Position Paper

A "White Paper" Prepared for the Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia

July, 1999

Prepared by: M. Tara Joyce, Ed.D.

Children Who Can't Read Become Adolescents Who Can't Read

Although many children have average or above average intelligence, they do not learn to read in the elementary classroom. They are usually bright, eager learners at the age of 6. They can answer questions about a story after the teacher has read the story aloud, they have good to excellent vocabularies, and they expect to do well in school. They have trouble manipulating sounds in words and have great difficulty "sounding out" words. If they can read some words, it is because they have memorized them. These students have a learning disability called dyslexia.

If students with dyslexia receive appropriate instruction in the early grades, they learn to read and spell. If they do not receive instruction tailored to the way they learn best, they do not learn to read and spell. They start to do poorly in school and gradually lose any enthusiasm for learning. They end up being asked (on a daily basis) to perform tasks requiring the use of literacy skills they haven't acquired. Discouragement often leads to frustration. As adolescence approaches, frustration often leads to behavior problems and loss of self-esteem. Teachers and parents can't understand why seemingly bright students are not producing work at a level that corresponds to expectations.

In Tennessee, it is estimated that 90,000-100,000 children in the K-12 school system are affected by dyslexia. This is based on a conservative estimate of 10% of the school-age population. The National Institutes for Health estimate as many as 15-20% of the U.S. population may have dyslexia. If students with dyslexia do not receive appropriate intervention, many will drop out of school as adolescents. Many will become adults who cannot read. As adults, they will have difficulty obtaining and keeping good jobs, they will not be able to help their children with their homework or read labels on prescription bottles. Their ability to fulfill their potential and contribute to the Tennessee workforce in a way that makes maximal use of the intelligence they were born with is gone. It doesn't have to be this way. We can both reach and teach adolescents with dyslexia so that they will contribute to the Tennessee workforce as competent adult workers.

Profiles of Adolescents with Dyslexia

Many adolescents are identified as learning disabled in their elementary school years, and are placed in special education classes. Eighty percent of all referrals to special education nationally are for literacy issues. Ninety percent of students in Tennessee in the K-12 school system, who are certified with learning disabilities, are certified in reading and written language.

Dyslexia occurs in individuals whose intelligence is within or above the average range. For students with dyslexia, literacy skills do not improve, even if the student is in special education, unless a very specific approach to instruction is provided. Following are some real-life, Tennessee examples of the need for a special approach to instruction for students with dyslexia.

Fourteen year old "Chet" has been receiving special education services since he was in the 2nd grade. When he was initially tested at the Center for Dyslexia in 1995, his reading and spelling were at the kindergarten to 1st grade levels. As of June, 1999, Chet is reading and spelling at the 2nd grade level. Chet will be entering the 9th grade in August.

"Brad" is 14 years old and will be going into the 10th grade. In 1994, when Brad was first assessed at the Tennessee Center, he was reading and spelling below a 1st grade level. As of June, 1999, Brad is still reading and spelling below a 1st grade level. Brad's teachers have stated that since they allow students to take open book tests (using textbooks that Brad cannot read), they wonder why Brad fails the tests. Brad's teachers have said that they don't know how to help him, and question whether Brad is capable of accomplishing anything, including learning to read. Brad has an IQ in the average range.

"Donny" is 16 years old and was assessed at the Tennessee Center in 1999. Donny reads and spells at a 2nd grade level. He is on his high school football team, and has to work very hard to hide his reading problem. He will start 11th grade in August. Donny's most recent Verbal IQ score of 76 (1998) might indicate that borderline intelligence is the reason for his low reading ability. However, in conversation, Donny appears to be bright. When Donny was tested in the 1st grade, at age 6, his Verbal IQ score (102) was average. Donny should have been able to learn to read if appropriate instruction had been provided. Donny has not become less intelligent over the years. He has learned less about the world than others his age because he has not been able to learn through reading. The information in his textbooks, and the reasoning abilities he would have developed through reading and discussion of that material, accounts for the decline in Donny's measured intelligence. Intelligence tests assess what someone at a given age has learned about the world around him as compared to others of the same age.

A drop in measured intelligence, such as the one observed with Donny, is common among adolescents with learning disabilities that interfere with learning to read. When students can't read they usually don't have access to information which would increase their vocabularies and give them background knowledge typically acquired through reading. In many schools this lack of background knowledge is compounded by the school's reluctance to provide accommodations, such as books on tape, that would at least allow students to acquire needed content information at the same time that they are trying to improve their reading skills.

Dropping Out

Adolescents with learning disabilities may be at greater risk of dropping out of high school than are adolescents with other disabilities. According to one study (Wagner, 1990), a student with an IQ of 100 is at greater risk of dropping out than a student with an IQ of 80. This is not surprising when one considers that individuals with a learning disability like dyslexia have average or above average intelligence and experience great frustration when they are not able to read. One in three youth with learning disabilities (LD) drop out of high school. In the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993) 27% of the self-reported learning disabled (SRLD) youth dropped out of school before ever reaching high school (vs. 4% of the non-SRLD group). Thus, when looking at high school dropout rates one has to keep in mind that those numbers do not include the youth who have dropped out before they ever got to high school.

Dropout statistics also do not reflect the extreme discouragement of many students who do stay in school. In the Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia 1999 Teacher Survey of middle and high school resource and special education teachers, 36% of the responding teachers felt that students experiencing severe reading and writing difficulties have already given up. The teachers cited the students' discouragement as their greatest frustration in teaching these students. These are the students who are staying in school, but are at risk of dropping out.

The dropout rate (four-year cohort rate) for Tennessee for 1998 was 15.2%. The 11 public school systems with the highest dropout rates (20% or higher) are scattered throughout Tennessee. Although some of these systems (Memphis City, Davidson County) are in or near large cities, the rest (Bradley, Cocke, Dickson, Fayette, Grundy, Maury, Perry, Rhea, and Scott Counties) are not. Thus, the problem of high dropout rates does not fit a particular pattern of just urban or just rural areas; nor is the problem confined to just one region of Tennessee.

Staying in school is no guarantee of acquiring needed literacy skills. Over 2,000 Tennessee high school seniors (not including special education students) failed to pass the state's reading competency assessment test in 1998. This was double the number who failed in 1997. Students with low literacy skills will not pass such a test unless reading and writing instruction that addresses their specific literacy needs is provided in school.

Students who receive tutoring in high school are more likely to stay in school. In one national study, the dropout rate for LD secondary students who were not receiving tutoring assistance was 9.3%. For those who did receive tutoring the dropout rate was 1.2% (Wagner, 1990).

Research on a national sample shows that when students with learning disabilities drop out of high school, 29% return to school to get a GED, but less than 3% of these individuals finish the program and actually get their GED (Wagner et al., 1992). In other words, once they're out of high school, the opportunity to recover their true potential to contribute to society is lost.

Literacy and Delinquency

Adolescents with reading difficulties will frequently act out in order to avoid a situation where they might be asked to read aloud in class. The probability that students with learning disabilities who are having discipline problems will drop out of school was estimated to be about 22%, based on the national sample (Wagner et al., 1992). It's not surprising that, nationally, 50% of juvenile delinquents tested were found to have undetected learning disabilities (National Center for State Courts & Educational Testing Service, 1977). In Tennessee, 85% of juveniles brought before the court lack their high school credential; 66% of prison inmates lack their high school credential; and 85% of inmates read below the 10th grade level. That level is considered to be the minimal level of literacy needed to obtain and function effectively in jobs currently available in today's technological society. The average reading level of entering inmates in Tennessee is grade 5.9 (TN Dept. of Corrections, in TN Dept. of Education, 1999).

Adults in Basic Literacy or GED Programs

Only 8% of the adults who need literacy instruction ever enter an adult basic education class; 40% of these individuals are ages 16-24 (Johnson, 1999). Seventy-four percent of adults entering an adult basic education class drop out the first year (Johnson, 1999). This leaves only about 1/4 of those with low literacy skills who enter an adult education program continuing beyond the first year; about 2/3 of that group are in the 16-24 age group.

By the time adults return to school, they usually have additional constraints on their time that they did not have as high school students: full-time jobs, children, other family obligations, etc. In addition, the humiliation that accompanies not being able to read becomes greater over time. Many adults will try to hide their reading difficulties from their co-workers, friends, and even family members. Attempts to acquire instruction often become covert for those who do reach out for help. The majority of adults in need of these services (92%) never come forward.

Adults in the Workforce

Statistics Relevant to National Workforce

College graduates earn an average 77% more than individuals with only a high school diploma (Depts. Of Commerce, Labor, Education; Small Business Administration; and National Institute for Literacy, 1999).

8 of the 10 fastest growing jobs in the next decade will require a college education or moderate to long-term training (Depts. Of Commerce, Labor, Education; Small Business Administration; and National Institute for Literacy, 1999).

More than half the manufacturing firms in a survey said that their workers lack basic math and reading skills (National Association of Manufacturers, 1997).

Ninety percent of Fortune 1000 executives expressed concern, in a recent survey, that low literacy is hurting their productivity and profitability (National Institute for Literacy Fact Sheet: Literacy and Welfare, 1999).

Many individuals need literacy instruction before they can take advantage of job training. For most job training programs, a reading level of at least a 9th or 10th grade is needed. Since there is almost no workplace education and training available for adults with the lowest literacy skills (Johnson, 1999), these adults are especially at a disadvantage.

Adults with LD are highly over-represented among the undereducated, the unskilled labor force, the unemployed, and the poor (Reder in Young, Gerber, Reder, & Cooper, 1996).

42% of families with LD are below or near the federal poverty line, vs. 16% of families of adults without learning disabilities (Reder, 1996).

LD adults in the labor force work fewer hours, receive lower wages, and earn less money (58% of non-LD adult median annual earnings) (Reder, 1996).

50-80% of all ABE students are probably LD (US Dept. of Labor, 1991).

15-23% of JTPA participants may be LD (US Dept. of Labor, 1991).

25-40% of all adults on AFDC and in JOBS programs may be LD (US Dept. of Labor, 1991).

21-23% of adults in the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) performed at Level 1 (the lowest of five levels). Skills at Level 1 included tasks such as locating the time or place of a meeting on a form, and identifying a piece of information in a brief news article (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993).

Statistics Relevant to Tennessee Workforce

Based on data from the 1990 Census, 31% of adults in TN have less than a 12th grade education (Reder, 1996).

Based on data from the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), 21% of adults in TN have literacy levels at Level 1 (lowest of five levels) (Reder, 1996).

Based on data from NALS, 53% of adults in Tennessee have literacy levels at Level 1 or 2 (Reder, 1996).

75% of all welfare recipients in Tennessee lack basic educational skills (TN Dept. Human Services), and would therefore be in need of Adult Basic Education (ABE) classes.

75% of the unemployed in Tennessee need help with elementary reading, math, and English (TN Dept. of Labor).

Only 20% of Tennesseans surveyed believe Tennessee public high school graduates are well prepared to fill a position with a company in Tennessee (TN Dept. of Ed. Survey, 1998).

Providing opportunities for work-based learning experiences and career preparation efforts, through Education Edge and other initiatives, will certainly enhance the skills and direction of well-prepared students and those for whom a career choice decision is the major obstacle to successful participation in the workforce. However, students with low or marginal literacy skills will first need literacy instruction before they can profit from opportunities available through such initiatives.

The state aims to set high standards for grade promotion and high school graduation which is a commendable effort, but for students at the lowest literacy levels, setting the standards won't be enough. Specific and specialized literacy instruction will also be needed to support these students in becoming competent workers.

Teacher Preparation

In April 1999 a survey was conducted by the Center for Dyslexia. This survey was sent to special education and resource teachers at public middle and high schools across Tennessee (see Appendix for complete summary results). Fifty-seven percent of those who responded (135) felt that they were not adequately prepared to teach students with severe reading and writing difficulties. This is interesting to consider in light of a recent national report indicating that only 10% of teachers are adequately prepared to teach reading (National Institutes of Health). According to Reid Lyon, Director of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, "Many teachers have not had the opportunity to develop basic knowledge about the structure of the English language, reading development, and the nature of reading difficulties" (1999).

Teachers in the Tennessee Center for Dyslexia Survey were generally unaware of the availability of high interest, low reading level materials written for adolescents, or of specific reading intervention programs appropriate for adolescents. Cited as barriers to students getting effective instruction were lack of appropriate materials (34%), class size or the way the class is set up (24%), not enough time (21%), the need for more personnel to teach these students (13%), and the need for more and better teacher training (11%).

In response to a question asking teachers what they perceived to be the greatest need in addressing students' severe reading and writing difficulties, 19% indicated teacher training and 10% felt that a special class is needed to teach students with similar needs. These two responses could be considered the opportunity to be effective. Thirty-six percent of the teachers believed that the greatest need is appropriate materials; this could be considered the means to be effective. If these three percentages are combined, 65% of perceived needs may be addressed through staff development and reallocation of instructional materials and resources.

In Tennessee, teacher certification guidelines for special education teachers require only one course in teaching reading. Secondary English teachers have a similar requirement. These courses typically address instruction for only the normally developing reader. National experts in the field believe that a requirement of even two courses is not enough preparation. Maryland now has a law requiring all teachers to have four courses in reading instruction. In order for children in Tennessee to eventually become competent workers, their teachers must be better prepared to foster literacy development among all students.


1. The educational system (administrators and teachers) must support and provide help to middle and high school students who need significant reading intervention.

National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) studies "have clearly demonstrated that the intensity and duration of reading interventions must increase exponentially as children get older just to achieve the same degree of improvement attainable during kindergarten and first grade" (Lyon, 1999). Typically, students at the middle and high school levels get even less help than children at the elementary level, when in fact they need more help in order to catch up.

2. Teachers must receive better quality preservice preparation in how to teach reading to the full spectrum of learners.

Based on national research and the 1999 teacher survey by Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia, teachers are not adequately prepared to teach reading to atypical learners. Teachers must receive specific training in how to address the needs of students with learning disabilities that affect literacy acquisition. Elementary classroom teachers and secondary English teachers need to be educated to understand the reading process, the nature of learning disabilities such as dyslexia, appropriate instructional strategies to teach reading and writing to "at risk" learners, and a general awareness of materials and intervention programs available to assist those students who will need more intensive remedial work.

Special education and resource teachers need this and more?they need an in-depth knowledge of particular interventions for the students they will serve as well as an understanding of how different types of learning disabilities will affect individual student progress.

3. Teachers in middle and high school must receive better in-service training.

It's not too late for those teachers who are already teaching to expand their skills and their understanding. The teachers who responded to the Center for Dyslexia 1999 Teacher Survey indicated that they were extremely frustrated by not being able to help the most impaired readers. Ninety percent said they would welcome any additional help or ideas and would attend in-service workshops offered to assist in becoming more effective with these students.

4. The present focus of resource room services to middle and high school students in Tennessee must be evaluated.

Assistance with homework completion or test preparation does little, if anything, to address the essential literacy skill needs of students with a learning disability affecting reading or written language. Students who are at a 1st ? 3rd grade reading level cannot work on skills such as drawing an inference from a passage. They can't read the sentences in which the inference is embedded. Instruction in resource rooms must address students' current levels of functioning. If a high school student is unable to read effectively because s/he has trouble decoding, then decoding should be the focus of intensive instruction in the resource classroom.

5. Regular classroom teachers need to have both an understanding of, and administrative support for implementing, classroom modifications for students with learning disabilities.

Many middle and high school students who come to the Tennessee Center for Dyslexia report that modifications (books on tape, extra time on written tests, etc.) are not being provided in their regular classes. Many resource teachers who responded to our survey said that regular classroom teachers are uninformed about, or are unwilling to provide, modifications for students who clearly need them. Students must have accommodations and modifications in the classroom so that they can build vocabulary and acquire content knowledge. Students need to both increase their literacy skills and acquire information about the world around them. In combination, these opportunities will support the development of individuals capable of full participation in society.

6. Creative solutions must be explored.

Many states in the US permit low skilled readers to receive instruction in reading programs as a component of their middle or high school English curriculum. Tennessee teachers in the Center for Dyslexia Survey reported that if students with similar needs could be grouped together and put into a remedial program, those students' needs would be better served. If we want to improve adolescents' literacy skills we must be willing to look at a variety of models (e.g., English course credit or Carnegie units for literacy improvement courses, etc.). We must address the literacy problems of these students before they leave high school.


Center for Dyslexia 1999 Teacher Survey Results

The Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia distributed a survey to 522 public middle and high school special ed. and resource teachers in April 1999. 135 surveys (26%) were completed and returned. There were 17 counties represented in East Tennessee, 27 counties in Middle Tennessee, and 7 counties in West Tennessee. The survey asked four questions, three of which were open-ended. Some respondents gave more than one answer to a question. Results (which indicate the percentage of responding teachers who mentioned that answer) are below. Only the responses which were mentioned by at least 10% of the teachers are included here.

1. What are the barriers to getting effective instruction for students with severe reading and writing difficulties in your school?

34% Materials (lack of)

24% Class size or the way the class is set up

21% Time (not enough)

13% Need for more personnel

11% Need for teacher training

2. What are your frustrations in teaching adolescents with severe reading and writing difficulties?

36% Students themselves (have given up/low motivation)

21% Materials (lack of)

16% Students' reading problems (so severe, hard to remediate)

10% Teacher training needed

10% Time (not enough)

3. Do you feel adequately prepared to serve the students you teach who have severe reading and writing difficulties?

43% Yes

57% No

4. What do you perceive to be the greatest need in addressing students' severe readingand writing difficulties?

36% Materials (lack of)

19% Teacher training

14% More teachers to do one-to-one instruction

10% Special class to teach reading and writing

10% Student motivation

10% Class size