One Size Does Not Fit All

More than four dozen literacy experts have signed on to a letter expressing concern over the lack of balance in PBS Newshour’s segment about dyslexia.

Among the signers of the letter are Reading Hall of Fame members, Richard Allington, Pat Cunningham, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Michael Graves, Stephen Krashen, P. David Pearson, Gay Su Pinnell, David Reinking, and Barbara M. Taylor.

The entire letter can be found at Concern_letter_to_PBS.pdf and is listed with all signers.

One objection the signers have with the PBS episode is the assumption that there is only one way to teach reading that works for every child, and that other variables and individual characteristics of students are unimportant. The show also implies that America’s teachers don’t know how to teach reading, once again, misdirecting blame onto teachers for a lack of achievement among students.

There are a wide variety of out of school factors which could result in reading difficulties such as vision problems, lack of literacy experiences in the home, exposure to environmental toxins such as lead, and family trauma.

Dyslexia is defined differently in different places and by different people, so one single method of teaching reading is insufficient to cover all differences. Because of the confusion and differences in defining dyslexia, the American Psychiatric Association has removed dyslexia from it’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual.

The letter goes into detail on these and other issues.

Paula Kerger, PBS, President and CEO
pakerger@pbs.org

Sara Just, Executive Producer, PBS NewsHour
viewermail@newshour.org

Dear Ms. Kerger and Ms. Just,

We, the undersigned, write to express concern about the PBS NewsHour segment on dyslexia, broadcast on April 30. As experienced senior scholars in the field of reading and literacy education, we found this segment to be inconsistent with the NewsHour’s stated aim of balanced and trusted reporting.

Our professional work is devoted to studying literacy and how it can be developed in schools to enrich the lives of all students. So, we well understand and share parents’ and others’ anguish and frustration when children are identified as experiencing reading difficulties. Competent reading and writing are fundamentally important in and out of school, and difficulties can shape children’s concepts of themselves as learners, while affecting virtually every aspect of their everyday experience.

Our concern is that the NewsHour received inadequate and incomplete scientific advice when producing the segment on dyslexia. The result perpetuates inaccuracies, misconceptions, and distortions related to reading, how it is taught, and the complexity of reading difficulties. It suggests erroneously that there is scientific certainty about dyslexia and how it should be addressed instructionally. In fact, the research evidence is equivocal and there is much room for debate about whether dyslexia is an identifiable condition, whether it can be reliably diagnosed, and whether there are instructional approaches that are uniquely effective in ameliorating it…

…We are particularly concerned about the dyslexia segment’s suggestion that a narrowly conceptualized instructional approach is unequivocally effective, not only for individuals categorized as dyslexic, but for all individuals learning to read. Such a suggestion perpetuates a view that there is a single approach guaranteed to transcend the incredible diversity of factors and individual characteristics that might explain why learning to read is easy for many but incredibly difficult for some. It is widely accepted that learning to read English texts entails instructional attention to sound-symbol correspondence and other phonemic aspects of reading. But, the amount and form of that attention, how it is balanced with other aspects of reading and learning to read such as motivation, and how it might deal with the orthographic irregularities of English spelling, cannot be reduced to a single, narrow, unquestioned approach. In particular, we worry that such a narrow view might divert teachers from attending to other scientifically based facets of good literacy pedagogy, such as attention to oral language, knowledge acquisition, motivation and self-efficacy, and sheer exposure to print. Again, such issues, in one form or another, have periodically blossomed into public controversies across decades and are often nurtured among the general public by shallow or misleading media reports such as the NewsHour’s segment.

We are also dismayed that the NewsHour segment implicitly questioned, even if unintentionally, the professionalism of teachers and American schools in regard to teaching reading. It was suggested that teachers were ignorant of or resistant to the scientific certainty of dyslexia and how reading can be effectively taught, not only to those children diagnosed with dyslexia, but to all children. Beyond the absence of such certainty, as we have explained above, the segment unfairly provided no opportunity for a rebuttal from qualified representatives of those groups. They could have pointed to a complementary body of scientific research that supports alternative explanations of reading difficulties and instructional approaches that have been shown to be effective for a wide range of students with reading difficulties. That lack of balance was exacerbated when the segment included emotional comments about how children’s needs were not being met…

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