The Best Approach for Dyslexia Education: Strengths-Based or Remedial

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Steve Wilkins, Head of School Blog

I recently heard a Carroll alumna speaking at a lunch event for the Massachusetts Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. She commented that she likes to refer to her dyslexia as a disability. She wisely commented, “Anything that makes school this hard for me, it had better be called a disability not an advantage.”

Educational philosophies about children with dyslexia can seem in conflict at times. Is dyslexia a curse or a gift? Should children with dyslexia be educated in mainstream classrooms or specialized environments? Can underlying deficits, such as processing speed or working memory, be remediated or do dyslexics just need to learn to deal with their weaknesses?

In this blog, I will attempt to reconcile two seemingly opposed views of dyslexia. One supports the notion that dyslexics have special talents that are simply better than those of typical learners. The other view pursues the notion of neuroplasticity and a more complete remediation of that which underlies the challenges of dyslexia.

For example, the substantial movement in our field coined “The Dyslexic Advantage” by Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide makes the case that the neuroanatomy of the dyslexic brain is uniquely constructed-- a better design-- for certain tasks than the neurotypical brain. In their book of the same name, the dyslexic advantage is called “a new view of dyslexia” and is described as a strengths based view of learning difficulties.

Dyslexic Advantage in Dyslexic School

The authors invoke the names of Richard Branson, John Lennon, Charles Schwab, inventor Dean Kamen, attorney David Boies, and many others. Surely dyslexia is not a disability and should not be treated as such. The Eides make the case convincingly that there are two sides to dyslexia. The connection between dyslexic information processing and special abilities is real. Ask any dyslexic designer, mechanic, radiologist, computer networker, photographer, artist, airplane pilot, social worker, salesperson, or astrophysicist about their experiences with early schooling. In these “dyslexia rich fields” you will undoubtedly uncover a significant number of brilliant people who struggled in their early school years.

The logic continues to suggest that since dyslexia is not a disability, the primary focus of raising children with dyslexia (and educating them) should be on amplifying the strengths rather than on remediating the disabilities. Create makerspaces and create laboratories in which dyslexics can utilize their visual-spatial strengths, where they can operationalize the interrelatedness of elements that are not usually paired, and where they can resolve design challenges. Praise unique answers, not just those that conform to the majority response. Provide opportunities for storytelling and for empathy rather than traditional academic engagement. Let students demonstrate their knowledge and competence through methods of their choice, rather than tests and papers.

Carroll School subscribes to the wisdom of the “dyslexic advantage” in our programs and in our world view. “Children with dyslexia tend to look at the world differently,” says the banner on the side of our Lincoln gymnasium, “Isn’t the world lucky they do?” Our recent renovation of the Gatehouse Building into a high-tech Arts & Innovation Center is a monument to our belief in the brilliance in children with dyslexia.

Dyslexia Education - Orton-Gillingham Tutoring

Carroll School, simultaneously, holds a belief that one might consider to be the philosophical opposite of the dyslexic advantage philosophy. Our research in concert with neuroscientists John Gabrieli (Grover Chair of Neuroscience at the McGovern Institute at MIT) and Eric Falke (Kistler Family Chair in Neuroscience at Carroll and Director of Applied Practice in Neuroscience at MIT) reveals that educational intervention can significantly improve certain cognitive skills that are essential for high level academic performance.  

Roughly 70% of Carroll students share a cognitive deficit known as reaction time. It turns out that reaction time and oral reading fluency (rate and accuracy) are almost directly correlated. About ten years ago, Dr. Falke and I imagined that a school-based intervention that targeted improvement in reaction time might help our students substantially in this school that is dedicated to systematic phonics instruction (Orton-Gillingham). Today, we know that this is precisely the case. In other words, education that seeks to change the neural efficiency of the dyslexic brain is based on what one might call a “deficit model” of dyslexia.

Our initial decade of research into improving cognitive skills reveals what statisticians call “strong signal” and is an encouraging direction. Our work has established evidence of Carroll students improving processing speed, verbal working memory, executive function skills, and word identification. In turn, we have tracked a significant uptake in our students’ core academic skills in reading and math, fluency, efficiency, and attention to salient detail. 

Today’s Carroll students are achieving more impressive results than previous generations at Carroll. Our faculty understands that focusing on areas where children need the most help is the core of their job. We track student progress assiduously. We share those data with students and parents. We seek to obliterate deficits.  

Are these two philosophies in opposition? Is it possible to design a school that believes both positions? Can we operate as a strengths-based school that seeks to ameliorate the disability exist?

Carroll School’s answer is that this combination is essential. Combine alleged opposites. Do both. Remediate and amplify. Deal with the whole child. Dare to live with the grayness between the two philosophies. Do whatever it takes. Give each child what that child most needs.

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