Dyslexia Therapists’ Experiences in Structured Literacy: A Heuristic Phenomenological Study

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Background: According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2015, only one-third of fourth-grade students scored at or above grade-level proficiency in reading. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that impacts reading development. Research supports providing struggling readers with systematic, direct, and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, decoding, syllabication, morphology, and syntax. This type of instruction is called structured literacy. However, research shows that teacher knowledge of structured literacy practices is limited. Purpose: The aim of this study is to explore experiences in structured literacy of seasoned dyslexia therapists before, during, and after their training as well as their successes and challenges in working with students with dyslexia so that therapist training centers can improve professional learning experiences for future dyslexia therapists. Research question: How can the experiences of seasoned dyslexia therapists in structured literacy before, during, and after their two-year dyslexia therapist training guide training centers in improving structured literacy professional learning for future dyslexia therapists? Method: This study used a qualitative heuristic phenomenological design to collect data through semi-structured interviews. Data was analyzed to create meaning from the experiences of dyslexia therapists that will have implications in professional learning designed for dyslexia therapists. Seven participants were selected from a stratified purposeful sample of dyslexia therapists who are members of the Academic Language Therapist Association and who have at least four years of experience in dyslexia remediation instruction. The researcher is also a dyslexia therapist and a participant in this study. Data collection for this study occurred using individual semi-structured interviews with each participant that were conducted virtually via ZOOM. Interview questions were written and reviewed by the researcher and a dyslexia expert to explore each therapist’s experiences in structured literacy practices. The researcher’s reflective journals were used as a data source on the researcher’s personal experiences in this field. Interview transcripts and the researcher’s journals were hand-coded and analyzed through heuristic phenomenological analysis in accordance with the steps outlined by Moustakas (1994) to create thick descriptions of the therapists’ experiences in structured literacy. Trustworthiness was established through the triangulation of data as well as member checking to ensure validity. Findings: Five themes across the data from seven participants emerged: 1) desire to help struggling readers before training but not knowing how 2) feeling overwhelmed by the training process 3) value of collaboration and relationships during training 4) passion for current work and self-efficacy in teaching students with dyslexia 5) regret for not knowing before what is known now after training. Overall participants valued the training they received in structured literacy and felt it positively contributed to their work with students with dyslexia. Conclusion: Dyslexia therapist training centers should reflect on their current practices of providing therapist training to ensure that they align with best practices of instructional coaching and professional learning. The participants in this study found their training to be valuable in their work in providing dyslexia remediation services. Participants found that relationships and collaboration among cohort members and with instructors helped improve the feelings of being overwhelmed. Therefore, training centers should consider ways to foster positive coaching experiences and collaborative learning among trainees. The broader implication of this study is for school districts to consider current literacy practices in teaching primary reading to ensure students are receiving instruction from a teacher with knowledge of the structure of the written language.

structured literacy, dyslexia