Addressing Literacy on a Global Scale: John J. Russell, EdD, and Magdalena Zavalia present at DISFAM 2020 

The Windward School and The Windward Institute share in the vision of a world where every child with a language-based learning disability is empowered to achieve unlimited success. This vision is supported by a key goal in the School’s most recent strategic plan: to provide greater access to The Windward School’s expertise and research on proven ways to remediate language-based learning disabilities.  

In keeping with these aspirations, John J. Russell, EdD, and Magdalena Zavalia presented at the 2020 DISFAM (Asociación Dislexia y Familia) National and Iberican Congress, to an international audience of over 2,900 policy makers, educators, school leaders and literacy researchers from Spain and across Latin and South America. Dr. Russell is the Special Advisor to, and former Executive Director of The Windward Institute, and Magdalena Zavalia is the Manager of the Aprendo Leyendo Reading Program, Co-founder of Intelexia, and a member of the Board of Trustees at The Windward School. Their presentation occurred at a critical time for addressing current global challenges and disrupting the educational status quo across Spanish-speaking countries. 

Advocacy for Dyslexia across Spain and South America 

The Asociación Dislexia y Familia, DISFAM, was founded in 2002 to advocate for children and adults with dyslexia, emphasizing the difficulties associated with reading, academics, and overall wellbeing. In highlighting DISFAM’s activism, Dr. Russell and Ms. Zavalia noted the non-profit organization’s commitment to raising awareness about dyslexia, advocating for greater access to neuropsychological evaluations and policy reform, and dispelling widespread misconceptions and myths that are detrimental to children with dyslexia.  

“Globally, there is an incredible lack of accurate information on dyslexia and the remediation of dyslexia.”

The 2020 DISFAM Congress illuminated the urgent need to inform the global community about dyslexia, language-based learning disabilities, and research on reading and the brain. Dyslexia, a neurobiological disability that is marked by reading difficulties, impacts children and adults across all countries and in all languages. Still, many people around the world lack basic understanding of what dyslexia is and isn’t and how it impacts children when they do not receive effective remediation and support. “Globally, there is an incredible lack of accurate information on dyslexia and the remediation of dyslexia,” Dr. Russell explained. 

Sharing Expertise on Research-Based Practices with a Global Community 

Dr. Russell and Ms. Zavalia shared Windward’s expertise with the 2020 DISFAM Congress, bringing their deep knowledge of the research and leadership to promote literacy outcomes. Dr. Russell had initially connected with DISFAM through an alumnus of The Windward School. “People never forget the impact that The Windward School has had for alumni students and their families,” he reflects.  

Dr. Russell and Ms. Zavalia were the perfect duo to show the ways in which research-based reading instruction can impact teacher and student outcomes- from an independent school in New York to networks of public schools in Spanish-speaking Buenos Aires, Argentina. As the former Head of School of Windward, Dr. Russell presented the foundations of a research-based reading program and direct instruction, citing The School’s proven methodology that is supported by thirteen years of standardized testing data. Ms. Zavalia, an alumni parent, experienced the success of a Windward education and The Windward Institute’s professional development, and sought to increase literacy outcomes for students in Argentina. She demonstrated how the implementation of research-based reading instruction transformed literacy outcomes for students in Buenos Aires, specifically showing how the Aprendo Leyendo Reading Program increased literacy rates across the province.  

“There’s a real hunger to learn more about the research and dyslexia with a common goal of saving the next generation of kids.”

Both presentations shared the same message: When a research-based reading program is paired with direct instruction methodology and investment in teacher training, it results in positive student outcomes. Ms. Zavalia’s key message specifically highlighted the possibility of creating high quality, research-based reading instruction across geographical locations, school context, and language. Upon reflecting on the conference, Dr. Russell explained, “There’s a real hunger to learn more about the research and dyslexia with a common goal of saving the next generation of kids.” 

Key Takeaways Toward a More Equitable, Global Future  

Appreciative of the opportunity to present at the 2020 Congress and connect with other committed educators, experts, and activists, Dr. Russell and Ms. Zavalia expressed their key takeaways and call for future action. 

1. Addressing widespread misconceptions 

Pervasive myths and misconceptions about reading difficulties exist throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Ms. Zavalia recalled that educators in many countries are steeped in whole language. An incredible amount of misinformation about instructional practices to support children with dyslexia continues to spread throughout the education communities. With the rise of technology, some people may be tempted to seek the fast or popular “cures” for dyslexia. Misguided theories promoting certain fonts, colors, or glasses may seem innovative, when in fact they have been disproven to support dyslexics. 

2. Advocating for Research-based practices 

Decades of behavioral and brain-based research supports practices like universal and early screening as well as high quality intervention and remediation using systematic, explicit reading instruction.  This type of instruction has been proven based on the evidence that experts have learned about our reading brain. “The facts and science matter. We know that practice, routines, and hard work matters, and we have the data and research to prove it,” explains Ms. Zavalia. The results from Buenos Aires, Argentina have promising implications across countries and languages. She adds, “Instruction matters. Research-based instruction is key for all students, especially dyslexics, and it can be implemented across all languages- in private and public schools… [The outcomes from Buenos Aires] show it can be deployed in Latin America.” 

“Instruction matters. Research-based instruction is key for all students, especially dyslexics, and it can be implemented across all languages- in private and public schools… [The outcomes from Buenos Aires] show it can be deployed in Latin America.”

3. Translating research and classroom practices 

Teachers in Spanish-speaking countries need high quality research that applies to their culture, language, classroom practices. While dyslexia is noted as a language-based learning disability in English, it is called a disorder in Spanish.  The term, disability¸ translated in Spanish generally indicates a physical impairment or low IQ. Discerning between these labels exemplifies an interesting cultural translation. In addition, research and instructional pedagogy need to be translated for direct classroom use. Specifically, the PAF Program was originally created for English speakers. Ms. Zavalia, and a team led by Phyllis Bertin, author of PAF, deliberately wrote a Spanish version of the program, Aprendo Leyendo Reading Program, that aligned with the research-based pedagogy to teach sounds and syllables in Spanish. Translation of research and pedagogy involves more than a simple linguistic conversion and also requires consideration of cultural differences and teacher needs. 

4. Focusing on Current and Future Needs Worldwide 

Given the need for more robust research and dissemination of research-based educational practices in Spanish-speaking countries, Dr. Russell and Ms. Zavalia call for increased investment in providing information and resources worldwide. As members of the Haskins Global Literacy Hub, both speakers discussed The Hub’s next steps including providing Spanish versions of existing resources and research, continuing to host free webinars in English and Spanish, and establishing more global partnerships. Ms. Zavalia also spoke to providing greater access to literacy opportunities, noting that many school libraries in Buenos Aires lack adequate books.  

Continued Global Partnerships 

The 2020 DISFAM Congress certainly provided a unique opportunity for Dr. Russell and Ms. Zavalia to spread awareness about the research and instruction to support students with dyslexia. Through their continued work with The Haskins Global Literacy Hub, The Windward Institute, and The Windward School, Dr. Russell and Ms. Zavalia are taking further steps to collaborate with other partners throughout the world. “We live in a globally connected world,” Dr. Russell asserts. “And the problems we face- climate change, the economy, and the pandemic- in this globally connected world cannot be solved by a single country acting in isolation.”

“We live in a globally connected world. And the problems we face- climate change, the economy, and the pandemic- in this globally connected world cannot be solved by a single country acting in isolation.”

The WI supports the goal of increasing access to Windward’s expertise by advocating for the appropriate way to remediate language-based learning disabilities on the local, national and international levels and by preparing a new generation of educators and clinicians and empowering parents and guardians to act as advocates. This work will involve a continued commitment to disrupt the educational status quo around the world to increase childhood literacy rates. Literacy is the key factor to promoting global collaboration, tackling our most pressing problems, and ensuring the livelihood of every child around the world.