“My child increased two years in reading when he did an intervention … so why is he still getting ‘D’s on his report card?”

Specific Literacy Impairment is a neurodevelopmental based difficulty.  Therefore, it is usually perceived as lifelong in its tendency to interfere with literacy skill development.

However, we also know that evidence-based interventions have significant potential to ‘up-skill’ and in some cases help a child to overcome the traits and symptoms that are part and parcel of learning disabilities like Dyslexia or Dysgraphia.

The Question

So, how should we understand the dilemma of a child with Dyslexia who has achieved significant gains through intervention but then ‘fails’ to pass school subjects?
This is not only an essential question that demands an answer but is a question that is asked often by parents (not so much by teachers) and mostly goes unanswered.

Consider Angus

Consider the real case of Angus:  Angus is a 10 year 3-month-old boy whole lives in Brisbane.  He attends a medium size public school that has a reputation for being academic but also has a very good learning support team.  Teachers have an open relationship with parents and Angus ‘loves’ his teacher.

Angus has Dyslexia and Dysgraphia.  When first assessed, his reading was 20 months behind his age and year of schooling and his spelling was 24 months delayed.  He had excellent oral skills and cognitive testing placed his firmly within the average range.  He had persisting skills in sport, art and music and was average at maths.

Angus was somewhat anxious, but this was relative to his struggles with reading, spelling, writing and fluency rather than a generalised anxiety.

Angus’ parents sought help and decided to participate in an intervention over a 6-month (two school terms) period.  The intervention was demanding but Angus and his parents worked very hard and remained consistent.

The results of the intervention were that Angus showed reading gains of 28 months and spelling gains of 24 months in the 6-month period.

It was clear that Angus was happier, reading and spelling was less effortful, and he was less anxious.  To all concerned, including his classroom teacher, the literacy intervention was successful.

Angus took a three-month break from intervention and was measured again.  His reading and spelling had continued to improve at the same rate without intervention as these skills did when undergoing intervention.  Again, this was very solid evidence that the intervention had worked.

The Problem

When Angus was first assessed and given a diagnosis of Specific Reading Impairment (Dyslexia) and the related diagnosis of Dysgraphia he was achieving a ‘D’ for all subjects except for maths for which he was achieving a ‘C’.

Following intervention, including the 3-month layoff where he continued to improve independently, Angus received his end of year report card.

Sadly, it was unchanged.  Naturally, both Angus and his parents were confused.  They knew he was reading better; they knew he was happier and they also knew that he was achieving better in daily tasks in class.  Angus’ teacher had also verbally reported that she was happy with his progress.

Angus and his parents felt discouraged.  In Angus’ case, those who opposed intervention (the learning support teacher and deputy principal) were able to say, ‘I told you so’.  In other words, ‘don’t bother doing intervention as it probably won’t change anything’.  At this point, it seemed that the detractors were right!

So, what is the explanation?

Consider the following points:

Specific literacy intervention is designed to elevate the fundamental skills of reading accuracy, reading rate, fluency and spelling accuracy.  Empirical evidence collected over the period of the intervention (In Angus’ case it was Term 1 and 2 of 2019) – showed collective gains of around 2+ years.

It is false to assume that gains in fundamental areas such as literacy (reading accuracy, reading rate, fluency, spelling) will automatically result in improved grades.

This is easily proven by examining the description of the Levels of Achievement stated on most report cards.  Typically, Levels of Achievement are measured against a Taxonomy (which is a classification or catalogue of terms that seek to describe the sophistication of achievement).  This is entirely unlike how empirical measurements on standardized tests actually work.
It is somewhat similar to the conundrum faced when a student, with a Full-Scale IQ of 130 (Well Above Average) achieves a ‘D’ in English or Maths.

It is important to compare ‘apples with apples’.  A comparison of Report Card descriptions about subject achievement levels over against empirical measurements such as reading accuracy borders on absurd.   This is particularly true of students from grade 2 onwards.

The essential reason for this is simple:  When a teacher is asked to rate a child’s development in the skills relative to English (as a subject) then they are commenting on much more than just fundamental reading skills.  The NAPLAN criteria bear this out.  The reading criteria for NAPLAN requires a student to read a range of informative, imaginative and persuasive texts so that they might find information, connect ideas, draw conclusions, form opinions etc.

Literacy intervention is primarily concerned with the direct and specific elevation of decoding, encoding, reading and spelling accuracy, reading rate and fluency.  These skills are not only different skills but are clearly prerequisite to those being assessed by teachers and reported on through student report cards.

The Concept of ‘Reading Debt’ and ‘Transference’

The concept of ‘Reading Debt’ and ‘Transference’ is the chief way to explain the disparity between vastly improved reading and spelling skills (such as was the case with Angus) and unchanged results on student reports.

Children, like Angus, have a ‘Reading Debt’.  This essentially means that they are ‘Under-Read’.  This means that while intervention may have worked and they ‘end-up’ reading very well on standardized, empirical tests, they are still quite inexperienced at accessing text and cannot yet take advantage of learning opportunities.  In other words, the new-found skills need time to ‘transfer’ into the reality of effortless reading that results in joy, knowledge and comprehension.

‘Reading Debt’ and yet to be realized ‘transference’ is responsible for why improvements under intervention can take between 6-18 months to ‘transfer’ into school grades.

We know that this answer positively correlates to the research around working memory training such as Cogmed, where the gains achieved empirically in a 6-week period tend to peak 6 months later.

The neurological reasons for this are complex and outside of the scope of this article.  However, the reality of ‘Reading Debt’ and ‘Transference’ are very real and remain very under-appreciated or worse misunderstood or unknown.

To conclude, it is most definitely worth engaging in evidence based intervention with qualified instructors.  There will not only be gains in relation to improved reading and increased confidence but in time these gains will positively transfer to better academic outcomes in the long run.

By Jason McGowan
Dr of Special Education (Clinical), Literacy and Learning Disability

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