
Learning Resource Teacher, Ontario, Canada

Could you elaborate a little more on what you are suggesting. The same advantages as deaf students? I'm not sure what you mean by this.
I am a Learning Resource Teacher and I teach the Empower Reading program to students in grade 2 or 3 that are really struggling with reading. It results in big improvements for some and for others (usually those that are later diagnosed with an LD) it only helps a bit. I find that the group of children that still struggle are able to apply the phonetic strategies, but like you said have a lot of difficulty becoming fluent readers. I'm not sure what the answer is- I continued to encourage frequent reading practice and re-reading of the same text to build confidence and fluency, but I wish there were something more. I also train these kids on assistive technology which definitely helps with their ability to read and write. Anyway I'd be certainty interested on any input regrading how to build reading speed in fluency in those kids that are really struggling.

Bob Zenhausern's picture

Children with phonetic difficulties should never read aloud. Ask them to summarize in their own words what they read See what happens when you ask them to summarize.

If you want to put yourself in their shoes, think what it feels like when you have a "tip of the tongue". These children have a chronic "tip of the tongue". They feel frustrated because they know the answer but cannot get it out.

Nanette's picture

Some students have the OPPOSITE reading disability. They are able to "read" (decode) the text but they lack the ability to comprehend the message, thus are completely unable and distressed by any request to summarize the meaning. My daughter made it "successfully" through many years of school and exercises/tests by very strong visual skills for locating the "matching phrase" to answer questions -- with little to no comprehension. (I called it "Googling" for answers, since she was essentially visually scanning for a character/word string.)
All the emphasis in her special education classes was solely on DECODING , which was no problem for her. She never received any help with developing her READING COMPREHENSION skills. She had the "mechanics" of reading down pat, but the language comprehension aspect of reading was missing and there was no help for her -- especially since she was clever enough to find the matching answers by other compensatory skills. Assessment scores were high, but reading comprehension skills were, and continue to be, very low.
(BTW, she was very, very late to develop spoken language. Her auditory processing disorder was/is a very invisible disability that was misunderstood by many educators and health professionals. Her visual processing is extremely strong, and thus her spoken language blossomed enormously when she was able to SEE the words that were spoken to her -- that is, when she got the hang of reading instruction in first grade and she was/is actually given the book/slide/transcript of what the teacher was reading or speaking about. There were no programs or any creative teachers for her "inverse" type of language/reading (and listening) disability.)

Bob Zenhausern's picture

About 15% of the reading disabled students I came across had the same problem as your daughter. It is really a different problem with phonetic decoding. The idea is to convert the printed word to its sound and from that sound find meaning. Most dyslexics cannot take the first step, but your daughter could do the conversion, but this did not lead to meaning.
One stopgap solution is to read aloud and record it. Then play back the recording for meaning. Awkward but it will help. A long term solution is not to use phonetic decoding at all but to understand the meaning of the word directly. It is like speed reading. Think about the deaf. They obviously cannot use phonetic decoding, but they can read. Try things that worked for them.

Nanette's picture

Thanks for your reply. The big problem we faced, however, is that schools are not willing to give a student the extra time it takes to go through such a process. A child who is not deaf but cannot process language at the speed, message-length, and manner of typical instruction or oral communication is left to struggle by themselves in both classroom and social situations.

Schools are not set up to deal with learning disabilities that are time consuming to address -- and our education leaders and teachers lack open minds to consider changes to their systems to provide for such "misfits". In order to keep pace with the one-size, one-speed fits all attitude of our schools and the systemic expectation of teachers to meet that fundamental assumption, a student who needs to use a different technique to achieve specific content comprehension or to develop those language comprehension skills that are difficult and so time-consuming for them is simply not given any opportunity for real success. It would take too much time for a student to work through these foundational skills at their individual, slower pace in order to become successful independent learners, and there is no "extra time" permitted in our approach to education. Every class proceeds at a set pace for all students in that grade-level, despite individual differences. This is sometimes a bit slow for the quick learners (oh, well, so they might be a little bored...) but it is FATAL for the students who need more time to process the information, data, media, and concepts that are thrown at them on a daily basis. The only "solution" we've ever been given by our very "high performing" school district has been to ELIMINATE various assignments/tasks/work in order to fit the student's work effort within the established schedule of the class. This directly and horribly dilutes the student's actual learning, which leaves horrific gaps in skills and knowledge that are assumed to be present in later months and years. The only winner in this system is the school district who can push the student along without any additional effort or cost to the school, quietly promoting the poorly educated student through all the K12 years, awarding them good grades for achieving very little learning, and letting the student and their family deal with the problem themselves at age 18. Looks good on school records.... but looks are deceiving.

You would think that our school systems could broaden their thinking by the 21st century to provide a method for student achievement without the constraints of forcing all students to learn in the same way and AT THE SAME PACE as some pre-defined "standard" -- just because it's been in place for a hundred years. Many students simply drop out. Others graduate (even with "honors', like my daughter), despite a low level achievement of basic skills. In both cases, the students are left to navigate adulthood independently without the foundational skills, knowledge, and tools we should expect our education system to provide our children.

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