Specialist assistance and explicit instruction are crucial to helping students with dyslexia learn to read, Professor Nancy Mather from the University of Arizona asserted during a recent speaking tour of Australia.
Schools should seek the assistance of specialists such as speech language therapists as soon as classroom teachers have concerns about a student having difficulties learning to read, she advised.
“They have a familiarity with these types of problems and will offer initial advice and screening options. Assessment will help determine the nature of the reading problem and where the student is, developmentally, to inform programming for the student.”
If dyslexia (a learning difficulty affecting accurate and fluent word reading and spelling) is identified, Professor Mather says numerous studies explicitly describe what’s needed to assist.
“Students with dyslexia don’t read easily or naturally but they can be taught to read,” she said.
“Dr Sally Shaywitz says it’s not a knowledge gap, it’s an action gap: we know what to do with kids with kids with dyslexia — it’s just not happening in enough places,” she also said.
Professor Mather puts this down to limited funding, lack of time for training, misunderstanding of the need for explicit reading instruction and adequate teaching time in supporting students with dyslexia.
“These kids need intensity of time that can’t be delivered in the general classroom. Ideally they need instruction one-to-one or in a small group, with a reading specialist.”
She said reading specialists have indepth knowledge of language structure, enabling them to give appropriate feedback to students on reading and spelling errors; teach phonological awareness; orthographic patterns (such as spelling patterns) and morphology (prefixes, suffixes and word structure).
“One thing I’ve realised is there will never be enough teachers so you have to use technology,” Professor Mather also said.
“If we can combine technology and teacher training we can lick this problem.”
There are computer programs that can assess the nature of a student’s reading problem and suggest a tailored program.
But here, Professor Mather returns to the point that highly-trained teachers are needed to best implement reading interventions.
“Students with dyslexia need a teacher who is an interventionist and can go beyond a program when it’s not working,” she said.
This confidence comes with deep knowledge.
“Teachers should adjust or enhance set programs to meet each individual’s needs. It’s the teacher, not the program, delivering the intervention,” she said.
What can the classroom teacher do?
Professor Mather said classroom teachers can assist their students by undertaking professional learning regarding language structure.
“Several studies show that teachers over-estimate their knowledge and they don’t realise they need to know more,” she said.
“There’s a lot of reading they can do on their own.”