What Constitutes an “Informed” Teacher of Structured Language Education?

What Constitutes an “Informed” Teacher of Structured Language Education?

Georgette Dickman, M.A., LDT/CPresident,
NJIDA 2003 Summer Newsletter

“Our task… is not to fix the blame for the past, but to fix the course for the future.” These words of John F. Kennedy underscore the mission of the International Dyslexia Association to look forward and promote and support the preparation of informed or trained instructors to ameliorate the traumatic impact of dyslexia.

The current view of the situation reveals that pre-service teacher education programs are not graduating teachers who are adequately prepared, i.e., sufficiently knowledgeable and trained to teach reading. Pre-service programs rarely offer adequate coursework in the theoretical and scientific underpinnings of the reading process, nor do they adequately examine the structure of language. Supervised practice in teaching reading, spelling, and written expression under the watchful eye of a master teacher does not occur (Carnine, 1996). Properly certified, improperly prepared; it is unreasonable to expect that these teachers will be able to meet the literacy needs of all students in their class. Even the most gifted teachers cannot be expected to teach what they do not know.

What is required of an informed teacher when teaching reading, spelling, and written expression? Teachers need to know a daunting body of information. Teachers must have a solid foundation in understanding the developmental continuum of the reading process that occurs from emergent to skilled reader. Teachers must have an understanding of the phonology of the language, i. e., the rule system that governs English. Teachers must be able to identify, isolate, and manipulate the sounds of English (phonemic awareness) and must demonstrate explicit knowledge of the alphabetic principle (sound/symbol associations). In addition, knowledge of syllable patterns and syllable division is essential in determining the correct pronunciation of vowel sounds in unfamiliar words. Teachers must be thoroughly conversant with the morphological layer of language (prefixes, roots, and suffixes) and the orthographic dimensions (ending rules, generalizations, and spelling patterns) in order to present these topics in a systematic and cumulative sequence. Teachers must have available in their bag of tricks specific strategies to foster the development of automaticity and fluency. Teachers must appreciate the components of written expression to be able to teach writing skills including syntax, grammar, and mechanics of the language. From the outset, teachers of reading must acknowledge the importance of comprehension at the word, sentence, and paragraph level and ensure that all instruction is infused with strategies that foster and acknowledge comprehension as the primary goal of reading. Finally, teachers must have a thorough knowledge of the ways in which the layers of English; i.e., Anglo-Saxon, Latin, French, and Greek, have contributed to this marvelously rich and complex language.

In view of the inordinate demands place upon the informed teacher, it is not surprising that Moats reports that less than 10% of teachers have acquired the prerequisite knowledge-base to teach reading! (Moats, 1997) This overwhelming lack of knowledge of English language structure and specific methods for delivering direct, sequential, cumulative, research-based instruction results in the painful failure of a significant percentage of students to achieve reading competence. It is essential that instruction is delivered diagnostically and that students are taught to mastery.

Avoiding placing blame for past practices and inequities and moving to a clear understanding of what constitutes an informed instructor, the International Dyslexia Association and its Branches have identified two initiatives:

  • in-service training, and
  • establishment of an accrediting/certifying association.

Throughout the year, the forty-seven Branches faithfully offer a variety of teacher training opportunities in structured language education. Until teachers begin receiving the preparation they need at a preservice level to become informed instructors, in-service opportunities can provide a positive alternative. The majority of these offerings are professional development courses which attract certified teachers. Teachers, in the trenches, who are witnessing the ineffectiveness of the approaches to which they were exposed in college are flocking to these courses to become “informed.”

To be sure, this trend is encouraging and is providing teachers with an introduction to structured language education. However, the two operant words are “introduction” and “education.” Introductory courses are a beginning, a preface, a preamble. They are organized to provide an overall schema to familiarize teachers with a new approach to teaching. The use of the word “education” in the phrase structured language education implies knowledge gained over time. Education does not happen overnight.

Teachers who enroll in introductory course are to be applauded; however, they can neither be considered informed nor trainedTraining demands a minimum of forty-five hours of lecture to acquire a meaningful knowledge-base in the components of the structure of language and sixty to one hundred hours of practicum including observations by a master teacher with feedback and discussion. In other words “…teaching children to read is a job for an expert” (Brady & Moats, 1997). School administrators who attempt to assign the “trained” label to teachers who have taken introductory courses are doing an injustice to parents and students and a disservice to the teachers, themselves.

In addition to the many in-service introductory opportunities offered yearly by the Branches, The Board of Directors of the International Dyslexia Association approved the formation of The Alliance for Accreditation and Certification of Structured Language Education. This coalition has established national standards. It is committed to promoting optimal methods of reading instruction for teachers and to safeguarding parents as they seek informed and/or trained instructors for their children. The Alliance consists of five organizations that share a common interest in certifying teachers and therapists and accrediting training courses. The members of The Alliance are:

  • The International Dyslexia Association (sponsors The Alliance),
  • Academic Language Therapy Association (certifies individuals),
  • Academic Language Therapy Association Centers Council (accredits training centers),
  • The Academy of Orton Gillingham Practitioners and Educators (certifies individuals & institutions, and accredits training sites), and
  • International Multisensory Structured Language Education Council (accredits training programs).

Training standards and levels of expertise have been clearly outlined by The Alliance. In addition, there are programs with long track records for providing research-based and clinically sound instruction involving vigorous teacher training that include the Wilson Reading System (www.wilsonlanguage.com), Lindamood-Bell (www.lblp.com/index.html), and several others.

Public education has a responsibility to provide a “free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to students. For the student with dyslexia, a FAPE requires instruction from a teacher trained in structured language education. The International Dyslexia Association through the Alliance is providing a unique service to public school administrators by identifying the programs that are accredited and individuals who are certified. These programs and individuals undergo a rigorous application and examination process which assures parents and administrators that instruction provided is research-based and clinically proven. The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) of the U.S. Department of Education has stated:

“if an IEP team determines that it is necessary for the individual providing the special education…to a child with a disability to have specific training…in order to received FAPE, then it would be appropriate for the team to include those specifications in the child’s IEP” (OSEP, letter of clarification April 2, 2002; (www.wrightslaw.com/las/osep/osers.ltr.dickman.nclb.pdf).

Students with dyslexia must receive instruction from a teacher who is “informed” in research-based practices. With a coalition of organizations now in place for identifying “informed” instructors, we have made a great stride in improving the opportunities for students with dyslexia by assuring that they receive appropriate instruction that is delivered with fidelity to its design.

President Bush has put the public on notice, “When it comes to the education of our children … failure is not an option.” IDA agrees completely! We are doing everything possible to fix the course for the future by informing teachers, informing parents, and informing public school administrators that “informed” instructors are available to deliver “informed” instruction!
*Dyslexia Specialist (Farleigh Dickenson University); certified at the teacher, therapist, and teacher trainer level (IMSLEC).

Carnine, D. (1996). Strengthening the Profession. In Cramer, S. and Ellis, W. Learning disabilities Lifelong Issues. Baltimore: Brookes.

Brady & Moats (1997) Informed Instruction for Reading Success: Foundations for Teacher Preparation. Baltimore, MD.

Moats, L. (1995). Spelling: Development Disability and Instruction. Baltimore: York Press.