Through research conducted by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), evidence shows that although the typical classroom is made up of 20 percent of students with language disabilities (the most common of which is dyslexia), many teachers lack the ability to identify dyslexia and the tools needed to meet the requirements of these learners. In 2010, the IDA created and issued standards to ensure high measures were put in place to guide the preparation and certification of general, remedial, and special education teachers.
Currently, new legislation is being implemented across the country that requires districts to provide research-based instruction in the general education setting to better meet the needs of students with language-based learning disabilities. By taking an in-depth look at the new laws, understanding the IDA standards and the results driven from the longitudinal study from the National Reading Panel, we can now identify what quality literacy programming should look like to serve students with identified and unidentified dyslexia and other language processing disabilities.
Before we dive into what the best approach is, it is important to understand when this instruction should start and with whom. Research shows that the majority of students with language processing disabilities don’t get identified until they are out of their primary years. If these students do not receive first-time quality instruction in their younger years, a window of opportunity closes because once students reach third grade, the standards of instruction are not geared toward teaching students how to read but rather teaching students to learn content from reading. It is essential we intervene early with struggling students in what research shows is the right way.
All teachers need to know what to do when students show signs of struggling with reading, and teachers need to have the tools to implement instruction that reduces reading failure. By giving all students a solid foundation, we can begin to shrink the number of students in tier two and tier three interventions and help students from ever having to enter special education, saving thousands of dollars for school districts, setting children on an academic trajectory for success, and assisting children in building confidence and self-efficacy.
So what has been proven to be the most effective method to teach beginning and struggling readers? The focus for reading instruction needs to be on the structure and foundation of our language—sounds (phonemes) and letters (graphemes). Students need to be taught how to break down the language into digestible parts and then reconstruct those parts to the whole to form meaning.
According to research, these principles should be taught using the following four components of effective instruction: explicit, systematic, sequential, and multisensory.
Components of Effective Instruction
By having these four factors in place, students connect information in the brain by employing all sensory input and motor output involved in learning—visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic. This means that students work toward connecting phonemes/sounds to letters and letter patterns by saying sounds for letters they see and writing letters for sounds they hear, thus connecting the phonological and orthographic processors in the language processing system of the brain.
Kinesthetic Learning Pathways
Auditory Learning Pathways
Tactile Learning Pathways
Visual Learning Pathways
For quality instruction during this process, students need to be engaged with the meaning of the words through context and additional vocabulary instruction as needed. Otherwise, individuals will fail to recognize words as meaningful entities, and the instruction will lack purpose and significance. Instruction should aim to educate all of the processing systems (the phonological processor, the orthographic processor, and the meaning processor) and enable them to work together.
Research shows that it is more effective to give our most vulnerable learners teacher-led explicit instruction rather than use an approach that is based in exploratory pedagogy or that focuses solely on complex concepts (i.e., focusing solely on comprehension and using syntax to think about what would make sense when choosing an unknown word in reading). Furthermore, students who struggle need to work with concrete ideas to lessen the chances of missed interpretation.
For example, students learning Reading Horizons Phonetic Skill 5 will learn and verbalize that when certain vowels are adjacent, such as in the word train, the second vowel is silent, and the first vowel is long. Many students learn this rule in elementary with the phrase, “When two vowels go walking, the first vowel does the talking.” This rhyme is easy to remember, but the meaning is lost on many learners and leaves them asking, “What does the second vowel do?” “Is the first vowel long or short?” or even “Who is walking where?!”
Handwriting is part of the multisensory approach. Quality programs are intentional about how they help students map the sounds (phonemes) with the letter or letters (graphemes) through instruction and practice by employing both the phonological and orthographic processors. Mapping the graphemes to the phonemes moves students from phoneme awareness to phonics. Students should be saying the letter sound as they are kinesthetically practicing letter formation. By mapping the phoneme and grapheme with the letter formation, students gain muscle memory and quick recall association for all three components of the letter.
Another way the language processors are connected within the four-part processing system is through the use of a marking system, which draws attention to the patterns within words that determine pronunciation. Identifying these pertinent visual cues helps to establish neurological pathways specific to reading. Recognizing patterns through consistent practice and repetition develops automaticity—the ability to decode and read words with little effort—which frees up the cognitive processes to focus on comprehension.
For example, in Reading Horizons instruction, students learn to identify Blends, which are two or three consonants working together but that keep their own sounds. Blends must be able to start a word, although they can appear at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Once the definition of Blends is introduced and shown in a certain letter group (there are L-Blends, R-Blends, S-Blends), students will learn to arc underneath the Blend to group the letters as a unit.
Moving from the simple to the complex, this marking becomes imperative when later learning where to break up a multisyllabic word. If the students can identify the Blend and know that it works in a unit, they will know they should never split a Blend in syllabication; this explains why we pronounce the word program as pro-gram and not prog-ram. The kinesthetic movements of marking along with the visual mark it leaves gives all learners a concrete way to break words down from whole to part and build words from part to whole.
Reading Horizons utilizes the power of multisensory instruction and also empowers students to get up on their feet during the process of dictation. This has all the benefits described above, plus it raises student engagement through movement and increased oxygen to the brain, which boosts productivity. Using kinesthetic cues to aid in identifying and producing vowel sounds is another way large muscles are tied into reading instruction, benefiting all learners.
By looking at data provided by the IDA and the National Reading Panel, we can say with certainty that explicit, sequential, and systematic phonics instruction is vital to all early readers and those with learning processing disorders such as dyslexia. It is important that these methods be utilized in the ways they were proven to be effective to get children on the best academic trajectory.