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  • Writer's pictureChelsea DiMarzio

Beyond Dyslexia: Weak Curriculum

Welcome to the final part of our series, Beyond Dyslexia, where we have been exploring various factors that impact a student's reading and academic progress. Today, we confront the dangers posed by poor curriculums that focus on unbalanced literacy approaches such as whole language learning. We will explore the impact these dangerous curriculums have on our students and then explore the evidence that supports why science of reading is vital in literacy education.

Our educational system is incredibly broken. We know that 95% of students are capable of learning to read, yet our national statistics sit at about 35% of students being proficient in reading.

Read that again. We know that 95% of students can become capable readers, yet only 35% meet that benchmark.

Before we fully begin, it's incredibly important to note that districts select curriculums - not teachers. Many teachers are well aware of the shortcomings and very real risks of reading curriculums that do not fully embrace only science of reading. Our teachers love our children and want only what is best, but for many, their hands are tied.

Understanding Unbalanced Literacy Approaches

Unbalanced literacy approaches, including whole language learning and balanced literacy, prioritize holistic reading strategies over systematic phonics instruction. While proponents argue that these approaches promote a love of reading and engagement with texts, critics caution that they may overlook the foundational skills necessary for proficient reading, particularly for struggling learners.

(Something to consider: You'll often hear people joke drill and kill! when describing how phonics is taught, but we never negatively refer to basketball practice or piano practice drills this way...)

Impact on Learning

Research tells us (quite clearly!) that unbalanced literacy approaches are dangerous. They have detrimental effects on students' reading proficiency, especially those with learning differences like dyslexia.

Here's how:

  • Lack of Phonics Emphasis: Unbalanced literacy approaches often downplay the importance of explicit phonics instruction, which is essential for decoding unfamiliar words and developing strong word recognition skills. Without a solid foundation in phonics, students may struggle to decode words accurately and fluently, impeding their overall reading comprehension.

  • Limited Vocabulary Development: While whole language learning encourages students to infer word meanings from context, research indicates that explicit vocabulary instruction is more effective for building robust word knowledge. Without direct instruction in vocabulary development, students may encounter comprehension difficulties when faced with unfamiliar or complex texts.

  • Inadequate Reading Fluency: Whole language approaches may prioritize reading for meaning over reading fluency, resulting in students who struggle to read accurately, smoothly, and with expression. Fluency deficits can hinder comprehension and hinder students' ability to engage with texts at a deeper level.

  • Persistent Reading Difficulties: For students with dyslexia or other learning differences, unbalanced literacy approaches may exacerbate reading difficulties by failing to address underlying phonological processing deficits. Without targeted intervention and support, these students may continue to struggle with reading and experience academic setbacks.

Recognizing the Risks

Identifying the risks associated with unbalanced literacy approaches requires a critical examination of research evidence and best practices in literacy education.

Here are some key findings to consider:

  • A landmark study by the National Reading Panel (2000) concluded that systematic phonics instruction significantly improves reading achievement, especially for students at risk for reading difficulties.

  • Research by Shaywitz et al. (1999) found that explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics can effectively remediate reading difficulties in children with dyslexia.

  • Longitudinal studies by Chall (1983) and Adams (1990) highlighted the importance of phonics instruction in developing proficient reading skills and emphasized the need for explicit, systematic instruction in decoding and word recognition.

The Science of Reading

In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on the "science of reading," which emphasizes evidence-based practices grounded in research on reading development and instruction. (The shockingly frustrating part is that this isn't new! We have known this for years!)

The science of reading draws upon findings from cognitive psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, and educational research to inform effective literacy instruction. Here's what it tells us we need as Key Components of Effective Reading Instruction:

According to the National Reading Panel (2000), effective reading instruction should include the following five components:

  1. Phonemic Awareness: Phonemic awareness involves the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken language. Phonemic awareness is a foundational skill for phonics instruction and decoding words.

  2. Phonics: Phonics instruction teaches students the relationship between letters and sounds and helps them decode words by applying sound-symbol correspondences. Systematic phonics instruction involves teaching phonics concepts in a logical sequence, starting with basic letter-sound correspondences and progressing to more complex patterns.

  3. Fluency: Reading fluency refers to the ability to read text accurately, smoothly, and with expression. Fluent readers can decode words quickly and automatically, allowing them to focus on comprehension and meaning.

  4. Vocabulary: Vocabulary instruction involves teaching students the meanings of words and how to use context clues to infer word meanings. Direct vocabulary instruction helps students expand their word knowledge and comprehension skills.

  5. Comprehension: Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading and involves understanding and interpreting text. Effective comprehension instruction includes strategies for activating prior knowledge, making predictions, monitoring comprehension, and summarizing key ideas.

Finding Evidence-Based Solutions

Addressing the risks associated with unbalanced literacy approaches requires a shift towards evidence-based practices that prioritize systematic phonics instruction and explicit vocabulary development.

Here are some strategies for promoting effective literacy instruction:

  • Implement Structured Literacy Programs: Structured literacy programs, such as Orton-Gillingham, Wilson Reading System, and Multisensory Structured Language Education (MSLE), provide systematic, explicit instruction in phonics, phonemic awareness, and decoding skills. These evidence-based programs are particularly beneficial for students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties.

  • Provide Professional Development: Offer ongoing professional development opportunities for teachers to enhance their knowledge and skills in evidence-based literacy instruction. Training in structured literacy approaches can help teachers effectively support struggling readers and differentiate instruction to meet diverse learning needs.

  • Advocate for Policy Change: Advocate for policies and initiatives that prioritize evidence-based literacy instruction in schools and promote the use of structured literacy programs. Encourage policymakers to allocate resources for teacher training, curriculum development, and research-based interventions to support students with reading difficulties.

  • Foster Collaboration: Foster collaboration among educators, literacy specialists, speech-language pathologists, and other stakeholders to develop comprehensive literacy support plans for students with reading difficulties. By working together, we can provide targeted intervention and support that addresses the unique needs of each learner.

  • Empower Parents: Empower parents with information and resources to advocate for evidence-based literacy instruction for their children. Provide guidance on how to navigate the educational system, access support services, and participate in their child's literacy development.

By prioritizing evidence-based practices in literacy instruction and addressing the risks associated with unbalanced literacy approaches, we can ensure that all students have the opportunity to develop strong reading skills and achieve academic success.

Thank you for joining us on this journey through the complexities of literacy education. We hope that you found this series helpful! As always, don't hesitate to reach out with any questions you may have!

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