After two years of working as an AmeriCorps volunteer in an adult literacy program in Philadelphia, I continued my work with adults as a newly minted reading specialist. Having initially used a phonics-based reading curriculum, I was highly influenced by my whole language training at University of Pennsylvania and my professor, Morton Botel, a past president of the International Reading Association (now the International Literacy Association; ILA) and creator of the Pennsylvania Comprehensive Reading/Communication Arts Plan, which designated five critical literacy experiences. One and only one of the five critical experiences addressed phonics and structural analysis competence or structured language competence. I was excited to bring more whole language into the adult literacy program. Some students did well with the combination of phonics and whole language, but not all instruction was effective for all students.
In the early 2000s, I had moved to Vermont. The middle school where I was teaching was focusing on metacognition and other comprehension strategies including incorporating “deeper” as opposed to “broader” reading, read-alouds, and using multiple texts on the same subject. What was not occurring at my middle school, however, and what I could not do much about, was offering help to my seventh graders who could not decode or spell outside of this structure.
After a summer of teaching at a reading clinic in Vermont, I took a full-time position there and learned how to teach dyslexic students. I was required to take courses on assessment and instruction in phonemic awareness, speech sounds, articulation, and how multisensory instruction impacts literacy acquisition. I learned the linguistical principles upon which the Orton–Gillingham approach is based. My effectiveness in reaching difficult students began to improve rapidly, and I was having more and more success teaching formerly unsuccessful students. I became equally enthusiastic about teaching to my students because some were now able to read good literature! I recall a middle-school girl who started out as a nonreader, and who, after quite some time with learning structured language skills, read an abridged copy of Little Women. She was overjoyed to discover this story of four sisters and compare their personalities, as she herself was one of four sisters.
ILA leaders challenge us to keep delving, investigating, and advocating for our students. In ILA’s Research Advisory Addendum on Dyslexia, they say “optimal instruction calls for teachers’ professional expertise and responsiveness and for freedom to act on the basis of that responsibility.” Although the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) does not agree with this statement, I think I understand. It implies teachers get too much latitude if they have freedom. At the same time, I believe freedom and responsibility are crucial to reaching all students of all ages, not only those with reading difficulties. I do think IDA would agree that structured language instructors need the freedom to do what the National Reading Panel asserts: The best approach to reading instruction is one that incorporates explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, systematic phonics instruction, methods to improve fluency, and ways to enhance comprehension. Structured language instructors must incorporate these approaches—that is their responsibility. They often have precious few hours a week to do their work, and to deviate from those approaches compromises the purpose, integrity, and the effectiveness of the instruction. They must follow the sequence and design, which is based in neuroscience, to train the brain to process written language. At the same time, it is also true that overall literacy education needs to include a variety of approaches and more or less of the structured piece depending on student needs. I agree, as Mathes et al. state and the ILA addendum quotes, “Schools and teachers can be granted some latitude in choosing an approach to providing supplemental instruction.”
Currently, I am the literacy specialist for the Community High School of Vermont (CHSVT). Our students are in the custody of the Vermont Department of Corrections. We teach adult students in correctional facilities and at probation and parole sites throughout the state. After meeting, assessing, and teaching many CHSVT students, I can see many are not dyslexic as defined by what I learned and observed in students as far back as my time in Philadelphia and, more recently, during my tenure at the reading clinic. But, at the same time, some of them do present as highly challenging cases.
At CHSVT, we are using a variety of assessments to help the literacy needs of our enrollees. I am happy to have latitude and a strong team when developing the best approach(es) for our students. We will continue to proudly follow the research and guidance of our colleagues and mentors from both ILA and IDA.
Jeanne H. Smith is a literacy specialist at Community High School of Vermont and a correctional educator with St. Albans Probation and Parole.