Tag Archives: Science of Reading

The Science of Profits and Propaganda

28 Dec

By Thomas Ultican 12/28/2022

The Orwellian labeled science of reading (SoR) is not based on sound science. It more accurately should be called “How to Use Anecdotes to Sell Reading Products.” In 1997, congress passed legislation calling for a reading study. From Jump Street, the establishment of the National Reading Panel (NRP) was a doomed effort. The panel was given limited time for the study (18 months) which was a massive undertaking conducted by twenty-one unpaid volunteers. The NRP fundamentally did a meta-analysis in five reading domains while ignoring 10 other important reading domains. In other words, they did not review everything and there was no new research. They simply searched for reading studies and averaged the results to give us “the science of reading.”

It has been said that “analysis is to meta-analysis as physics is to meta-physics.”

Setting up the Sale

Nancy Bailey is an expert in special education and early reading instruction. In a recent posting she shared,

“A troubling feature of the Science of Reading (SoR) is the connection between those who believe in the power of phonemes (and more) and those who want to privatize public schools. The old NCLB crowd has been rejuvenated and seems onboard with digital instruction replacing public schools and teachers.

“For example, former gov Jeb Bush has been crusading for the Science of Reading, praising Emily Hanford for her advocacy for the SoR, implying teachers haven’t understood how to teach reading.”

Also in the post by Bailey are links to about 30 companies who sponsored Bush’s reading summit. They are all looking to cash in on the SoR.

Professor Paul Thomas has a deep background in teaching and education research. He spent 20 years in high school English classrooms and another 20 years at Furman University teaching teachers. Thomas recently wrote,

“Those of us in literacy, specifically the field of reading, have been highlighting since 2018 that APM Reports (specifically the work of Emily Hanford) has been misrepresenting both the problems around reading achievement and how to teach reading.

“Hanford and APM Reports are ground zero for the deeply flawed “science of reading” (SoR) movement that now pervades mainstream media.”

Hanford’s status as a reporter at American Public Media (APM) makes her work very damaging. APM is a sister organization to the Public Broad Casting system which has a well earned reputation for being unbiased and accurate.

Hanford is not an expert in education or reading.  In 1994 she earned a BA in English from Amherst College and in 1996 she took a job as a reporter at Chicago’s public media station WBEZ. She has been in the public broadcasting system ever since.

Professor Thomas points out that Hanford’s reporting is biased toward SoR claims that she agrees with and ignores all other evidence. He states,

“As I have pointed out numerous times, there is a singular message to Hanford’s work; she has never covered research that contradicts that singular message.

“For example, not a peep about the major study out of England that found the country’s systematic phonics-first policy to be flawed, suggesting a balanced approach instead.

“And not a peep about schools having success with one of Hanford’s favorite reading programs to demonize.”

Hanford is a glaring symptom of the journalism plague that is infecting public education but hardly the only one. Dana Goldstein continues to write problematic articles for the New York Times. Her writing is also biased towards the privatization agenda as salve for reading education. Her degree from Brown University in European intellectual and cultural history does not make her an expert in education, none-the-less, she regularly gets many inches in the Times to pontificate about it.

Maren Aukerman is an education expert. Professor Aukerman is currently a Werklund Research Professor at the University of Calgary who focuses on literacy education and democratic citizenship. She previously served on the faculty at Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her recently published paper in the Literary Research Association focuses on the work of Goldstein, Hanford and others promoting the SoR movement. Aukerman outlined the fundamental message they’re selling,

“a) science has proved that there is just one way of teaching reading effectively to all kids – using a systematic, highly structured approach to teaching phonics;

“b) most teachers rely instead on an approach called balanced literacy, spurred on by shoddy teacher education programs;

“c) therefore, teachers incorporate very little phonics and encourage kids to guess at words;

“d) balanced literacy and teacher education are thus at fault for large numbers of children not learning to read well.

“The problem is not with recognizing that teaching phonics can play a facilitative role in having children learn to read; that insight is, indeed, important, if not particularly new. The problem is that this narrative distorts the picture to the point that readers are easily left with a highly inaccurate understanding of the so-called ‘science of reading.”’

Aukerman points to four fundamental flaws in their journalism: (1) Lack of Balance in Reporting , (2) Sensationalistic “Straw Man” Arguments, (3) A Myopic Lens Fetishizing Phonics Instruction and (4) Logical Fallacies. She gives examples for each of these claims. For example, a Logical Fallacy is not reporting research that shows students taught to read without systematic phonics “read more fluently.”

Mandating Dyslexia Testing and Structured Literacy

In January 2021, California State Senator Anthony Portantino a New Jersey transplant to the San Fernando Valley introduced SB237 which stipulates dyslexia testing for all students, kindergarten through third grade. The legislation also calls on local school districts to use “structured literacy instruction.” Although the bill was not adopted the concepts are still being actively pursued in Sacramento.

Today, forty states mandate dyslexia screening even though there is no consensus on how to define dyslexia. Some researchers even question its existence. Ball State University and University of Texas researchers have joined the chorus of scientists stating, “There are no universally employed measures or procedures for identifying dyslexia.” Commercially available tests misidentify both those that have a disability and those that don’t. Screening expert Dr. Amanda M. Vanderheyden reported that tools like The Shaywitz Dyslexia Screen have error rates of more than 50%. Vanderheyden also stated, “Readers may be surprised to learn that there is not a direct positive relationship between screening assessments and improved reading outcomes.”

Professor Rachael Gabriel makes this important observation about the screening tool Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), “Just like a 20-minute consult with a doctor is always better than health advice from an online calculator, a one-on-one conference with a teacher or reading specialist will always be better than DIBELS at diagnosing and understanding reading difficulty, ability and progress.”

Politicians in a growing number of states are mandating “structured literacy.” It is a systematic phonics approach to reading instruction based on the 1930s theories of Anna Gillingham and Samuel Orton. The advantage of this approach is that it can be easily packaged into commercial products. Both the Department of Education’s clearing house and the International Literacy Association state that this approach is not supported by research.

The Cynical Use of Dyslexia

In their studies, the research teams from Ball State University and the University of Texas noticed that an intricately linked closed circle of organizations are driving dyslexia discourse. The International Dyslexia Association (IDA), the Academic Language Therapy Association (ALTA), the International Multisensory Language Education Council (IMSLEC) and Decoding Dyslexia (DD) are the major players. The study states,

“… IMSLEC started as an IDA committee, and ALTA certifies dyslexia specialists in the multisensory language approach, which in turn is consistent with IDA’s standards for educator preparation in reading (Knowledge and Practice Standards, n.d.). The IDA began certifying teachers in 2016, in addition to accrediting dyslexia teacher training programs.”

DD has parent chapters in every state in the union and they all employ the same language from IMSLEC and IDA in their lobbying materials and mission statements. DD’s parent chapters are able to drive many people out to legislative hearings to testify on behalf of structured literacy programs and commercial dyslexia testing.

Associate Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Connecticut Rachael Gabriel has been studying parent engagement with reading issues. In her report, she shares several extracts from the oral and written testimonies given at various legislative sessions on special education. The testimonies are often emotionally delivered anecdotes that support the privatization agenda. In this typical statement, a student claims,

“I have dyslexia. Reading and math are really hard for me. I’ve had too many teachers that don’t understand how to teach me. Finally, this year I went to Lindamood Bell training and reading is getting easier.”

In her paper, Professor Gabriel also noted how parents are told that the public school teachers do not know how to teach reading especially to students with dyslexia. They are informed that dyslexia is often associated with other giftedness, a claim with no evidence other than anecdotal undocumented claims about Einstein and other famous people who are said to have been dyslexic. Those testifying regularly call for the five point DD agenda:

  1. “A universal definition and understanding of ‘dyslexia’ in the state education code.
  2. Mandatory teacher training on dyslexia, its warning signs and appropriate intervention strategies.
  3. Mandatory early screening tests for dyslexia.
  4. Mandatory dyslexia remediation programs, which can be accessed by both general and special education populations.
  5. Access to appropriate ‘assistive technologies’ in the public school setting for students with dyslexia.”

Some of what DD is calling for has been standard practice addressed in teacher education programs for decades. Some of it looks like a call to sell technology which often is worse than useless. Unfortunately, the screening tests will misidentify and harm many students. The call for a universal definition of dyslexia by political edict in education code is anti-science and bizarre.

Conclusions

The SoR movement is another example of oligarch spending diminishing professionalism in education. The combination of arrogance and too much money in a few hands is a disaster. The people who were on the NRP were dedicated professionals and the last thing they wanted was to harm reading education yet their report is being used for just that purpose.

It is probably true that many students with issues learning to read are not being well served, but turning to products from private companies to save the day is a mistake. School districts in most of the nation are starved for cash and administrators look for any way to cut spending. This is the root of the poor service for struggling students.

The answer is to drive more money into early education and insure that teachers are provided with extensive training in reading education. It should be the purview of these trained professionals to screen their students one-on-one for learning problems. Once those evaluations are made, the school staff should be charged with deciding on the appropriate response.

Stop the incessant neoliberal agenda of monetizing everything.

Shady Dyslexia Agenda Accelerating

28 Oct

By Thomas Ultican 10/28/2021

An intricately connected network of organizations is controlling dyslexia discourse in the US and taking over dyslexia screening and remediation. Thirty-nine states now have adopted dyslexia laws. Most of these laws contain the International Dyslexia association’s (IDA) remediation recommendation of being “multisensory, systematic, and structured.” Researchers Jo Worthy et al state, “This approach is not well supported by research, but it is officially sanctioned through legislation in many states and has had a profound effect on policy and practice.”

IDA, the Academic Language Therapy Association (ALTA), and the International Multisensory Language Education Council (IMSLEC) are three big players. IMSLEC started as an IDA committee, and ALTA certifies dyslexia specialists in the multisensory language approach, which is consistent with IDA’s Knowledge and Practice standards for educators. IDA began certifying teachers in 2016, in addition to accrediting dyslexia teacher training programs. The websites of these organizations link to each other and to Decoding Dyslexia, a network of parent organizations with chapters in every state. The mission statements and lobbying materials used by all Decoding Dyslexia sites employ language from IMSLEC and IDA.

Using Parents and Students

Rachael Gabriel is Associate Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Connecticut. When large numbers of people showed up at legislative hearings in Connecticut, she became interested in their unusual engagement and strangely similar comments. Gabriel used critical discursive psychology, positioning theory, and narrative policy analysis to analyze the dyslexia law advocacy. She says, “I argue that this narrative can be understood as a conversion narrative, which drives a privatization agenda in which public schools become mandated consumers for a growing dyslexia industry, and in which the nature of instruction for students with reading difficulties is narrowly prescribed.”

Gabriel shares several extracts from the oral and written testimonies given at the legislative session on special education. The first extract is from a student who introduced himself as a 10-year-old who was “here to speak in support of Bill RHB 5562, An Act Concerning Special Education to get dyslexia recognized in the State of Connecticut.”

“I have dyslexia. Reading and math are really hard for me. I’ve had too many teachers that don’t understand how to teach me. Finally, this year I went to Lindamood Bell training and reading is getting easier.”

This is a typical message indicating public school teachers do not know how to teach students with dyslexia but finally he was saved. Interestingly the private company Lindamood Bell’s training credited with making it possible for him to read is not one of several private companies that qualify as IDA certified reading specialists. In fact they report that many of their clients have previously been failed by a certified company. The certified companies all use some version of the 1930’s Orton-Gillingham method whose phonics centered practice IDA calls “structured literacy.”

An important psychological motivator for parents of children struggling with learning to read is the repeated claim that dyslexia is a brain centered condition often associated with giftedness. Statements similar to the following extract from a written comment are common.

“This is a disability worth our investment of time It is the disability of Speilberg [sic], Einstein, and Steve Jobs . . . Honor us and embrace us. We are continually the great minds of every generation. We are the ‘game changers.’”

The idea that dyslexia is associated with other kinds of giftedness is a wives tale. Johnston and Scanlon from the University at Albany wrote in their 2020 research paper,

“Public narratives about dyslexia commonly claim that people classified as dyslexic have an array of special positive attributes such as intelligence or creativity – more so than those not so classified. There is virtually no scientific evidence for these claims.”

Although the parent organization Decoding Dyslexia (DD) does not have a centralized leadership, each of the state organizations shares information from DD and IDA. They uniformly call for:

  1. “A universal definition and understanding of “dyslexia” in the state education code.
  2. Mandatory teacher training on dyslexia, its warning signs and appropriate intervention strategies.
  3. Mandatory early screening tests for dyslexia.
  4. Mandatory dyslexia remediation programs, which can be accessed by both general and special education populations.
  5. Access to appropriate “assistive technologies” in the public school setting for students with dyslexia.”

Parents with babies who struggle with reading are vulnerable to manipulation. The widely distributed message that dyslexia is a sign of high intelligence must be appealing. These parents are informed that their public school teachers do not know how to teach dyslexics. They are assured that private companies certified by IDA can accurately screen for dyslexia and provide the kind of “structured literacy” that saves children from academic disaster. The result is that whenever laws instituting the Decoding Dyslexia agenda are proposed large numbers of parents show up in support.

What is Dyslexia? What are the Myths?

The idea of dyslexia has been around for more than 100-years, but there is still no widely agreed upon definition. That means there is no consensus method for screening for dyslexia. Johnston and Scanlon reported in 2020,

“The bottom line is that there are many definitions of, and theories about, dyslexia and simply no agreed-upon definition that allows schools, clinicians, researchers, or anyone else, to decide who is dyslexic in any valid or reliable way.

From an instructional standpoint, there is no practical distinction between those classified as dyslexic and others at the low end of the normal distribution of word reading ability in the early elementary grades.”

Variations of this statement are quite widely available. A 2020 article in Reading Research Quarterly by J. G. Elliot states,

“I argue in this article that despite a proliferation of scientific findings, our understanding of dyslexia is marked by serious weaknesses of conceptualization, definition, and operationalization that not only are unscientific but also lead to impoverished practice in schools, social inequity in understanding and provision for many struggling readers, and reduced life chances for millions of students worldwide.”

IDA and DD promote mandatory early screening for dyslexia but the commercially available tools they promote are not up to the task. A 2017 article by Vanderheyden et al noted,

“In education, it is not uncommon for error rates to range from 50%–60%, meaning if a school assesses 100 children for whom 20 are “true positives” (i.e., truly have dyslexia), then most of the 20 (approximately 16–18) will be identified, but 50 to 60 students will be identified as false positive errors in the process.”

IDA bases its recommendations for reading remediation on the “science of reading” (SOR). In 2000, the National Reading Panel report claimed that its recommended phonics based word decoding methods were based on science. This kicked off a phenomenon often referred to as the “Reading Wars.” In 2004, David Pearson from UC Berkley’s Graduate School of education commented about the raging war,

“For example, several scholars, in documenting the practices of highly effective, highly regarded teachers, found that these exemplary teachers employed a wide array of practices, some of which appear decidedly whole language in character (e.g., process writing, literature groups, and contextualized skills practice) and some of which appear remarkably skills oriented (explicit phonics lessons, sight word practice, and comprehension strategy instruction). Exemplary teachers appear to find an easier path to balance than either scholars or policy pundits.”

In other words, SOR is definitely not settled science. Which means the IDA’s “structured literacy” is not a consensus driven approach.

In 2016, the International Literacy Association asserted,

“Both  informal  and  professional  discussions  about  dyslexia   often   reflect   emotional,   conceptual,   and   economic   commitments,   and   they   are   often   not   well   informed by research. Our beliefs and practices should be  grounded  by  what  emerges  from  the  available  evidence  (Elliott  &  Grigorenko,  2014;  Vellutino,  1979;  Washburn,  Joshi,  & Binks-Cantrell, 2011)

As  yet,  there  is  no  certifiably  best  method  for  teaching  children  who  experience  reading  difficulty  (Mathes  et  al.,  2005).  For  instance,  research  does  not  support  the  common  belief  that   Orton-Gillingham–based   approaches   are   necessary   for   students classified as dyslexic.”

IDA and the research papers cited here claim that as much as 20% of kindergarten and first grade students have reading issues. However, if their school has a professional intervention approach – that could be any of the interventions discussed here – by the time students reach high school less that 2% still have reading issues. Is it possible that the high number of students with reading difficulties in America is because reading is taught at a developmentally inappropriate age? On international testing Finish students test extremely well in reading and they don’t formally teach reading there until age 7.

Conclusion

The IDA organization has many professionals in reading education and the point here is not that they are wrong about screening and intervention pedagogy. The point is that the agenda they are promoting is far from settled science. They should continue to promote their beliefs but they need to stop using a legal strategy backed by power politics to force schools into becoming mandated consumers.

America’s public schools are staffed with an enormous number of well trained and experienced reading instructors. Denigrating them is not justified and is bad for reading education.

The International Dyslexia Association and Decoding Dyslexia are no longer advocates for students and parents. They have become predators using legal strategies and political power to feed an expanding dyslexia industry.

Dyslexia Industry Scores California Court Victory

4 Aug

By Thomas Ultican 8/4/2021

In a court settlement, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) agreed to implement inappropriate dyslexia remedies. The Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) claimed the district failed to identify students with reading disorders, including dyslexia, and did not provide them adequate services. To end the litigation begun in 2016, district leaders agreed to implement a universal screening program for reading disorders and adopt new reading intervention programs. BUSD also agreed to hire a nationally recognized outside consultants. District representatives disagreed with the charges but said the legal fight was becoming too expensive.

DREDF lawyers paint BUSD as a failing school system that makes no effort to identify students with learning disorders. They point out that only 70% of BUSD students are rated as proficient in reading by third grade. The lawyers cite the California School Dashboard’s 2017 data as evidence. However, the Dashboard which is a color coded evaluation of school performance shows BUSD performing at a high level.

From the 2017 California School Dashboard

Four students labeled A, B, C and D along with their parents or guardians are listed as plaintiffs. The DREDF filing states,

“When Student A started first grade, she was immediately placed in a Leveled Literacy Intervention (‘LLI’), a general reading intervention, since her reading abilities were significantly below her peers.  Student A’s teachers reported that she made some progress in LLI, but she continued to show emotional distress and displayed reading avoidant behaviors at home.”

The following year at age-7, student-A received average composite scores on several standardized tests and was put back in regular reading. Based on these results, the district turned down a special education declaration for the student.  DREDF lawyers claim that the “scores were too discrepant to calculate Student A’s processing speed and working memory …” In other words, they disagreed with the testing used.

Student-B came to BUSD in kindergarten. Within a few weeks, teachers recommended that his parents have a medical evaluation done. Later, his parents tried to home-school him and when that did not work out; they put him in a charter school. He was soon kicked out of the charter school and at age-6 he was back in BUSD. The school gave him a special education designation for ADHD. He was given a one-on-one tutor under the supervision of a special education teacher. DREDF found this inadequate because the tutor was not a trained special education teacher.

Student-B’s behavior deteriorated to the point of being suspended. BUSD placed him in a private school, Catalyst, which specialized in behavioral problems.  Catalyst gave up on student-B. In 2016 student-B was given a new medication for ADHD and his improved behavior allowed him to function in a regular classroom setting. DREDF claimed the district did not do enough.

Student-C was a ninth grader in 2015 when he transferred into BUSD from a private school. An independent evaluator had diagnosed him with dyslexia. BUSD concurred with the diagnosis and made a special education declaration. Student-C was given a 55-minute support class once a day, adaptive technology lessons 5-times a year and a weekly 15-minute meeting with his case manager. The student’s parents felt that he needed more and paid for some sort of private support services.

Student-D also came into ninth grade from a private school. During 3rd grade, the private school evaluated her as having reading difficulties. She was given several accommodations including extra time on tests. Student-D transferred in with all A’s and B’s on her report cards. Because she had such good grades BUSD determined that she did not qualify for special education services. Her grades remained high but she did poorly on the PSAT for which she was given no accommodations. Student-D was eventually given a 504 designation in time for her to take the SAT with accommodations. Her parents also paid for private support services.

Selling the Science of Reading

While it is true that experts estimate between 5 and 20 percent of all students have difficulties learning to read, this lawsuit is just another skirmish in the “science of reading” war. The dyslexia industry has adopted the position that phonics instruction is the only way to address reading difficulties. Further, they dismiss the expertise of school districts and teachers and strongly suggest only private companies have the elite expertise required to provide products that are capable of identifying and solving reading issues.

Professor Jim Horn has written extensively about the “science of reading” conflict and the bias of the National Reading Panel toward Alphabetics (phonemic awareness and phonics). In his 2003 review of Gerald Coles’ book Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies Horn shared,

“Coles concludes that the Panel’s ‘antipathy of anything that veers away from direct instruction model’ (p. 110) led them to the bizarre conclusion that there is not sustainable evidence, i.e, causal findings, to support the notion that children become better readers by reading and discussing books or by having encouragement and time provided to read books.”

In 2020, scholars at the National Education Policy Center addressed the still raging reading debate. They warned against, “Misrepresenting the ‘science of reading’ as settled science that purportedly prescribes systematic intensive phonics for all students.” And they stated that policy makers, “Should support the professionalism of K-12 teachers and teacher educators, and should acknowledge the teacher as the reading expert in the care of unique populations of students.” They also assert that David Pearson’s statement in a 2004 paper still rings true:

“For example, several scholars, in documenting the practices of highly effective, highly regarded teachers, found that these exemplary teachers employed a wide array of practices, some of which appear decidedly whole language in character (e.g., process writing, literature groups, and contextualized skills practice) and some of which appear remarkably skills oriented (explicit phonics lessons, sight word practice, and comprehension strategy instruction). Exemplary teachers appear to find an easier path to balance than either scholars or policy pundits.”

Inappropriate Solutions

The International Dyslexia Association and Decoding Dyslexia have been very successful at tapping into the emotions of parents over the issue of dyslexia. They routinely turn out hundreds of passionate people to legislative hearings trumpeting the dyslexia industry’s message which is to turn the problem over to private companies. In this linked video, Professor Rachael Gabriel discusses her research into how this consistent message has been created and delivered. It is a relatively new phenomenon with a large spate of dyslexia bills appearing in almost every state. 

To end the lawsuit, BUSD has agreed to test all students in kindergarten through 2nd grade with a DIBELS standardized assessment twice a year. The Berkeleyside reports, “For students in need of interventions, the district will implement Wilson Reading Systems or Slingerland, both of which are in line with standards set by the International Dyslexia Association.”

DIBELS, or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, is a set of procedures and measures developed at the University of Oregon for assessing literacy development in students from kindergarten through sixth grade. Many educators and scholars loudly detest DIBELS. David Pearson wrote,

“I have decided to join that group of scholars and teachers and parents who are convinced that DIBELS is the worst thing to happen to the teaching of reading since the development of flash cards.

“I take this extreme position for a single reason—DIBELS shapes instruction in ways that are bad for students (they end up engaging in curricular activities that do not promote their progress as readers) and bad for teachers (it requires them to judge student progress and shape instruction based on criteria that are not consistent with our best knowledge about the nature of reading development).”

There are many more claims like this.

Both Slingerland and Wilson Reading Systems are based on the Orton-Gillingham approach. It was developmed in the 1930s and focused on phonics and sound decoding schemes. The International Literacy Association stated in 2016,

“As  yet,  there  is  no  certifiably  best  method  for  teaching  children  who  experience  reading  difficulty  (Mathes  et  al.,  2005).  For  instance,  research  does  not  support  the  common  belief that Orton-Gillingham–based approaches are necessary for students classified as dyslexic (Ritchey & Goeke, 2007; Turner, 2008;  Vaughn  &  Linan-Thompson,  2003).  Reviews  of  research  focusing  solely  on  decoding  interventions  have  shown  either  small  to  moderate  or  variable  effects  that  rarely  persist  over  time,  and  little  to  no  effects  on  more  global  reading  skills.” 

The US Department of Education established the What Works Clearing House which tried to establish a fair conclusion about education issues based on existing peer reviewed research. The three programs being replaced at BUSD, Read 180, LLI and Reading Recovery were evaluated as having positive results. Even though the Orton-Gillingham method has been around since the 1930’s there was not enough evidence to show a positive effect.

DREDF is not only the law firm that brought this case but they also are one of the organizations who officially supported SB237. This proposed state law mandates changes like those that DREDF was able to achieve in the law suit. Maybe DIBELS is not so bad and maybe the Orton-Gillingham approach is helpful for some students, but making these approaches a legal requirement is not rational. Trust education professionals and public schools over lawyers and private enterprise.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California will hold a hearing for the case Nov. 4 to finalize the settlement.