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.
Mary Yarus is a CALT, LDT, Vice President of the Adult Literacy program for Neuhaus Education Center, the Past President of the Houston Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, and mother to a highly successful dyslexic daughter.
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.
Mary: A quality dyslexia program should be an Orton-Gillingham/Structured Literacy based curriculum that includes explicit teaching of phonological awareness, letters, sounds, syllable types, decoding, spelling, grammar, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing. It must be systematic and cumulative. It is important to note that even the best program must be delivered by a knowledgeable and skilled person, either in a small group or one-on-one, to be effective. A great program that is not delivered with fidelity (as it was designed to be implemented) may not achieve the desired outcome – a student who can read and comprehend text.
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?
Mary: Relying on the evidence that I saw with my own child working with a CALT (Certified Academic Language Therapist), the students I worked with as a CALT, the adults in our adult literacy program who are working with CALTs, an Orton-Gillingham/Structured Literacy program works. This is particularly evident with the adults who have spent years, sometimes decades, struggling with reading and spelling and are finally able to make sense of the letters on a page when given the appropriate instruction. It is difficult to research the effectiveness of a program because there are so many variables. However, you can look at the evidence of what creates success. What Works Clearing House has good information. There are programs that are not addressed on their website, possibly because there have been no studies conducted. The information on the website does appear to be credible, however.
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 dyslexia therapist?
Mary: My daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia in first grade. My background was not in education, however, I was seeking a new career that had meaning. Becoming a dyslexia therapist was a natural path. As a parent, I wish I had been aware of dyslexia and recognized the signs earlier as my daughter may have experienced less frustration. Other than that, there is nothing I would have done differently.
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?
Mary: This is the most difficult question to answer. If parents have the financial resources, they can find the training, pay for someone to go, go themselves, and/or send their child to a special school/camp. For parents without those resources, there are no easy answers. With the dyslexia law in Texas, parents can advocate for help but there is no guarantee that it will be given or that it is even available. For parents in states that do not have a dyslexia law or a good training center, it is even more difficult. Dyslexia is genetic so parents sometimes are less able to support their child with reading and spelling. Providing emotional support is important - being the parent who believes in your child and never gives up - but it does not help bridge the reading gap.
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.
Mary: Having been that parent, my decision was to become a CALT and to get a Masters in Education. Please note that I did not work with my own child. This is not the path for everyone, but I have seen parents who felt guilty about not doing more. It is important to consider what works for you, your skills and abilities, and what works for your family. However, increasing your knowledge about reading and dyslexia can help you support your child’s struggles. The International Dyslexia Association is a good resource for information. The IDA branches can be a resource for local information and conferences.
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?
Mary: Parents sometimes come to us who have spent thousands of dollars on controversial therapies. While it is sad that they have mostly wasted precious time and money, it is more disturbing to think about the child who continues to struggle, in spite of receiving so much “therapy.” Part of the problem is social media, but part of it is just human nature. We trust the neighbor or the relative who is not an expert in the field. The Dyslexia Handbook, 2018 Update: Procedures Concerning Dyslexia and Related Disorders is a great resource. Even if your child does not attend a public or charter school in Texas, the information is accurate and meaningful.