by Mary Howard
As I write these words, I am headed home from an incredible visit to Fredericton Canada before leaving again in just a few days. I’m filled with such deep appreciation for this beautiful profession and feel so blessed to continue to play an active role as an educator. One of the many things that sustains me in this continued journey is being surrounded by dedicated and joyful educators who are equally devoted to giving the children who depend on us the very best we have to offer.
As someone who is still actively engaged in education, I hold my responsibility to read and study on a daily basis in high esteem; a responsibility I strongly believe that all teachers must hold dear but sadly, do not. I have expressed my concern for the current state of education on many occasions of late. I find that I am often filled with a sense of loss at a time when there are individuals armed only with a biased agenda doing all they can to thwart our efforts to do this beautiful work.
One of the experiences that meant most to me throughout my career was my Reading Recovery training. Quite simply, Reading Recovery changed my life in more ways than I could possibly verbalize, and the words of Marie Clay continue to ring in my ears. For this reason, The Journal of Reading Recovery is one of my favorite reads. I had just received the Spring 2018 edition the day before I left for Canada so this morning as I ate breakfast, I dove right in. As a dedicated professional reader, I rarely eat a meal without a book, article, or computer screen in front of me. Apparently, this habit causes restaurant servers great angst considering how often I am admonished.
I quickly opened to the Journal table of contents and two articles literally reached out to me, since my growing concerns about this topic rarely relinquish its grip. The first article was written by Rachael Gabriel titled “Understanding Dyslexia Laws and Policies” (page 25-34). It is by far the best article I’ve ever read on the subject and it explained many of the things that few districts or policymakers are willing to clarify. Unfortunately, districts and states love to adopt policy with absolutely no clue why we should even be doing it or whether those who are telling us to do those things have the expertise to back up that advice. As a result, this advice is being put into action in ways that are devoid of any understanding other than a passive act of doing the bidding of others without the benefit of knowledge.
Quite frankly, I was hoping this article would make me worry less and I suppose that in a very small way it did, although mainly because someone was at last willing to offer an honest reflection on this issue. Unfortunately, it also made me worry even more as my greatest fears were recognized. I was astonished to know the unethical ways that this law was–and is–being rolled out and how Structured Literacy is using the dyslexia law as an irresponsible platform to sell narrow practices along with the tools, programs, and resources that embrace those practices.
What I found most alarming is twofold. First is the contradiction of our knowledge that no single approach works for all children. Structured Literacy advocates are suggesting that there is a systematic and singular way to support children identified as dyslexic. They make no attempt to acknowledge that even children given the same ‘label’ are likely to differ in substantial ways and thus will also differ in terms of their instructional needs. They are asking us to trust that a one-size-fits-all approach will be adequate to meet the unique needs of children who are anything but one-size-fits-all.
Perhaps even more disconcerting is the suggestion that the number of students who would benefit from these recommendations is substantial. They want us to believe that students with dyslexia number as high as 20% with no research to support this claim. They want us to believe that their narrow prescriptive approach they claim is good for those identified as dyslexic is also good for all children who have not been identified. This unsubstantiated premise has potential to lead us down a scary path where these narrow prescriptive approaches could spread across our entire school populations. The tragic side-effect of these claims is the attempt to knock down anything in their path that does not applaud this terrifying agenda, including highly effective approaches that have a solid record of success such as Reading Recovery. And the outcome of all of this?
“…it fuels a rapidly expanding market for dyslexia-specific assessments, tools, trainings, and techniques.”
The impact of this unfortunate shift has resulted with programs that support their view such as Orton Gillingham and Wilson Phonics. As a result, a growing number of related programs, apps, and computer skill-and-drill are flooding the market as profiteers and market-savvy snake oil salesmen stand ready to cash in. And in the aftermath of these changes, powerful approaches such as Reading Recovery have been first on the dyslexia law chopping block. As you are reading this, the dyslexia law and mounting unsubstantiated claims arising from the law are having a significant impact on Reading Recovery professionals and those who have dedicated their lives to children.
Some of these changes are described in Mary Anne Doyle’s incredible article is the same issue of JRR: “Communicating the Power of Reading Recovery and Literacy Lessons Instruction for Dyslexic Learners: An Ethical Response” (page 35-50). I loved everything about Mary Anne’s post, but I especially connected to her reference to how Marie Clay would respond to these recommendations:
“She would challenge the practice of using a label that suggests all learners’ difficulties are similar and mandates one path to literacy acquisition.”
This makes me wonder why we aren’t all questioning this one-size-fits-all prescriptive mentality. Billie Askew offers us a challenge that we should all accept in her brilliant article in the same issue: “What’s So Important About Theory?” (page 5-13). She reminds us to ask “WHY” questions that are the very heart of the Reading Recovery spirit. As a trained Reading Recovery teacher, we were taught to keep WHY at the center of all we did and always to relate our thinking back to theory rather than our own suppositions as demonstrated by Structured Literacy. These questions keep our sights squarely on the needs of our students and our understandings supported by research: Why are we doing what we are doing? How are our choices impacting children in a positive way? What new choices will we make based on what we observe as we teach?
There are no prescriptive answers because Marie Clay taught us all that how we respond to those questions is dependent upon the individual needs of our children. Our focus on WHY (and how) is based on those unique individual needs of the child in front of us. This is a stark departure from what is now being touted in the name of the dyslexia law and the many misinformed groups rising up at every turn. And the most shocking thing of all is that somehow politicians, districts, states, and schools are putting blind faith in those misconceptions.
As I sit back and reflect on these three posts, one of the things that struck me most was a statement by Billie Askew at the beginning of her article. She was referring to her Reading Recovery training in 1987, not long before my own training in the same district where she got her start in Richardson, Texas.
“We were still using basal readers–lock step–perhaps with little thought to the implications for the learners. Teachers may have felt secure with a program that basically said what to do and when, but we had little information about the ways in which children were learning.”
Fast forward to 2018, more than 30 years later, and we are still celebrating the use of basal readers with a lock step approach and little knowledge or desire to know our children as unique learners.
I’d say that’s a heart-breaking giant step backwards, wouldn’t you?
Any views or claims expressed in The Reading Recovery Connections Blog are those of individual authors, not RRCNA.