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Insights from teacher research on dyslexia remediation
Professor Diane Montgomery

On reading the last edition of the PATOSS Bulletin I felt empathy for the view of Rachel Simpson on how complex the assessment of dyslexia had become. It applies across the field. Yet we do know what works in remedial terms even if the theory behind it has often been wrong. We need to share effective practice more and use it to evaluate the theory and research.

In 1991, Pumfrey and Reason in an NFER survey reviewed national remedial provision and concluded that:

‘If a pedagogic panacea to children’s difficulties in reading, spelling and writing existed, it would
probably have been identified by now. It has not.’ (p. 6)

I did not agree with them then and I do not agree with them now. The four specialist centres I had visited in South East London and Surrey all had data that demonstrated they were effective although it was not published. An inspection by HMI (1989) had even identified them as Centres of Excellence. It was notable that these centres were using a small range of programmes that were derived from the Orton - Gillingham – Stillman (OGS) system (Gillingham and Stillman, 1956) introduced into the UK in 1963 by Sally Childs in her training courses. Each centre - Hornsby’s, Pollack’s, Cowdery’s and Augur’s (formerly Hickey’s at Staines) appeared to have developed its own variant within the same general structure.

What was evident was a conflict between methods advocated for the acquisition and development of literacy in ‘normal’ pupils and those suitable for remedial work with dyslexics. Teaching of reading experts were even aghast at the methods employed when observing Hickey at work with her dyslexics. Their opposition meant that she was unable to find a place to teach in their institution and had to set up privately what eventually became the Staines Dyslexia Institute.

This type of opposition continued when the BDA developed a proposal for a Certificate course for teaching dyslexics that embraced Hickey’s teaching system. The Council for National Academic Awards’ team of evaluators refused to validate the curriculum unless the methods promoted were eclectic reflecting good reading teaching practice. The curriculum was revised accordingly but in my view set much dyslexia training on the wrong course. Even the publication of the data of Hornsby and Farrar (1990) and Thomson (1990) see table 1 below, by Pumfrey and Elliott (1990) did not cause pause for thought and many specialist centres were closed.

Funding and research interest went into reading almost entirely for the next 15 years even though Cataldo and Ellis (1990) had demonstrated the importance of spelling in the development of reading. Handwriting was largely ignored despite its importance in supporting spelling and composition. The National Literacy Strategy (1998) and the research leading up to it continually asserted the primacy of reading teaching over other literacy skills. But was this reasonable especially in remedial provision?

What needs to be questioned is whether a system that has already failed dyslexics is still suitable for remediation and whether reading is the core difficulty in any case (Montgomery, 2007).

Data from Cowdery’s Centre case records were collected before it closed and were analysed to determine how much progress pupils had made in reading and spelling per year after entry into their Teaching Reading Through Spelling (TRTS) programme (Cowdery et al 1994). This was based upon Hickey’s (1977) anglicised version of OGS and the tutors there had all attended Hickey’s initial training course and Prince–Bruce had already written a spelling programme for the Local Authority.

The criteria they operated by were as follows: -
• pupils would be referred to the Centre waiting list only after a full psychologist’s report
• entry to the Centre would follow after interview by one of the tutors with pupil and parent(s), an assessment and report
• entrants must have an IQ not lower than 90
• a 20 per cent decrement between ability and literacy skills with literacy being the poorer
• pupils would be taught in matched pairs (matched for skills levels)
• lessons were on a withdrawal basis at the Centre
• lessons would last 50 minutes (within the one hour envelope allowed)
• lessons should be twice per week
• after two years the remedial provision would be terminated
• the method was the 4 tutors’ agreed version of TRTS
• a range of reading schemes were available for use to fit in with the school provision
• an optional period of 6 months top-up should be available in later secondary school to aid spelling

The research criterion for successful provision (Montgomery 1997a) was that the dyslexics should make at least two years progress in reading and spelling in each chronological age year otherwise they could never catch up. The records of all the pupils that were complete from the 4 tutors over the preceding two years were then analysed and the rate of progress calculated.

Other data were added from teacher researchers’ dissertations following the MA SpLD and MA SEN distance learning programmes at Middlesex after these were set up in 1993 and can be seen in Tables 1 and 2 in the results section below. These later researchers could not always maintain all the criteria of the specialist centre as the teachers were school based. For example, tuition was often individual and sessions rarely 50 minutes long because of timetabling constraints. Nevertheless the variations themselves have provided some valuable insights.

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