thoughts on 'muddlement' and 'dyslexia' from Susan S.
PostPosted: Thu Nov 01, 2007 10:34 pm P
Maybe we need more than two different words . I agree with Mona about there being a population of children born with a "potential to muddlement," and have seen that it expresses itself in various ways beyond reading and writing . However, I have also seen that children who begin school that way, with observable signs of muddlement, and who get effective instruction, often become indistinguishable from their un-muddled peers within a year or two or three, and no longer exhibit any traits that would mark them as "dyslexic" (though some continue to have difficulty with specific things, like directions, organizational skills, short-term memory and so on). So these might be called "averted dyslexics."
Then there are those whose "dyslexic" (in Mona's sense) predisposition is exacerbated by instruction that promotes guessing, looking all over for "cues" (anywhere but the word), and generally triggers their haphazard and impulsive approach to things, rather than giving them an organized and systematic "schema" as the literacy folks like to say. Those are the children who seem to be actively harmed by the so-called "balanced" approach. Rather than putting together a range of "strategies," they end up trying to memorize words and guess frantically on the basis of the first letter. When we assessed an intake of 11-year-olds one year, we found that EVERY single below average reader, with NO exceptions, reported "looking at the first letter and guessing" as his or her main "reading" strategy! So those potentially muddled kids whose instruction is unsystematic and confusing end up as reading and writing disabled: Mona's "activated" dyslexics.
But there are others, too. There are children with no sign of a "predisposition," who nevertheless, after several years of today's classroom mixed methods, exhibit all the signs of classic "dyslexia," and often emotional and behavioural difficulties to boot -- acquired along the way as a consequence of failure. What do we call these children? "Curriculum casualties" is one possibility, or "instructionally disabled" might be another. I have data on kids like this, who tested well on all pre-literacy measures at age 5-6 (could orally blend, segment, etc. etc. and knew basic code sounds, had adequate auditory memory, etc), but who were total failures at reading and writing over the next couple of years. Since they have no underlying "problem" they can be easy to fix -- IF they get the chance, and are willing to apply themselves to the task. I used to see many such children in middle school, aged 12-14. They did not have learning disabilities.
The last group is one we rarely mention, but these do exist -- children who struggle enough with reading and writing, despite good teaching, that they can be considered to have a "disability" in this area, whether it is called "dyslexia" or something else. I have known students from my earlier years in a school that did have an effective phonics program for beginners who would fit this description, and several others who have had good home instruction with proven and effective curricula, and still present as "dyslexics" in the commonly accepted sense. No doubt they would have been far worse off without the good instruction, but there are some children who struggle excessively and with limited success for no obvious reason, in spite of good teaching, home support, average ability or better, and so on. We don't really know what the numbers of such children might be. Is it 1%? 2%? 5%? These kids have the "potential to muddlement," but it is not averted even by good teaching. Should we call them "hard-wired dyslexics"?
Since there are few schools that reliably provide excellent instruction to beginners and monitor their progress sufficiently to discriminate the ones who have genuine impairments (not otherwise identifiable ) from those who are merely inadequately taught, we don't know how many such "hard-wired" dyslexics might exist. I suspect this number is small, but have limited data. Last year, for instance, in my own school, we got all the Grade 1 children reading within a range appropriate for their age -- from borderline low average to very proficient, with the exception of children who entered during the year or were absent frequently (70 days or more) and did not get sufficient instruction. We worked hard with this cohort of children but did nothing extraordinary -- no 1:1, no after-school programs. Parent help at home was limited by family circumstances and language barriers in many cases. Some of those children will continue to need more intensive instruction and progress monitoring for several years before they can be considered "safe" from falling through the cracks.
Finally, we have children who do have identifiable disabilities of various kinds -- cognitive delay, Fetal ALcohol Syndrome, brain injury, cerebral palsy, language impairment, autism, and so on. Sometimes the disabilty affects literacy acquisition and sometimes not. Good instruction is needed even more urgently for these children because they often have difficulty with learning, retention and generalization. Depending on how the categories are defined, some 2-4% of children in most areas might fall into this group. These are the real "special needs" children, and they are currently not getting the services they deserve, because the system is so overwhelmed by the instructional casualties.
The difficulty with the word "dyslexia" is that it has many nuances of meaning, depending on who uses it, and thus is not really a clear term for communication. Law and medicine use sometimes arcane vocabulary (from our point of view) but one reason for it is that the terms have a precise meaning that everyone in the field agrees on. We need to develop some terminology of our own that, like legal or medical language, is precise and unambiguous in describing various types of children and their reading development or lack of it, and possibly terms that take causal factors into account. .
Unfortunately, I don't have any particularly useful suggestions -- just the observation that clearer and more specific terminology is needed.
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