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Flawed Solution to Dyslexia Impacts NCLB Approved Curricula
The MRI is being promoted as the newest tool in combating dyslexia. In the July 28 issue of Time magazine, “The New Science of Dyslexia” claims to finally provide evidence that teaching discrete elements of text will help dyslexics read. The science is flawed, and the article is misleading as it contradicts itself over and over.

The science is flawed because technology is not as effective as researchers like Sally Shaywitz would have us believe. What readers need to know is that the MRI can only be used to examine very small isolated bits of text and that there is a 20-second delay between the time the stimulus is given and the blood actually flows to a measurable part of the brain. Researchers give subjects a list of pseudo-words to read and then compare that to a list of real words to see if there is a difference in what the brain is doing.

Imagine trying to read “phlat” in the first case and then “flat” in the second case. It isn’t clear to those who study neurology what exactly the person is thinking or even focusing on during these experiments, and the 20-second delay makes it even more questionable. How do we know that something other than the text may not be affecting the blood flow? Stress of trying to figure out a non-word, for example, could play a larger part in this than the researchers would have us believe.

The research is misleading because the only “reading” that the subject does is with isolated words. It ignores the fact that all readers depend on the context of print to assist them in decoding words. Without this readers are unfairly compromised. Tests that claim to measure “reading” without context ignore the fact that continuous text with sentences, phrases, and, for young readers, illustrations, help the reader to make sense out of the words on the page and allow him or her to use a variety of strategies. The research in question only looks at the use of phonemic awareness. It concludes that dyslexics need more of this.

However, the Time article points out over and over that dyslexic readers need more than isolated bits of text. Dyslexics, the article claims, are better at problem-solving than using “tunnel-visioned, step-by-step sequential” thinking. Why does it then insist that these students use their weakest areas of perception instead of their strongest? When whole meaningful pieces of text are available to readers they can apply their problem-solving skills by using a variety of strategies that include making sense of the text, making it sound like language, making it sound right (pronunciation).

The outcome of research like this one cited in Time is used to promote reading programs like the ones being touted by No Child Left Behind legislation. Programs that rely on the systemized teaching of phonics like Open Court and the Wilson Language System are based on the premise that being able to pronounce words is more important than being able to make sense out of text. There is an assumption that children must analyze words before they can construct meaning. This just isn’t so. Many children simply can’t rely on the pronunciation strategy alone. When text is meaningful it’s easier to read.

There is no new evidence to support the notion that dyslexics or any other readers are better off with programs that limit their reading strategies. Supporters of No Child Left Behind don’t want to admit this. They don’t want to admit that there is research supporting holistic approaches to the teaching of reading that needs to be examined. They limit their view to studies that only support their point of view, and they would have us leaving many children behind because they do not have an open mind to the science of education.

Alis Headlam is a Senior Fellow at the Vermont Society for the Study of Education

— Alis Headlam
Flawed solution to dyslexia
Rutland Herald
August 7, 2003


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