Home » Dyslexia Intervention: what NOT to do

Dyslexia Intervention: what NOT to do

Struggling decoders and spellers of all ages who are undertaking any sort of intervention have, in virtually all cases, been badly let down by their previous instruction. Whatever teaching they have received in the past has not taught them, explicitly and systematically, the alphabet code and phonics skills. As a result of missing or mal-instruction, they have also acquired unhelpful strategies and become victims of the Matthew Effect.

Intervention speed is of great importance because without rapid and effective remediation it is common for struggling readers to develop feelings of anxiety, shame and low self-esteem. Unnecessary activities, although not directly harmful to reading and spelling acquisition, supplant effective practice and cause further delay. Time spent in one-to-one or small group work needs to make a discernible difference to all involved, FAST.

”Opportunity cost is one of the most important ideas in education. Every hour you spend doing one thing is an hour you don’t have available to spend on something else…” 
(Prof. Dylan Wiliam)

”Do Poor Readers Feel Angry, Sad, and Unpopular?”

”Time is not just precious, it is finite. Reading interventions must never waste students’ time” 
(Dianne Murphy)

As Dr. Steven Dykstra points out,
”There are only 2 ways to improve any treatment effort: 
1. You can identify better ways of doing things and do more of them.
2. You can identify less effective ways of doing things and do less of them.
The two often go hand in hand since there are only so many hours and resources.  We must almost always do less of something in order to do more of something else.  So, if we want to provide more effective instruction we must go through the process of identifying those things which are less effective or even harmful. Unfortunately, no one likes it when their way of doing things loses out and is selected for extinction”

The following activities are unnecessary (time-wasting), ineffective and often detrimental, and should play no part in any dyslexia intervention or catch-up reading/spelling programme. To a layperson’s eyes many of these procedures may seem extraordinary and nonsensical (they are). In spite of that, most of these activities appear in one or more well regarded, sometimes even government-funded programmes.

What NOT to do:

Use the picture, context and/or initial letter/s to ‘decode’ words

Teach the alphabet letter names before fluency in applying basic sounds to spellings is achieved

Use flashcards displaying isolated graphemes outside the context of real words.

Use flashcards displaying ‘common exception’ words to be memorised as whole shapes.

Sound out words using letter names when spelling for themselves

Put 3D letter shapes out in an ‘alphabet arc’ and chant the names.

Feel and identify 3D letter shapes in a bag.

Teach that some letters in some words are ‘silent’ e.g. wrong, gnome, thumb, knock, guest, love

Spend time on dictionary work

Spend time on oral-only phoneme awareness (PA) activities

Use a finger to form invisible letter shapes or words in the air, on a person’s back/forearm, textured board…

Use levelled/banded books with repetitive/predictive text for reading practice.

Teach adjacent consonants, where each represents a single phoneme, as one sound unit e.g. sp-, cl-, str-, br-, -nd, -lp

Onset-rime/rhyming families e.g. b-ake, m-ake, st-ake, sh-ake…

Teach visual spelling families e.g. <ough> family: cough, though, plough, ought, tough…<ea> family: bread, cream, early, heart, bear, steak, plateau, area, ocean…<ove> family: stove, glove, prove…

‘Story’ or sentence dictation by the pupil for the tutor to write down.

Reconstruct a cut-up sentence using words with as yet untaught code.

That words in the text can be skipped over – and returned to for another guess.

That words in the text can be swapped as long as the meaning is preserved e.g. ‘bug’ for beetle, ‘apple’ for apricot

Use the phrase ”That letter says its name”

Use the prompts “Does that look right?”, “Does that sound right?” and “Does that make sense?”

Use pseudo-words with illegal or inappropriate English spellings e.g. blighp, fayj, soyp, vrext, fowng, phonoi, goetz…

Use activities that focus on spotting deliberate spelling mistakes

Draw outlines around individual words to form word shapes.

Write a sequence of letters in rectangular box shapes (‘word-coffins’. Lyn Stone) to form a word.

Write words using their non-dominant hand

Write words using ‘bubble’ or ‘rainbow’ writing

Write words with their eyes shut or blindfolded.

Make 3D letter shapes using clay / playdough / shaving foam / pasta / pipe cleaners…

Look for little words in longer words e.g. <eat> in weather, <rat> in separate: aka ”toxic morphology” (Tricia Millar)
Use ‘silly sentence’ mnemonics for spelling e.g. big elephants can always understand small elephants = because

Look/say/cover/write/check -see spelling

Word searches with high frequency, ‘common exception’ or topic words

Listen to the teacher/celebrity/famous author or poet…reading.

Use a parent, TA or literacy coach, untrained in the alphabet code and error correction, or a dog, to listen to struggling decoders reading.

Silent reading (DEAR etc.) before accurate decoding has been achieved.

Teach syllable-division types: for example, the one which divides two letters forming a single GPC: ”kettle is split as ke– tle because <ket> is a closed syllable with a short vowel, <tle> is a regular final syllable”. See Room 101

Spelling rules: for example, ”i before e except after c”, ”when you see 2 vowel letters side-by-side the 1st one says its name”

Tailor teaching to fit a perceived thinking/learning style, right/left brain type, or ‘intelligence’

Teach ‘metacognition and self-regulation’ strategies to older struggling decoders instead of phonics.

Also, see Room 101 for dyslexia treatments and intervention programmes to avoid.

What To Do?

”One remarkable study conducted in 1985 by Carr and Evans in Canada showed this by recording ‘time on task’ for each individual child on 50 occasions per child over several months. They then correlated ‘time on task’ with each child’s reading-test score. They found that ‘ONLY three activities were positively and significantly correlated to reading skill: that is, the more time spent on these activities the higher the reading scores were. These are: practice segmenting and blending sounds in words (phonemes), specific phonics activities such as learning letter-sound relationships and writing words, phrases and sentences, by copying or from memory. The memorizing of sight words, lessons on vocabulary and grammar and listening to the teacher read showed strong negative correlations to reading scores – in other words, the more time children spent on these activities, the poorer their reading test scores were.” http://www.rrf.org.uk/archive.php?n_ID=173&n_issueNumber=59 
These findings have been replicated by others -see ‘Sumbler and Willows’ study, below

”Interestingly, it was found that out of these ten activities, only two were highly correlated with success in reading and spelling. These two were: ‘phonics’ (which included all phonics activities involving print, letter-sound correspondences, blending, segmenting, detecting sounds in words all with the printed form of the word), and ‘letter formation’ (which involved talking about the shapes of letters, writing letters and words in the context of learning letter-sound relationships). These were the only activities that mattered in terms of subsequent reading and spelling performance. However, equally important was the finding that six activities made no difference whatsoever to reading and spelling success, and two activities were actually related to worse reading and spelling achievement. The six activities that made no difference were: ‘Auditory phonological awareness’ (in the absence of print), ‘sight word learning’ (learning to recognise whole words as units without sounding out), ‘reading/grammar’ (grammar or punctuation explanations, reading by children that appeared to be real reading usually with the teacher), ‘concepts of print’ (learning about reading, chanting pattern books), ‘real writing’ (included any attempts to write text), ‘letter name learning’ (included only the learning of letter names, not sounds). The two activities that resulted in worse achievement were: ‘non-literacy activities’ (such as play, drawing, colouring, crafts), and ‘oral vocabulary’ (language development, story discussions, show and tell, teacher instructions).”