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Worthy et al. Teacher Educators’ Perspectives on Dyslexia. RTE, Nov. 2018. Posted 01/05/2019.

Worthy, Jo, Catherine Lammert, Stacia L. Long, Cori Salmerón, and Vickie Godfrey. “‘What If We Were Committed to Giving Every Individual the Services and Opportunities They Need?’ Teacher Educators’ Understandings, Perspectives, and Practices Surrounding Dyslexia.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.2 (2018): 125-48. Print.

Jo Worthy, Catherine Lammert, Stacia L. Long, Cori Salmerón, and Vickie Godfrey discuss a study on approaches to dyslexia in teacher education. The authors note that while research has not been able to clearly define dyslexia or agree on an ideal intervention, many states are passing legislation that treats dyslexia as a specific condition with specific treatment protocols (125).

Worthy et al. address the discourse surrounding dyslexia through the Bakhtinian categories of “ideological becoming” and “internally persuasive discourse” as opposed to Bakhtin’s understanding of “authoritative discourse” (AD) (126). “AD” consists of dicta handed down by those claiming expertise; it tends to take over conversations and silence those it does not credential to speak (127). In the authors’ view, AD surrounding dyslexia is based on a medical model in which dyslexia is a narrowly defined “deficit,” which is described in medical terms and which can only be treated by those specifically trained to do so (127). This discourse, the authors state, views educators as inadequately informed and unqualified to deal with students diagnosed with the condition (130).

The authors, in contrast, address the issue through the “field of disability studies in education,” which sees “variation among learners as natural,” as well as “socially constructed” and influenced by “context and social interactions, as well as social, political, and historical systems and discourse” (127). “DisCrit” scholars or those practicing “disability critical race studies” further note the degree to which matters of “race, class, privilege, and power” affect how labels are assigned and addressed (126; 127-28).

Surveying research in dyslexia studies, the authors note that none of the “top 10 most published authors, . . . none were educators” (126). According to Worthy et al., research has failed to find any specific causal or measurable factor that separates students believed to be dyslexic from other students in the reading continuum (128). Brain imaging studies have thus far been inconclusive (129).

Worthy et al. report consensus that “there is no best method for teaching reading” (128), yet many state legislatures have mandated specific treatments like the Orton-Gillingham program (O-G), even though its “multisensory” processes have not been shown to be effective (130). Programs that focus primarily on decoding, the authors state, also show little effect in themselves (130) and should be part of, rather than the core of, “comprehensive, meaning-based reading instruction” (129).

Worthy et al. position themselves as experienced public-school teachers and teacher-educators who began to question the current discourse on dyslexia when it failed to jibe with their own experiences. They began to find similar discomfort with the AD surrounding dyslexia among students and colleagues (130-31). For their study, they recruited 21 women and 4 men from a range of universities in Texas; the participants, who had many levels of experience both as teachers and as teacher-educators, engaged in semi-structured interviews (131). The authors explain their coding process, which yielded three “a priori” categories and three “inductive” categories (132).

“A priori” categories were “definitions and understanding about dyslexia”; “compliance with dyslexia policies”; and “confidence about dyslexia” (132). The researchers found that their interview subjects reflected the conflict between the AD of dyslexia and a more questioning stance that recognized that research did not provide the same degree of certainty as the prevalent AD (133). The participants reported increased official attention to the question of dyslexia and increased oversight of curricula (134). They reported complying with mandates but, in some cases, “present[ing] the state’s information about dyslexia with a broader discussion of struggle and literacy, where they could contextualize and complicate it” (134).

Participant response regarding “confidence about dyslexia” varied, with five of the educators “express[ing] unqualified confidence” in their ability to address the condition. The authors characterize the “remaining educators” as questioning their own experience in light of the dominant discourse (135); these teacher-educators “stopped short” of claiming they were prepared to work with students identified with the condition (135).

“Inductive analysis” of the interviews (136) led to three categories: teacher-educators’ expertise in teaching reading; their responses to AD; and their use of “critical perspectives” (132). Participants shared a belief that teaching reading should be an observation- and assessment-based, individualized process (136-37). In this view, decoding was important but only as part of a curriculum that engaged students in the whole process of reading (136). New teachers, the educators agreed, would benefit from a “more nuanced perspective” that would allow them to recognize their own ability to teach reading across many skills levels (137).

Participants challenged “the vague definition and subjective identification procedures” (137) that most felt led to “overidentification” and to early labeling that called for unnecessary interventions (138). Some felt that the dyslexia label could remove a stigma from reading difficulties; others saw being labeled as conveying a judgment of “something wrong” (138). The teacher-educators questioned the efficacy of programs like the O-G method that foreground “skill work” and interventions that remove students from classrooms to receive instruction characterized by “a lack of alignment” with classroom work (140). The authors note that these views accord with DisCrit analysis that favors “inclusion” rather than “segregation,” which AD seems to advocate (140).

Challenges to the exclusion of educator voices informed participants’ critical perspectives, with one respondent calling the medical community’s adherence to medical models “cult-like” (“Patrice,” qtd. in Worthy et al. 141). Participants noted that the problematic claim that dyslexic readers were highly creative and intelligent has actually made the label desirable for more affluent parents, with dyslexia “the socially acceptable learning disability” (141) that can shield children from “probable consequences of low achievement” (142). According to “Marty,” discrimination in labeling results in the view that “White kids are dyslexic. Black kids are stupid” (qtd. in Worthy et al. 142).

The authors argue that despite being positioned by the current AD as unqualified to teach students with identified reading disabilities, the teacher-educators they surveyed “are more than qualified—by virtue of their preparation and experience—to teach reading to all children” (142). They advocate for the role these educators can play in helping their preservice teaching students negotiate the rigid political landscape they will encounter when they take their knowledge about teaching reading into the schools (143).

Worthy et al. also recommend that proponents of critical perspectives adjust their use of jargon to communicate with wide audiences rather than falling back on a “righteous authority” of their own (144). Their hope is that research and practice in teaching reading can align more comprehensively, drawing on the contributions of classroom educators to complicate what they see as an ineffective, limited approach to the wide range of variation in children’s paths toward reading skill.