Rethinking Dyslexia, Scripted Reading, and Federal Mandates: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

By Camp, Deborah; Aldridge, Jerry | Journal of Instructional Psychology, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Dyslexia, Scripted Reading, and Federal Mandates: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same


Camp, Deborah, Aldridge, Jerry, Journal of Instructional Psychology


We began our teaching careers in special education in the 1970's, a decade in educational history which delivered a return to the back to basics movement in general education coupled with the landmark passage of the federal Law 94-142 requiring public school education for all special education students. These two movements led to increased scrutiny of classroom instructional practices and a proliferation of commercialized programs for special education teachers and students. Common buzzwords of that decade's lexicon included "dyslexia", "multi-sensory integration", and "visual perception training."

We were led to believe the panacea for every special education ailment was simply using the right program, not in utilizing practitioner judgment and decision-making. Being the young and inexperienced teachers that we were, we followed the current party line until realizing first-hand these programs did not work with our students. We find it disturbing that 30 years later there exists a resurgence of these same ineffective practices and programs. They're back! But this time, with several new twists which will be explained. The purpose of this article is to provide a brief history of dyslexia, scripted reading instruction, and how federal mandates have brought direct instruction to general education.

At the time of our matriculation and early careers, the term "dyslexia" was bantered around in schools of education, the classroom, and as well as in the professional literature. At that time the term was more broadly defined than today. In fact, the terms "dyslexia" and "reading disability" were often used interchangeably among practitioners as well as academia. The concept of dyslexia was first proposed by Samuel Orton in 1937 to describe children with severe reading difficulties who demonstrated a noticeable absence of physical, emotional, or intellectual interferences. Orton hypothesized dyslexia could result from a lack of hemispheric dominance in the brain. Orton based this conjecture on this observation of the many reversals he saw readers demonstrate, such as b for d and saw for was. These mirror images must be a result of the brain receiving simultaneous messages from both hemispheres, rather than one dominant hemisphere (Orton, 1937).

Although Orton later expanded his initial conception of dyslexia (Weaver, 1994), the urban legend that dyslexic readers reverse letters and words continues to persist today. For example, a recent state education policy primer (Wong and Guthrie, 2004) lists the following definition for dyslexia in the glossary: "Reading impairment, thought to be a genetic condition, in which children transpose letters" (p. 9). Needless to say, Orton was the first scientist in the 20th century to suggest that dyslexia resulted from a neurobiological disorder which you will see stubbornly persists as an additional urban legend into the 21st century.

As mentioned earlier, "dyslexia" and "reading disabled" were spoken in the same breath 30 years ago. Sam Kirk (Klenk & Kibby, 2000) first coined the term "learning disability" in 1963 to distinguish children who experienced difficulty in learning to read but yet demonstrated no evidence of mental retardation, psychiatric illness, and physical handicaps. By 1964, Critchely wrote of "a constitutional specific type of dyslexia identified among the miscellany of cases of poor readers" (p. 89).

We assumed our students had unspecified perceptual problems stemming from faulty brains and taught them reading using prescriptive, rigidly sequenced, and frankly, quite boring, reading programs such as Merrill Linguistic Readers (Otto, Rudolph, Smith, & Wilson, 1975), DISTAR (Engelmann & Bruner, 1978), Sullivan Programmed Readers (Buchanan, 1973), and ita (Pitmann, 1969). Little did we know that the text in these intellectually sterile readers would come to be called "decodable text" in the 1990s and become the perceived panacea for all reading ailments in the early 21st century.

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