TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Dyslexia and Teacher Prep Dysfunction

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Is it too much to ask that professionals stay abreast of the research? The authors of a recently published study, "The Dyslexia Dilemma," don't think it is and the extended title of the study suggests the reasons why without mincing words: "A History of Ignorance, Complacency and Resistance in Colleges of Education."[1] The study highlights the fact that the Science of Reading instruction is neither studied nor taught in teacher prep programs.

For 20 percent of children, reading is the most complicated, difficult endeavor they will face probably until adulthood. Often these children who struggle to learn to read are labeled "dyslexic." The term has been medicalized into a neurological syndrome across the board. The authors of this study, led by David Hurford, contend that these children are simply not being properly taught. The authors' dissatisfaction with the failure of teacher preparation programs to teach the science of reading to aspiring teachers almost rises to the level of outrage—as well it should.

In spite of decades of research and legislation going back to the 1980s' A Nation at Risk, the 1990's America's Schools Act, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the 2001 National Reading Panel Report, the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, and the Common Core State Standards initiative, reading achievement in the United States remains stagnant. By NAEP measures, reading achievement remains at 1992 levels. Well over 50 percent of children in grades 4, 8, and 12 do not read at a proficient level. Even the attempted "end run" of a couple decades of teaching to the test has not caused the scores to budge.

Failure to learn to read has dire consequences reaching beyond the school years well into adulthood. The psychosocial issues related to dyslexia include low self-esteem, depression, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, incarceration, poverty, social dysfunction, and more. Failure to learn to read proficiently also constitutes a national economic liability. 

Nonetheless, a survey of hundreds of teachers revealed serious gaps in teachers' knowledge of basic scientific findings. It's especially lacking when it comes to their need to understand the structural phonology of language and its relationship to learning to read. Only 20 percent in a sample of over 700 teachers could segment words into speech sounds, for example. The teachers surveyed reported that they had never received formal instruction in phonological processing.

NCTQ has documented this lack of instruction in the reading courses taken by teachers. So too has Kelly Butler from the Barksdale Institute in Mississippi, Milt Joshi from Texas A&M, and several others. Not surprisingly, phonemic awareness is the single most absent topic in reading syllabi. So let's be clear about reading failure and teacher accountability: teachers cannot teach what they themselves have not been taught.

In the same way that teachers cannot teach what they have not been taught, neither can college instructors. The difference is that college instructors have a responsibility to be on the cusp of research. Both the ignorance and culpability are systemic in colleges of education.

In addition to documenting the pervasive weaknesses in reading found in most Ed.D. and Ph.D. programs, Hurford et al point to the persistence of myth in teacher preparation, the most insidious of all being the idea that learning to read is a natural, innate process—the myth that gave rise to the scientifically discredited and abject failure of the "Whole Language" approach to reading instruction. 

Many children who come to school ready to read are labeled dyslexic. The etiology of their dyslexia notwithstanding, they can be taught to read. Hurford et al close with: "Children with dyslexia and reading difficulties are waiting to be taught to read and the knowledge and skills necessary to do so exist. It is essential that the Science of Reading become part of the vocabulary, knowledge base and training within colleges of education." Children who are neurologically dyslexic or just struggling to learn to read will continue to suffer until the benefits of scientific findings gleaned over decades of research with tens of thousands of children and adults make their way into college classrooms.

Bob Marino leads the NCTQ review of reading coursework as part of the Teacher Prep Review and is a former principal in Baltimore City Public Schools.

[1]Hurford D, Hurford J, Head K, Keiper M, Nitcher S, Renner L. (2016) "The Dyslexia Dilemma: A History of Ignorance, Complacency and Resistance in colleges of Education." Journal of Childhood & Developmental Disorders. ISSN 2472-1786 Vol. 2 Num. 3:26 http://www.carrdinc.org/TheDyslexiaDilemma.pdf