A Conversation with Lois Letchford
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.
Lois Letchford is the author of Reversed: A Memoir, an educator, and the mother of a highly successful dyslexic son.
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.
Lois: This is an interesting question. What is a QUALITY Dyslexia PROGRAM? Alternatively, I ask another question… What is QUALITY INSTRUCTION for the Dyslexic or learning-disabled child? Are the two— Quality programs or quality Instruction the same? What’s the goal of any reading program?
From my point of view, a dyslexic child or the learning-disabled child is required to have personalized quality instruction provided by a teacher who understands the reading process. This process involves placing the child at the center of teaching, comprehending that children are not “vessels” to be filled, but rather bring knowledge and experience that cannot be ignored.
When defining a QUALITY DYSLEXIA PROGRAM, these are the characteristics I would like to see. MAPS:
M-Mindset. What’s the teacher mindset?
A-Active Learners. Are we creating active, engaged learners?
P-Play. Are students playing with language, words, sounds, and letters?
S-Student Success. Are students successful daily?
Does the teacher believe this child can be taught to read?
Does the teacher believe she/he has the skills and knowledge to teach the child in her care?
2. ACTIVE Learners: The Program “actively engages” the child in the instruction.
Students who we can describe as “active learners,” who are involved and engaged in the reading process, will learn to read. Those who are doing as the teacher asks, repeating responses and making no connections with the teaching will struggle with learning to read.
3. Structured Literacy – What steps are manageable for the student? To me, too many standardized reading programs make jumps which are far too big for students who fall in my care.
What do I mean by “steps” being too big? My “BIBLE” for literacy instruction is Bev Hornsby’s Alpha to Omega. Her book guides readers through the whole process of teaching phonics from beginning to the end. Even this book needed an addition. It was a book by her colleague which was even more important to me. “See it, Hear It, Say it, Do it” by Mary Atkinson taught me the importance of teaching every consonant blend with short vowels. This learning for me was huge. Many of my students are here. The consonant blends are quite challenging for a child with auditory challenges, yet, when learning is presented in a step-by-step approach, my students hear the difference, see the difference and come to understand that letters change the meanings of words: Like pan to plan or sock to STOCK and lock to block.
4. A Program must include effective teaching of sight words. Here the connection between the oral language and the written language is critical. Teaching and identifying “this is the way words work when we speak” with the connection “this is what happens when we write.” This includes explicitly teaching students’ words with multiple meanings, and how pronouns work.
5. Comprehension must be taught alongside teaching students to decode words. Research tells: the disconnect is between the oral language and the written language. When a child sees or reads a word on the page, they must make the appropriate connections.
6. Give students time. My students take longer, need more explicit instruction, and many more repetitions than the average students. Make NO assumptions about student knowledge. When a student appears unable to recall a word or sentence, question why? What is going on? What do I, the teacher, have to change or adapt?
7. The moment a child is learning to read – is the moment the child is reading to learn. Despite all the challenges a child faces with learning to decode, we cannot separate decoding from knowledge. When decoding and knowledge connect learning happens.
8. PLAY & ENGAGEMENT in the learning process: This attribution of my reading program comes directly from Prof Brian Cambourne and his “Conditions of Learning.” Cambourne suggests: Engagements is the most crucial part of the learning process. He suggests that engagement begins once the learner believes that there is a personal investment or purpose for them (i.e., see the value of reading or writing for itself, other than because that is what is required at school.)
9. Student Success is what happens daily.
That’s what I want in a reading program. I believe my students are smart! They have language challenges—not intelligence issues, and I endeavor to each student like the “Rocket Scientists” they can become!
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?
Lois: “Research-based methods” is a term used to describe instructional techniques that have been scientifically proven to be successful.
I find these words which are “placed” on programs to gain attention and sell programs. What’s the validity of them? It is questionable.
The research about the teaching of reading is not in one place, in one journal or one study. I read widely, across a range of academic fields – psychology, educational psychology, education, speech and language, memory, literacy, adolescent and adult literacy, Learning Disabilities Journals, Reading Education, Communication Disorders, Learning Theories, Reading and Writing, to name a few.
My solution: Teachers read widely. Be critical thinkers.
I’ve attached a link found in Education Week – and I believe it answers this question. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/02/20/the-problem-with-literacy-programs.html?fbclid=IwAR1TceGvTfR52941yitwkEwHuraiA1bFTXS2IqsudOsmzxXc57nDCWLeYxc
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 to teacher to dyslexia / science of reading advocate?
Lois: Without repeating anything that is in your book!! That’s tough!
My son was, and is privileged, in both his learning to read and moving from the bottom of the class to the top of the academic tree. Privilege should never be a reason a child learns to read, yet, often once children are thrown into the “learning disabled” basket, it often takes privilege to move on. That’s not right nor— acceptable to me.
In my story, there were twenty-four hours in my life which were critical in turning me into a reading teacher. The first event happened when the school diagnostician called my son “The Worst Child She Had Seen in 20 years of Teaching.” That was followed by the reading teacher sending my son home with sentences to learn the word “saw.” Her sentence: “I saw a cat climb up a tree.” As I watched my son struggle with the reading of this sentence, I recognized the challenge he faced. And as you read this response, ask: What is wrong with that sentence? I’ll give you a clue – it has nothing to do with decoding.
Failure in learning to read is not a “learning disability” it’s a “teaching disability.” Prof Brian Cambourne, (my hero) wrote a paper titled, “Beyond the Deficit Theory.” He explained when children fail to learn to read, teachers “blame” or find fault in the “child.” “Oh,” the teacher says, “look at the test scores. Look at his poor memory. Look at the home background. He/she may never learn to read.” Teachers, unfortunately, fail to recognize the limitation of their teaching and fall into the “trap,” of placing a child into an “unteachable” category, “blaming” the child for their failure, rather than a thorough examination of their teaching methods. This is what could have happened to my son if I had not intervened. My son Nicholas failed to understand how words have many meanings – like the word “saw.” He was cutting the cat in half and was totally confused. Our children don’t have the words to say, “This doesn’t make sense!” Nicholas needed to be taught “this is the way words work. This word has three meanings.” The teaching was poor. It’s a foundational error which Nicholas needed to understand to help him move on with his learning. A child cannot go through school thinking words only have one meaning. Language is dynamic.
The way we teach impacts the way students learn.
Our children have language challenges – and language is the foundation of learning to read.
We cannot change the children who arrive at our door. We CAN control what we teach, how we teach and the words we use. When a child cannot recall letters or sounds, a word or an event, let's check out what is going on… and change it! We can and must do that.
Teaching Nicholas has just been one incredible learning journey for me. Every day my son astonished me. He exceeded way beyond expectations.
I want every child to learn to read without having to leave their neighborhood school.
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?
Lois: I find this a tough question to answer. Most parents are forced to figure it out on their own, and it is a minefield.
My advice: Look for a teacher – not a program.
Work with the school (I know, this can be challenging!). Classroom teachers are a critical component in a child’s success.
Use Spelling lists – ask for lists which show patterns. Why? The brain likes patterns, and once a child begins to recognize the patterns in spelling and language, learning becomes easier.
Tap into a child’s strengths.
Tap into a child’s curiosity.
Build on any strengths your child shows. It’s important that they are not defined by what they cannot do.
Give your child a wide range of experiences. The wider their background knowledge, the more a student has to write and think about. Help them make connections with their visits and learning in school. Read and write about it. Use technology to help record a student’s responses.
Connect the oral and written language. Write down a child’s words, stories or retellings. Illustrate them.
I hesitate to say, “Do your research,” as this is almost impossible unless communities are joined.
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.
Lois: Answering this question is a challenge as it requires both time and/or financial commitments.
Firstly, I’d seek out stories of successful adults who struggled with learning. It is good to realize we are not alone on this journey.
I believe the best learning occurs through masters and PhD. programs at universities. This avenue takes learners directly to research.
Join advocacy groups. Find other parents. Read their literature. Join local and state groups for dyslexia or learning disabilities. Go to seminars offered by these organizations.
There is a lot of information available.
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?
Lois: I must agree with your thoughts. It is frustrating.
There is a whole maze of information out there, some good, some bad and some poor.
What has to be acknowledged in this minefield is the role book companies have played in promoting programs to school as well as vulnerable parents. They do “sales” talk incredibly well and “sell” it as being “research-based” or “evidence-based.” Schools under “accountability” buy programs –
“We are providing for your child by buying this program.”
"Your child is special, and we are offering the best for them.”
Meanwhile, year after year, the child may sit in this “program” with limited success.
This theme will be under the microscope in my next book!
Some programs work for some children – not all children. And when a child does make progress, that is great. The question remains, “What happens when a child fails to progress with what is offered?”
How can that problem be solved?
There is no simple answer. I seriously believe we have to trust teachers and give them appropriate time and resources to teach children to read. Yes, teachers must be better trained in understanding the workings of the reading process. Even then, we cannot guarantee success for all students!
It’s one of the reasons I’ve written my story. I compare Nicholas and his story to Helen Keller. Helen Keller was blind and deaf – and she learned to read and write. It’s the teacher and how Anne Sullivan approached the teaching which counted.
The more teachers become aware of “yes, I can teach this child,” many more children will learn to read.