“A Major Step Forward” – Dr. Sally Shaywitz writes about the September 18 Congressional hearing on “The Science of Dyslexia”

A Message from YCDC Co-Directors Drs. Sally & Bennett Shaywitz

For all those who care deeply about dyslexia ⇾

A Major Step Forward

September 2014

We are so very happy to share with you what we believe will go down as a landmark in the history of dyslexia. On Thursday, September 18th, 2014, a hearing was held before the full Congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on “The Science of Dyslexia.” We are especially proud that the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity was well represented. Co-Directors Bennett A. Shaywitz, MD, the Charles and Helen Schwab Professor in Dyslexia and Learning Development, and Sally E. Shaywitz, MD, the Audrey G. Ratner Professor in Learning Development, were consulted. Dr. Sally Shaywitz was invited to testify on the main topic, “The Science of Dyslexia” at the hearing itself.

Video from the hearing

Dr. Sally Shaywitz speaks at the September 18th, 2014 Congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology titled “The Science of Dyslexia.”

Click here to watch other clips from the hearing.

Dyslexia: Not a knowledge gap, but an action gap

Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas) summed up the current situation extremely well “… typically in our school systems today there is not recognition, early detection, or enough teachers who are trained to spot symptoms of dyslexia early enough to get the students the intervention they need.”

Dr. Shaywitz emphasized that while more knowledge is always welcome, “In dyslexia, there is an abundance of high quality scientific knowledge so that we have not a knowledge gap, but an action gap. It is our hope that hearing the depth and extent of the scientific knowledge of dyslexia will alert policy makers to act and to act with a sense of urgency.” Chairman Smith concurred, “… our current understanding of dyslexia is not being fully utilized in either policy or practice.”

Resolution 456: most up-to-date, scientifically accepted definition of dyslexia

Strong support for Congressional Resolution 456 was expressed by speakers including Rep. Smith, Rep. Cassidy and Dr. Shaywitz, among others. Perhaps, most importantly, Resolution 456 calls on “schools and state and local educational agencies to recognize that dyslexia has significant educational implications that must be addressed.” As noted elsewhere on this website, Resolution 456 provides the most up-to-date, universal, scientifically accepted definition of dyslexia including:

  • it is an unexpected difficulty,
  • the scientific basis and basic difficulty and its resulting symptoms,
  • its paradoxical nature—the same person who may be a slow reader, may also think and reason extremely well.

Over 100 representatives have already signed on as co-sponsors of Resolution 456, key to the advancement of understanding of dyslexia and better treatment of all those who are dyslexic. It is the hope that as a result of this landmark hearing constituents will urge their own representative to sign on as a co-sponsor of Resolution 456.

Dyslexia differs from learning disabilities in its specificity & scientific validation

The Committee was interested to have clarified the relation of dyslexia and the term “learning disabilities”; dyslexia represents over 80% of all learning disabilities and differs from the others in its specificity and scientific validation. Dr. Shaywitz testified that rigorous research indicates dyslexia is very common, affecting one out of five and persists.

Dyslexia: unexpected difficulty in reading

Since its original report in 1896,  in the British Medical Journal by a physician, Dr. Pringle Morgan, dyslexia has always been conceptualized as an ‘unexpected’ difficulty in reading, that is, an individual can be quite bright and read at a level much below that expected of a person of his
or her ability. More recently, the Shaywitz lab provided empirical validation of the unexpected nature of dyslexia. The data indicate that in typical readers intelligence and reading track together, they are dynamically linked; “In contrast, in dyslexia reading and intelligence are not linked so that a child (or an adult) can have a very high level of intelligence and unexpectedly read at a much lower level, providing incontrovertible evidence that a person can be extremely bright and yet struggle to read.” Dyslexia is a paradox, that is, conforming to the Sea of Strengths conceptual model championed by the Shaywitzes which describes dyslexia as a weakness in getting to the sounds of spoken words surrounded by strengths in higher level thinking and reasoning, a model reflecting Dr. Shaywitz’s experience here at Yale and elsewhere exemplified by such individuals as acclaimed attorney David Boies, ground-breaking financier Charles Schwab and Cleveland Clinic CEO, renowned physician Dr. Toby Cosgrove, and Oscar-winning director and producer Roger Ross Williams.

Rep. Cassidy (R-LA) speaks movingly of dyslexia impact on families

The hearing was outstanding in that it not only presented the scientific basis of dyslexia but also left no doubt about the deep impact of dyslexia on children who are dyslexic and their families. Bipartisan Dyslexia Caucus founder Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) spoke movingly about the experience he and his wife, Dr. Laura Cassidy, had in trying to find help, including a supportive (both educationally and personally) environment for their dyslexic daughter, Kate, then age 7 years; “We were amazed how much is known, and yet not incorporated into public policy.” This experience led him and his wife to form a new charter school, the Louisiana Key Academy (LKA) to specifically serve students who are dyslexic.

Louisiana Key Academy (LKA) — an effective model for teaching children who are dyslexic

From a personal perspective, we have visited the Louisiana Key Academy (LKA) and come away extremely impressed and deeply moved by what we saw educationally and personally in terms of the children and their interactions with teachers and classmates. Indeed, Stacy Antie, the parent of a child attending LKA, spoke, “My son would come home every day and cry and ask, ‘Mom, why am I stupid and no one else is?’” “His self-esteem plummeted. He would never read a book out loud to anyone but me. He became very introverted and never wanted to do anything outside of the house.” Ms. Antie continued, “A few days into the school year, he came home and was excited to talk to me because he found that a boy in his class had trouble reading too, and so did a girl in his class.” With much emotion, she added, “For the first time in his life, he didn’t feel like something was wrong with him because everyone in this school was just like him. His self-esteem picked up a little each day.”

Max Brooks: a dyslexic writer who does not read aloud

“If we already have mandatory racial sensitivity training for our police, why not have mandatory dyslexia recognition training for our teachers?” – Max Brooks

Max Brooks, dyslexic, and today a successful

writer, recounted the pain and anxiety that accompany dyslexia when the individual is in a school environment that lacks understanding and blames the student for not reading quickly. Even today, as an acclaimed writer, Brooks told the hearing, as a result of the teasing, bullying and shame he was subjected to as a child in class, he will not read aloud and did not read his testimony at the hearing. Seeing and personally experiencing the great harm that is done to students by teachers who just “don’t get” dyslexia led this dyslexic writer to conclude his poignant testimony with this statement, “A little awareness and flexible teaching methods could unlock unlimited potential in these kids who now think they’re losers. If we already have mandatory racial sensitivity training for our police, why not have mandatory dyslexia recognition training for our teachers? It’s so simple, so easy, and when you look at all the other government programs designed to help citizens help themselves, it’s probably the least expensive.”

Thank you, Rep. Smith, Rep. Cassidy and all the other Committee members, staffers and speakers for having the courage and commitment to take this ground-breaking step forward.  Let us unite and act for all children and adults who are dyslexic.

In response to the many who have asked, below are the Recommendations made to the Congressional Science, Space and Technology Committee on September 18, 2014.

I am optimistic, once this committee is aware of the strong science of dyslexia, educators will want to align their practices and policies with 21st century science.


To bring education together with current scientific knowledge, the following are recommended:

  1. First and foremost, schools must not be allowed to ignore, fail to recognize or deny the reality or diagnosis of dyslexia.
  2. Schools, including teachers, principals and other administrators and parents, should make every effort to use the word dyslexia since it has specific, highly relevant and explanatory meaning; science has provided its: definition; epidemiology; cognitive basis; neurobiological basis; developmental progression; long-term outcome. For dyslexia, knowledge of its cognitive basis indicates what symptoms to look for so that symptoms of dyslexia in the classroom (and at home) are noted and acknowledged rather than, as currently happens, ignored or overlooked. This greater awareness and understanding of dyslexia and its impact will benefit both the teacher and student, both in the teaching of reading and in the climate and attitudes within the classroom.
  3. Using the word dyslexia provides a common language facilitating communication among teachers, clinicians, scientists and parents.
  4. For the student, the knowledge that he is dyslexic is empowering, providing the student with self-understanding and self-awareness of what he has and what he needs to do in order to succeed.
  5. For students, knowledge that they are dyslexic also provides a community to join — they know they are not alone.
  6. For the parent and teacher and importantly, the student, knowledge that he or she is dyslexic brings with it the information that the individual is not stupid or lazy.
  7. Critically important is that schools must use evidence-based programs that have proven efficacy; research-based simply indicates that there are theoretical suggestions but does not provide evidence that the program is, indeed, effective. Evidence-based programs are akin to the level of evidence the FDA requires before a medication can be approved for use. Many, many theoretical, research-based approaches, when tested in the field, prove to be ineffective. Our children’s reading is too important to be left to theoretical, but unproven, practices and methods. We must replace anecdotal and common, but, non-evidence-based practices, with those that are proven, that is, they are evidence-based.
  8. Professional development programs targeted for teachers must provide evidence that the students of the teachers taking these programs actually improve in their reading performance. This is in contrast to some professional development programs that seem to improve teachers’ understanding but not in a way that results in improvement in their students’ reading performance.
  9. Schools of education must ensure that aspiring teachers are taught evidence-based methods to teach reading and that the aspiring teachers receive monitored, supervised experience and are effective in implementing these evidence-based methods.
  10. Scientific evidence that reading growth is maximum in the very first few years of school and then plateaus together with new data indicating that the reading gap between typical and dyslexic readers is already present at first grade and persists means that students must receive evidence-based instruction at the start of their school experience and their progress carefully monitored. Waiting is harmful and not acceptable.
  11. Given the rapid growth in reading in the very first years of school and the already present gap by first grade, it seems reasonable to encourage the creation of special charter schools for grades K–3 that focus solely on dyslexia. The goal is to reach children at risk for dyslexia early on when reading intervention can be maximally effective and before the students fall further and further behind. At such specialized charter schools, such as the one, Louisiana Key Academy, attended by the children of a fellow panel member, the entire educational team—from principal to classroom teacher to physical education instructor—understand dyslexia, its impact on students in various situations and is on board to support the students throughout their day. Here, students learn and there is no bullying by students or frustration expressed by teachers who may not understand the impact of dyslexia. These schools can also serve as resources where teachers can come, spend time and learn about dyslexia, what it is and how it impacts a student, and learn specific evidence-based methods for teaching reading to dyslexic students and how to best implement these methods.

There is so much more to tell; for those who have questions and want to know more, visit the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity website or look at my book, Overcoming Dyslexia, which discusses the scientific basis of dyslexia and how to translate this knowledge into practice.
— Dr. Sally Shaywitz

Cautionary Note:

Prior to selecting a reading program, you must always ask: “Show me the evidence.”

We must ensure that programs that are used truly meet the standard of “evidence-based” and that this scientific term is not used indiscriminately, that is, plunked down to describe a program that does not truly meet the high standard and implications of what “evidence-based” implies. This means that if a program promotes itself as “evidence-based,” it must be required to produce evidence of a randomized field trial where the program in question is tested against other programs and that this program was demonstrated as effective in improving students’ reading.  The model for such evidence-based field trials is that required by the FDA for medications before the medication is approved as effective and ready for use.

It would be a shame to allow the term “evidence-based” to be used to describe a program, indiscriminately, without reliable evidence that the program is actually effective in improving students’ reading. It is important to appreciate that anecdotal or received wisdom is insufficient. We have come too far and made too much progress to allow anything less than valid scientific evidence to be used in determining if, indeed, a program is effective in improving students’ reading. Thus, there must be a strict criterion of proof emanating from positive field trials – whether used:

  • in a school to teach children to read;
  • by colleges to train future teachers of reading; or
  • in providing professional development to teachers.

The gold standard must be proof (evidence) that the program improves the children’s reading. To accept anything less would be a regressive step backward and a loss for all the parents, educators and children who are eagerly awaiting programs that truly have evidence that they are effective.

Click on the video below to watch and listen to Dr. Sally Shaywitz talk about the difference between evidence-based programs and research-based programs.

Before purchasing a program, you must always ask, “SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE.”

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