Dyslexia group hosts symposium at Temple to highlight science of reading

The group is bringing attention to a need for systematic teaching of phonics and language.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) hosted the Knowledge and Practice Standards Symposium at Temple University, encouraging colleges and universities to adopt better reading-science practices into their curriculums for future elementary school teachers.

The event, on April 15, featured speakers from varying backgrounds who shared their thoughts on teaching students to read. The presenters included Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite; education journalist Emily Hanford; Russell Washington of the School District’s Department of Special Education, and Brent Johnstone of FathersLead365, who grew up with dyslexia.

IDA representatives attended, as did those from Arcadia University, Drexel University, and St. Joseph’s University, all of which have adopted the IDA’s standards for teaching the science of reading to prospective teachers.

This effort stems from a districtwide initiative to get all children reading on grade level by the time they enter 4th grade. The coalition of city organizations and agencies known as Read by 4th, which also had representatives at the symposium, is devoted to hitting this goal, and the IDA has developed standards that they say will put the District on track to meet that expectation.

Reading achievement has improved in Philadelphia for the youngest students, but more than 60 percent are still not reading on grade level.

The IDA’s Knowledge and Practice Standards are meant to be implemented into teacher preparation programs. The association wants universities to get accredited by them so that students can properly be taught how to read.

According to IDA’s website, reading instruction must be explicit, systematic, cumulative, and multisensory and “integrate listening, speaking, reading, and writing.”

It is necessary to teach the “structure of language at all levels,” including the direct relationship of speech and sounds, the mechanics of sentence structure, and semantics, which is the meaning of words and phrases. Studies have backed up the effectiveness of teaching phonics systematically, although the emphasis on requiring that approach in curricula and on instructing teachers in how to do it has fallen in and out of favor. Many educators hold the view that it is more productive to teach children a love of reading instead of treating it as a mechanical exercise.

“We have to teach children how their written language works,” said Hanford, who has produced a radio documentary on science-based teaching methods. “[Teachers] didn’t learn about the structure of the English language and how English spelling works, or about the morphology or etymology. Teachers need a deep knowledge of this stuff in order to teach little kids to learn how to learn to read, and I think one of the reasons we fight so much about reading instruction in the United States and in many other English-speaking countries is because English is a difficult language to learn and there is a lot to know.”

Johnstone did not respond to the reading instruction he got in school. But he went on to be co-founder of FathersLead365, whose mission is “to impact, inspire and uplift fathers from all walks of life, to be leaders in their community by developing initiatives that promote being an active father and engaging their children in productive and responsible ways.” He shared part of his life story, describing how crucial these programs are so that teachers know how to help all students learn to read, especially those with dyslexia.

Until Johnstone came to Temple University in the ’90s to play football, he had no idea he was dyslexic. Through tears, he described how challenging it was to go through life surrounded by people who could read and have no idea why you were struggling with reading.

“You become the kid that doesn’t work hard. You become the kid who doesn’t care, the kid who’s not trying. And all I was thinking was ‘man, I’m trying hard as hell to put these words together and I can’t,’ and the people telling me I can’t do it aren’t helping me do it. And that’s frustrating. That’s very frustrating.”

Johnstone referred to the work of Hanford, who wrote that “according to a study of the Texas prison population, nearly half of all inmates have dyslexia.”

“You look in our communities with the violence. You look in our jail systems. Those guys are crying out that they need help. It’s not saying that [they] need help with reading, but when you look at the correlation of the reading scores and the prison population, the unemployment rate, and every other negative statistic, and you see reading right there. We all know what needs to happen for all of our children to be equipped and to have an equal playing field in life. […] That’s why teachers need to understand how to teach children how to read. It’s so important,” said Johnstone.

Hite agreed about that importance and recounted how city 3rd graders are making progress. Over the last two years, 3rd-grade reading scores on the state tests were up 6 percentage points, he said, and the number of students scoring at the lowest reading level decreased by 8 percentage points.

But there is still a long way to go. Many teachers heading into their first years in the classroom have not been given training accredited by the IDA, and districts are hesitant to fund retraining programs.

Washington, of the District’s Special Education Office, said, “[Retraining] is expensive. It’s time-consuming. Because when colleges of education send students out of college without this knowledge, the first thing someone in my position has to confront is your mindset around this knowledge. They already don’t believe in it because they’ve been trained a different type of way. My first encounter with you is to convince you that this is the way to go.”

Washington is “wholly committed” to getting the Knowledge and Practice Standards into all of the higher education institutions in the Philadelphia area, and he supports Read by 4th’s initiatives to make sure all future students will get the reading learning experience that the IDA recommends.

These standards are for general educators as well as special educators, according to the IDA, and Washington emphasized that a big step of this process is going to be convincing general educators that special educators know what they are talking about when it comes to the science of reading.

Each speaker at the symposium spoke about getting this education for every student, regardless of socioeconomic or cultural background.

“We meet students where they are, because no matter what they are facing, one thing that I truly believe is that every single child that we come in contact with has the potential to learn,” Hite said.