No matter where you look, autism is the disability that is featured. PBS has just presented a miniseries and a case study. Government websites feature lists of autism studies and resources. Parents are generally thrilled to have found national support and networks to help them in caring for their autistic children. The magnitude of the problems in meeting the needs of these children cannot be overstated. The statistic is 1 in 110. One out of 110 births in America become children on the autism spectrum. This is considered to be an astonishingly high number. What if that number was 1 in 10? Or 1 in 8? That is the statistic for children with dyslexia. Their disability is just as disabling in its own way as autism. Yet this huge population has become invisible, as are the programs required to educate them. Why aren’t organizations devoted to the study of and training in dyslexia as politically active as those in autism? My bet is always on the money. There is no big money in dyslexia and teacher retraining in reading is less sexy than working on “behavior”! Yeah! Give me a juicy behavior problem, but for God’s sake don’t ask me to teach that kid to read!!
In April 2011, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published “Double Jeopardy: How Third Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation.” This is the first national study to examine graduation rates for children at different reading levels and poverty rates. Of almost 4,000 students who did not read fluently by third grade, they were four times more likely to drop out of school than proficient readers. For the worst readers who did not master basic skills by third grade, the rate is six times greater. The summary of findings included:
These numbers should not be a surprise to any of us. (If you want an explanation and curriculum guide about age and grade reading programs, see the Publications portion of the website, Book 1.) But when a study combines race, poverty, and reading, the enormity of the reading issue becomes blurred. We say- Well! We can’t do anything about poverty! We can’t do anything about race! Let’s take those two elements aside, and just examine reading for a moment. Pretend that you are a white, middle class parent and your child has problems in reading. What happens?
You have a bright and eager second grader. He/she may be slower to learn the alphabet, to read sight words or know the sounds of the letters, and have significant problems writing his/her name. Friends are way ahead in their reading groups, and he/she can’t understand why they can’t do what seems so easy for the others when they are actually smarter. Insecurity starts to set in. They may be put in a remedial reading class, or have failed the State basic skills reading test. Many are creative, talented children. Many are gifted children. But this reading thing drives them crazy. Parents may give them private tutoring. The school may use an Intervention method so no referral to the child study team takes place. Third grade comes and suddenly what looks like small to medium problems become big problems. The school says the child isn’t trying hard enough. No comprehensive testing has been done. Behavior problems start. They range from not wanting to go to school, to spending time with the school nurse for stomach aches, to acting out in class or being a class clown. Some kids try and mask the problems, and memorize the text so it appears that they are reading. Some simply give up. Some withdraw and become depressed. But help does not come. The school says that everybody has some kind of reading problem and as long as your child is passing the state tests you shouldn’t worry. Remember that their bodies are changing about age 7-8 and they have new levels of awareness. They may be terrific in math and science as long as they can use their hands and make things, but reading by itself is a different story- literally. They may be amazing musicians, dancers, and artists. So why can’t they read, or read well? You are told that reading is a developmental process and everybody comes to it by different routes and at different times. It will happen eventually say the teachers. But fourth grade does not happen eventually, because it comes after third. If they are not fluent readers by the end of third grade, they may never catch up because the rest of their school careers are based on comprehension and acquiring new information.
The primary difficulty with understanding reading instruction for dyslexics, and that includes decoding, comprehension, sequencing, spelling, math, and writing (among many other foundation skills) is that dyslexic brains are different. You can pound those brains with regular reading materials until they are bloody and dripping, but they still won’t be able to read with fluency. They need to be evaluated early and comprehensively because the clock is ticking toward fourth grade. That doesn’t happen and, as we heard more than 50 years ago, Johnny still can’t read. I’ll never forget my experience at Bank Street graduate school. They are a whole language place and had no tolerance at all for divergent views on the instruction of reading. They never differentiated between the reading needs of regular students and dyslexic students. They used a diagnostic program developed in New Zealand. Apparently, nothing in America offered a comparable trip! If you paid extra, they offered a workshop in Orton, Wilson, or Alphabetic Phonics but these were never part of the course offering required to get a special education degree and license. This experience helped me to understand the plight of the graduating teacher, and how inadequately they are trained for the range of reading needs in the student population.
Now, let’s look at reading with the added factors of race and poverty. A good helping of neuroscience will help here. The language we hear as infants and toddlers provides the basis for everything that comes later. If the accent or pronunciation of the words is different from the word that is read, there will be a mismatch between the sounds of the language you have stored and the words that appear on the page. That is not dyslexia. If you are raised in an environment where you don’t hear language, and don’t have language rich experiences, your reading skills will be delayed. That is not dyslexia. But after reading instruction is provided and there is little to no response or improvement in reading, then we need to ask- Why? And we need to ask that as early as we suspect that there is a problem that cannot be solved through traditional instruction. Teachers are indoctrinated in the political ideology of one basic reading program- a little phonics, a little whole language, a little writing. They say, “We read for comprehension. If children don’t know the word they can figure it out from the context.” Well, is that what we want? We don’t teach prefixes and suffixes much anymore. We don’t ask students to find root words. Some of you don’t even know what this means because of the generation in which you were educated. (Prebaking: Pre= before. Bake is the root word. Ing= the suffix. Using this information, define the word.)
Why do Americans like English actors? They are an epidemic in American movies.
Listen to the clarity of their speech. You can hear every letter crisply said. Watch the movement of their mouths. Our system of education has permitted sloppy pronunciation and tiny vocabularies, particularly for the poor. If you can’t hear it, you can’t spell it (deaf advocates, do not email me about this…) If you see a word you do not know, sound it out. How do you do that? How do you do that when you have stored the sound of the letters incorrectly? With great difficulty. How do you do with sight words? Reading is unbelievably complicated, and yet we think it is easy. As I’ve said a few times before, we are not wired to read. It is an artificial construct of civilization. So certain brains cannot handle the artificial imposition with the same ease as others.
Where is this discussion, as the House of Representatives guts literacy programs and IDEA has yet to be reauthorized? The key to everything is the ability to read well. 1 in 10 can’t. All of us have some responsibility for this devastating fact. While the country celebrates the death of Osama bin Laden, myself included, it dithers the future away by cheating our children of what should be their civil right to an equal playing field- the ability to read.