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 Home > News > Championing Children for Whom Reading and Learning Are Difficult by Brent Staples (New York Times, June 26, 2003)

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June 26, 2003


Championing Children for Whom Reading and Learning Are Difficult

How old are you? Ninety-nine percent of us answer this question reflexively, without having to think. A reporter who put this question to Peter W. D. Wright several years ago was stunned when Mr. Wright, an education lawyer, resorted to a calculator before answering. When I asked his age over the phone earlier this month, he called to his wife — "Pam, how old am I?" — then said: "I am 57. I have trouble with math."

Mr. Wright also has trouble with reading and writing. It all stems from a familiar learning disability that affects millions of children. The disability seems to center in the part of the brain that processes language, making it difficult for even genius-caliber children to learn the sounds that correspond to the letters of the alphabet. The simplest rules of language elude many of them. Ask for a word that rhymes with "cat," for example, and they may have no idea what the question means.

Mr. Wright was one of the lucky ones. His condition was diagnosed early, and he was placed with reading teachers who taught him to manage his disability. As a result, he has become one of the top education lawyers of his era. He has argued hundreds of cases. His most famous victory was in the landmark Supreme Court case Florence County School District Four v. Carter, which extended the rights of learning-disabled children who wish to go to private school at public expense. The 1993 ruling held that public schools that fail to educate these children no longer have a say in their educations.

Critics argue that the Carter decision has created a "voucher program for the rich," allowing parents to give their children a private school education on the taxpayers' tab. Lawsuits arising from the decision have placed a strain on poor urban systems, draining money that would otherwise be spent on needy students. But they have also focused attention on the fact that schools are failing at their primary function — teaching children to read.

The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to provide a wider and more practical fix by upgrading the teacher corps and requiring schools to teach reading in ways that are known to reach nonautomatic readers. All this requires a significant investment. Unfortunately, the federal government has so far shown little appetite for getting the job done. Instead, Congress has begun to lash out at lawyers like Mr. Wright who have made a crusade of suing school districts that continue to fail learning-impaired children.

What smacks you right in the face is that most learning-disabled children today face the same obstacles and ill-prepared teachers that Peter Wright faced when he started kindergarten in 1951. His first grade teacher told his parents that the boy had "a good mind," but complained that he could not keep his mind on work. Mr. Wright remembers being picked on by peers in elementary school and humiliated by the staff. Teachers openly ridiculed him when he wrote letters backward or mispronounced words.

Most children treated this way drop out, then end up jobless or in jail. Mr. Wright's parents, however, were ahead of their time. They sought out Diana Hanbury King, who later became legendary for her work as a tutor in the Orton-Gillingham style of reading instruction, a phonics-based approach that allows learning-disabled children to absorb the rules that govern language while learning the sounds associated with the letters of the alphabet.

People who get help after suffering humiliation in school often grow up to be champions of children who remind them of their younger selves. This is what happened to Mr. Wright. He went to law school after working as a probation officer and finding that many of the people in his caseload were teenagers who had dropped out of school with undiagnosed learning disabilities.

The defining moment in his professional life came when he encountered Shannon Carter, a South Carolina teenager with an undiagnosed learning disability who arrived at high school virtually illiterate. Labeled lazy and held up to scorn, Shannon became suicidal. Shannon's parents placed her in private school, then sued the public schools for the cost of tuition.

The Carter ruling opened the floodgates for similar lawsuits, many of which have been brought on behalf of children who have attended school for as long as seven or eight years without learning to read. School districts are angry at having to pay the legal fees of families that prevail in court. The House recently passed a bill that would allow the states to limit legal fees in these cases, but the provision is unlikely to succeed in the Senate.

The courts have so far beaten back attempts to strip disabled children of legal representation in cases where the school systems have clearly failed to obey federal disability law. Although some lawyers represent indigent clients in anticipation of collecting fees when they win the case, most cases are settled before they go to trial. The districts sometimes resolve the problem by agreeing to train teachers in how to instruct nonautomatic readers.

It would be nice if Congress could stop fixating on the lawyers and focus on the fact that so many children are moving through the public schools without learning to read. The most effective way to limit these lawsuits is to adopt the now well-known methods of reading instruction that are used in the private schools where Carter children end up. No one would be happier than Peter Wright to see an end to this particular line of legal work.

Download "Championing Children for Whom Reading and Learning is Difficult" by Brent Staples from The New York Times (June 26, 2003).

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company | Subscribe to The New York Times


About Pete Wright and Shannon Carter

Pete Wright is an attorney who represents children with special needs. Pete has struggled with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, dysgraphia and ADHD through his life. His determination to help children grew out of his own educational experiences. The Richmond Times Dispatch published an article about Pete and his history back in 1983. Read Education Lawyer has Special Knowledge

In 1993, Pete Wright successfully represented Shannon Carter before the United States Supreme Court. Thirty-four days later, the Court issued a unanimous decision in Florence County School District Four v. Shannon Carter  

"Supreme Court Decision Makes Lawyer a Celebrity" by Alan Cooper, Richmond Times Dispatch (Nov 12, 1993).

"Lawyer Wins Personal Victory in Education Case" by Donna Childress, Virginia Law Weekly (Nov 22, 1993).

Learn about Shannon in How Shannon Carter Changed Special Education. (The New York Times)

Shannon's case is Florence County School District IV v. Shannon Carter, 510 US 7 (1993). To learn about Shannon's case, download all Carter decisions and read the transcript of oral argument before the Supreme Court, go to the Carter links page .

Three Generations at the Supreme Court by Pete Wright. The International (Orton) Dyslexia Society played a significant role in Florence County School District Four v. Shannon Carter. The seeds were first planted in the early 1950's when Pete Wright entered Kindergarten.

Carter: The Untold Story by Pete Wright. The story behind the story. Pete describes preparing for oral argument before the U. S. Supreme Court.

Photo of Shannon being interviewed on steps of U. S. Supreme Court while Elaine Carter looks on. Photo of Pete being interviewed after oral argument before U. S. Supreme Court.

Links to Reading & LD Research Info

Learning Disabilities Research by Dr. Reid Lyon, NICHHD. "The psychological, social, and economic consequences of reading failure are legion . . ." This powerful article was adapted from testimony given by Dr. Reid Lyon before the Committe on Education and the Workforce in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Key Components of Early Reading Instruction by Susan Hall and Louisa Moats. Excerpt from new book, Straight Talk About Reading: How Parents Can Make a Difference During The Early Years - An overview of the basic instructional principles necessary for sound early reading instruction, plus acitivities that parents can do with young children.

Keys to Successful Learning: NICHD Research Program in Reading Development, Reading Disorders and Reading Instruction. "Learning to read is critical to a child's (and an adult's) well-being. Unfortunately, the rate of reading failure and illiteracy are unacceptably high in the United States. Over 40 percent of fourth grade students performed below basic levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in both 1994 and 1998 . . .'

Teachers: The Key to Helping America Read by Louisa Moats, Ed.D. Testimony given to the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Education and the Workforce regarding the lack of adequate preparation of reading teachers.

Why Reading is Not a Natural Process by Dr. Reid Lyon. Article provides an overview of the research findings of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health.

Free Pubs About Reading & Reading Instruction

American Federation of Teachers, Teaching Reading is Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers Should Know and Be Able to Do by Louisa Moats (1999). (36 pages, pdf)

"Reading is the fundamental skill upon which all formal instruction depends. Research shows that a child who doesn't learn the reading basics early is unlikely to learn them at all. Any child who doesn't learn to read early and well will not easily master other skills and knowledge and is unlikely to ever flourish in school or in life."

Moats, Louisa, Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of "Balanced" Reading Instruction (2000).

"Three things are clear about early reading: First, it isn’t being handled well in American schools. Four in ten of our fourth-graders lack basic reading skills. Millions of children are needlessly classified as “disabled” when, in fact, their main problem is that nobody taught them to read when they were five and six years old."

"Second, we know what works for nearly all children when it comes to imparting basic reading skills to them. Third, we also know what doesn’t work for most children. It’s called “whole language.”

"Yet whole language persists, despite efforts by policymakers and reading experts to root it out. Today, though, it often disguises itself, not using the term “whole language” but, rather, wearing the fig leaf of “balanced” instruction." Download

National Institutes of Health. Report of the National Reading Panel, Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction (2000). To order as NIH Publication Number 00-4769, contact NICHD Clearinghouse at 1-800-370-2943.

Lyon, G. Reid, Jack Fletcher, Sally E. Shaywitz, Bennett A. Shaywitz, Joseph K. Torgesen, Frank B. Wood, Ann Schulte, Richard Olson, Rethinking Learning Disabilities (2001).

All-star group of researchers advise that persistent problems in defining LD are caused by reliance on inaccurate assumptions about causes and characteristics of LD disorders; they recommend that early intervention and prevention programs for at risk children, especially reading programs, could reduce the number of children served in special ed programs by 70 percent. Download in pdf

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