Sifting through the Mire: Finding Reliable Intervention

As the school year winds down, I receive an influx of questions via DyslexiaHelp and in my private clinical practice from parents relative to deciding on summer program options for their child with dyslexia or other language-based learning disabilities.

Given that this decision impacts family resources of time and finances, not to mention a kid’s summer vacation, it is important that parents choose wisely. The question is how to do so when there is so much out there—vision therapy, balance programs, brain calisthenics; many that are savvily marketed and some of which purport to be the “cure” for reading disability.

First, let’s be clear—dyslexia and language-based learning disabilities are life-long. There are no cures. There are definitely ways to mitigate the challenges, improve skills, learn strategies, and succeed academically and in life, but there are no cures. So, any program, approach, fix that states it will cure is a no-brainer—don’t go there.

So, how does a parent sift through all the marketing ploys and figure out what’s legit (i.e., research-based) and what is not? I always point parents to this informative Perspectives on Language and Literacy edition (2011) from the International Dyslexia Association that provided the straight scoop on a number of controversial therapies. It is available here [1]. I highly recommend being familiar with the recommendations of these articles.

Additionally, Gregory Lof, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, professor in Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) at the MGH Institute of Health Professionals, presented this very informative poster session titled “Science vs. Pseudoscience in CSD: A Checklist for Skeptical Thinking [2]” at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association national meeting in 2012. His points relative to determining the appropriateness of alternative treatment approaches in CSD are directly applicable to dyslexia treatment. You can access this information on our site here [2].

So, what does the literature say about effective intervention for dyslexia? According to the literature, instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, text comprehension, and vocabulary, which includes word study (e.g., inflectional words endings such as -ing and -ed; Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes) is key to teaching reading. Add to that direct instruction in spelling patterns and rules and writing. And, the intervention should be explicit and systematic.

Additionally, research has shown that intensity works. For example, if your budget allows for 20 sessions, better outcomes occur when we “amass” those sessions together—4x/week for 5 weeks—versus “distribute” them 1x/week over 20 weeks. So, schedule some intensive sessions, go on vacation, and then come back for another round of intensive work.

Also, there is nothing special about a session of 30 or 45 minutes in length that is standard practice. And, just because a child is young or a student has ADHD doesn’t mean he or she can’t handle a longer session. Of course it depends on the clinician and therapy setting, but I see kids for 90 minutes and these are kids with attentional issues and who are as young as 5 years old. I actually prefer 90 minutes because I can get to all of those areas noted above and have some fun while doing it. How do I do it? I use student interest and games; and I give the kids a lot of autonomy within the session - but I think that’s another reflection.

So, in closing, I advise you to be a savvy consumer. Do your homework; after all you expect that of your child, right? Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. And, be sure that you are seeing results related to reading, spelling, and writing!

Joanne Marttila Pierson, Ph.D., CCC-SLP
May 2015