Diagnosing Dysteachia

By Nancy Hennessy


Dysteachia does exist. Unfortunately, I can attest to its existence based on my own teaching experiences and my interactions with fellow educators in schools across the country. Despite my best efforts and a resolve to meet the needs of my struggling readers, I was often unsuccessful. Neither my undergraduate nor my graduate work adequately prepared me for working with these students. My experience is not unique; I continue to meet teachers who have lived this story!


Educators are looking for the “clues” that will solve the mystery of reading proficiency. They recognize the right of students to read, and accept the responsibility of teaching them. Their confidence in themselves and feelings of professional competency are often linked to their students’ successes. While some may feel inundated by current educational demands and, perhaps, even a bit resistant, educators are generally hungry for solutions that will make a difference for their students. While evidence-based programs are necessary tools, they alone are not sufficient. “Programs don’t teach; teachers do” (Moats, 2009).


What is missing from teacher preparation and professional development programs is the deep knowledge base that promotes connections between research and practice. We all need an understanding that goes beyond a basic definition of the essential components of reading and recognition of available assessment tools. To design and deliver purposeful instruction, educators must understand how reading develops, why students struggle, why all components of reading instruction are necessary and how to teach them, and how to analyze data. We need to realize “that language systems underlie reading and writing, and that students’ difficulties with reading and writing are most effectively addressed when the structures and functions of language are taught to them directly” (Moats, 2009). Teachers must believe that “Literacy is a secondary system, dependent on language as the primary system so effective teachers know a good deal about language” (Snow, Griffin & Burns, 2005). In other words, we must understand the nature and inter-relationships of language systems (phonology, orthography, morphology, semantics, syntax, discourse, etymology), their contributions and connections to component skills of reading, as well as the complexity of skilled reading. Yet, study after study of teachers’ knowledge in the areas of language and literacy have documented inadequate levels of such knowledge.


  • Teachers do not receive sufficient knowledge of the science of reading in teacher preparation or graduate programs.
  • Many educators lack disciplinary knowledge that is reflective of foundational understanding of language structures and the relationship to reading proficiency.
  • Most licensure tests do not assess research-based reading knowledge.
  • Most standards documents do not fully specify the knowledge base necessary to teach reading.

While many of us can verify these statements based on personal experience, they can also be supported by a review of reports and articles related to preservice and professional development of teachers.


Some forward-thinking organizations, university programs, states, and developers of training programs have started to rethink how they can be the catalysts for change in teacher preparation and professional development. The IDA Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading (www.interdys.org) are a striking example of an evidence-based attempt designed to inform and change the field’s thinking regarding the acquisition of this “deep knowledge base.” These standards have been described as filling “a much-needed gap in the teaching profession by providing the most thorough, research-supported documentation of what every teacher ought to know and be able to demonstrate, whether they are teaching students with dyslexia, other struggling readers, or all students” (Liptak, 2012). But they are also being used as a tool to review university programs’ courses of study and then to identify and recognize those that meet the standards. One goal is to increase recognition of the standards as a blueprint for the design of courses as well as professional development training programs. Additionally, states such as Colorado, Maryland, and Connecticut have revised standards or criteria for teacher preparation to reflect the research base. In Connecticut, a requirement for elementary teacher certification includes The Foundations of Reading Test, which reflects scientifically based reading research and is aligned closely to the state reading standards. Training programs, such as Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS), that are designed to promote deeper knowledge of theoretical frameworks and research-based practices are also influencing instructional changes in educational settings.


Dysteachia does not have to be a lifelong condition—I can also attest to that. We are teachable; the system has to change, and we all have to take responsibility.

 “Tempered radicals inspire change … They inspire by having the courage to tell the truth even when it is difficult to do so, and by having the conviction to stay engaged in tough conversations … their leadership inspires—and matters—in big and small ways every day.” —Debra Myerson, 2005

Nancy Hennessy, M.Ed., LDT-C, is an educational consultant and past president of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA). She is also an experienced teacher and administrator. While in public schools, Nancy provided leadership in the development of innovative programming for special needs student, a statewide revision of special education code, and an award-winning professional development initiative. She has delivered keynote addresses, workshops, and training to educators nationally and internationally. Nancy coauthored Module 6 of LETRS: Digging for Meaning: Teaching Text Comprehension (Second Edition) with Louisa Moats and the chapter “Word Learning and Vocabulary Instruction” in Multisensory Teaching of Basic Skills (Third Edition). She is a national LETRS trainer and an adjunct instructor with Fairleigh Dickinson University.


Liptak, E. (2012). The IDA knowledge and practice standards: Creating consistency and quality in how we teach. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 38(1), 11-14.

Moats, L.C. (2008). The challenge of learning to read: Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Myerson, D. (2003). Tempered radicals: How everyday leaders inspire change at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

About Nancy Hennessy

Books by Nancy Hennessy: LETRS

Categories: Professional Developement | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Diagnosing Dysteachia

  1. Candace Sussman (nee Bedroci)

    Hi Nancy…
    Glad to see you are continuing to educate the doubters….

  2. Nancy Young

    Hi Nancy,

    I cannot see the Snow et al. article in your References. I would like to read it.


    Another Nancy

  3. Robert F

    I appreciate what Nancy Hennessey and other like-minded educators are doing. The situation is tragic and has been made so much worse with “off with their heads” approach to teacher evaluation. LETRS is very promising, but we need much, much more support. We also need time to think and plan, and the opportunity to collaborate. Without that, even a sound knowledge base isn’t enough. But it is a crucial starting point.

    • Hello Robert,
      We need a mind shift in education regarding professional development. Just like their students, educators need a continuum of professional development opportunities not only to acquire knowledge but to process, make connections and then, practice applications. I totally agree that a sound knowledge base is the only the starting point-professional conversations and collaboration are necessary to move knowledge to practice. Unfortunately, the time and resources necessary to accomplish this are often a low priority. Thanks for the comment-think you are right on target!

      Nancy Hennessy

      • Robert F

        Thanks for the response, Nancy, and thanks for your work in general. The notion of dysteachia stirs up emotions for me, but I am so grateful that you and Louisa Moats and others are addressing this. Your post is motivating for me. I’m determined to get the deep background knowledge I need to help struggling readers. Finding the necessary time and resources to practice effectively are a related, but different problem. We must start by building a strong base.

  4. Denise Wadsworth, SLP

    Speech-Language Pathologists are key players in unlocking literacy skills. Welcome and utilize us!

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