It’s Not the Kids — It’s the Curriculum!
(L-R) Robert Carroll & John J. Russell
If you can read this sentence, you aren’t one of the 35 million American adults who are functionally illiterate.
Yes, that’s a staggering number. Our failure to teach children to read touches students from all backgrounds, but people with dyslexia — one of whom, Assemblyman Carroll, is an author of this op-ed — and other language-based learning differences the most. For decades, curriculum gravitated toward a “whole language” approach to teaching reading, which assumes children will learn to read by learning whole words through context and exposure. It assumes that reading, like speaking, is an innate skill, and all educators need to do is expose children to the written manifestation of our spoken language and voila, they will become fluent readers and writers.
But reading isn’t an innate skill. Currently, 60 percent of our eighth graders are not proficient readers and most will never catch up. Educators often defend this abominable performance by saying schools now use a “balanced literacy” approach that sprinkles phonics instruction into the curriculum while still incorporating the more creative, holistic, and engaging aspects of whole language. That does not work.
The good news is that by utilizing evidence-based reading programs validated by research, we can fix this problem with curriculums that begin with phonemic awareness (the ability to distinguish individual sounds that make up a spoken word) and phonics (how those sounds are represented in print), sometimes called an Orton-Gillingham system. Dyslexic students have difficulty differentiating specific sounds of letters or groups of letters in a word, and will not naturally break down the multiple sounds of each word. Thus, with the wrong instruction, written language can seem impossible to decode.
An Orton-Gillingham type approach is effective not just for dyslexic students, but can help all children, especially English language learners.
Dyslexic students account for 20 percent of students and have the same range of intelligence as their peers, but they process language differently and need to be taught accordingly.
Two fixes adopted in a number of states could change the lives of millions of students struggling to learn to read.
First, every school in America should screen students in kindergarten and first grade for dyslexia, as is done in seven states with inexpensive, reliable, research-based test screeners that teachers can quickly complete.
Second, research-based instructional strategies and programs, including explicit, sequential instruction in phonics, should be used in pre-k through third grade to provide a solid reading and writing foundation for dyslexic and non-dyslexic children. Small group intervention with more rigorous Orton-Gillingham techniques also should be provided for students struggling to read or identified as dyslexic.
This is an issue of social justice. If you are well off, you can find the appropriate education for your dyslexic child by hiring outside tutors or in some instances suing your school district for not providing your child the free and appropriate public education that they are entitled to under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
However, if your child is dyslexic and you don’t have the ability to advocate for specific educational interventions or supplement your child’s education, it is likely they will struggle to read their entire life. Not because they are dumb or cannot learn, but because their school did not provide the proper instruction. Our problem isn’t dyslexic children, it is dys-instruction on the part of our schools.
If we change the way we teach reading, we will change the lives and luck of millions of Americans. #
Assemblyman Robert Carroll, D-Brooklyn, represents the 44th Assembly District. Presently John J. Russell is head of school at The Windward School in Manhattan and White Plains, which Carroll attended, and which specializes in teaching children with dyslexia. On July 1, Dr. Russell becomes the Executive Director of The Windward Institute.
This editorial appeared in the March 14 edition of the Times Union.