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  • Julie Knight

The Science of Reading and Evidence-Based Instruction

There has been a bit of press around lately about how to help our dyslexic students the best. Minister Tracy Martin has recently introduced a Dyslexia Kete, and SENCOs have been made a full time feature of many of our schools. While this sounds like a great step forward for the education of our dyslexic learners, many have criticised the approaches as not enough. There has been a call for the government to introduce an approach based on ‘the science of reading’ and a call for parents to look for programs that take an evidence based approach.

So what do these two phrases mean, and why do they matter?

The Science of Reading

Over the past several decades there have been two basic approaches to learning to read - a phonics based approach (teaching children the sounds that letters make), and the current whole language approach being taught in New Zealand schools (which focuses on children discovering meaning in a literacy rich environment).

Research now shows that reading is most successful for the greatest number of students when teachers provide explicit, systematic instruction in all five essential areas of early reading instruction - phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.

This is what dyslexia advocates are currently fighting for - teaching New Zealand teachers to teach using this science of reading. This is not a small fight, it is the changing of an entire system, a whole way of thinking. That takes time. And while that clock is ticking, many parents feel the need to take their children's’ learning into their own hands to prevent low self-esteem and negative educational outcomes. They home-school, they find private tutors, and they look for accommodations.

Which leads us to the second phrase of the moment.

Evidence Based Approach

In short, any evidence based approach is one which follows scientific evidence. If you cast your brain back to high school science, this means that the more participants in a study the more likely the results are correct; a study needs to be conducted independently (you can’t have a financial interest in the result of it); results of a study can’t be anecdotal (they must be based on observations of the complete range of participants); and there must be a control group to compare the results against.

So an evidence based approach to reading intervention for dyslexic students must satisfy all of these criteria - and the problem is that there are many programs out there that don’t. Many programs try to use smoke and mirrors to promote what they are doing. They may use the words ‘research based’ instead, or promote a program using examples of how one or several students improved. They may use referrals from successful students, but hide those from unhappy parents.

Why is it a good idea to use evidence based programs? Because you can be sure that your child will have the best chance of successfully learning to read using one. Fullstop. With a program that is not evidence based, you’re taking your chances - you may experience success, or you may not. It’s a risk.

Currently, the best evidence we have tells us that a systematic, explicit teaching of synthetic phonics, using a multi-sensory approach, is the best approach to help people who have dyslexia. The following programs meet this criteria:

• Orton Gillingham


• All About Spelling / All about Reading

• Barton

• Toe by Toe

• Learning Matters

• Liz Kane Literacy

• Agility of Sound

• Alpha to Omega books

• Sounds~Write

• MultiLit, MiniLit, and MacqLit from Macquarie University in Sydney

How does Love Your Brain fit into all of this?

Love Your Brain teaches a system called Barton, which uses an Orton Gillingham based approach. The instruction is explicit, systematic and multi-sensory. It’s not a miracle cure - it takes time, effort, and willingness from the student, but the progress and achievement from the students we teach is rewarding - for the tutor, student and parent.

It is not the only approach - we recommend you do your research to work out what will work best for you. Just make sure you look out for the key words explicit, systematic, multi-sensory, and evidence based when selecting a program. And make sure the program you select teaches the five areas covered in the science of reading - phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

Love Your Brain is a West Auckland based tutoring organisation that helps dyslexic learners with reading and math. You can find us at or contact Julie on 021921112.

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