Category Archives: dyslexia

Backwards Balanced Literacy

Fostering a love of reading in students is a common mission of reading teachers. This legitimate desire undergirds the philosophy of whole language and its progeny, balanced literacy. In both of these approaches, the ideal is confused as the methodology; the actual instruction consists of immersing students in rich literary experiences with the idea that if you expose students to great stories, they’ll naturally fall in love with reading and thereby become readers. The formula of balanced literacy looks something like this:

quality literature + volume = enjoyment of reading = literacy

This is akin to assuming that if you handed me a football and placed me in a stadium all day every day, I’d learn to not only enjoy the sport but understand how to play it.

Here’s reality: reading is not natural. No one is born with a brain wired to automatically develop literacy any more than I was born a football star. It takes a complex restructuring of existing areas in the brain, or “neuronal recycling” as Stanislas Dehaene defines it, to develop print abilities. And, despite what the myriad of Hallmark movies and love ballads might have you believe, passion, alone, is not enough. To develop the neuronal pathways necessary for successful reading, children need systematic, explicit instruction in all areas of language, not the least of which is phonology and phonics.

It’s certainly true that some children do possess an innate love for reading. Let’s think about what type of children they tend to be. As a generalization, students who do not experience challenges with print tend to be the ones who develop an enjoyment of reading. What of the those who do experience challenges with print? Well, they tend not to enjoy reading, just like I, one of the least athletic people in the world, don’t care much for sports.

It seems rather obvious to state, doesn’t it? We don’t tend to love things that are incredibly challenging for us.

However, it’s important to spell that out explicitly because, remember, at the heart of balanced literacy is the idea that you just have to get kids to enjoy books to spark literacy. How do you get them to enjoy books? By reading lots and lots of them. If the ones who enjoy books are the ones equipped with the foundational language components necessary to attain literacy, what happens to those who lack those same foundational components of language?

Balanced literacy’s philosophy and its derivative pedagogy wreaks devastating consequences for these students with underlying language deficits, such as dyslexia (a deficit in the phonological component of language) or developmental language disorder (deficits in the semantic and morpho-syntactic components of language) because it never properly addresses the underlying language needs.

It’s the classic Matthew Effect, in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Those who have strong phonological proficiency go on to develop strong word recognition skills as their brains are wired to engage the orthographic mapping process and glean from statistical learning. Those who have well-developed oral language go on to comprehend text effectively. But those who are lacking? They are robbed.

Every year, these children fall more behind in school and are sent the message that they are deficient in some way. The problem is not the child; the problem is that teachers are not actually teaching. They are enthusiastically and lovingly shoving students into literature circles and guided reading with the assumption that if they just give kids enough exposure, the whole reading thing will eventually click. The fault doesn’t originate with the teacher; they, themselves, have been robbed in their teacher preparation programs where schools of education gladly took their tuition while largely failing to actually equip teachers with the science of reading.

The problem is further exacerbated by mandated standards that send teachers scrambling to teach comprehension as a skill rather than a result. Students instead need to be explicitly taught and trained in phonology, morphology, phonics, syntax, grammar, background knowledge, vocabulary, and prosody. When students have those skills, fluency and comprehension develop because students will have the ability to decode and extract meaning from the text. When they can do that, they are equipped to be able to think about what they are reading, which is ultimately the goal of becoming a literate citizen. This is when love can blossom. It’s through structured language and literacy.

To return to my football analogy, if you give me a well-trained coach who can guide me step-by-step through how to hold a football, the rules of the game, strategy, and specific targeted practice, I may still never totally love the sport, but I may be able to actually play. And that, my friends, is the most important point.

Our goal is for our children to be able to read. Period. We’d like for them to enjoy reading, but that is secondary. As educators, we must get beyond the fluffy, feel-good, romantic notions of reading based on faulty theories long debunked and instead engage in the hard work of becoming brain engineers, experts in how the brain learns how to read.

Balanced literacy has it all backwards.

Let’s transform the equation.  

Structured Literacy: Time-Honored and Cutting-Edge

Blue Moose Literacy was thrilled to be able to attend the International Dyslexia Association’s Annual Conference in Portland, Oregon last week. With phenomenal speakers presenting on such diverse topics such as oral language development, neurodiversity, morphology, reading comprehension, and social justice, we have much food for thought to munch on. Several major themes emerge that we will be exploring in upcoming posts.

Powell’s City of Books, Portland

One motif of the week is perhaps best illustrated by the city of Portland itself, a city that is proud of its unique flare and hodgepodge of old and new, quirky and chic, weird and beautiful. All one needs to do to gain a taste of the culture of Portland is to stroll through the aisles of one of Portland’s most iconic spots, Powell’s City of Books, which claims the title as the world’s largest bookstore. The shelves tell the story. On these, you’ll find gleaming dust jackets of new releases resting comfortably beside wizened and warped used copies, a perfect agglomeration of old and new.  Much like these shelves, the field of structured language and literacy and dyslexia education is an interesting mix of time-honored and cutting-edge.

Our knowledge base descends from a century of researchers and educators laying a foundation for understanding the nature of language-based differences. What a rich heritage we have from our forefathers and mothers, such as Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham, whose humble beginnings paved the way for researchers, psychologists, and educators for years to come! Though our origins are in the past, our understanding is constantly growing and expanding as science simultaneously confirms what we’ve long suspected and refines what we could only then imagine. We know so much more today than we did 50, 20, 10, even just a few years ago because we continue to let science lead us and inform our instruction. Indeed, while much of the world of education seems trapped in archaic models and flawed theories, those on the forefront of structured literacy remain undaunted in their commitment to science informing practice.

Though we have come far, the war continues to rage on. This is a war over the future of our children, the future of our culture, and thus, the future of the world. It’s fought not with weapons, but with words—about words and the fundamental reality of our language and learning. How we define and understand these matters ultimately reflects how we understand our nature as human beings and determines in what direction we grow. Now, more than ever, literacy is essential to not only success but self-discovery, both of which predicate a healthy mix of time-tested wisdom and radical new insights.

Thus, as the IDA conference comes to a close, may our mission and vision never cease to continue onward in our goal to bridge our past and future through achieving literacy for all.

Until all can read…

Dyslexia: Phonological Core Deficit or Multiple Subtypes?

At the heart of the current accepted definition of dyslexia is the phonological deficit, which is considered to be the cause of inaccurate and dysfluent word recognition. An inability to discern the individual phonemes within spoken language leads to great difficulty when it comes time for a child to learn how to read, for phonemic awareness is a necessary precursor to being able to grasp the alphabetic principal. Without solid phonemic awareness and an understanding of the alphabetic principal, children will not be able to effectively or efficiently unlock the code of print, which thus severely impacts a child’s ability to decode, comprehend, spell, and compose.

While the current definition of dyslexia highlights the fundamental deficit in the phonological component of language, some researchers have proposed other potential causes or subtypes of dyslexia.

Many in the field have observed deficits in naming speed within the dyslexic population, prompting much research into understanding the cognitive dynamics of naming speed. From researchers such as Maryanne Wolf, a double-deficit hypothesis has arisen in which phonology is but one possible, albeit primary, deficit underlying dyslexia. Through their studies, naming speed has been shown to be a separate cognitive process from phonology. Additional studies confirmed the existence of distinct subgroups among impaired readers: there were those with phonological deficits, those with naming-speed deficits, and those with both phonological and naming-speed deficits, thus the “double-deficit” subgroup (Wolf, 1999).

Wolf stresses that the double-deficit hypothesis is just a beginning; a multi-dimensional model including both deficits and strengths are needed. Therefore, the three subgroups proposed in the double-deficit hypothesis are only the beginning of a field of study that is intent on identifying and classifying multiple subgroups of dyslexia.

In a different conceptualization based on the simple view of reading (SVR), Tunmer and Greaney identify three subgroups of reading difficulties: one based on phonological deficits (this would be the group defined as dyslexic), another based on reading comprehension difficulties, and the third the mixed reading disability (2010).

The research into subtypes is redefining dyslexia as more than a reading disorder and instead as a combination of cognitive deficits. Pennington proposed that dyslexia must be viewed as the result of a complex combination of cognitive deficits that create an environment ripe for comorbid conditions such as ADHD, speech sound disorder, and autism, and that no single or even double-deficit theory can account for the cause or symptoms of dyslexia (2006).

In a recent study, researchers from the University of Amsterdam sought to identify specific subgroups of dyslexia. Although they were unable to clearly identify distinct subgroups, they isolated five describing factors of dyslexia: spelling, phonological, short-term memory, rhyme/confusion, and whole-word processing/complexity deficits (Tamboer, Vorst, and Oort, 2014), highlighting that there are multiple cognitive processes involved in defining dyslexia that extend beyond mere phonological deficits.  

We’re looking forward to #DyslexiaCon19’s Friday afternoon session, Consensus on the Dyslexia Definition: Then, Now & Next, chaired by Nancy Hennessy. What kind of modifications in the definition of dyslexia will be discussed? What kind of revisions would you propose? Come talk to us about these questions at the Moose Materials booth! 😊  

Pennington, B. (2006). From Single to Multiple Deficit Models of Developmental Disorders. Cognition, 101, 385-413.

Tamboer, P., Vorst, H., and Oort, F. (2014). Five Describing Factors of Dyslexia. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 49 (5), 466-483.

Tunmer, W. and Greaney, K. (2010). Defining Dyslexia. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43(3), 229-243.

Wolf, M. (1999). What Time May Tell: Towards a New Conceptualization of Developmental Dyslexia, Annals of Dyslexia, 49, 3-28.             

The Origin of Dyslexia

As we explored yesterday, the tale of defining dyslexia began in the late 1800s when it was first known as “word blindness” and thought to be a visual processing disorder. However, overtime physicians began to untangle some of the mysteries of this unexpected difficulty with print.

Dr. James Hinshelwood, considered by many to be the father of dyslexia for his research and advocacy for clinical and social awareness of dyslexia, was the first to conclude that the cause of congenital word blindness was due to a local cerebral dysfunction rather than a generalized one (Shayowitz, 2003, p. 20). Across the Atlantic, Dr. Samuel Orton, a neurologist working with children experiencing reading difficulties in Iowa in the 1920’s, deduced that the cause was not a deficit in visual processing but rather a failure to establish hemispherical dominance (Orton, 1929) that resulted in a malfunction of the memory area of the brain rather than in the visual(Orton, 1939).  Therefore, Orton played a pivotal role in defining dyslexia as a neurologically-based problem, not a visual one. Most of Orton’s suppositions, made well before brain imaging made it possible to look inside the brain, proved to be correct decades later (Geschwind, 1982).

It was the work of Norman Geschwind, a Harvard neurologist who began studying the neuroanatomy of dyslexia in the late 1960s, that began to reveal the neurophysiological makeup of the dyslexic brain. Confirming what Orton had suggested decades earlier, Geschwind found hemispherical differences in the language pathways and established that dyslexia resulted from improper fetal development (Shayowitz, 2003).

In 2001, a team of researchers lead by Eraldo Paulesu from the University of Milan conducted brain imaging studies that shed light on the neurobiological origin of dyslexia across native languages and cultures. Universally in each dyslexic—whether of Italian, French, or English background—their left temporal lobe displayed underactivation and disorganization (Dehaene, 2009).

Further brain imagining studies have revealed fascinating characteristics of the neurobiological origins of dyslexia:

  • Weakness in the left occipito-temporal region, known as the “letter box” or word form area of the brain, indicates the difficulty in automatically recognizing all the letters in a word.
  • Underactivation in the left temporal lobe region, such as Paulesu’s studies illuminated, indicates a core deficit in the processing the phonology of speech sounds. Difficulty with phonemic awareness undermines the acquisition of the alphabetic principal so vital to deciphering the written code.
  • While the left temporal lobe shows a reduction of brain activity in dyslexics, the right temporo-parietal region is overactivated, indicating the dyslexia brain is working hard to compensate for the lack of automaticity in accessing the phonology of language.
  • Another overactivated area in the dyslexic brain is Broca’s area, a region in the left inferior frontal cortex for articulation and the planning of musical movements for speech sounds. This also implies that the brain is compensating for its deficit in phonology by striving to use speech production as a bridge to decoding.
  • The structure and connections of the cortex are disorganized, such as differing densities of grey matter in various parts of the cortex.
  • Ectopias, incorrect placement of neurons during pregnancy, result in a “peppered” effect according to Albert Galaburda, in which some regions had too many neurons and other regions had too few. He noted that misplaced neurons tend to cluster around areas of the brain that process speech.
  • Fiber bundles that connect the left temporal region to the rest of the brain are somewhat disconnected.

Clearly, the decades of brain imagining studies prove that dyslexia is a neurobiological difference that impacts, primarily, the areas of the brain that recognize letters and connect those letters to the phonology of the language. Differences in grey matter due to misplaced neurons during fetal development and impaired connections further complicate the process of acquiring literacy.

As we get closer to the 70th Annual #DyslexiaCon19 in Portland, we look forward to hearing from experts in the field of neuroscience to understand what the latest research has revealed about the origin and nature of dyslexia. We hope to see you there! Please stop by the Moose Materials booth to tell us what you learn from the conference series!

Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the Brain. New York: Penguin.

Geschwind, N. (1982). Why Orton Was Right. Annals of Dyslexia, 32, p13-30.

Orton, S. (1929). Sight Reading Method of Teaching Reading, As a Source of Reading Disability. Journal of Educational Psychology, 20, 135-143.

Orton, S. (1939). A Neurological Explanation of the Reading Disability. Educational Record

Shayowitz, S. (2003). Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level. New York: Random House.

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is not a neutral word. To some, the word stigmatizes; to others, it liberates. Why does this seemingly simple word spark such divergent opinions and passions? What exactly is dyslexia?

To explore these questions, Blue Moose Literacy’s inaugural blog series will investigate the origin, characteristics, and complexities of defining dyslexia as we lead up to International Dyslexia Association’s 70th Annual Conference in Portland, Oregon on November 7-10.

Like any good logophile, we’ll begin our look at dyslexia by considering the morphology and etymology of the word dyslexia. Dys- stems from the Greek prefix denoting “bad” or “difficulty,” while lexia comes from the Greek lexis meaning “word” or “reading” (Etymonline). Lexis derives from the Proto-Indo-European root, leg, meaning “to collect” or “to gather words, to pick out words.” Therefore, taken altogether, the term dyslexia literally means a difficulty gathering words.

The term dyslexia originated in 1887 by a German ophthalmologist, Rudolf Berlin, after following six patients with “word blindness,” a term coined nine years earlier by Adolph Kussmaul, a German neurologist. Word blindness, which remained prevalent in medical journals for years to come, was an unfortunate misnomer suggesting that the disorder was a type of visual processing disorder.

Berlin’s coinage, “difficulty with words/reading” proved to be a much more accurate term than word blindness as research has revealed that the unexpected challenges some people experience with printed language is not visual in nature, but neurobiological.

Dyslexia, according to the IDA’s definition adopted in 2002, is:

“a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

Stay tuned for our next post as we continue to explore the fascinating origins of this neurobiological difference.

Please plan to visit us at the Moose Materials booth at IDA’s #DyslexiaCon19 in Portland in one week! We’d love to hear your answer to the question, “What is dyslexia?”