A Conversation with Faith Borkowsky
At The Dyslexia Initiative we are dedicated to literacy, dyslexia and education. Our social media presence is dedicated to informing and empowering parents as they take up the mantle of #ParentAdvocate for their dyslexic children, but to also shed light on the growing literacy crisis in this country. Through “The Conversation Series,” we hope to bring various perspectives to the front for knowledge share and discussion.
Faith Borkowsky is the Founder of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching with over thirty years of experience as a classroom teacher, reading/learning specialist, regional literacy coach, administrator, and tutor. She is the author of Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention. Ms. Borkowsky is Orton-Gillingham trained and is a Wilson Certified Dyslexia Practitioner listed on the International Dyslexia Association’s Provider Directory. She provides professional development for teachers and school districts, as well as parent workshops, presentations, and private consultations.
1. From your point of view, please define what a quality dyslexia program actually is and what it will achieve. Please be as specific as possible.
Faith: I don’t believe there is a quality dyslexia program that exists separate and apart from quality structured reading programs incorporating systematic phonics. My position has always been, and continues to be, to promote the best instruction for all. The International Dyslexia Association’s definition of what this might look like includes the necessary components of a Structured Literacy approach: phonology, sound/symbol association, syllables, morphology, syntax, and semantics. Not every Structured Literacy program will include all elements, and some programs are more efficient than others. Orton-Gillingham based programs can be effective for all children, but they are not always efficient. Moreover, it is important to recognize that evidence-based programs are a good beginning, but they do not guarantee successful outcomes. Much depends on implementation, and, certainly, the knowledge and flexibility of the teacher to move instruction along without destroying a program’s effectiveness is of paramount importance. As stated in the IDA description, explicit, systematic, cumulative, and diagnostic teaching are common features of strong programs, which will help all children, dyslexic or otherwise.
2. Within the variety of programs out there, we see “evidence-based” and “research-based” as terms thrown around quite freely. The premise is that “evidence-based” is superior to “research-based.” According to Sally Shaywitz, What Works Clearing House is the leading authority on identifying what is an “evidence-based” program. Commentary has been made within the community that this is actually false and that What Works Clearinghouse is a sham. Additional commentary exists that “evidence-based” proof of success for any program does not actually exist and therefore all programs are in fact “research-based” and nothing else, so in essence to achieve an evidence-based classification is not in fact possible. What are your thoughts on this subject?
Faith: The term “evidence-based” should only be used where objective procedures are utilized to obtain valid and reliable information. All scientific studies should be peer-reviewed, which means a panel of experts must have looked at the methodology and research design. These studies should be published in peer-reviewed journals, and there should be standard guidelines for interpreting the data. Anyone can say a program is research-based and manipulate data to make it seem like a program has been rigorously and thoroughly reviewed. It is especially important to know who is doing the research and ensure that the research was not paid for by the program’s authors. What Works Clearinghouse has been under attack for including studies that call into question the integrity of the results. For instance, Fountas and Pinnell have funded their own research into their Benchmark Assessment System, and Pinnell was actually one of the researchers involved in studies promoting the efficacy of the Guided Reading scheme. Reading Recovery similarly has been under fire for tampering with the experimental design. It is extremely disheartening to think that program choices for many school districts are made in reliance upon websites such as What Works Clearinghouse.
3. Regarding your personal story, without repeating anything that may exist within the text of a book you may have published, can you briefly describe the catalyst / inspiration that started you on the literacy / dyslexia journey, and, hindsight being what it is, is there anything you would have done differently in your transformation from parent / teacher to dyslexia / science of reading advocate?
Faith: I started teaching in 1986, a time when Whole Language was at the helm of reading instruction. In all my coursework, there was no mention of Orton-Gillingham or phonics. I taught for many years without having known about systematic, structured literacy, and I tried to get answers by obtaining a master’s degree in Reading. The degree helped with some aspects of reading instruction, but certainly did not provide me with the advanced training I had hoped it would. Every university master’s program offered the same philosophy, so it would not have mattered if I attended a different school. I didn’t have a computer then, and nobody had easy access to information like today. I found what I was looking for by chance on one of my regular visits to a local bookstore, Book Revue, and the book, Why Our Children Can't Read and What We Can Do About It: A Scientific Revolution in Reading, flew off the shelf while I was perusing the Education and Parenting sections. This book changed my life, and I have never turned back. I don’t think I could have done anything differently based on the limited information out there in the 80s. I am baffled, quite honestly, by how the same problems exist today. Surely it is easy enough to search the innumerable studies that prove explicit, systematic phonics is superior instructionally and necessary for dyslexic children.
4. I am in a special position because I have the Neuhaus Education Center nearby and that center has played a key role in providing the supports my child needs. Not every city has these types of centers though, be they Neuhaus, Scottish-Rite or any other centers in other states I will not have heard of. Given the dyslexia desert that exists within our country, most parents are forced to figure out on their own how they will support their child. What advice would you give to a parent who is just starting out, trying to find support and / or tutors for their child, or even how to teach their child themselves?
Faith: I will shamelessly plug my book, Failing Students or Failing Schools: A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, since it was written for the sole purpose of making the public aware of the type of reading instruction that should be used in our schools yet is so hard to find. Parents consistently tell me, “If I only would have known, I would have done more early on to ensure my child was truly learning to read.” I wanted to inform parents of what goes on “behind school walls.” For both prevention and intervention, the same sound advice is presented along with suggestions for choosing a reading tutor. If parents want to take on this role, I encourage them to do so. Many parents feel that they are not in the position to help their own child or don’t trust themselves to do it. Ironically, many parents do a better job than the education system at large. It just shows that a desire to learn and commitment to children are stronger factors than what the education establishment will lead us to believe.
5. For a parent starting out, inspired by their child’s struggle and therefore seeking to increase their education on dyslexia and science based reading instruction in general, i.e. either through classes in methodologies, more degrees, certifications, etc., what path would you recommend to them? Please note you may define multiple paths depending on the various goals presented within the question.
Faith: It really depends on the parents’ goals. If they want to obtain certification to teach other children besides their own, then their needs are different from just wanting to help their own children to read. On the other hand, parents can teach their children to read with systematic phonics and decodable text without earning a degree. If they understand the components of the reading process, they will know how to evaluate what works. We are led to believe that only teachers are privy to this information and parents should be left out of the equation. My clients actually learn right along with their children when they sit in on tutoring sessions and observe how I work. I would venture that my most committed parents would do a better job teaching reading than many professionals in the schools. I also do consultations with parents and offer guidance to those who would like to get started themselves. This is a cost-effective way of getting the best of both worlds.
6. One of the things I find the most frustrating about the dyslexia community is the plethora of information available, yet most of it is extremely poor. But, what I find highly entertaining is that for the vast majority of information on dyslexia that is genuine, helpful and educational, it is difficult to find your way to it and / or through the miasma of poor information to the quality, value add information that so many parents need. The quality, truly educational material is like the Holy Grail, in that it appears elusive and protected by a few in hopes of not disseminating it to the many. Is this an observation you share? Is this a frustration that you share? In what way do you think this problem can be solved? Is social media hurting or helping?
Faith: I strongly support the mission of all dyslexia groups, and I admire how they have brought awareness to the public. They have done a fabulous job of getting some important changes made through their grassroots efforts. As I have said before, I think that there are lots of children suffering in our schools today with reading difficulties because of poor instruction and inadequate intervention services. The dyslexia diagnosis helps a select group of children who happen to have parents who are better able to fight a system, yet there are many more children who might fit the same criteria but just are unlucky because of low socioeconomic status or other disadvantages. When over 60% of American children are not meeting grade level proficiency, it is a curriculum disability that goes beyond dyslexia. As a society, we need to take ownership of the problem and ensure help for everyone, not only those children born into educated, middle class and affluent families. When parents must pay thousands of dollars to get a neuropsychologist to give a dyslexia diagnosis in order to obtain school services, there is something wrong. Why is this necessary? Why are we fighting for OG-based interventions instead of evidence-based instruction for all? Evidence-based reading instruction would significantly reduce the need for expensive interventions and bring the number of dyslexia diagnoses down to the single digits. I wish I could see more advocacy focused on bringing about change for everyone.