Research Does not Yet Exist to Support Any Program for Dyslexia
As of July, 2010, the US Department of Education had not been able to identify a single method or approach for dyslexia or learning disabilities that is supported by strong research. See What Works Clearinghouse: Students with Learning Disabilities (archived page)
Out of 12 programs evaluated, 9 were deemed to have “No Studies Meeting Evidence Standards”. That included well-established programs in use in many schools, including Orton-Gillingham based tutoring; Wilson Reading System, Alphabetic Phonics, and Barton Reading System. That’s right — the traditional, phonics based instructional approaches to dyslexia that schools today are most likely to offer in an IEP, and that parents are most likely to request – are not supported by even a single scientific study that passes muster, according to the US agency in charge of evaluating such research.
In fact, the ONLY phonics-based program supported by any research was Lindamood Bell LiPS based on a single study of 50 students, comparing the group receiving the LiPS program with a matched comparison group receiving an alternate, non-standard program developed for purposes of research. Based on that study, the Education Department reported that the extent of evidence was “small” with “potentially positive” effects for alphabetics and reading fluency, “no discernible effects” for reading comprehension, and “potentially negative” effects for writing (spelling).
Further, although not reflected in the ED agency report, the initial gains seen in the study were not sustained over time. The author of the referenced study reported that after two years, there was no difference between either the intervention or comparison group, and students remained in the bottom 2% for reading fluency, with a large percentage showing no improvement at all. See Figure 4 at p. 99 in Lessons Learned from Intervention Research.
More Research is Needed Before Limits are Placed
Does this mean that none of these programs work? No — it simply means that it is very difficult for practical and ethical reasons to set up a credible research study involving schoolchildren.
The lack of solid research doesn’t tell us anything one way or another, but it is a good reason why it is premature for any laws that limit the types of programs that can be offered to dyslexic children. A school cannot be mandated to provide something that doesn’t exist.
But laws that put such an impossible mandate in place can be misused. The most likely result is that schools will simply continue to use whatever curriculum or intervention they have used in the past, and the lack of good research will be raised as a barrier to any school administrator or parents who are looking for ways to try something new.
We believe that the laws need to recognize that research is ongoing, but children need help now. Laws mandating services for dyslexic students should encourage flexibility and implementation of new and emerging methods, while also aiding in research by providing a mechanism for data collection and reporting when newer or experimental methods are put in place.
Thus, we cannot support any language that restricts available programs and support to dyslexic children to “scientifically-based” or “research-based” methods. We don’t have anything against science or scientific research — the problem is the research needed has not yet taken place, and there is no agreed standard by which existing research can be evaluated.
Dyslexic Children Are Entitled to an Individualized Approach
It is also important to keep in mind that research studies produces statistical information potentially applicable to a large number of children, but students with learning disabilities in the US are entitled by law to an individualized education plan. That means that even if an approach can be shown to be effective for 9 out of 10 children — through scientific evidence — the 10th child is entitled to help, too. If that child is a “nonresponder” — one of the minority who do not benefit from the particular program — then both ethically and legally, the child should be entitled to a different intervention tailored to his or her individual needs.
As of 2017, the WWC has identified 5 additional programs which meet evidence protocols and show potentially positive effects for students with learning disabilites. None of these programs involve phonics-based remediation to teach reading. One of the programs, Spelling Mastery, includes phonemic, morphemic, and whole word strategies to teach spelling skills.
For a full list of programs that have been evaluated by WWC in the context of students with learning disabilities, see Research Status – What Works Clearinghouse
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