After all the hard work increasing dyslexia awareness and passing laws to improve teacher training (some of the efforts just beginning), one small paper has attracted some attention in the media, attempting to push back against the benefits of Orton-Gillingham/Structured Literacy instruction in public schools.

The paper (Stevens et al., 2021) unfortunately has already begun to echo in the general media (including NPR ). The danger is that may interfere with literacy training efforts that were only just approved or begun, setting back programs that might have been one of the few bright spots facing dyslexic students struggling with decoding.

There are many problems with the study, but a glaring mistake was the authors’ decision to NOT restrict their review to students with dyslexia, but instead to include, “struggling readers performing in the bottom quartile on a standardized reading measure.”


It is very unfortunate that the authors chose to group “participants formally diagnosed with dyslexia” with “struggling readers performing in the bottom quartile on a standardized reading measure.” This approach means that formally diagnosed dyslexic students would be grouped with struggling readers with global intellectual disabilities, severe brain injury, chromosomal impairments, and those with severe language impairment. They stated that their, “findings suggested Orton-Gillingham reading interventions do not statistically significantly improve foundational skill outcomes (i.e., phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, spelling; effect size [ES] = 0.22; p = .40), although the mean ES was positive in favor of Orton-Gillingham-based approaches.” (Note from Fernette: Just imagine what they might have found if they just focused their study on students with dyslexia!)

Unfortunately, the study also uses many phrases that were intended to bolster its importance, like its title “Current State of the Evidence…” or its discussion of excluding certain studies that lacked “rigor” or showed “bias.” However, the worst bias of all in this paper was assuming that the outcome of dyslexic students would be no different from low-IQ struggling readers.

Somewhat shockingly, the second paper cited in the NPR article, that of Hall et al., 2022 commits exactly the same error. In their analyses, they did not identify dyslexic students with specific disability profile, but instead just analyzed the lowest quartile readers in schools. So like the other study, it would like include students with global intellectual disabilities, severe language impairments, brain trauma, and significant genetic disorders. Do these teams believe that dyslexic students’ needs are no different? If so, therein lies a serious problem.

There are many within the public education system who oppose the formal identification of dyslexic students because, at least some argue, there are low-level readers who don’t meet the criteria for dyslexia – but also need support.

They do need support, but not identical support.

It is not an either-or situation re: considering the educational needs of dyslexic and non-dyslexic struggling readers.

Both groups should be supported by education, but it is important to recognize that their needs are different. Dyslexic students have a much higher likelihood of developing average or above-average reading comprehension as the result of structured literacy. Their difficulty is more limited and so their remediation… especially to the point of grade-level reading comprehension is more complete. That is why it is especially important that these students receive appropriate intervention. They will respond and benefits may be seen within months.

From a Cambridge University study,

“In the children with dyslexia, the atypical trajectory in the onset oddity task suggests that phonological development in dyslexia is not simply delayed, but different…. Low IQ poor readers also show well-documented difficulties in phonemic tasks (e.g., phoneme deletion. However, the trajectories analysis used here identifies delayed rather than atypical… Therefore, rather than lying at the core of poor reading in low IQ children, phonological awareness may be reading-level appropriate for this group.”

The paper continues:

“Our low IQ children were very poor on the phonological short-term memory task used here. In comparison, the children with dyslexia showed a parallel developmental course to typically developing children over chronological age, but a function with reading age that merged over time with the typically developing function.”

These differences between average and high-IQ dyslexic children and low IQ poor readers should have obvious implications in the classroom. Students with extremely poor short term memory and below average IQ should have simplified information presented in small chunks. In comparison, dyslexic students should have standard or above-level intellectual content with alternative ways to access information (if needed) as well as remediation for specific difficulties.

Dyslexic students should not be pitted against non-dyslexic ones. The “appropriate education” in federal law means that every student is entitled to have an education that means their unique needs. For dyslexic students that means remediation for weaknesses as well as education for their intellectual strengths.

It’s difficult to know how much impact these flawed articles would have on educational policies, but its mention comes at a time when students with LD need more support than ever (Vanderbilt University).

If your dyslexic student has suffered significant learning loss over the past two years of the pandemic, then you will likely have greater support for specific intervention, accommodation, and tutoring.

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