Updated: Apr 13, 2022
by Shawna Audet
In my work as a reading remediation teacher, I work almost exclusively with dyslexic students. These students have a brain-based learning difference that can make it difficult for them to learn to read and write. Every child, whether they are dyslexic or not, begins learning to read in the same way: by attaching individual sounds (phonemes) to individual symbols (graphemes) and sounding them out one by one. This is a very slow by to read. By the end of grade two, the average student makes the switch to using their lower brain circuit to read. This circuit is much faster. Instead of having to sound out C-A-T sound by sound, the student who uses their lower brain circuit processes the word as one whole thing that instantly recognizes the whole word as “cat.”
The switch to using the lower brain circuit is what I frequently hear people call the “magical” moment when a child discovers the joy of reading. This term does a great job of describing the wonder, joy, and relief that parents feel when their child starts voraciously reading books on their own. There is no magic involved though. It is more accurately called the stage when a child reaches reading fluency. Reading fluency is when a person can read with accuracy, a natural expression and speed. The speed required to reach this state is achieved by having access to the lower brain circuit.
We are getting to the heart of dyslexia when we understand that dyslexic students who suffer from reading failure do so because their brains keep on using their upper brain circuit. They do not make the switch to using the lower brain circuit. In schools where structured literacy teaching methods and proven programs are used in the early grades, we can expect that 5% of the student population will require extra support to overcome reading and writing challenges. In schools where structured literacy teaching methods and proven programs are absent, the number of students who need extra help jumps to 30%. It is shocking to realize the high number of special needs students who are “created” by poor instructional methods. Even more shocking, is the fact that 80% of students who receives special education support services struggle with literacy.
Thanks to the work of Sally Shaywitz and the National Reading Panel, we know exactly what type of extra help that students who are suffering from reading and writing failure need to receive to overcome their reading and writing difficulties. They need a proven, intensive, systematic, progressive reading remediation program. We know that “successful transformation of information into useable knowledge often requires the application of mental strategies and skills for processing” information” (CAST). Proven reading interventions programs apply this idea by teaching concepts explicitly and sequentially. Students are taught how to read by beginning with closed syllable words and controlled text. This method enables the students see the regular patterns of English, which helps them to become accurate readers. Students work at their own pace and lessons are individualized. Once students master the closed syllable and its related spelling rules, then they move onto the other syllable types. Instead of viewing English as a mish-mash of random spelling rules with lots of rule breakers, students learn that English makes sense when you understand syllable types.
For dyslexic students, it is critical to understand spelling rules if they are to become fluent writers. When someone asks me to spell the word cat, an image of the word pops into my brain and I write down the letters. I am using my lower brain circuit to do this task. Since struggling dyslexic writers have weak access to their lower brain circuit, they need to apply spelling rules so that they can spell a word correctly. Teachers who do not use a proven program to teach reading and writing and who assign spelling lists made up of random words that are not related in structure are really assessing the ability of their students to access their lower brain circuit. Dyslexic students, through no fault of their own, are doomed tp fail in such an activity. It is much better to teach spelling by teaching word families and by using structured word inquiry. Structured word inquiry teaches students to break apart large words into smaller chunks (prefix, base, suffix) and to find meaning in each of the parts (etymology).
Another quality of proven reading intervention programs is that they use multi-sensory teaching methods. This is critical because we know that dyslexic students have a weak lower brain circuit. We need to get the information into their brains using a strong mental pathway. Children are very kinesthetic so activating their kinesthetic brain pathways when they receive new information makes sense. For this reason, we teach in ways that encourage movement and use manipulatives. While all this is happening, the student is also gaining access to their lower brain circuit by doing drills such as the Dyslexia Training Institute’s phonemic awareness drill, visual drill, auditory drill, blending drill, and syllable card drill. These drills are a key part of the program because they enable the student to access their lower brain circuit, which allows them to get to access the speed that they need to become fluent readers.
The great news is that proven reading remediation programs work. Students who have access to them can overcome their reading and writing challenges by building their lower brain circuit and by gaining an understanding of how English works. We know that it is possible to rewire the brain for reading because of the M.R.I. studies that Dr. Sally Shaywitz. Sally Shaywitz looked at brain scans of dyslexic students while reading before and after being given a proven reading remediation program. She found that the brain scans of the dyslexic students that were taken after receiving the remediation program looked almost identical to those of non-impaired readers. The dyslexic students were now using their lower brain circuits. The research proves that it is possible to rewire a dyslexic brain for reading. Struggling dyslexic readers can overcome their reading and writing challenges if they are provided with access to a proven reading remediation program given by a trained individual.
Tragically, in many school districts, students are denied access proven programs that use structured literacy in the regular classroom and to proven reading remediation programs from special education services. The dark truth is that as dyslexic students age, it becomes harder for them to gain access to their lower brain circuit. That’s why early intervention is the key to successful reading remediation. In schools where struggling dyslexic students float along without having their needs properly addressed, time eventually runs out for dyslexic students. There comes a point when they can no longer make the switch to using their lower brain circuit for reading. When this happens, it is still possible to teach the student to become an accurate reader, but their ability to become a fluent reader is lost. This means that they will never be able to read fast enough to be able to enjoy reading. For them, reading will always feel like work.
As the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal recently stated in its damning report on Ontario schools, reading is a basic human right. The findings of the report were based on Ontario schools, but similar results would be found in my home province of British Columbia. How can we change the system so that dyslexic students are not robbed of their ability to become fluent readers?
My personal response to the 30% rate of reading failure experienced by students in my area was to form a local literacy team. Our mission is to change the landscape for struggling readers in our area. We do this by applying for grants to secure funds and then offering free reading remediation teacher training to those who are in positions where they can affect change for a great number of kids. I have trained 33 adults in my community so far. We are also working with a local PAC (parent advisory council) to provide funding for parents of struggling readers who wish to purchase the Lexia reading program but can’t afford to do so. Lexia is an online reading program that is proven to help with reading (but it doesn’t move the dial on writing). Some parents can’t afford to hire the private reading remediation tutors that I have recently trained, so Lexia gives them a way to help their children to learn to read. The economic disparity that is created when the school system is denies dyslexic students their basic right to read is relieved by the PAC who can make sure that families who could not otherwise afford to do so, can purchase Lexia.
When we work with the PAC, we are all careful to focus on the problem (Ben needs to learn to read) and the solution (we need to get him access to a proven reading remediation program right away). There is no time to waste with finger pointing. The blame game just sends everyone running to their corners and stops us from solving problems. We happily partner with anyone or any group who wants to improve literacy outcomes for kids. This attitude helps us make positive change happen. For example, we partnered with one school in our area and put in place a system where every student who needs it, regardless of their designation, gets access to a proven reading remediation program and trained tutor. All of the SEAs at that school took the training and so did some of the parent helpers. This is very exciting because the school is already showing improved literacy rates. I know that I can't change the world, but through my work with the literacy team, I can change the whole world for those children in my area who are suffering from reading failure.
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. http://udlguidelines.cast.org
Right to Read: public inquiry into human rights issues affecting students with reading disabilities |
Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2021). Ohrc.on.ca. https://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/right-read-
Shaywitz, S. (2003). Overcoming dyslexia. Vintage.