On the latest episode, Brian Backstrom, director of education policy studies, shares insights from a recent Rockefeller Institute forum on effective early intervention in dyslexia. Backstrom discusses what dyslexia is, the needs of students with dyslexia and of teachers who teach them, what impacts could be in store for New York if a universal dyslexia screening program is enacted, and the experience of other states implementing this approach.

The episode also features audio from the Institute-hosted that brought together dyslexia research experts Dr. Bennett Shaywitz and Dr. Sally Shaywitz, cofounders and codirectors of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity; Dr. Jay Russell, former head of The Windward School; Tim Castanza, cofounder and executive director of Bridge Prep Charter School; and Amanda McCaleb, the literacy intervention specialist for Springfield (MO) Public Schools.


Brian Backstrom, Director of Education Policy Studies, Rockefeller Institute of Government

Learn More:

Science of Reading Forum


  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Brian Backstrom 00:05

    In the first grade, he struggled to link letters with their sounds. By the third grade, Daniel continued to stammer and sputter as he tried to decipher what was on the page in front of him. He was reluctant to read in front of the class and it was easy to understand why, his reading was labored. Words were mispronounced, substituted, or often omitted entirely.

    Alexander Morse 00:29

    In October 2019, the Rockefeller Institute brought together the national leaders in dyslexia research and educational practice along with New York State policymakers for a forum on education policy, dealing with a condition that often goes unseen: how to recognize students with dyslexia and intervene early to ensure their academic and social success.

    Alexander Morse 01:15

    On this episode of Policy Outsider, we’re joined by Brian Backstrom, director of education policy studies for the Rockefeller Institute. Our conversation builds upon the forum that featured dyslexia research experts, Dr. Bennett and Dr. Sally Shaywitz, cofounders and codirectors of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Dr. John J. Russell, the former head of the Windward School, which is specifically designed for students with language based disabilities, with campuses in White Plains, New York, and Manhattan. Tim Castanza, cofounder and executive director of Bridge Prep Charter School in Staten Island, New York, and Amanda McCaleb, the literacy intervention specialists for Springfield, Missouri Public Schools. Throughout today’s episode, we will hear sound bites from some of these panelists. Brian, thanks for joining today.

    Brian Backstrom 02:02

    Hi, thanks for having me. I’m very happy to be here.

    Alexander Morse 02:05

    I have a general understanding of what dyslexia is and I’m sure our audience does too. Dyslexia is a learning disorder that affects people’s ability to read. But of course, there’s more to it. There’s the neurological component that is happening in the brain. There’s also the social aspect of living with dyslexia and how that impacts students, friends, families, teachers, and there’s the policy aspect as well. What are schools and states doing to help provide for students with dyslexia?

    Brian Backstrom 02:31

    There is a lot more to dyslexia than just difficulty reading. We’ll talk about all of that today. But before we do that, I want to share a brief story, one that comes from the book, Overcoming Dyslexia by Dr. Sally Shaywitz from Yale University. Dr. Shaywitz is one of the nation’s leading experts on dyslexia. She writes this story of a young boy who we will call Daniel. In his first years of life, Daniel was so quick to catch on to things that his parents were surprised when he struggled to learn his letters in kindergarten. When shown a letter, he would stare, frown, and then randomly guess. He couldn’t seem to learn the letter names. In the first grade, he struggled to link letters with their sounds. By the third grade, Daniel continued to stammer and sputter as he tried to decipher what was on the page in front of him. He was reluctant to read in front of the class and it was easy to understand why. His reading was labored. Words were mispronounced, substituted, or often omitted entirely. Increasingly, Daniel would ask to go to the bathroom when it was nearing his turn to read. If called upon, he often acted silly, making the words into a joke or tumbling himself onto the floor and laughing so that he would be sent out of the room. This describes a fairly typical experience of a student with dyslexia. Many of them are incredibly bright learners, who just face a totally unexpected challenge with reading. It’s real. It’s frustrating for kids and it’s often enormously debilitating to learning. Daniel’s challenges here in the story were recognizable early on in kindergarten, just like most students with dyslexia. He struggles more in first grade and then even more by third grade. This is exactly the pattern that we see in students with dyslexia, who don’t receive the proper intervention. It’s not hard to imagine what the rest of Daniel’s story would be. Now, research shows that without targeted intervention early on, dyslexic students never catch up. They will never read as well as their peers. While the academic consequences of that are pretty obvious, the ripple effects in society don’t get a lot of attention. Here are a couple of very interesting things to think about. More than 85 percent of youth who interact with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate and studies of prison populations show that nearly 50 percent of inmates have dyslexia.

    Alexander Morse 05:06

    Those are some pretty serious consequences. Before we get into how to tackle dyslexia, can you share a little bit more about the disorder itself? What does science, specifically neuroscience, say about the disorder?

    Brian Backstrom 05:17

    Dr. Bennett Shaywitz, the husband of Sally and whose book we learned about Daniel’s storing, he’s also a national expert on dyslexia. He’s a physician scientist who studies the neurobiology of reading and dyslexia.

    Bennett A. Shaywitz 05:31

    The connectivity is disrupted to this word form area, the area on the left side of the back of the brain, for fluent reading. It’s also a disruption between those reading systems in the back of the brain and attention systems in the front of the brain.

    Brian Backstrom 05:49

    What Bennett is saying here is that two of the three parts of the brain that process information for literacy, don’t fire properly, neurologically speaking that is. Connections to word formation areas are disrupted. Connections between reading and attention are also disrupted. All of this interferes with children’s phonological processing.

    Alexander Morse 06:09

    That’s the study of speech, the individual components of structured language.

    Brian Backstrom 06:13

    Right, phonological processing is the ability to see or hear a word, and then associate each sound with the individual letters that make up that word. Obviously, this is an essential component to reading. If you interfere with phonological processing, you interfere with reading. The work of neuroscientists using imaging and behavioral analysis gives us a fairly clear picture of what’s actually happening in the brain, really a neural signature of dyslexia itself. We know that it’s not that these students aren’t trying or that they’re not smart. In fact, many people in the field talk of kids with dyslexia as fast thinkers but slow readers.

    Alexander Morse 06:56

    Okay, so what is it that we do?

    Brian Backstrom 06:58

    First, let’s talk about when we do it. Dr. Sally Shaywitz knows what she’s talking about. Early intervention is best.

    Sally E. Shaywitz 07:06

    The achievement gap in reading is present as early as first grade and persists through adolescence. What’s really important for everyone to keep in mind is that reading growth is not like a flat thing. Reading growth is maximal the first few years. The slope is very steep. It’s the time when reading takes effect the best, the most, you have the quickest. It’s maximal the first few years and then it gets more and more plateaued.

    Alexander Morse 07:42

    Okay, so early intervention is paramount. That makes sense. But how do we identify children with dyslexia? How do we distinguish them from children who are having difficulty reading for other reasons, like for example, they were just never been exposed to books before or their parents never read to them, that kind of thing?

    Brian Backstrom 08:00

    Well, more than two dozen states currently require screening for dyslexia for students in the early grades. We can learn some lessons here in New York from them about what works best for identifying dyslexia in students and what interventions have the greatest success. For example, in Springfield, Missouri, the largest single school district in that state, they used an effective two-step process as part of the new mandate to screen for dyslexia. School districts throughout Missouri already use popular reading placement assessments, and they see whether students are reading at, above, or below grade level. You might be familiar with some of these assessments, one such as Dibbles and Aimsweb, and a bunch of others. This tells us whether students might be at risk for actually having dyslexia simply because they’re not reading at grade level. For students at risk, Springfield then uses an assessment tool designed specifically to see whether dyslexia is the likely cause of reading disabilities. The Doctors Shaywitz, who we heard from earlier, they developed just such a science-based tool, and the district there chose to use exactly that one. This year, Springfield is providing targeted dyslexia-specific interventions to every single at-risk student in the entire district.

    Alexander Morse 09:27

    It sounds like we’re making real improvements in being able to diagnose students with dyslexia. Now that we’re at that stage, what does the intervention look like?

    Brian Backstrom 09:37

    Again, here science, and data, and experience too, all tell us the answer. It’s a multisensory approach to literacy instruction, structured literacy, typically delivered by direct instruction. There’s one approach actually called the Orton-Gillingham method that’s been shown to be quite effective in teaching kids with dyslexia to read. Another, the Wilson Reading System, builds off of that one. These approaches to literacy instruction work. Dr. Jay Russell, former headmaster of the Windward School, a private school in New York, designed specifically for students with language-based challenges, has seen the right instructional approaches work and work well.

    John J. Russell 10:21

    We have offered strategies and teach strategies directly on planning, organizing, and paying attention to task-critical thinking and self-management. We know that if you have an effective program, a research-based program, an evidence-based program delivered by, and this is key for me, trained teachers who actually know how to deliver it and deliver the program with fidelity. Then you get results. Any one of those ingredients missing, you’re going to get less of an impact.

    Alexander Morse 11:00

    And here’s Dr. J. Russell, again.

    John J. Russell 11:02

    If you have research-based practices in terms of a curriculum, and you pay attention and train teachers, you will get results like this.

    Brian Backstrom 11:12

    Now, of course, that means that we need to have teachers, enough teachers and well trained in literacy instruction methods that work and who are supported well enough to do all of this challenging job. Tim Castanza, who opened the first public school in New York State designed to serve students with dyslexia, he shared with us a personal story about the need for the right teachers.

    Timothy Castanza 11:37

    Oftentimes, too many teachers are coming into their teacher prep program, or leaving their teacher prep program, teachers who are becoming special education teachers, and they know nothing about what to do with a student with dyslexia. I can tell you, the best special education teacher I know, is in my own family. My sister is a fantastic special education teacher. We had a very honest conversation with each other and I said to her, “Tell me, what do you do with a student with dyslexia in your classroom?” She gave me all these strategies that any good special ed teacher would say but it wasn’t enough. The truth is, we got underneath it, she wasn’t prepared to do that.

    Alexander Morse 12:16

    That’s a great overview of what dyslexia is, and the steps we need to take for detecting it and intervening to address its problems. Now, where does all this leave us here in New York State?

    Brian Backstrom 12:30

    That’s a great question. Well, we know that there is a neurological basis for dyslexia, one that requires a strategic and multisensory approach to structured literacy instruction. We know that basic brain science tells us that the most significant positive impact we can make on the literacy skills of children with dyslexia is to intervene early, from kindergarten or even before to about third grade. Although it hasn’t been acted on here in New York, there’s legislation that’s been introduced that would require all school districts across the entire state to screen children in public schools for dyslexia in the early grades. We know that if the research is right, this screening is going to show that as many as one-in-five children will actually have dyslexia. We’re talking about identifying 144,000 kindergarteners through third graders in public schools in New York State is needing specialized literacy instruction. The great thing about this, if there’s anything great about this, is that dyslexia can be overcome with a good research-based screening tool, we will be identifying children who need help but whose problems can be solved simply with the right kind of literacy instruction.

    Alexander Morse 13:51

    That brings us to the other side of the equation. Where will these kids with dyslexia be going to school? Do we have the supply of teachers with the right kind of specialized skills to meet these needs?

    Brian Backstrom 14:01

    A great questions, really important things to think about, but we have to figure them out. There’s only a few schools right now in New York designed specifically to serve students with dyslexia. Two of them were represented here at the Rockefeller Institute and our discussion forum—the Windward school, a private school, and Bridge Prep Charter School, the first and only public school in New York designed for kids with literacy challenges. Bridge Prep actually just opened up this past September. There’s another private school. I think it’s by Buffalo and Erie County, The Gow School, but that’s about it. All of these schools are schools of choice. For the most part, the kids who go to these schools already know that they have dyslexia or other language challenges. They’ve already identified themselves as needing special services. What we’re really talking about here is 144,000 newly identified kindergarteners, first graders, second graders, and third graders, kids who will be going and are already going to their local neighborhood public schools.

    Alexander Morse 15:09

    Are schools ready for this? I just have to repeat that number, 144,000 newly identified elementary school kids. Do teachers have the tools or the resources necessary to serve that many students?

    Brian Backstrom 15:22

    Chances are that the schools aren’t ready. Chances are that we haven’t yet given teachers at these schools what they need to effectively handle this sudden influx of young kids who we now know have dyslexia. These children don’t belong in a general special education class because they’re struggling readers. They need a specific type of evidence-based research-proven literacy instruction. But just like dyslexia itself, these teacher supply and teacher training problems can be overcome. They’re problems that can be solved if policymakers want to solve them. It’s going to require commitment and some creativity, a lot of collaboration, and probably even more effort, but it still can be done.

    Alexander Morse 16:09

    How might that be?

    Brian Backstrom 16:10

    Well, here are a couple of ideas, we could establish graduate certificate programs specifically for how to teach students with dyslexia. We can give the right literacy instruction training to teachers who interact the most with our at-risk students. We could make dyslexia instruction a meaningful part of teachers undergraduate training.

    Alexander Morse 16:33

    Okay, now I want to run down each of those three. Let’s start with the first thing you mentioned, graduate teacher preparation program.

    Brian Backstrom 16:39

    Right now, graduate teacher prep programs at New York’s public colleges and universities don’t even offer a graduate certificate specifically in literacy instruction for students with dyslexia. We can change that. Leaders from the State University (SUNY), and New York City’s University (CUNY), the State Department of Education, and other policymakers, we can just get together and put in place a standardized and consistent master’s degree program and a graduate certificate course of study. It’s already been done in other places and programs like the one at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey is a fantastic model. We can take what’s been done well there and put it in place here. Now, we’ll need to train our teacher trainers too, of course, but there are experts in the field, particularly like those at Orton Gillingham Institute, which is the world leader in literacy instruction for people with dyslexia, and they’re standing by to offer exactly this kind of help.

    Alexander Morse 17:38

    Moving on to your next point. What was that about training at the undergraduate level?

    Brian Backstrom 17:42

    Here it’s very interesting. New York can become a national leader by working with the schools of education already at SUNY and CUNY campuses to develop and implement an undergraduate track of study for new teachers. These programs can offer at least the basic competencies in literacy instruction for kids with dyslexia, structured literacy, multisensory teaching techniques, and other critical skills.

    Alexander Morse 18:08

    And moving on to your final point, you mentioned improving professional development.

    Brian Backstrom 18:13

    There’s an urgency issue that we need to own. If New York is going to identify students with dyslexia as soon as next school year, we better make sure that our schools have teachers with a proper training as soon as next year too. We may not be able to wait a couple of years for new teachers to complete an undergraduate program or get a new graduate certificate. Let’s ask all early childhood teachers, literacy interventionists, and school-based speech and language pathologists currently teaching in New York State public schools, those exact teachers who are working right now with kids who have undetected dyslexia, to include in their continuing education requirements select courses or professional development training and strategies for teaching reading to kids with dyslexia. We really can develop a pipeline to supply the teachers we need to meet the needs of students we are going to identify as having dyslexia. Dr. Sally Shaywitz summed it all up pretty nicely.

    Sally E. Shaywitz 19:14

    So in dyslexia, we have the scientific knowledge. In dyslexia, the major problem is not a knowledge gap. We always want more knowledge, but we have sufficient knowledge, but we’re not doing anything with it. We have an action gap. To move forward, we have to align education with 21st century science and we can and we must.

    Alexander Morse 19:46

    You can watch the entire forum featuring the experts on our Facebook page by searching Rockefeller Institute of Government. You can also check out some of Brian’s research touching on topics such as student debt, turnaround efforts for persistently failing schools, and options for high school exit exams, as well as the work of our other great researchers on our website at rockinst.org. Brian, thanks for coming in today and sharing these ideas and giving us a picture of the education landscape around students with dyslexia. We look forward to having you back soon.

    Brian Backstrom 20:14

    Thanks so much for having me here. I’m happy to come back anytime.

    Alexander Morse 20:19

    Visit the Rockefeller Institute’s website at http://www.rockinst.org for more information about this and other cutting edge policy research. Thank you all for tuning in. That’s it for today’s episode. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Kyle Adams 21:01

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State in the nation. Learn more at rockinst.org or by following at RockefellerInst on social media. Have a question, comment, or idea? Email us at [email protected].

Policy Outsider

Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

Listen to a full episode archive on Anchor, or subscribe on your preferred podcast platform.