Parents and dyslexia advocates should beware – there are vocal proponents arguing against the importance of intelligence and / IQ in determining the educational needs of students with dyslexia.

As far as it seems we have come with dyslexia (more states with dyslexia-specific laws, mandatory teacher training), there are areas where the concept of specific learning disability and the definition of dyslexia is  coming under attack.



As surprising as it may seem, Past IDA Vice President Dr. Louisa Moats has argued through questionable selection of data there are “negligible cognitive differences between ‘LD’ and ‘Poor Reader’ ” groups. From her presentation online HERE, she states “Garden variety poor readers” are numerous and very much like those with certified reading disabilities.” The most obvious rationale for taking such a position is to suggest that any proposed school program for poor readers is “good enough” whether students are dyslexic or not – and we know that this idea is patently wrong. It also can return classrooms to the dark days when students like a young Philip Schultz were held back twice in grade school and grouped with those with severe mental handicaps.


Dr. Sally Shaywitz has been very vocal about the importance of distinguishing dyslexic from low IQ poor readers as well as the importance of IQ in anticipating the educational needs of students.

“For highly practical reasons, consideration of IQ is relevant, both in consideration of the RTI process and in the diagnosis of LD. In the RTI process itself, as it proceeds from one tier to another, consider, what is the impact of so-called peer comparison to classmates if a specific child is highly intelligent or even gifted? And particularly, consider the impact if such a child is in a class of “peers” who are functioning at lower cognitive levels. Such a bright student might be functioning below his or her capability but at an absolute level comparable to the class average of his or her less able peers. That struggling reader, of whom we and others have seen very many, would be entirely invisible and overlooked in such an RTI process. In fact, often, the only way such struggling readers are identified is through a complete, comprehensive assessment in which cognitive abilities and psychological processes are evaluated. Within the RTI process, such students now would never be detected, much less referred for a full evaluation of their cognitive and psychological processing abilities. And most critically, such struggling readers would not receive helpful interventions or accommodations “despite the fact that their relative deficit in a particular domain could cause severe psychological distress as well as unexpected underachievement” (Boada, Riddle, & Pennington, 2008, p.185) and could be ameliorated by such interventions and accommodations…It would be no fairer to leave out these bright struggling readers than it would be to leave out their lower functioning classmates.”


In fact, it should not be a surprise that discrepant dyslexic readers (high IQ-low reading) fare better with reading interventions than non-discrepant (low-IQ-low reading) dyslexia.

Poor readers identified in the 1st or 2nd grades were followed over time, those with lowest cognitive abilities (low IQ-low reading) were the least likely to improve their reading scores by time they reached the 9th or 10th grade (open circles right). Those with high IQ-low reading, on the other hand (see red at right) were more likely to have higher reading scores by the time they reached the 9th or 10th grade.

Ferrer et al. also clarify the characteristics of this compensated group:

“…those in the compensated group managed to achieve relatively accurate reading levels and Passage Comprehension scores comparable to those of typical readers by the time they became adolescents; however, they were not fluent readers. In our sample, this was a small and somewhat homogeneous group. Notably, although the initial reading scores for these children were very low, their cognitive ability was not as low. Over time, these individuals developed uniform reading trajectories. In contrast, persistently poor readers failed to become accurate readers and showed substantial variability in their trajectories. In addition to having the lowest reading skill and cognitive ability at first grade, this group exhibited individual differences that became accentuated across grades.”


Every student has the right to receive an education that’s appropriate for her or his level of intelligence. For the dyslexic student, that means receiving appropriate remediation of dyslexia as well as appropriate levels of intellectual challenge and accommodations and or modifications to ensure the accessibility to information as well as accurate demonstration of knowledge.

It is inappropriate for dyslexic students to receive an education designed for low IQ poor readers. Dyslexic students should receive remediation for the dyslexia, but also given full access to the appropriate subject level content whether through audiobooks, text-to-speech, ebooks, or classroom instruction.

In addition to Dyslexic Advantage and the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, the National Association of Gifted Children and Learning Disabilities Association of America have published position papers recognizing the importance of cognitive assessment and neuropsychological processes in both the identification and determination of intervention needs of students with specific learning disabilities like dyslexia.


RTI or Response to Intervention was initially introduced with the idea that students could receive appropriate intervention for challenges like reading before they began to fail. The intentions of RTI are good, but grave mistakes are made by those who propose that RTI could be a substitution to comprehensive neuropsychological assessment in the identification of dyslexia or other SLD.

From the Learning Disabilities Association of America White Paper:

According to experts and literature, problems with an RTI approach for SLD identification include, but are not limited to, the following:

• No consensus on type of RTI to use (i.e., standard protocol or problem-solving);
• No consensus on a measurement model for defining responsiveness in RTI models;
• No agreed upon curricula, instructional methods, or measurement tools with adequate technical quality;
• RTI research has largely focused on word reading at the early elementary grades, with methods across grades and content areas not empirically established;
• No consensus on the definition of empirically-based approaches;
• Single subject design cannot be used because manipulation of more than one independent variable in problem-solving RTI precludes determining causation;
• No empirically-supported literature supporting determination of response or failure to respond, with different groups of children identified as nonresponders by different methods;
• No agreed upon teacher training standards or supervision methods to ensure interventions are carried out with integrity;
• RTI has no mechanism for differential diagnosis of SLD and other disorders;
• RTI is nothing more than a model of “diagnosis by treatment failure”, which has long been proven to be a poor model in medicine; and
• There is no true positive in an RTI model, meaning that all children who fail to respond to quality instruction and intervention are considered SLD by default.


– Intelligence IS an important factor in determine a student’s appropriate educational plan.
– RTI cannot make determinations regarding dyslexia or specific learning disability.
– RTI is not a substitute for a comprehensive assessment of a student’s strengths and weaknesses or neuropsychological profiles.
-RTI can be beneficial in that it encourages teacher training and ongoing assessment to determine whether a particular curriculum is working for a student.
– Parents and teachers should be aware that current RTI plans have been focused on early reading. Much less has been proposed about appropriate assessments and interventions for older students , and basic academic tasks such as writing and math.
– As it stands, there are no agreed upon teacher training or supervision standards. The fact that RTI has been implemented is no guarantee that students’ needs, especially dyslexic students’ needs are being met.
– There is a legitimate concern that RTI can be used to delay students access to timely comprehensive assessment and intervention.

Parents should be aware of their rights as outlined by this Department of Education memo. Please read the entire memo if these issues pertain to your student.

“OSEP has heard that some LEAs may be using RTI to delay or deny a timely initial evaluation to determine if a child is a child with a disability and, therefore, eligible for special education and related services pursuant to an individualized education program….The regulations at 34 CFR §300.301 (b) allow a parent to request an initial evaluation at any time to determine if a child is a child with a disability. The use of RTI strategies cannot be used to
delay or deny the provision of a full and individual evaluation, pursuant to 34 CFR §§300.304…”

Parents may still request a dyslexia assessment for their student even if RTI has been implemented at school. Be informed about your rights!