Updated: Sep 5, 2022
by Shawna Audet
If you have a class of 30 students then, it is statistically likely that you have 6 dyslexic students in your class. Dyslexia is a brain-based learning difference that puts these kids at risk for reading failure. Learning disabilities relating to dyslexia occur on a spectrum so if your school has an effective reading system in place, then some of these dyslexic students will not experience reading difficulties and will not require extra support. If you are working in a school where an effective reading system is not in place, then some of your students are being denied their basic human right to read. Ineffective school-wide reading systems put dyslexic students at heightened risk for many negative life outcomes such as mental health issues, incarceration, and life-long literacy struggles.
Having a proven intensive, systematic reading intervention available to all students who need it, is a critical piece of an effective school reading system. The intervention must be given by a trained individual. Special education teachers do not have the skills to do this unless they also have reading remediation training. For this reason, the practice of having general special education teachers using a collection of random resources is not an effective practice. The practice of withholding services until a child gets a psych-ed assessment and making the child wait until they are in grade four to get testing is another example of a practice that leads to the denial of our students' basic human right to read. Another ineffective practice is when a school provides accommodations instead of a proven reading intervention to students who are suffering from reading failure. To understand why these practices provide life-long harm to dyslexic children, we need to understand how the brain learns to read.
When all students begin the process of learning to read, they use their upper brain circuit. This circuit is a slow one. It allows a student to sound out each sound in a word. Imagine a kindergarten student sounding out the word c-a-t. You can almost hear the gears in their brains turning as they work out each sound. By the end of grade two, most students have made the switch to using their lower brain circuit. This circuit is much faster than the upper circuit. Using this lower circuit allows a student to instantly recognize the word “cat” without having to work out the sounds one by one. Using the lower circuit gives students the ability to read with the speed that allows them to move up the reading pyramid into a state of reading fluency. Fluency is critical because when we can read with speed, accuracy, and a natural expression, reading stops feeling like work. This is when we can experience the joy of reading.
Students who fail to make the switch to using the lower brain circuit for reading need proper support. Proper support means that they need access to a proven reading remediation program from a trained reading remediation teacher. It is critical that this support is provided early. To understand why the reading intervention needs to be given early (as early as the second half of kindergarten) we need to, once again, look to brain science. Remember that dyslexic students who are suffering from reading failure are stuck using their upper brain circuit. To understand the effect of this, imagine a truck going up and down a muddy road on the same track. The wheels create a rut in the road that becomes deeper and deeper. After a while it is hard to do anything but drive in the rut. Early interventions have a much higher rate of success because the brain circuits have greater malleability in young students. The rut in the road is not as deeply engrained, so it is easier to build the connections so that students can access their lower brain circuit for reading.
Dyslexic students who suffer from reading failure are stuck using their upper brain circuit. To enable them to move to reading fluency, we need to get them to switch to using their lower brain circuit for reading. In essence, we need to rewire the brain for reading. Dr. Sally Shaywitz did M.R.I. scans on non-impaired readers and impaired readers before and after the impaired readers were given access to a proven reading remediation program that was delivered by a properly trained individual. The results showed that after the intervention, the brains of the dyslexic students looked very similar to the non-dyslexic students when they were reading. This study proves that it is possible to rewire the brain for reading (see graphic at the top of this page).
Many students arrive at my door when they are in grade five. After years of being forced to struggle because of being denied access to a proven reading remediation program, many of these students are disillusioned and even angry. As we work together and they begin to learn to read and write, their attitudes shift. They become more positive as they being to heal. All the students with whom I work, no matter their age, can overcome their phonemic awareness, decoding, and encoding challenges. They can all learn to read and write. The great challenge that I face when I have an older student is that I can’t always succeed at rewiring their brain so that they can make the switch to using their lower circuit. When I fail to do that, the student’s chance of reaching fluency is lost. This means that they can become an accurate reader, but they won’t ever have the speed require to allow them to feel the pleasure of reading. It will always feel like work. This lifelong impairment is avoidable if schools have effective reading systems in place. At schools where effective reading systems are in place, it is understood that early interventions using proven programs are critical because dyslexic students are in a race against time.
The qualities of effective school-wide reading systems can be gathered into 5 areas:
1. Curriculum and instruction that use evidence-based practices
2. Early screening of all students
3. Reading interventions that are early, evidence-based, intensive, and systematic
4. Accommodations (which are not used as a substitute for teaching students to read)
5. Professional assessments (which are timely and based on clear, transparent, written criteria that focus on the student’s response to intervention)
In its recent damning report on literacy practices in Ontario schools, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal found that the Ontario board of Education is denying students their basic human right to read through systemic poor practice. Happily, it also provides a clear roadmap to enable schools to create effective school-wide reading systems. The report is quite lengthy so I used the information contained in it to create a checklist that schools can use to quickly assess which qualities of effective reading systems they have in place and which ineffective pieces need to be removed from their system. It is essential that our schools build effective school-wide reading systems so that students are not denied their basic human right to read.
Eden, G.F. Dyslexia and the brain. International Dyslexia Society. Retrieved from https://app.box.com/s/q2cjihwikwncohy3vmv747h04md6eevn
OHRC. (2022). Right to read inquiry report. Right to Read inquiry report | Ontario Human Rights Commission. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/right-to-read-inquiry-report
Sedita, J. (2020, April 8). How the brain learns to read. Keys to Literacy. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://keystoliteracy.com/blog/how-the-brain-learns-to-read/
Simos, P. G., Fletcher, J. M., Bergman, E., Breier, J. I., Foorman, B. R., Castillo, E. M., Davis, R. N., Fitzgerald, M., & Papanicolaou, A. C. (2002, April 23). Dyslexia-specific brain activation profile becomes normal following successful remedial training. Neurology. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://n.neurology.org/content/58/8/1203
Shaywitz, S. E. (2004). Overcoming dyslexia: A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. New York: A.A. Knopf.
Sousa, D. A. (2005). How the brain learns to read. Corwin Press.