Reading problems are the most common type of academic underachievement. Especially for students with dyslexia, learning to read and write can be exceedingly difficult. Dyslexia and related reading and language difficulties are the result of neurobiological variations, but they can be treated with effective instruction.
Effective instruction is instruction that is tied to student needs, as determined by diagnostic testing and evaluation. It is instruction delivered by knowledgeable and skilled individuals in a step-by-step fashion that leads to the achievement of desired outcomes or goals by targeting a student’s relative strengths and strengthening his or her relative weaknesses. Effective instruction also requires the ongoing monitoring of student progress to determine the ultimate course and duration of the instruction.
The earlier your child receives effective instruction the better, but people with dyslexia and related disorders can be helped at any age. Even for students with severe and persistent dyslexia who need specialized instruction outside of the regular class, competent intervention from a specialist can lessen the impact of the problem and help the student overcome and manage the most debilitating difficulties (See the International Dyslexia Association’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading)
What Is Effective Instruction?
Effective instruction employs instructional approaches that have been studied and tested by experts in the field of education. These researchers have found that students benefit the most from instructional approaches that are explicit, systematic, cumulative, and multisensory. They integrate the teaching of listening, speaking, reading, spelling, vocabulary, fluency, handwriting, and written expression. These approaches also emphasize the structure of language: phonology, orthography, morphology, syntax, and semantics.
Phonology. Phonology is the study of sound structure of spoken words and is a critical element of Structured Language instruction. Phonological awareness includes rhyming, counting words in spoken sentence, and clapping syllables in spoken words. An important aspect of phonological awareness is phonemic awareness or the ability to segment words into their component sounds, which are called phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a given language that can be recognized as being distinct from other sounds in the language. For example, the word cap has three phonemes (/k/, /ă/, /p/), and the word clasp has five phonemes (/k/, /l/, /ă/, /s/, /p/).
Sound-Symbol Association. Once students have developed the awareness of phonemes of spoken language, they must learn how to map the phonemes to symbols or printed letters. Sound-symbol association must be taught and mastered in two directions: visual to auditory (reading) and auditory to visual (spelling). Additionally, students must master the blending of sounds and letters into words as well as the segmenting of whole words into the individual sounds. The instruction of sound-symbol associations is often referred to as phonics. Although phonics is a component of Structured Literacy, it is embedded within a rich and deep language context.
Syllable Instruction. A syllable is a unit of oral or written language with one vowel sound. Instruction includes teaching of the six basic syllable types in the English language: closed, vowel-consonant-e, open, consonant-le, r-controlled, and vowel pair. Knowledge of syllable types is an important organizing idea. By knowing the syllable type, the reader can better determine the sound of the vowel in the syllable. Syllable division rules heighten the reader’s awareness of where a long, unfamiliar word may be divided for great accuracy in reading the word.
Morphology. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in the language. The Structured Literacy curriculum includes the study of base words, roots, prefixes, and suffixes. The word instructor, for example, is contains the root struct, which means to build, the prefix in, which means in or into, and the suffix or, which means one who. An instructor is one who builds knowledge in his or her students.
Syntax. Syntax is the set of principles that dictate the sequence and function of words in a sentence in order to convey meaning. This includes grammar, sentence variation, and the mechanics of language.
Semantics. Semantics is that aspect of language concerned with meaning. The curriculum (from the beginning) must include instruction in the comprehension of written language.
Effective teaching of oral language, reading, and written expression to students with dyslexia also requires teachers with expert knowledge, skills, and abilities. They must understand how language skills are acquired, how reading skills are developed, and that there are individual differences in how students learn. In addition, these teachers need teaching experiences supervised by experts, often referred to as practicum experiences, to ensure that they learn to use these instructional approaches effectively. Teaching reading really is rocket science (Moats, 1999). So, it’s important to make sure that your child has a teacher who is prepared to do this challenging work.
How Do Educators Develop and Implement Effective Instruction?
Research over the last three decades has provided a vast knowledge base that informs both our ability to identify students at risk and to effectively plan their instruction (Spear-Swerling, 2010). The International Dyslexia Association’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading clearly define the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to competently teach students with dyslexia and related reading and language disorders. The standards are divided into two broad sections: Section I: Knowledge and Practice Standards and Section II: Guidelines Pertaining to Supervised Practice of Teachers of Students with Documented Reading Disabilities or Dyslexia Who Work in School, Clinical, or Private Practice Settings. Section I includes standards for content knowledge and teaching skills needed by all teachers of reading. Section II gives a continuum of competencies needed for application of the content knowledge and practice standards at two levels: Level I expectations for teachers and Level II expectations for specialists.
Instructional approaches and programs may differ in specific techniques and materials, but those found to be most effective include structured, explicit, systematic, cumulative instruction designed to promote understanding, memory, recall, and use of spoken and written language. Effective instruction integrates multiple components that focus on phonological processing skills, phonics and word analysis, spelling, word recognition, oral reading fluency, grammar and syntax, text comprehension, writing, and study skills.