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Looking Into Our Past For A Better Future: Learning Disability Intervention Then And Now

Posted on April 22, 2016

By Howard Eaton

My severe dyslexia was diagnosed by one of the most prominent psychiatrists in the field of dyslexia in the 70’s and 80’s, Dr. Carl Kline. Dr. Kline diagnosed hundreds of children with dyslexia in his remarkable career. He advocated strongly for teaching sound/symbol relationships or phonics. In fact, he started training Orton-Gillingham tutors in the Vancouver area with the support of his wife, Carolyn. I was fortunate to have been tutored by one of their students in the early 70’s after dropping out of school in grade five. Parents of children with dyslexia – and learning disabilities in general – were grateful for his and his wife’s support and encouragement.

Unfortunately, not all public school administrators and teachers admired Dr. Kline. I often heard stories of school-based meetings with him that were fairly adversarial. After years of trying to get public schools to advocate for teaching phonics with minimal response, Dr. Kline became frustrated and used little tact to tell them what he thought. Eventually, some school administrators refused to meet with him.

My last meeting with Dr. Kline was over lunch several decades ago. It was a joy to catch up with him 30 years after my initial diagnosis. We chatted briefly about the resistance he faced from public schools.  He smiled and said, “Some paradigms are hard to change, but if it is an important cause, you need to keep at it no matter how frustrating.”

I often reflect on those words from Dr. Kline because I too have faced the same resistance and criticism he experienced because of my work with the Arrowsmith Program over the last decade.

Life-Long Learning Disability Paradigm: Criticizing Cognitive Intervention  

The Arrowsmith Program is an individualized cognitive intervention program for children and adults with learning disabilities. The premise is that the brain can change through targeted, repetitive, and challenging exercises.

This is not a new idea, but one developed by neuroscientists for decades. Unfortunately, experts in the field of education aren’t catching up to findings in neuroscience. This has resulted in a knowledge gap due to conceptual and linguistic misunderstandings. The gap is slowly closing, but the paradigm in the field of learning disabilities remains: that learning disabilities are life-long. This concept is even engrained in the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada and the Learning Disabilities Association of America’s definitions of a learning disability.

Ironically, criticism regarding the efficacy of the Arrowsmith Program comes from the same group that supported Dr. Kline’s efforts to reshape British Columbia’s public school mindset on teaching phonics to children with dyslexia. Supporters of Dr. Kline’s work include Orton-Gillingham teacher and tutors, private schools for children with dyslexia in Vancouver, and private psychologists who refer children with dyslexia to various support services such as tutors and private schools. This community of practitioners, who for decades tried to get recognition for the benefits of phonics for children with dyslexia, now spend time trying to protect the paradigm.

This behaviour results in a one-sided point of view that ridicules or dismisses new perspectives. It is as if these experts have become the public school system that Dr. Kline ran headlong into decades ago. This is not unusual since, historically speaking, we often fail to learn from the past and often avoid reflecting on our behaviour.

Of course, not everyone in the current dyslexia paradigm is closed-minded about new approaches. I have worked with colleagues for decades who support work in cognitive intervention for children with learning disabilities. There are psychologists who refer clients to the Arrowsmith Program. There are Orton-Gillingham tutors who see the benefits of the Arrowsmith Program firsthand from their clients.

Nevertheless, protectionism for the paradigm is difficult to observe. What is most troublesome is the current view that compensating for neurological weaknesses is acceptable – that individuals with learning disabilities should understand they have certain weaknesses for life.

Reviewing an Old Diagnosis with a New Lens – Progress in the Field of Learning Disabilities

To me, this view is unacceptable. Almost every child or adult with a learning disability like dyslexia can improve cognitive functioning. One should not accept specific cognitive weaknesses as life-long until one attempts cognitive intervention.

Cognitive weaknesses don’t only impact the area of reading development as seen in dyslexia. These cognitive weaknesses can impact a broad range of academic tasks, such as classroom management, study skills, memory retention and retrieval, social development and, as a result, personality development. In my professional opinion, reading development is just one of many challenges experienced by individuals with learning disabilities.

Dr. Kline’s focus on reading, spelling, and writing is a critical piece of the puzzle in creating more promising life outcomes for people with learning disabilities, but it’s not the only piece.

I can say this because Dr. Kline’s diagnosis and support of my own learning disability was critical in giving me an opportunity to get through elementary school, high school, and university.

My dyslexia did not only impact my reading, spelling and writing development. I look back at my 1972 assessment and now realize that I also had severe dysgraphia as well as problems with auditory memory for language. None of these issues were discussed in my assessment, but they impacted my education in numerous ways. For example, I could not take notes effectively in university. I had to reread my textbooks four or five times to remember what I had read. In short, there were multiple cognitive weaknesses in my assessment that impacted my chances of succeeding in school. These weaknesses caused me to fail and drop out of university three times in five years.

Dr. Kline focused on my weak reading, writing and spelling skills because he felt they could be remediated. He did not discuss remediating my visual-motor integration issues for writing or auditory memory for language, as there were no cognitive intervention programs for these weaknesses at the time. Today there are, so we need to pay attention to these issues to help children with learning disabilities.

Working for a Shared Purpose: Changing Lives

The Arrowsmith Program is a paradigm changer just as Orton-Gillingham was decades ago. Like those who advocated for Orton-Gillingham or phonics based reading instruction for children with dyslexia, the Arrowsmith Program advocates cognitive intervention. It does so to further support reading, math, writing, social skills, reasoning, executive functioning, and various memory abilities in children with learning disabilities.

As practitioners of Orton-Gillingham once faced criticism and ridicule, so now does the Arrowsmith Program. Unfortunately, the loudest and harshest critics are from Orton-Gillingham practitioners who are unaware that they are doing what others once did to them.

I ask only that other professionals look at the Arrowsmith Program with open minds. We are all working for a shared purpose – to improve the lives of individuals with learning disabilities. If you research the Orton-Gillingham method, you’ll also find a mixture of both positive and not so positive results.

The Arrowsmith Program has undergone research for decades. First under the guidance of Dr. William Lancee at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital over a decade ago. More recently, Dr. Lara Boyd, along with her colleagues at the University of British Columbia, has been evaluating the program for the last two years. Her team is now writing papers for publication. Dr. Greg Rose, from Southern Illinois University, is also completing a two-year study of the Arrowsmith Program and the Brehm School. Dr. Naznin Viji-Babul and colleagues at the University of British Columbia, are observing positive findings from individuals with traumatic brain injury undergoing nine months of the Arrowsmith Program. It is a very exciting time in both the fields of neuroscience and education.

I advocate for Orton-Gillingham and the Arrowsmith Program. There is no competition in my mind. They have different conceptual beginnings and intervention goals, but both help improve the lives of children with learning disabilities.

Parents and professionals need to dig deep into each program and find out what they offer. If you want a program that targets reading, spelling, and writing, then Orton-Gillingham might be the best option. If progress is slow with Orton-Gillingham, the Arrowsmith Program may help create neurological foundations so reading programs can be more effective. If you look at a child holistically – with all the various cognitive challenges that impact learning – and want to improve overall cognitive functioning, then the Arrowsmith Program may be the right option too.

The bottom line is that educational professionals should not create false fear in order to advocate for one’s own methodology or school program. That is what happened to Dr. Kline in his advocacy in public schools in BC. Let’s not do the same to those who challenge the status quo.

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