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Creating ‘Landmark’ research-based strategies for dyslexic readers

By Cindy Atoji Keene

There has been compelling new research on dyslexia in the last decade but often a gap when putting this crucial information into practice in the classroom. At the Landmark School. Adam Hickey is charged with sifting through the most recent data from cognitive intervention studies to help educators best meet the academic needs of students at this Beverly-based private school for language-based learning disabilities. “An incredible amount of research on the human brain – in the fields of education, neuroscience, and technology and more – is helping us understand how to best help children with language learning difficulties,” said Hickey, who also travels around the state helping other schools implement programs and instruction that is more likely to help readers increase their fluency.

Q: What’s a specific example of how Landmark could apply research to help formulate new systems and curriculum?

A: Studies have shown that the gap between dyslexic and typical readers already exists by first grade and persists – we have to get to these children early and not wait. So we need to identify these ‘at risk’ readers early and give them intensive instruction before they start falling behind. Dyslexia is very common – one out of five students have a reading disability but many schools typically fail to acknowledge, much less identify students, who are dyslexic.

Q: What do we know about kids with dyslexia that we didn’t know a decade or two ago?
A: Dyslexia is a ‘blind’ disability, meaning that it’s hidden and kids are good at developing coping strategies to compensate for their difficulties. We know that for these students, language breaks down and they have trouble discriminating between words and difficulty decoding sounds, letters and meanings. And yet they have an incredibly high reasoning ability, so what that looks like out of the classroom is that they can talk the best game. When you go with them to dinner, they’ll order the same item from the menu over and over because they can’t read, yet are able to spin a conversation about current politics at a national level.

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Q: You worked with researchers from Harvard to look at the use of e-readers by students with dyslexia. What did you find out?

A: We wanted to know about whether iPods, Kindles, iPads or other e-readers could help dyslexic students read faster and more accurately. Landmark high school students were tested by a visual learning lab to see if changing fonts, word spacing or letter size could help reduce ‘visual attention deficit,’ which is an inability to concentrate on letters or words. Researchers found that the short lines on an e-reader can reduce this distraction and help readers concentrate. So now we know that these devices aren’t just technological gadgets but an educational resource for those with dyslexia.

Q: What do you tell other schools when you work to transfer Landmark strategies to other settings?

A: I see really good work happening at public schools – teachers who are dedicated and energetic. They’re at the edge of their seats, eating up everything we tell them. The most common question they ask is, ‘That’s a great theory, but what do I do tomorrow to help a student who is struggling with writing?’ I tell them to break up tasks into small steps and manipulate the variables. With a higher volume of text, you need to reduce complexity, for example. If they’re reading William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, for example, they might read less pages; but if it’s a novel by John Irving, you can bump up the reading pace.

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Q: What kind of student were you?

A: I was a pretty good student. I was lucky enough to have an English teacher during my sophomore year of high school who helped me understand the way language worked. Everything fell into place and the syntax of language made sense to me. I was a grammar geek and even today I talk about a ‘family tree’ of grammar as a conceptual framework. When I share that idea with other teachers, sometimes I go back to the school and see grammar family trees up and down the hallway that kids have created. It’s very gratifying.

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