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Dyslexia and the education environment

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By Gordon Sherman, Ph.D.

Educational Environments

So, how do we modify the educational setting to prevent a distinct difference from becoming a profound disability? How do we design educational environments to reduce struggles, capitalize on strengths, and maximize success for people with dyslexia - enabling them to contribute their abilities and talents?

You might be surprised to learn we already have answers to these questions and the answers benefit all learners.

While there is no cure for dyslexia (efforts to cure it may be misguided anyway), effective approaches for teaching reading and writing skills to children with dyslexia do exist. These research-based approaches incorporate several critical components. They deliver a structured-language curriculum in a sequential, systematic, and cumulative way - offsetting language, sensory, memory, and motor/attention processing differences. More specifically, these approaches provide explicit instruction in phoneme awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension skills. All of these are fundamental to becoming a proficient reader.

Indeed, reading research tells us effective early literacy instruction for all children includes these elements. All children benefit from well-informed instruction in phonics, comprehension strategies, language development, and writing skills, as well as from exposure to rich fiction and nonfiction literature.

This is not to say an eclectic mix of code-based and meaning-based teaching equals effective reading instruction. Unfortunately, in classrooms across the country, "balanced reading instruction" has been interpreted as a dash of this and a dollop of that, or as equal focus on phonics and whole language. Since many teachers have more experience with whole language and less expertise in structured language, the resulting hybrid usually skews toward whole language (which minimizes structured-language teaching in order to preserve focus on meaning). More often than not, the eclectic mix does not meet the standard of the research-based, systematic, structured-language teaching recommended for all students, particularly for beginning readers.

All brains can suffer disabling consequences from poor instruction. However, those that depend most on effective teaching are penalized most severely. Students with learning difficulties and others at risk for failure or underachievement pay the highest price for poor teaching. Effective instruction in general education classrooms in early grades is vital for children with dyslexia because most do not receive special education services until after second grade, after they have failed to learn to read. The good news is we can prevent this failure for many.

Clearly, circulating the scientific evidence about what constitutes good instruction is not enough to guarantee children will receive it. The need to understand the dynamics of school change is becoming obvious as educators and policy makers attempt to implement research-based knowledge about effective instructional practices. So, too, is the critical need to impart the essential competencies to teachers through preservice and inservice teacher preparation programs. Teacher attitudes and knowledge, including how the English language is constructed, are fundamental to implementing effective instruction.

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