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Teaching Reading to Dyslexic Kids

“It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”    

— Alice

  Imagine that you’re concerned about color-blind children. Committed to reversing their difficulties, you decide to study what people with top abilities in this realm do when they see colors.  Whom do you select? Artists, of course. Through careful research, you find out that they perform in an amazing fashion on a range of color perception activities. You dutifully make a list of their abilities. Then, empowered with solid research findings, you return to the color-blind children and arrange to “teach” them as many color tasks as possible. You are certain that with sufficient training, their color perception will blossom. 

   Is this Alice in Wonderland scenario believable? It’s so far-fetched that it seems foolish to even ask the question. But wait a moment. Let’s revisit the idea — this time, with a change in the subject.

   Imagine that you’re concerned about dyslexic children. Committed to reversing their difficulties, you decide to study what people with top abilities in this realm do when they see words.  Whom do you select? Skilled readers, of course. Through careful research, you find out that they perform in an amazing fashion on a range of sound (“phonological”) analysis tasks. You dutifully make a list of their abilities. Then, empowered with solid research findings, you return to the dyslexic children and arrange to “teach” them as many sound analysis tasks as possible. You are certain that with sufficient training, their reading will blossom.

   A change in subject, but a fantasy that no one takes seriously has been transformed into the reality of reading instruction for dyslexic children. What has allowed this to happen?

Establishing the patterns
   For a start, individual components in the scenario are reasonable. Just as color perception in artists is something worthy of legitimate study, so, too, is auditory processing in skilled readers. (Those skills involve a range of tasks, such as the ability to rhyme words and the ability to blend isolated sounds to form words). Furthermore, when comparisons are carried out, the evidence is overwhelming that children with dyslexia have inordinate problems in the sound analysis skills that come so easily to effective readers. So far, so good.

   Where the system goes awry is in concluding that the solution for dyslexics is to be found in sound analysis training. Indeed, it is seen not simply as a route to success, but as the route to success.  Nary a question is raised about the wisdom of compelling children to deal exhaustively in their area of greatest weakness.

   Parents know only too well the futility of this approach. They regularly witness the tension, anger and resistance that result. Their hearts break and their hopes sink as they hear their children vent their frustration with pronouncements such as “I HATE reading.”

   The good news is that it does not have to be this way. What we need to do is consider ideas that the current system has consistently overlooked. Some of these ideas become apparent simply by viewing the world of reading through the children’s eyes.
   From their perspective, the situation is one of sheer drudgery. Though designed with the best of intentions, every activity forces them to confront demands that are difficult and even insurmountable. For example, in an activity aimed at fostering sound analysis, they might be told a word such as sand and asked, “If we took off the first sound, what word would we hear?”  This task is considered to be one of the “easier” items since it uses only spoken language and makes no demands for actual reading.

   That, of course, is not how the children see it.  Even when they know that the word “sand” has to be changed to something else, they have no clue as to what that something else is. Not uncommonly, as the lesson continues and tasks like these mount up, the number of times the children are “wrong” equals, and even exceeds, the number of times they are “right”.

   After months of trying, the children reach the (eminently reasonable) conclusion that even their most intense effort yields limited success. So why bother?  The logical answer is to rush through the activities so that at least the pain is shortened, or to execute the activities in a slapdash manner so that at least the effort is minimized. In other words, in fairly short order, their problems in reading are compounded by ineffective but powerful patterns that take firm hold. For a reading system to be successful, it must be designed to recognize, deal with, and overcome these patterns.

   Yet no major instructional system gives any thought to this critical, and ubiquitous, problem. If you want to “see” just how invisible it is, simply open a book on teaching reading and search the index for entries such as “handling error”, “overcoming mistakes”, “dealing with wrong responses”. They are nowhere to be found. The entire focus is on the skills that the children need to learn. The assumption is that once the identified skills are made “available”, the children will acquire them. Observation of any lesson with a dyslexic child should instantly shred that assumption. But somehow that does not happen, leaving instructional systems plagued with a fatal weakness. Progress cannot occur until error is recognized, controlled and overcome.

   To see how an effective system might work, let’s consider how we might handle one of the counterproductive patterns that lead children to continuing errors. Given the way errors have been neglected, it’s not surprising that the pattern has never been identified by a name. But once you start looking, it’s impossible to miss it.  It is what children do when, rather than endure the tedious process of “sounding out”, they look at the first letter and then guess as to what the complete word might be.

   Rarely is the “first letter guessing” strategy taken as a sign of avoidance. Consistent with the Alice in Wonderland approach that governs the teaching, the behavior is interpreted as additional proof that the children need further training in sound analysis.  The remedy? Steep them further in the very skills they were trying to avoid! While under the watchful eye of the adult, the children have little choice other than to try to meet the demand. On their own, however, they feel no such obligation and so the “first letter guessing” strategy can flourish. So in addition to breeding error, the teaching does nothing to develop the child’s ability to read independently. As long as the true nature of this and other similar strategies are neither recognized nor treated, effective reading is doomed.

   To overcome the pattern, the intervention must provide activities that simultaneously:
(i) show, to the child’s satisfaction, the ineffectiveness of using the ineffective strategies that have been put in place;
(ii) foster successful reading skills that the child is willing and able to use that will lead to new, more effective, patterns.

A better way
   To illustrate, let’s imagine that a child is having difficulty with words of more than one syllable. Using the word rocket as an example, we can see some steps the child might be taken through.

1. A card displaying the target word (e.g. rocket) is shown and the child is told what the word is (e.g. “This is rocket”).  The card is then hidden from view

2. The child is shown rows of incomplete words such as.
r _ b _ t _           r _ _ c _ e _           _ r o _  s _          _ _ c k _ t            r _  _ l e r         

 _ o o  _ t              r o _ _  t _            o c _ _  r              _  o _ k _ _         r _  _ k _  e         

   He or she is told, “In each row, one or more of the words can be made into “rocket” if you add the right letters. And each time you fill in a word, say “rocket”. If at any time an error occurs, the child is asked to stop. The card with the target word is brought back into view and the child is asked to correct the error.
   This single activity reflects a number of features that lay the foundation for effective learning. They include:
(i) The demands are minute — the child can easily meet them and they yield repeated success. This is a novel and invaluable experience in the reading life of a dyslexic child.

(ii) The activity addresses “first letter guessing” — the material has been specifically designed to show the child that the first letter cannot be the basis of a correct response.

(iii) The system relies on and develops visual analysis — this modality  has been sorely neglected in the teaching of reading even though it offers major advantages. One of its advantages is the possibility of simultaneous comparison of words. A child can literally “see” why a response is correct or incorrect by simply placing the target word next to any of the other words. Spoken words (that is, words presented in the auditory modality) do not permit anything close to this since two pieces of auditory information can never be simultaneous

(iv) The same word, with tiny variations, is repeated numerous times — including having the child say the word. This feature addresses the naming problems that stalk dyslexic children. This refers to difficulties they experience in coming up with the name for the words they see on a page — even when they recognize the words. (The “tip of the tongue” phenomenon that all of us experience gives a sense of what they endure. Like the child, you know you know the word — it’s on the tip of your tongue — but it stays there and you simply cannot get it out). A major technique for dealing with naming problems is high levels of repetition and the activity has been designed to offer children this feature.

   The advantages we have been discussing accrue from just one carefully designed activity. It’s not hard to envision the extensive changes that result when a host of activities is offered which share these principles. The reading experience of dyslexic children is transformed. In place of endless failure, there is steady success. It’s not the fantasy world of Alice in Wonderland, but it is a dream come true.

DR. MARION BLANK, Ph.D. is the director of the A Light on Literacy program at Columbia University.  Dr. Blank has spent over 40 years studying how children learn to read.  She has lectured extensively around the world, served as a consultant to government bureaus abroad, authored the widely used Preschool Language Assessment Instrument (PLAI), developed an award-winning computer program that teaches reading, and written over 60 articles and six books on language and literacy. Her alternative method is outlined in her latest book, “The Reading Remedy”; and in her new reading system, ‘Phonics Plus Five’. More information is available at


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