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A Civilized Disagreement on the Efficacy of the Davis Dyslexia Method

Last fall, Gimpy, a blogger in the U.K., wrote a scathing diatribe against learning disability profiteers, and a second post blasting the Davis Dyslexia Method.  A woman Abigail Marshall, who is the Davis Dyslexia Association's webmistress in the U.S., responded to Gimpy's second post. 

A civil conversation ensued in A response to Abigail Marshall and the Davis Dyslexia Association International.

I have two distinct objections to the Davis Method:

  1. Ronald Davis came up with the method in  1980, before the publication of objective research (using brain-imaging technology) on the neurocognitive roots of dyslexia were widely known.  (mid-1990s).  He did not alter or change his Method based on new research, and the implications of the new research have been misrepresented by the Davis Dyslexia Association  (also see here, Brain Research and Dyslexia)
  2. While the Davis Method has been offering "treatment" since 1982, no independent, objective evaluations of efficacy of the Davis Method have ever been performed, or  has the efficacy of the Davis Method ever been evaluated compared to other approaches to remediating dyslexia, such as the variations of the Orton-Gillingham approach or Rave-O

To summarize: The Davis Method has no basis in what we now know about the neurocognitive nature of reading, and has no evidence of efficacy.   Any educator or educational therapist recommending the Davis Method for remediation of dyslexia is behaving unethically.

As John Wills Lloyd wrote:

However, it seems to me that failing to make clear statements about the tenability of erroneous ideas is, in itself, a failure to serve as a provider of useful information. In the the absence of clear evidence that Treatment X is beneficial and presence of substantial evidence that Treatment X is actually harmful, I consider it important to advocate that parents, educators, and clinicians not use Treatment X. Indeed, as an advocate for kids and their families, isn’t it my duty to call “Bologna” when I’m confronted with unsubstantiated and disconfirmed hypotheses?

I don't think the Davis Method is "actively harmful" -- except to the parents' wallet, and the child's time and expectations.  But there is another sense in which it is damaging -- the totally unfounded "explanation" of dyslexia gets in the way of a more sophisticated and nuanced view of each dyslexic child's strengths and weaknesses.

What We Know About Dyslexia

Specific learning disability -- reading is has at least the following roots (we may discover more): 

  • Difficulty processing speech sound (phonological weakness)
  • Difficulty manipulating speech sounds (phonemic awareness)
  • Difficulty with associating symbols (letters) with sounds
  • Difficulty retrieving sounds and symbols from memory.

These difficulties are brain-based--functional magnetic imaging studies of dyslexic students' brains show that unremediated dyslexics use different parts of the brain for reading tasks.  Effective remediation "rewires" the brain (even in adults).

The proceeding is what most mainstream researchers now believe to be true about dyslexia.

Ronald Davis has a different (and unproven) approach.  He believes that dyslexics are prone to disorientation, and that they must be taught to control the mental state that leads to disorientation (
Davis Orientation Counseling®).  Mr. Davis also believes that all dyslexics "think in pictures" and are "triggered" into disorientation by reading words that cannot be pictured (such as "the" "at"  or "and).  The remedy is to model the words in clay (Davis Symbol Mastery®).

Unfortunately, Davis's assertions are not backed with the same scientific weight as the mainstream views, as no studies have been done to back his assertions, and no rigorous, independent evaluation of the efficacy of his approach have been undertaken, either.

Effective Teaching to Remediate Dyslexia--These steps must be mastered in order!

Phonemic Awareness  is the first step. You must teach someone how to listen to a  single word or syllable and break it into individual phonemes--the individual sounds.  The person may also have to have awareness raised--that /pin/ SHOULD sound a little different than /pen/.   The learner also has to be able to take individual sounds and blend them into a word,  change sounds, delete sounds, and compare sounds --all in their head. (Non dyslexic children learn these before the reading task begins.  These skills are easiest to learn before  someone brings in printed letters.)

Phoneme/Grapheme Correspondence is the next step. Here you teach which sounds are  represented by which letter(s), and how to blend those letters  into single-syllable words.

The Six Types of Syllables that compose  English words are taught next. If students know what type of  syllable they're looking at, they'll know what sound the vowel  will make. Conversely, when they hear a vowel sound, they'll  know how the syllable must be spelled to make that sound.

Probabilities and Rules are then taught. The English language provides several  ways to spell the same sounds. For example, the sound /SHUN/  can be spelled either TION, SION, or CION. The sound of /J/ at  the end of a word can be spelled GE or DGE. Dyslexic students  need to be taught these rules and probabilities.

Roots and Affixes as well as Morphology are then taught to expand a student's vocabulary  and ability to comprehend (and spell) unfamiliar words. For instance,  once a student has been taught that the Latin root TRACT means  pull, and a student knows the various Latin affixes, the student  can figure out that retract means pull again, contract means  pull together, subtract means pull away (or pull under), while  tractor means a machine that pulls.

How it is taught

Simultaneous Multisensory Instruction:  Sometimes we rattle this off and don't really explain what it means or why it is important

This can be confusing to parents
Sight or seeing, using the eyes = VISUAL

Hearing or listening, using the ears = AUDITORY
Feeling or touching, using the skin = TACTILE

Moving through space and time, using the whole body = KINESTHETIC

Reading and writing go together; writing is a kinestethic task--(can you feel how all the muscles in your hand and arm work to form letters as you write a sentence?).

Research has shown that dyslexic people who use  all of their senses when they learn (visual, auditory, tactile,  and kinesthetic) are better able to store and retrieve the information.  So a beginning dyslexic student might see the letter A, say its  name and sound, and write it in the air -- all at the same time. 

Intense Instruction with Ample Practice: The dyslexic brain benefits from overlearning--having a very precise focus with lots and lots of correct practice.

Direct, Explicit Instruction: dyslexic students do not automatically "get" anything about the reading task, and may not generalize well.  Therefore,   each detail of every rule that governs written language needs to be taught directly, one rule at a time.  Then the rule needs to be practices until the student has demonstrated that she has mastered the rule in both receptive (reading) and productive (writing and spelling) aspects.  Only then should the instructor introduce the next rule.

Systematic and Cumulative Many dyslexic students are not identified until later in their academic careers.  They have developed  mental "structures" of how English works that are completely wrong.  To develop good written language skills--reading and writing--the tutor must go back to  the very beginning and rebuild the student's mastery with a solid  foundation that has  no holes or cracks.  The student must learn the the logic behind our language,  by encountering  one rule at a time and practicing it until the use of the rule is   automatic and fluent when both reading  and writing (spelling).   The student must learn to connect  previously learned rules into current challenges.

Synthetic and Analytic: dyslexic students must be taught both how to take  the individual letters or sounds and put them together to form  a word (synthetic), as well as how to look at a long word and  break it into smaller pieces (analytic). Both synthetic and analytic  phonics must be taught all the time.

Diagnostic Teaching  the teacher must continuously assess their student's understanding  of, and ability to apply, the rules. The teacher must ensure  the student isn't simply recognizing a pattern and blindly applying  it. And when confusion of a previously-taught rule is discovered,  it must be retaught.

There are a number of places to get help.  The International Dyslexia Association can help, as can LD Online and Schwab Learning Susie Barton has a very helpful site.

Schwab Learning Articles
Effective Teaching Methods for Dyslexic Students
Elements of Good Research
Features of Good Reading Programs and Remediation
Myth of a Quick Fix

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Comments (5)

Submitted by John Harrison (not verified) on Mon, 04/26/2010 - 1:35pm.

As a diagnosed dyslexic, a licensed attorney for 30 years (AV rated by Martindale Hubbell) and now a high school history teacher I think the approach set forth above would have ruined me. I have no idea what the nun (Sister Mary de Angeles, Sisters of Notre Dame) did that taught me to read in the 4th Grade, but she did and by the end of the year I was reading at a high school level.
I still could not spell, still cannot spell today and if this was not written on a word processor it would abound with misspellings. My problem was that I literally read “backwards.” I would start at the end of a book and read from right to left. This worked fine for Dick and Jane books, but as the sentences became more complex I had problems reading out loud in class. In addition, since I could not tell the difference between E and 3, I used them interchangeably. This was less of a problem than confusing b and d though since that routinely received a red mark for a misspelled word. I fixed the “ie” or “ei” spelling problem before computers by simply putting the dot between the two letters—you can pick which one you want put it over. It made, and still makes, no difference to me which one is first. To this day it boggles my mind that otherwise intelligent people could think that spelling was important at all, much less as important or even more important than content. But it was to many “teachers” that I have had the misfortune to run into over the years.
Nothing you cite above relates to the dyslexics that I have met, or to the problems that I had before I learned to read. I do not know if Davis speaks to these problems either, I have not read his book, but the idea that rote learning by repetition until “mastery” and learning spelling “rules” etc., would have helped me is simply, completely wrong. It is so completely wrong that I had to write this.
If you have ever failed a student, criticized a student, or imposed more work on a student because the student did not respond positively to such “overlearning” then you are not teaching, but you may well be abusing that child. Certainly you would be if I had been that child.

Submitted by Bebe Hartnett (not verified) on Tue, 06/01/2010 - 3:20pm.

I have to agree with John's comments about the teaching methods described above. I have a 14 yo son with dyslexia who has been receiving public school education thus far. Lots of phonics, and drills, and extra reading classes, and spelling rules have given him only rudimentary reading skills, with little comprehension. I have just read the Gift of Dyslexia and also explained the ideas in it to my son. He seemed very excited about it and we are going to try the ideas on our own this summer. At this point I have to declare the public school method for him a failure. And now we will try everything else, including the Davis method.

Submitted by Laura (not verified) on Wed, 01/12/2011 - 5:46pm.

That method above not only will not "fix" dyslexia, it will ensure that a student with dyslexia subjected to it will also have AD/HD! Who came up with that medievil torture? As an adult with dyslexia, I am thankful that my acedemic (I can learn fine thank you) problems were not named until I was 21. My teachers in elementary and high school all recognized my deficits and took measures to address it. I don't and never have had trouble learning. I also didn't have difficulty learning to read. I just had trouble with the conventional academic proceses and reading, spelling and reciting effeciently enough to suit that process.

What I like about Davis' method is he doesn't try to fix anything. It is a coping stradegy that helps the individual use their talents so that the talent is not also an obsticle. I have read nothing in research that would indicate a need to change his method.

Rewire my brain? Have you lost your mind? That's the very reason dyslexia becomes disabling! Becaue people keep telling us we're "doing it wrong" we learn to doubt ourselves. Who cares which side of the brain is dominant? "rewiring" my brain means taking away the very things that I am good at. In doing so, I would become just another mediocre person. As an adult, my way of thinking has served me well. Keep your box sir. I refuse to live in it.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 06/13/2011 - 12:39am.

I wonder about the Davis Method but I have to say my children benefited greatly from Lindamood Bell, Seeing Stars. They were taught phonemes, not simple phonics, and rules and it all sounded like too much but it acutally worked. The logical clear approach and the visualization was key. They were taught visualization techniques. Research studies with MRI's show that the processing is changed after these programs, rewiring perhaps! But for my children the test results were not just at the LMB center but at school the difference was huge. My children are avid readers now with high comp. They still have dyslexic tendencies and spelling though improved is not where I would like it to be yet. We will be returning for Math. I have to say I thought it sounded like torture but my son loved leaving school early to go and do his 3 hours a day at LMB. He was learning and it felt good. He has retained those lessons too, they became automatic rather than the cheating and memory tricks he used in the classroom prior to LMB. Also, we home school him now that I realize that his best gains were made by our decisions and money and the school was not able to work in a respectful and collaborative manner. He is very happy, something he was not in traditional school. He is not doing anything wrong, our son tested as gifted with a learning disability which we call a teacher disability. His school teacher actually told me he might not be able to go to that school because she could not teach a dyslexic. We have made it clear it just means a better way of teaching, learning and sometimes a different way doing things. That dysgraphia just means you learn to keyboard on the computer and writing is hard for everyone just perhaps a little harder for some. That anything you want to do you can do, Agatha Christie was reportedly a horrible speller, a home schooled dyslexic I believe... So, being dyslexic or any lexia is just a way to figure out what to work on and how to work on it. It also means you think outside the box and that is where the action and innovation is happening.

Submitted by Howied on Mon, 09/05/2011 - 5:14pm.

Hi John, I read your reply to Gimpy's verbal battles with some lady defending "Davis". I know you wrote this about a year a a half ago but I like what you wrote so I had to write to you.

My wife is Dyslexic, so are her 3 grown children from a previous marriage, so is her Dad, a retired trial lawyer and now a labour relations mediator in British Columbia. My wife and I help dyslexic/right brained individuals learn how to succeed in basic literacy skills. We are not "Ron Davis" or "Orton Gillingham" zealots. The many methods we teach about and use are based on good common sense teaching skills. Basically find out what is holding the child back and create a teaching plan that works with that child's learning strengths. I read in your letter that a nun helped you with your reading and she obviously was able to teach you in a particular way that suited how you learned. Hoorah!

I read the article you referred to as well and it is just the same old, same old. Teachers, most of them anyway, just don't get it when a kid says "phonics doesn't make sense" means it doesn't make sense, at all. Pounding it in over and over and repetition and "overlearning" is just pure hell. We are always seeing kids as young as 8 who have just about given up on school. They keep comparing themselves to their peers and ask why can't they learn like their friends. I breaks my heart whenever I see young kids and young adults who are ready to give up on school just because the teacher has a "teaching disability"

I asked a teacher one day at a presentation my wife and I were doing, what was the significance of reading out loud in front of a class. She went on and on about it was a tool to test the reading ability of a child. I asked her what reading ability she was talking about and asked her if she didn't think it was more important that a child understand what the story was about and who did what, when. She was at a total loss for words, she was so stuck in her "left brained" thinking style that she honestly didn't know how to answer. Her number one goal was to have kids who were good at reading out loud, that and having the desks in nice neat rows.

Scarey sometimes when I think about the training teachers in all of North America get in "Learning Disabilities" Just about none as I found out recently. I was going to be a teacher in 1986 and got halfway through my final practicum when things went sideways for me. Birth of number 1 son and announcement that my wife felt she needed to "find herself" and maybe I should become a single parent. Point is I don't remember much training in putting together a lesson plan where it said to teach in a completely different way when I have a child with a different way of learning. Because they didn't teach that is why. I recently spoke to a young teacher in training who was attending the same University I was at almost 30 years ago and she is getting the same training as me. When she attended a 5 "Dyslexia Awareness" workshop my wife and I did last Februaray this young lady said she had not heard anything in her classes that we had gone over in our workshop. And all the stuff we covered is common knowledge gleaned from my wife's research into Dyslexic over the past 25 years from sources all over the world, including information from America and Canada.

Enough about that, I just get a little upset when I think about the total ignorance of Dyslexia/Right Brained thinking in the education systems in Canada and America. In New Zealand they have specific legislation that has helped to created actual "Dyslexia Friendly" schools. They realize that the kids need to be tested early in life and simple accomodations can be made to allow these kids to flourish.

In your letter you mentioned "...nothing you cite relates to the dyslexics I have met." The problem is when you have facilitators who use the "Orton Gillingham" methods to "cure" dyslexia. The "OG" methods were created by a couple of behavioural psychologists in the 1930's. But the schools like the system because it is replicatable so that makes it good. Actually there is no peer review studies that have shown that the "OG" system works. Somehow pounding all those rules into the kids seem to work for some of them but from our experience those kids were probably not Dyslexic to begin with.

By the way, I have read the two Ron Davis books and attended two of his lectures and I just don't get it. Like a blogger once stated: "$3500 dollars seems a lot of money to learn to make letters in coloured clay." And really,if you take away all the 'disorientation' nonsense he talks about his methods are just a semi-multi sensory teaching style. It really only works well if you are a "kinesthetic learner". At one of the lectures I went to there were about 150 attendees and a significant number spoke at the end of the lecture to Ron. Lots of success stories but just as many confused parents who wondered why there kids hadn't learned anything after they had just spent $3500 for the "Ron Davis Method". Ron's advice was that the kids needed to be "reoriented", read; spend another $3500.

So all this is just my personal rant and I wrote to you because you seem to have gone through what most Dyslexic go through, wondering why all those rules that are constantly pounded into you still make no sense. We are happy to say that we have had great success helping kids learn to read, spell and write without learning phonics or sounding out words and such.

Good on you for writing what you wrote and I imagine you are a pretty good history teacher who makes his class fun and engaging for all the kids, especially those highly intelligent and curious Dyslexic ones who keep asking "why".

I invite you to visit our website and take a look at how we see Dyslexia and learn about some of the simple accomodations a teacher or parent can make to help kids learn.

Thanks for your time.

Howie deGraaf and Karey Hope-deGraaf

Visit: Dyslexia Victoria Online, you might find it interesting and you might recognize more kids in your class who learn just like you.

Happy trails.

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