When I am looking into a professional/specialist or a programme to help my son, I have learned the hard way to be a bit of an FBI mother. At some time in our journey, we have all fallen for something in our desperation to help our children and wasted money and precious time. I now do so much more research, which can last a few days or weeks if needed before deciding if it/they are evidence based and right for me and my son.

When I start my research, I have a clear view of what I am after and what I need from the programme or specialist. It can be easy to get sidetracked with the shiny pretty things that you don’t need, but they tell you that you do. 

An example being:

If I am looking at a company/programme to see if they use the Science of Reading or the Structured Literacy approach, I want to know what their scope and sequence is, do they have decodable books that match the scope and sequence. What supporting materials do they use, are they just workbooks, do they have sound cards, word cards, teaching manuals, how do they teach irregular words?

I also look for the words like encode, decode, evidence based, Science of Reading, Structured Literacy, Phonological Awareness, Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) or the Alphabetic Principle, The Code or Orton Gillingham.

Red Flag words would be: guided reading, PM readers, finding the meaning, a programme that has a time frame (2 weeks, 6 or 12 weeks etc.), balanced literacy, whole language, phonics only, only the word decode (encode isn’t mentioned), high costs, cure ,fix , word families, reading is natural, if you don’t know the word skip it.  Say the sound (buh) – we never add to a sound (uh) as it is another sound, it should be /b/ (yes I have seen uh added and written on websites). This indicates straightway they don’t have the correct knowledge to teach sounds.  

Shiny objects – when it implies you need to buy everything on the site that’s priced separately to make the programme work.  This is not true – in many SL approaches you can make some of your own resources (I write my own word cards). You should look out for a pack with everything you need and then you can buy extras for convenience. 

Side note on shiny objects for SL, make sure you understand what multisensory really is when we teach kids. It is not writing letters in sand or shaving foam. Although it may be fun, that’s not MSL. 

MSL in its simplistic form – Ears for listening, eyes for seeing, mouth for kinesthetic (we move our mouth when we say the sound). Kinesthetic also comes in when you say the sound and write it. 

For more information read – Multisensory Structured Literacy Teaching  from the International Dyslexia Assossciaon (IDA)

Understanding what you’re looking for is the first step in avoiding snakes and snake oils and learning to read between the lines is another. Here are a few things that I do that should help when you are looking at programmes, tutors, practitioners or professionals:

  • I ask Google if there is any scientific evidence for the programme or approach. These results can be very interesting. If I just search the programme itself (which is what I used I do), I will only get their website or other companies’ websites who use it or sell it and their websites are always full of great reviews and feel-good stories. 

Tip – Use Scholar on Google, it’s excellent for finding research papers and studies.  Credit goes to Linda Kimpton for this one.

  • I look to see if they have a research tab, then look for peer-reviewed research (meaning other universities or groups have researched it) and not just research. Often research only means it is the company’s own research which will always favour their programme. 
  • I look out for statements like “we have had great success, please read our reviews” or, worse, “check out our Facebook page,” instead of references to evidence or research. This means they have no real evidence to support their claims.
  • If I can’t find enough information on what they do, then I start asking questions by phone or email. Companies that are evidence based have nothing to hide and will happily share or talk about their programme/approach, if you ask them what evidence they have to support their teachings. 
  • If there are videos on the website, I watch them and read the FAQ section; I find I get a good indicator about what they are about, and I can see some of the small print addressed in a Q&A form.
  • I search Google for worldwide reviews. It’s amazing what has been accepted in New Zealand that has been banned or questioned in other countries. NZ does not always have professional regulations in place for businesses.
  • When you’re asking questions, listen carefully to the language they use. If they are going out of their way to use technical language to confuse you this may indicate they are hiding something. (Ask them to explain.)
  • If they start running down others in their field because they don’t agree with their practice, run for the hills. All evidence-based practitioners will support one another because they are singing from the same song sheet. 
  • I have now learned to always trust my instincts. Mum’s gut is rarely wrong.  If it doesn’t feel right, walk away or at least get a second opinion. We know our children better than anyone and you don’t need a degree or a fancy certificate. Although, being mums to children who are neurodiverse, we totally deserve a degree for navigating and advocating our children’s education and wellbeing! 

Every good decision I have made for my son has been driven by my instincts. Every bad one was driven by others and me being convinced it was the right decision. 


Things you should never rely on: 

  • A friend recommended it; do your own research.
  • Don’t presume having a website makes it legitimate, or a Facebook page with lots of members means they are successful. This only means people have liked the page. Pseudoscience companies are very clever and can have websites and associations.
  • Just because they are a well-known company doesn’t mean they follow an evidence-based approach. 
  • Even companies with a good reputation can still be practicing no evidence-based approaches/programmes. 
  • Check credentials are legit – did they train in NZ or overseas, is there a register you can check? If you can become a Lord and Lady of a castle in Scotland over the internet, you can bet your bottom dollar you buy a certificate with a few letters or a title on it.


If I don’t understand what I am reading or being told. I keep asking questions until I do understand. I decided a few years ago it’s better to look a bit silly or feel silly asking questions or getting them to explain it again than be duped out of money and precious time. It can be so easy to fall for a sales pitch or the careful words they use to imply they are doing the right thing. Salespeople are trained in this when they are promoting or selling. 

Don’t beat yourself up (easier said than done, I know); put the lesson learned into good practice for next time.

This document was created by Sharon Scurr founder of the deb in November 2021