Using Qualitative Methods to Understand the Educational Experiences of Students with Dyslexia

By Zambo, Debby | The Qualitative Report, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Using Qualitative Methods to Understand the Educational Experiences of Students with Dyslexia


Zambo, Debby, The Qualitative Report


As readers, children with dyslexia are vulnerable to becoming academically, socially, and emotionally detached from education. Traditional educational practices tend to use quantitative measures to diagnose children to better serve their needs and researchers, who study students with special needs often focus on a deficit model that quantify just how far a child is from the norm. This practice, while full of good intentions, often creates emotional scars and feelings of inferiority in a child. This reductionist view of a disability is most likely different from the lived experience of the person with the disability. To get a complete picture, we must use qualitative methods to reveal children's words, their interactions, and the entire context within which their disability is nested. In this study, I use qualitative methods to unpack the educational experiences of a group of students with dyslexia. Data were gathered from four sources: interviews with students and teachers, field notes, and journal entries. The words of the participants are presented to convey the emotional impact that a reading disability brings and to remind educators and researchers that quantitative methods do not always provide a complete picture of a child's experience in school. Key words: Dyslexia, Reading Disabilities, Qualitative Methods, and Emotions

As readers, children with dyslexia are vulnerable to becoming academically, socially, and emotionally detached from education. Reading difficulties isolate, impoverish, and leave children with fewer career and life options (Richards, 1999; Shaywitz, 2003; Stanovich, 1986). Children, who taste academic failure, are evaluated ruthlessly using quantitative measures such as intelligence tests and academic achievement scores to diagnose their weaknesses (Levine, 2002). Likewise, researchers, who study students with special needs, often focus on a deficit model that highlight their weaknesses and quantifies just how far they are from the norm. This practice, while well meaning, often creates emotional scars, lifelong feelings of inferiority, and distrust in children (West, 1997). A quantitative, reductionist view of a disability is most likely different from the lived experience of the person with the disability. If educators and researchers merely look at scores and numbers, we may miss what reading and a reading disability are all about for these children. To get a complete picture, we must listen to the children's words, observe their interactions, and examine the entire context within which the disability is nested. To find meaning, researchers must put away the test booklets and delve deeper using qualitative research methods to explain instead of measure, to seek meaning instead of quantifying, and to understand instead of generalizing. To understand dyslexia, we must not only think of the numbers and deficits, but we must recognize and explain the human and emotional side as well.

As a foundation for this discussion, I begin with an explanation of the confusion surrounding dyslexia and what neuroscience is telling us about the brains of individuals with dyslexia. I then go on to explain my study in detail, its participants, and the importance of using qualitative methods to get a more in-depth perspective of dyslexia. Evidence for my claims is provided in the words of the students and their teachers.

Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a reading disorder that persists despite good education and normal or above average intelligence (Gorman, 2003). It is a handicap that affects up to 1 in 5 children of school age and is the most common form of learning disability, accounting for 80 percent of all learning-disabled children in special education today (Flynn & Rahbar, 1994; Roush, 1995). Yet, the exact nature and definition of dyslexia has baffled educators, parents, and dyslexics themselves. Dyslexia is a learning disability with much controversy and many questions surrounding its definition, identification procedures, and educational implications. …

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