Gabriel, R. E. (2019). Converting to privatization: A discourse analysis of dyslexia policy narratives. American Educational Research Journal. Advance online publication. doi:10.3102/0002831219861945
Gabriel (2019) analyzed written testimony submitted to the Connecticut state legislature regarding pending dyslexia legislation (2015 Act Concerning Students with Dyslexia [PA-15-97]). This legislation broadly reflects an advocacy platform based in part on positions expressed by Decoding Dyslexia (www.decodingdyslexia.net), a dyslexia-advocacy organization active in 49 states and 4 Canadian provinces. Gabriel examined subject positions, story lines and interpretative repertoires of the submitted testimony to answer the following research questions:
Research Question 1: How do testimonials submitted to the state legislature describe stakeholders’ experiences with dyslexia?
Research Question 2: How do stakeholders position themselves and others in written testimony related to recent dyslexia legislation?
In general, dyslexia-specific legislation has increased across the United States since 2010. Although reading achievement has been a focus of educational policy for decades, stand-alone dyslexia legislation has emerged in contrast to previously existing laws regarding reading and literacy outcomes. For example, in Connecticut, rather than aligning with or extending previous legislation on reading achievement outcomes, 2015 Act Concerning Students with Dyslexia focused on mandating specific assessments, instruction, and teacher development products. This signaled a shift, seen across policy initiatives, from holding schools accountable for reading outcomes broadly to prescribing specific procedures and remedies for dyslexia. In short, there has developed a push for dyslexia-specific versions of educational policy already required by reading achievement legislation. Additionally, these policy initiatives are usually accompanied by references to neurodiversity (that is, the benefits of neurological differences), which typically couples dyslexia with giftedness.
A previous analysis of submitted testimony (Gabriel & Woulfin, 2017) found that testimonials usually framed dyslexia as a personal tragedy, wherein schools failed to identify or adequately address the reading needs of individuals with dyslexia. This framing is most often presented parallel to the view that private assessment and intervention are required to meet the needs of individuals with dyslexia (Lubienski, 2016.) Additionally, some teachers reported a belief that dyslexia is an immutable phenomenon (Gibbs & Elliot, 2015). Taken together, dyslexia has been framed as a family’s burden, made worse by the public school system, and success occurs only through the use of particular programs provided by specifically trained educators, often through private providers (Gabriel & Woulfin, 2017).
Gabriel used critical discursive psychology, a form of discourse analysis, to investigate how language is used to both demonstrate and shape understandings of dyslexia, literacy and disability. Submitted written testimony was reviewed for interpretive repertoires (recognizable sets of words and phrases that evoke particular meanings), subject positions (how language is used to position the self and the other), and story lines (narrative structure and literary devices, which add meaning to policy issues.)
The dataset consisted of testimony of 105 individuals, including teachers and professors, parents, children and adults with dyslexia, private companies, and school and nonprofit organizations. Repeated line-b-line readings of each testimony were conducted to identify common themes and patterns and to analyze subject positions.
Overwhelmingly, the testimonials followed a pattern of narrative writing known as conversion narratives. Conversion narratives use stark before/after structures within a personal story, denoting a specific moment of change for an individual. Historically, conversion narratives have been used to denote a transformation from a failed approach or technique to the benefits and success after a single solution. With regards to dyslexia legislation, the narratives create two polarized positions: those who believe in dyslexia and dyslexia-specific approaches to instruction and those who do not. This has implications for the push for privatization of dyslexia intervention.
For example, strong similarities appeared in the 13 testimonials submitted by students. Students described struggles with reading in school, with teachers either unable or unaware of how to provide support. Then, with the introduction of a private program or private tutor, students found success in reading. Testimonials from parents displayed a similar narrative structure, with parents encountering teachers or school administrators unresponsive to the needs of their students, ultimately forcing parents to seek alternatives and private service providers. Only then did the children find their dyslexia adequately addressed. These narratives typically frame the school district as the antagonist, with salvation coming only from a private service provider. The failure of schools and school systems to support students with dyslexia is frequently spotlighted.
A second pattern within testimonials was the link between dyslexia, giftedness, creativity and innovation, suggesting that education of children with dyslexia is a matter of public interest, rather than a personal issue. This presentation of dyslexia as evidence of great gifts suggests treating dyslexia carries benefits for society as a whole. At the same time, testimonials also referred to dyslexia as common and ordinary, minimizing negative associations while implying dyslexia is applicable to a large percentage of students. Taken together, these testimonials make an appeal for the importance of policy-makers to legislate on behalf of dyslexia.
As detailed above, a common story line emerged within the analyzed testimonies. Within the narratives, parents and students are portrayed as fighting against schools and systems that were either incapable or uninterested in helping students with dyslexia. In turn, private service providers “rescue students from years of failure by providing a particular instructional prescription” (Gabriel, 2019). This “rescue” comes from a few name-brand programs offered by tutors and centers. A key feature of the narratives is what Gabriel terms the “lost and found” interpretative repertoire. Students are lost and struggling to read until they are “found” by the diagnosis of dyslexia—which for some who can afford it—unlocks access to the private network of dyslexia service providers.
How then are these conversion narratives relevant to current debates on dyslexia-specific legislation? For one, the emphasis on diagnosis of students with dyslexia positions schools as failing to identify these students, mandating the need for legislative oversight, one in addition to the accountability already enacted upon schools. Second, the narrative of failure suggests that even after diagnosis, public schools are not equipped to serve students with dyslexia, necessitating the move toward privatization of dyslexia treatment and intervention. This raises some potential concerns.
As evidenced in the conversion narratives, nearly one-third of testimonials referred to specific private programs by name, such as Orton-Gillingham (Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators, 2017) and Wilson (Wilson Language Training Corporation, 2019). However, there is no consensus that such programs are effective for the treatment of dyslexia. It is possible that such programs could be incorporated into legislation, despite the lack of evidence for their use. With that in mind, the testimonials suggest a break between the accepted science and research on reading instruction and the definitions of qualified teachers, which is replaced by an almost religious allegiance to particular programs with select, approved providers. This shift reflects the aim of those with a privatization (for-profit) agenda, who would seek to make students and schools customers of particular programs. This shift is also supported by the use of conversion narratives, rather than scientific or economic arguments for dyslexia specific legislation. In short, the right to appropriate literacy instruction appears to move into the hands of private providers, businesses that may or may not be held accountable. This is problematic given that a large percentage of students depend on public schools for instruction and intervention. Additionally, the dyslexia-specific legislation raises concerns about students with reading difficulties other than dyslexia.
Finally, Gabriel notes that the language used in these testimonials reflects a “narrow, commercially driven view of what counts as appropriate instruction.” In this way, the definition of a free and appropriate education for students with disabilities appears to be called into question. The move toward privatization of dyslexia intervention may have broader and potentially negative implications for the reading outcomes of struggling readers, regardless of dyslexia diagnosis or not.
Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators. (2017). What is the Orton-Gillingham approach? Retrieved from https://www.ortonacademy.org/resources/what-is-the-orton-gillingham-approach
Wilson Language Training Corporation. (2019). Wilson Reading System. Retrieved from https://www.wilsonlanguage.com/programs/wilson-reading-system/