Despite the new research, the intervention a child with dyslexia requires is still educational, not medical. "We've learned that children with dyslexia require direct, explicit instruction in what we call the alphabet principle," says Berninger, who heads the treatment project. "And we've learned that there is an optimum way of delivering this instruction that emphasizes the connections between oral and written language."
Briefly stated, the alphabet principle means that there is a systematic connection between particular sounds and letters or letter groups. Because all children come to school having mastered an oral language, reading and writing is a matter of translating what is basically auditory into a visual medium. This is phonics, but with two additions. First, it is not enough to teach the sounds of individual letters. In English, many of the basic sounds are formed by two-letter groups, so children learning to read need to learn these groups as units. And second, phonics is often taught through the use of rules: "When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking," or "When you see a silent 'e' at the end of a word, that makes the vowel in the word say its name." But research shows such verbalizations do little to fix the sound-letter connection in memory, and may even get in the way.
To address both problems, Berninger's research group developed "talking letters." Children are given a card that has the vowel sounds on one side and the consonant sounds on the other. Next to each letter or letter group is a picture of an object the word for which contains the target sound-a ring next to "ng," a can of oil next to "oi," and so forth. Using the card, children learn to connect the sound of a word they know with a letter or letter group; the expectation is that with practice, the connection will become automatic.
Given Kyle and Alex's difficulties with written language, their alphabet principle training cannot be a one-time thing. For a child without dyslexia, a word might be stored in memory after a few repetitions; for kids like Kyle and Alex, numerous repetitions are necessary.
"In our school systems we typically stop reading instruction after the primary grades," Berninger says. "But children with dyslexia require a continuous reading program throughout the school years."
Kyle and Alex at a school playground. Photo by Jon Marmor.
Before he entered the study, Alex had had the benefit of such a program. Unwilling to accept his school's request for a delay before testing him, his parents had him tested privately. When he was diagnosed with dyslexia, they placed him in a private school for children with learning problems. Kyle was not as fortunate. Shipman is a single parent who couldn't afford private testing or schools, so Kyle was tested when the school was willing to do it and placed in a reading program that, while well intentioned, simply didn't serve his needs.
"He saw himself as incapable because he wasn't learning to read," Shipman says of that time. "His self-esteem plummeted."
It is just such a loss of self-esteem that Berninger is trying to prevent. In her extensive work in schools, she does not test students for dyslexia. Instead, she simply chooses those doing poorly in reading and works on the alphabet principle with them in special, small-group tutorials. Using this method, about half the poor readers can be brought up to grade level in 24, 20-minute sessions, proving that the teaching method also works for children who are not dyslexic.
"If we used everything we know about the structure of language in teaching, and did it for everyone, starting in kindergarten, we could eliminate the vast majority of reading and writing problems," she says.
Mass adoption of new teaching methods doesn't happen very often, however. Berninger's funding agency has been studying learning disabilities for 12 years and has managed only modest changes in the educational systems of a few states. That situation has led Berninger and her colleagues to set up a teacher training project as part of the research center. Headed by Education Professor Deborah McCutchen, the project aims to disseminate research results to teachers. Each summer since 1995, classroom teachers have attended a two-week summer institute during which they get a crash course in the structure of language and create lesson plans for teaching the alphabet principle.
During the school year, institute staff visit the participating teachers in their classrooms, and the teachers also return three times for follow-up instruction and discussion. The institute is already showing results. The students of participating teachers test higher in basic reading skills than students of teachers who are waiting to attend the following summer.
That's the bottom line for researchers-to help the children who struggle with reading and writing. Alex and Kyle are both in sixth grade this year and in middle school. Alex attends regular classes and continues with private tutoring; Kyle is in some special classes. Both are comprehending text at grade level, though they still struggle to recognize and spell words out of context. Their mothers know their path in school isn't likely to be smooth, but they are enthusiastic about the progress made.
Daniels praises the testing that she says "took a microscope to Alex's problems," making precise intervention possible. And Shipman says Kyle responded to the UW program as he had to nothing else. Both mothers praise Berninger for going the extra mile for their children-even attending parent teacher conferences and writing letters to the school district when needed.
"Her dedication is amazing," Shipman says. "When you as a parent can't do something for your child and someone comes along and offers that to you free of charge, well, there is no greater gift than that." · Nancy Wick, '97, was a writer in the UW Office of News and Information when she wrote this article. She is now director of publications for the UW College of Engineering.
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