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Dyslexia and the Importance of Teaching Foundational Skills

About dyslexia and districts ditching foundational skills.

Key points

  • Teaching and monitoring spelling is a dyslexia-specific intervention.
  • All children need spelling for automatic word recognition, which enables comprehension.
  • Districts should embrace teaching brain words systematically and explicitly.

Is your child’s school district a dyslexia/literacy failure super-spreader? To answer this question, let’s begin with a definition.

What Is Dyslexia?

As many as 1 in 5 children have symptoms of dyslexia. So let’s define what it is. The highly impactful International Dyslexia Association (IDA), a non-profit organization advocating for better education and services for children at risk of dyslexia, posts the following definition:

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin [emphasis added]. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

Dyslexia is complex. By definition, it is genetic and familial. Diagnosis and treatment can be sporadic and inconsistent. Moreover, identification of symptoms may be highly professional or subject to being hit or miss depending on school or district policy. Alarmingly, poor literacy instruction in the classroom is the most common cause of reading problems in America, where 40% of fourth- and eighth-graders read below grade level proficiency. Most of these kids aren’t dyslexic.

I have firsthand knowledge that five ineffective district-wide practices listed below are rampant in one of the largest school districts in one of America’s largest states, where dyslexia legislation is being considered for making change and improving literacy outcomes. I have followed this district for years and connected with various stakeholders. I now receive weekly “undercover reports,” I'll call them, from concerned teachers, parents, and an award-winning tutor who worked in the district for 35 years and knows its history. This compassionate and self-taught science of reading expert along with scores of other concerned informants constitute the source material for my following report. The state legislators who are considering a dyslexia bill should take notice. Call me a whistleblower.

Most struggling readers in the district of focus neither meet the neurobiological criteria for dyslexia nor do they have other dyslexia-associated deficits. Rather, they are a huge population of kids who should be developing normally, but they aren’t. They are mostly children of low socioeconomic status, English learners, and children of color—demographic populations that are vulnerable to academic failure. These kids are in trouble—trapped in a district egregiously deficient in teaching the basic foundational skills of spelling, phonics, and handwriting.

The best evidence of these circumstances doesn’t take rocket science. It can be gathered easily and at a low cost in a few days. Simply assess each school’s fourth-graders’ spelling with an independent fourth-grade-level spelling test. You will find that these kids are either good spellers or bad spellers. Then look at their handwriting. Do the kids hold the pencil and form the letters correctly? Is the handwriting beautiful, acceptable, or awful?

Teaching spelling is important. It’s well-established that good readers can spell but almost all poor readers struggle with spelling (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019). Teaching handwriting is important. Science says teaching handwriting benefits both dyslexic and normally developing readers (Berninger, 2009).

Five Problems You Don’t Want in Your District

Here are five problem areas garnered from my own extensive work in the district of focus verified by my worried informants. But it’s not just this district; the list below describes endemic educational problems throughout school districts across America:

  1. This district is woefully ineffective in teaching three foundational literacy skills: spelling, phonics, and handwriting.
  2. In recent years, the district purchased a mammoth expensive reading program that posted claims of providing all needed components of reading. Though approved by the state, the reading program is insufficient for spelling, phonics, and handwriting. Moreover, it overwhelms teachers with too many unintegrated reading components while shortchanging the basics and leaving teachers mind-boggled over how to fit all these reading series components into an already overstuffed and sometimes shortened language arts block.
  3. For over two decades, the lingering influence of whole language and so-called “balanced literacy” has permeated this district’s literacy programs and perpetuated a pattern of failed elementary school literacy instruction.
  4. Too many teachers, from no fault of their own, have neither been well-trained nor provided supplemental resources for teaching spelling, phonics, and handwriting.
  5. Sadly, a few administrators untrained in the science of reading, pushed and oversaw the purchase of the expensive and ineffective all-in-one reading program and continue to cram it down the throats of exhausted teachers. These administrators will not embrace change even in light of the district’s academic failures. They make excuses.

A Case Study to Demonstrate the District’s Literacy Woes

Driven by inner impulse and conviction, my tutor informant is a brilliant 74-year-old former teacher who after retirement had a vision and felt a calling. He went back to work as a tutor rescuing children who lacked basic literacy skills and were already derailed from reaching their full life potential. He hears firsthand and sees with his own eyes the problems teachers, parents, and children are facing due to poor literacy instruction, inadequate assessment, and misguided interventions in the district.

We focus here on just one of his students, a struggling sixth-grader who came to the tutor reportedly with “severe reading problems” and “behavior issues.” He was labeled “a troublemaker” who failed to reach standards for the state test or make progress even after enduring three years of ineffective after-school tutoring.

This exasperated child transferred from the public school district to a private school in 6th grade; he could only read on a third-grade level. His private school experience was a repeat of all five of the education problem areas listed above with equally unsatisfactory results.

But within a little over a year, with a science-of-reading inspired tutor, things changed.

Science-of-Reading Inspired Tutor: “As his tutor, I took him through a 'crash course' in phonics and spelling and got him on a sixth-grade reading level in a matter of weeks. This quick-fix happens with my students more than you might imagine. The years spent in the public school’s after-school tutoring were a disaster because the tutors didn’t know how to teach phonics and spelling. In our one-on-one sessions, I incorporated current science-of-reading principles but decided as a reading education historian to work through Noah Webster’s immensely successful spelling-to-read curriculum originally published in 1783. If spelling-to-read methodology taught millions of Americans to read in the 1800s, I surmised, we shouldn’t abandon spelling-to-read methodology today.

The child and I were both inspired. With great diligence and fun, we worked through the Webster series at a fast pace, although we were allowed only 15 minutes per day. My sixth-grade student finished Webster’s curriculum in one year when historically it could take up to three. We studied every single word from cover to cover. The result surprised me. He advanced from sixth- to eighth-grade reading levels that year.

Each session began with word meaning and pronunciation as Webster intended. I would simply make up sentences from the top of my head and we had fun exploring new words. I was astounded when he read Table 122: 'Words of 7 Syllables, Accented on the Fifth' with words like individuality, impenetrability, perpendicularity, and imageability leading up to eight-syllable unintelligibility and incomprehensibility. One year later, he was soaring in high school advanced academic placement classes."

Richard: Spelling-to-read still jumpstarts reading comprehension just as it did in 1783. Like Webster, modern spelling books teach basically the same 300 to 400 words and syllable chunks that all first-grade children need to spell and recognize automatically without a conscious effort by the end of the first grade. Incomprehensibility becomes a brain word beginning with first-grade spelling instruction!

Words or syllables taught in the first half of first grade:

in—as in the first-grade-level word in

com—rhymes and works like Tom

pre—rhymes and works like he; sounds like the first chunk in pretend.

hen—as in The Little Red Hen

si—put s for the /s/ sound before the word I to make si

bil—as in Three Billy Goats Gruff

li—put l for the /l/ sound before the word I to make li

ty—a word ending chunk as in pretty, kitty, party

Two Important Definitions, a Caveat, and Call to Action

Incomprehensibility is when a sixth-grader has to wait seven years for someone to teach him spelling, pronunciation, and word meanings.

Imageability is the ability to form a mental image of words and syllables, i.e., brain words developed through spelling instruction. When districts embrace teaching brain words systematically and explicitly, following a spiraling curriculum much like Webster proposed, we can save legions of developmentally normal kids from reading failure, detect symptoms of dyslexia earlier, intervene earlier, and help children overcome dyslexia. Follow the Webster/modern science solution—teach spelling and handwriting.


Berninger, V. (2009). Highlights of programmatic, interdisciplinary research on writing. Learning Disabilities. Research and Practice, 24, 68-79.

Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G. P. (2019) Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

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