Nancy Disterlic’s Presentation at the 44th Annual PBIDA Conference: Brain Processing and the Power of Emotion

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By Dr. John R. Kruidenier


June 21, 2023


PBIDA members who attended the last year’s PBIDA Annual Fall Conference may remember Nancy Disterlic, a featured presenter and one of the conference’s more dynamic and entertaining speakers. Disterlic presented a summary of research about the daunting social and emotional issues facing students with dyslexia. Summaries or syntheses of aspects of dyslexia research like Disterlic’s have traditionally made up a large proportion of past Fall Conference presentations. In contrast to research syntheses, sometimes called secondary research, are presentations about original or primary research, where researchers present results from their own studies. Examples of primary research presentations from past PBIDA conferences include conference keynote presentations by scientists from Haskins Laboratories and Yale University—Laurie Cutting, and Kenneth Pugh; multiple presentations by Maryanne Wolfe of Tufts University about her research; and more recently, Julie Washington of the Learning Disabilities Research Innovation Hub at the University of California. 

While presentations by those conducting cutting edge research are informative and popular, syntheses of the research have been just as much appreciated at PBIDA conferences. Research syntheses like Nancy Disterlic’s are important because they explain current research in ways that help make it useful for parents, teachers, psychologists, and others as they apply evidence-based practices in their work with children, adolescents, or adults with dyslexia. 

Nancy Disterlic’s presentation, Brain Processing and the Power of Emotion, focused on the need for teachers to address the social and emotional effects of dyslexia, in addition to providing the necessary evidence-based instruction in reading. She finds that many of the issues or problems that often accompany dyslexia can negatively affect the way the brain processes information. For example, anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and related executive function deficits all make it more difficult for learners to process information in short and long term memory. Reducing anxiety, according to research summarized by Disterlic, leads to chemical reactions in the brain that help “open up” long term memory. She asserted that effective instruction for those with dyslexia should initially address their social and emotional needs and that this is at least as important as working directly on essential reading skills like phonological awareness, letter-sound correspondence, word analysis, fluency, reading vocabulary or reading comprehension. For Disterlic, it is extremely important for teachers to understand their student’s social/emotional needs and to “connect emotionally” with students who have dyslexia to help build their self-confidence and make sure that they feel understood.

Nancy Disterlic’s presentation was both useful and entertaining largely because of the unique blend of personal and professional experience that she brings to the dyslexia research she synthesizes. Disterlic is an experienced dyslexia consultant with degrees in Early Childhood Education and Multisensory Instruction. She provides teacher training and is uniquely qualified to present information from a dyslexic’s point of view.  As Disterlic explained, she has dyslexia herself, is the mother of children with dyslexia, and has taught those with severe reading difficulties. Disterlic’s experience is central to her ability to translate research into practical suggestions for practitioners. Her personal experiences with dyslexia allow her to speak candidly, and even humorously, about the complex social and emotional issues facing those with dyslexia and their families. 

While Disterlic did not go into detail when presenting research-based approaches, her presentation was filled with information and references to resources for both parents and teachers drawn both from her years as a teacher trainer and from living with dyslexia herself. These included an interesting summary of the ways that our brains process emotions as well as discussions of other secondary sources including research-oriented books like Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz and How the Brain Learns by David Sousa; many self-help books that blend the personal with the scientific such as Late, Lost, and Unprepared: A Parents’ Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning  (Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Dietzel) and Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder (Edward Hallowell and John Ratey); and even some popular psychology texts like The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Jonathan Haidt).

Nancy Disterlic is a good example of those PBIDA conference presenters who synthesize dyslexia research, summarizing a body of research in ways that make it understandable, accessible and even entertaining for conference attendees. These speakers take a broad view of research studies completed by a variety of researchers, summarizing study results in ways that enable others to apply it in their work with dyslexics. Disterlic’s particular appeal as an interpreter of dyslexia research results from her emersion in the world of dyslexics as a student, a parent, a teacher, and a teacher trainer. 

PBIDA’s Annual Fall Conferences have always included useful summaries of dyslexia research and have often included presentations of original research as well. Information about PBIDA’s 45th Annual Fall Conference in 2023 will be announced this summer. It will surely include speakers, like Disterlic, who synthesize complex research results in ways that are accessible and informative for listeners.


Dr. John R. Kruidenier is a literacy consultant based in Horsham, PA.


The Pennsylvania Branch of the International Dyslexia Association is pleased to present a forum for information to benefit its constituents. It is IDA’s policy to not recommend or endorse any specific program, product, institution, company, or instructional material, noting that there are a number of such that present the critical components of instruction as defined by IDA’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading. Any program, product, institution, company, or instructional material carrying the IDA Accredited seal meets the IDA Standards.