Showing posts with label reading disability. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reading disability. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Decoding Dyslexia: A Rose by Any other Name

Teacher Question: As I watch the Dyslexia Awareness movement gain momentum and grassroots organizations such as Decoding Dyslexia spur the movement on... I am feeling an increased urgency to take a long hard look at students under my watch that struggle with reading and are eventually diagnosed with a “specific learning disability.” I find myself in agreement that so many public school structures and teacher awareness do NOT include dyslexia. In fact, the term is avoided. I am interested in becoming trained in literacy instruction methods that are geared toward the dyslexic brain and I am looking into Orton-Gillingham training since it is focused specifically on the needs of dyslexics. Why don’t reading professors and reading specialists emphasize dyslexia?

          Dyslexia is a serious problem and one deserving instructional attention. The term dyslexia has been, justifiably, controversial, and has consequently been avoided by most reading educators—including me. The reason for its gingerly handling is that it is a description of reading disability that includes etiology; that is, an explanation of cause.

          Dyslexia refers to a neurologically based disorder. The idea is that dyslexic students’ brains fail to process information properly or well, and that this causes their difficulty in learning to read. The definition is somewhat circular because the purported brain problem is not actually measured… it is inferred from the reading problem. Thus, neurological processing problems cause low reading ability and we know the student has a neurological processing problem because he is struggling to read.

           Contrast, dyslexia with its well-respected sister alexia. Alexia is a reading problem caused by a neural injury. The person could read or seemed to be learning to read just fine, then a spike went through his/her brain and since then, there has been a reading problem. Alexia is a learning problem acquired through neurological injury, while dyslexia is a learning problem caused by an assumed neurological problem. That’s why dyslexia is sometimes referred to as “minimal brain dysfunction” or “minimal brain injury.” (Even with all of the new brain technology and research, we do not have a procedure that can reliably identify which brains are going to struggle in learning to read.)

           That would all be fine if neurological problems were the only phenomenon that interrupts literacy learning. Unfortunately, they are not. For instance, poverty can disruptive learning, and, of course, there is just good old lousy teaching (dysteachia? J).

           Under U.S. law, dyslexia does not include learning problems that result from “visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.” This meant, for example, that kids could not receive special education for dyslexia if they had low IQs, because their reading problems may have been due to their limited mental functioning.

           But what constitutes cultural or economic disadvantage? What a strange brain malady, indeed, that can only be acquired by those whose families have lots of money—flying over the houses of boys and girls living in want.

          I’m not claiming dyslexia doesn’t exist or that no reading problems are neurological in nature and genetic in basis—yes, Virginia, I do believe in dyslexia. But labeling kids as having neurological deficits is not helpful unless there is some specific teaching response that diagnosis instigates.

           That’s where Orton-Gillingham supposedly comes in. But before dealing with whether O-G is the one true way to teach dyslexic students, let’s take a last detour in thinking about dyslexia.

           There are scads of studies revealing that dyslexia is phonological in nature. That is, students with this disorder have a particularly difficult time perceiving phonemes and coordinating this perception with the letters on the page. English is an alphabetic language, so not being able to easily connect these bits of information neurologically is a real problem.

          But doesn’t that mean that I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth? Didn’t I just say that a problem with the dyslexia diagnosis is that it doesn’t tell you what or how to teach, and then I turned right around and said that dyslexia is basically a decoding issue? If that’s the case, then why not just teach these students phonics and be done with it?

           The problem with that reasoning is that NICHD research suggests that when elementary kids have reading problems, they tend to be problems with phonological awareness and decoding about 86% of the time. That means that it is an instructional need of most young kids who struggle to read, no matter what the etiology. Even those who are struggling due to poverty or bad teaching are likely to get tripped up by their decoding needs.

           But wasn’t Orton-Gillingham created to address the specific phonics needs of kids with dyslexia? It was. It was created in the 1920s and was aimed specifically at helping children to see words properly (at the time they thought dyslexics were seeing words backwards—that’s not the case, which shows how dicey this whole idea is of prescribing instruction aimed at particular brain maladies).

            In my reading of the research, I see that O-G has been effective, in some cases, in improving the reading ability of struggling readers. I have also seen research in which it was not so effective (though in fairness, O-G has been evaluated with disabled readers whose difficulties were particularly severe).

           But there is no research showing that O-G is more effective than other thorough, structured programs aimed at teaching phonological awareness and decoding. In fact, there are many such programs available (look at the research evidence provided by the What Works Clearinghouse).

           I have heard from many parents during the past year providing testimonials to O-G based on their experiences (which usually included fights with their local school to obtain a sufficiently thorough and powerful decoding program for their child). That O-G worked with their child demonstrates that it can work, that O-G has not consistently done so in the research shows it is not the cure all some may claim, and that research has supported the effectiveness of so many other instructional procedures (including those that are not multisensory) for teaching such children, suggests that O-G may not even be the best response to their needs.

          What should not be happening is fights between parents and schools over whether to address these children's decoding needs. Whether we call it dyslexia or just a reading problem, it will not likely be outgrown and explicit teaching of decoding skills is most often an appropriate part of the solution.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

To Special Ed or not to Special Ed: RtI and the Early Identification of Reading Disabilities

My question centers on identifying students for special education. Research says identify students early, avoid the IQ-discrepancy model formula for identification, and use an RTI framework for identification and intervention. 

That said, I have noticed that as a result of high stakes accountability linked to teacher evaluations there seems to be a bit of a shuffle around identifying students for special education. While we are encourages to "identify early", the Woodcock Johnson rarely finds deficits that warrant special education identification.  Given current research  on constrained skills theory ( Scott  Paris)  and late emerging reading difficulties (Rollanda O’Connor), how do we make sure we are indeed identifying students early? 

If a student has been with me for two years (Grades 1 and 2) and the instructional trajectory shows minimal progress on meeting benchmarks, (despite quality research-based literacy instruction), but a special education evaluation using the Woodcock Johnson shows skills that fall within norms, how do we service these children? Title I is considered a regular education literacy program. Special Education seems to be pushing back on servicing these students, saying they need to "stay in Title I."  Or worse, it is suggested that these students be picked up in SPED for phonics instruction, and continue to be serviced in Title I for comprehension. 

I am wondering what your thoughts are on this. The "duplication of services" issue of being service by both programs aside, how does a school system justify such curriculum fragmentation for its most needy students? Could you suggest some professional reading or research that could help me make the case for both early identification of students at risk for late emerging reading difficulties, and the issue of duplication of services when both Title I and SPED service a student?

This is a great question, but one that I didn’t feel I could answer. As I’ve done in the past with such questions: I sent it along to someone in the field better able to respond. In this case, I contacted Richard Allington, past president of the International Reading Association, and a professor at the University of Tennessee. This question is right in his wheelhouse, and here is his answer:

I know of no one who advocates early identification of kids as pupils with disabilities (PWDs). At this point in time we have at least 5 times as many kids identified as PWDs [as is merited]. The goal of RTI, as written in the background paper that produced the legislation, is a 70-80% decrease in the numbers of kids labeled as PWDs. The basic goal of RTI is to encourage schools to provide kids with more expert and intensive reading instruction. As several studies have demonstrated, we can reduce the proportion of kids reading below grade to 5% or so by the end of 1st grade. Once on level by the end of 1st about 85% of kids remain on grade level at least through 4th grade with no additional intervention. Or as two other studies show, we could provide 60 hours of targeted professional development to every K-2 teacher to develop their expertise sufficiently to accomplish this. In the studies that have done this fewer kids were reading below grade level than when the daily 1-1 tutoring was provided in K and 1st. Basically, what the research indicates is that LD and dyslexics and ADHD kids are largely identified by inexpert teachers who don't know what to do. If Pianta and colleagues are right, only 1 of 5 primary teachers currently has both the expertise and the personal sense of responsibility for teaching struggling readers. (It doesn't help that far too many states have allowed teachers to avoid responsibility for the reading development of PWDs by removing PWDs from value-added computations of teacher effectiveness).

I'll turn to senior NICHD scholars who noted that, "Finally, there is now considerable evidence, from recent intervention studies, that reading difficulties in most beginning readers may not be directly caused by biologically based cognitive deficits intrinsic to the child, but may in fact be related to the opportunities provided for children learning to read." (p. 378)

In other words, most kids that fail to learn to read are victims of inexpert or nonexistent teaching. Or, they are teacher disabled not learning disabled. Only when American schools systems and American primary grade teachers realize that they are the source of the reading problems that some kids experience will those kids ever be likely to be provided the instruction they need by their classroom teachers.

As far as "duplication of services" this topic has always bothered me because if a child is eligible for Title i services I believe that child should be getting those services. As far as fragmentation of instruction this does not occur when school districts have a coherent systemwide curriculum plan that serves all children. But most school districts have no such plan and so rather than getting more expert and more intensive reading lessons based on the curriculum framework that should be in place, struggling readers get a patchwork of commercial programs that result in the fragmentation. Again, that is not the kids as the problem but the school system as the problem. Same is true when struggling readers are being "taught" by paraprofessionals. That is a school system problem not a kids problem. In the end all of these school system failures lead to kids who never becomes readers.

Good answer, Dick. Thanks. Basically, the purpose of these efforts shouldn’t be to identify kids who will qualify for special education, but to address the needs of all children from the beginning. Once children are showing that they are not responding adequately to high quality and appropriate instruction, then the intensification of instruction—whether through special education or Title I or improvements to regular classroom teaching should be provided. Quality and intensity are what need to change; not placements. Early literacy is an amalgam of foundational skills that allow one to decode from print to language and language skills that allow one to interpret such language. If students are reaching average levels of performance on foundational skills, it is evident that they are attaining skills levels sufficient to allow most students to progress satisfactorily. If they are not progressing, then you need to look at the wider range of skills needed to read with comprehension. The focus of the instruction, the intensity of the instruction, and the quality of the instruction should be altered when students are struggling; the program placement or labels, not so much.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Q & A On All Things Common Core

Recently, I participated in a webinar for McGraw-Hill about teaching with the common core standards. Participants sent in some questions and I have provided answers to those questions. Thought you might be interested in the wide-ranging conversation. Here is a link to the webinar itself in case you want to start there.

Any suggestions as to how raising text levels will work for students that are learning English? Are the same ideas relevant? I suspect that it isn’t that different across languages in terms of how this works generally or how well it will work. What needs to be scaffolded might differ, however. Usually second language learners will need more vocabulary support or grammar support than will be needed by native speakers (but there can be a lot of individual variation in this). Second language experts have long expressed concerns about text placements that under shot ELL students’ intellectual capacities; that problem will definitely be improved by this approach. For more info on English learners and common core visit

With the huge emphasis on increased text level, it seems that the amount of reading done will decrease significantly. What are your thoughts on this? That is a real possibility and it could be a problem. I think it is something we will need to be vigilant about. I continue to stress the idea that NOT all student reading needs to in the common core ranges and the importance of varied reading difficulty across the school day and school year. Obviously when one is dealing with very hard text, it makes sense to work with smaller doses of that (because it takes longer to figure it out)… with easier text the doses can be bigger. By working with a mix of texts, it is possible to get practice with both the intensity and extensiveness to increase student reading levels and reading stamina.

  David Coleman suggests reading 50% informational and 50% literary text. When we present students with "reach" texts, would you suggest we put more informational than literary texts in their hands? No, I generally wouldn’t say that, though in practice it might turn out that way. Kids will need experience in handling a wide variety of more challenging texts. However, I’ve been looking at the texts that elementary teachers report using with kids. The informational texts that they use tend to be harder than the literary texts… so if the harder texts that are available in your classroom are the informational texts, then these texts might very well be the ones that you use as reach texts.

If the vast majority of students in a classroom is reading two grade levels below current grade level, and the teacher is exposing the students to grade level shared text, is this enough? Should the shared text be ABOVE current grade level in this case? I don’t think there is a specific match of text to students (in terms of text difficulty) that facilitates learning. It will always be three variables: how well the student reads now, how hard the text is, and how much thoughtful support the teacher provides to help the student figure the text out. Working with materials two years harder than we would have used in the past is likely a sufficient distance to allow learning – now it is up to the teacher to provide enough support to encourage learning.

What would be the accuracy percentage you'd recommend when you suggest students read at their frustration level/"reach" level? See previous question. There is no set level. William Powell’s work suggests that these accuracy percentages might vary by grade levels, but that they were often in the mid 80-percents for the students who made the greatest gains (which is much lower than we would have encouraged in the past).

What is the role of literary nonfiction? If you want to prepare students to read well you should give them opportunities to work with a wide variety of text types—so they gain experience dealing with different language, text features, purposes, structures, etc. Literary nonfiction—essays, biographies, speeches, criticism—is wonderful and important. However, literature and non-literary informational text (science, history, etc.) are important, too. I fear that many schools will increase literary nonfiction, but will not increase the reading of non-literary informational text. (I also fear the pressure in some schools for the English Department to take on science and history reading—which makes no sense to me).

Can you put a percent on the maximum amount of time allowed for out-of-level reading? No. We definitely don’t know what the best mix of challenging and less challenging might be.

Do these shifts also apply to early intervention reading programs in all grade levels? Early intervention programs focus on learners in preschool, kindergarten, and grade one. I don’t think it would be a good idea to ramp text difficulty up for these students. Stay with the kinds of materials and student-text matches that we have traditionally used at these levels. (For later interventions, I like the idea of the highly skilled intervention teacher in an advantaged situation—smaller groups of children, for instance, working with harder text. Remember to learn from such text a lot more support is needed, so shifting to difficult text in the high support situation makes greater sense.

If this is true for grades 2-12, is it the role of grades K-1 to teach ALL students to the point of being on grade level expectations of CCSS? Grades PreK-1 have a lot to accomplish. The reason why we don’t ramp up the difficulty level of texts is to ensure that students develop their beginning reading and writing skills (e.g., phonological awareness, decoding, fluency, comprehension). Let’s not try to hurry past that part of the process (by raising the texts levels), but let’s give kids he skills that will allow them to benefit from the more challenging texts they will face later.

Using grade level texts (not a steady diet of out of level) is a big shift in thinking. As a literacy coach, how do I convince teachers that what we have been telling them to do is not the CCSS way anymore? I can feel a revolt coming on! However, it makes good sense to me. Are there studies there about how this shift impacts students' achievement? 
AND this one: 
During the webinar, I asked about research that supported asking students to read above their instructional levels. Dr. Shanahan indicated that there were a few studies. Could you give me the names of some of those researchers?

Here are a couple of past blogs that provide this information.

I work in a small district in Cedar City Utah as a school literacy specialist. Our district does not even have a core reading program that it requires all schools to use. (I use to work in Granite School district in Salt Lake City) My teachers want new curriculum in order to teach these new standards. Any suggestions on how to get the district to realize that new material is a real need with new standards?

 The Common Core is requiring the use of more challenging texts than has been common in the past. It is requiring substantially greater attention to informational text and literary non-fiction. It is requiring greater attention to connections across texts, and to the use of texts that have sufficient intellectual depth to support close readings. I can’t imagine schools reaching the common core without making changes to their texts (how big those changes will need to be will depend on what is in place now, of course).

I would like to ask Dr. Shanahan if the three read, first for key ideas/details, second for craft/structure, and third for integration of knowledge/ideas works for informational text as well as literary? AND Can you briefly describe what a close reading in science might look like?

Yes, attention to those three kinds of thinking makes sense with both kinds of reading though the specifics may differ a bit (a key idea in one type of text is not necessarily a key idea in another). Early on a close reading of science is not that different from other close readings, but as students move up through the grades – and science texts gets more specialized—it can look pretty different. However, the structure of close reading can be pretty similar even when some of the specifics change. Thus, initially, it is important that students be able to identify the main idea and key details. This means students have to learn to focus on the key scientific information that would allow them to summarize the text adequately (so far, not that different from literary reading, and yet what kind of information matters most differs even at this point—character motive is pretty important in literary reading, while material cause or causation without motive is essential to science). A deeper stab at reading science will then require attention to the nature of the author’s language and the structure of the text: this might include teaching students to understand the structure of an experiment or the kind of sentence-to-sentence analysis of text illustrated in Reading in Secondary Content Areas. Then to push even deeper, analyzing the connection among the parts of the text (such as the connections of the data-communication devices, tables and the like, to the prose) or comparing one scientific account with another.

What are your thoughts about using gradated texts? Texts on a variety of levels as a scaffold? I think reading multiple texts on a topic written at different levels of difficulty is a terrific scaffold for dealing with harder text. In the past, if a text was hard for students, reading teachers would have encouraged using a different text to be used “instead of.” The idea here is not to flee from the hard text, but to read some easier “in addition to” texts on the same topic and to climb these easier texts like stair-steps.

Where do learning disabled students fit with regard to these shifts? I think teachers who work with these students may rely less on simply putting kids in easier texts as their response to these students’ needs, and more on trying to help them to deal with whatever they are struggling with.

What recommendations do you have for getting a student, who may be reading 1-2 years below their grade level, to read at their grade level in the shortest amount of time? I would make sure the student had about 3 hours per day of reading and writing work and this should engage the student in reading every day; reading something relatively easy and something challenging. The work with the challenging text needs guidance and support from a teacher with a lot of attention and explicit work on vocabulary. I would also argue for substantial fluency work (that could be with the same challenging text—repeated oral reading of some form or other). Depending on the age and skill level, I might push for explicit decoding instruction. I would encourage/require a lot of writing, too. Yes, it does, but what is a key idea in one kind of text may not be in another.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Persistence of reading problems: Research-based fact or urban myth?

Last week, I heard from the Education Writers Association requesting information about what happens to children who don’t learn to read well by third grade… Do they drop out of high school? End up in jail? Become wards of the state? Go into politics? (Okay, they didn’t really ask that last one, I was just checking to see if you were paying attention.) The Writers had checked NAEP reports and the Department of Education, but found no help there. So what really happen to kids who don’t read well early?

Longitudinal studies show that early learning problems tend to be persistent. There are strong correlations between early reading skills and later academic attainment. That means that the kids who are learning well in grades 1 and 2, tend to continue to well right into high school. The studies have been done over various time points, but generally they find a very strong consistency from grade 1 through about grade 11 (see citations below for the evidence).

It shouldn’t be surprising that the past is prologue. Scientists who study children’s learning tend to be naturists or nurturists, but either way the story comes out the same. The naturists claim that learning is governed mainly by genetically-inherited brain functioning (IQ, intelligence, ability, etc.). They would conclude that children who have strong ability to learn early on will continue to exhibit such ability as they get older as long as nothing physiologically goes wrong the brain will keep learning well.

The nurturists tell a very similar story. Some children live in supportive environments with parents who talk with them, read to them, send them to good schools with other nurturing adults, etc. Of course, if kids are in stimulating and supportive environments early on they tend to stay there (the rich kid thrown into poverty without benefit of parents is a staple of Dickensian fiction, but a rather rare event in real life in 21st century America). Kids who start out in lousy schools, tend to stay in lousy schools.

The things that make learning work early on are the same things that make learning work later and so kids who do well early on tend to continue to learn (and, of course, this means that the kids who start out having a hard time continue to have difficulty). With reading, the successful kids get the added benefit of being able to read well, which has a functional benefit later on (so even if they have a bad high school teacher, these students can sometimes even read around this temporary impediment).

However, though early reading success or failure translates into later school success or failure is the pattern more than 80% of the time, there are always a few outliers who manage to overcome their initial limitations (again, because they are really smart or live in really smart environments that are arrayed to address the problem). This last point is really important, because it says that redemption is possible. Just because your child is having trouble with reading does not mean this problem has to persist. Good teaching (in big doses) can solve this problem for most kids. Redemption is possible.

So, what of the more dramatic claims? High school dropouts do tend to have somewhat lower reading scores than other kids, but the correlation between dropping out and reading level is pretty limited. That means, for the most parts, kids leave high school for lots of reasons, low reading scores being only one of the explanations (good readers drop out too—I did, for instance—and poor readers often stick around and graduate—just because they can’t read well doesn’t mean they’re stupid). I’m aware of no studies that look at high school graduation longitudinally so can’t say directly whether early low readers are more likely to drop out (they probably are, but how much the chance of this is increased is unknown—I suspect the increase would be rather small given the low relationship between reading and graduation).

The idea that early reading problems translate into prison terms is urban myth. No such studies exist. Data do show that incarcerated youth suffer startlingly high rates of reading disability (something like 5 times the normal incidence)… but most kids with reading problems DO NOT end up in jail, so a strong relationship between early reading difficulty and later criminal activity is not likely (and people like Bernie Madoff can read very well). Despite the claims that school achievement levels are taken into account by those who plan the building of prisons (they do not), the relationship between prison time and literacy is rather murky.

Fletcher, J., & Satz, P. (1982). Kindergarten prediction of reading achievement: A seven-year longitudinal follow up. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 42, 681-685.

Entwistle, D. R., & Hayduk, L. A. (1988). Lasting effects of elementary school. Sociology of Education, 61, 147-159.

Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children with reading disabilities. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86, 24-53.

Shaywitz, S. E., Fletcher, J. M., Holahan, A. E., Schneider, K. E., Marchione, K. K., Stuebing, D. J., Francis, D. J., & Shaywitz, B. A. (1999). Persistence of dyslexia: The Connecticut Longitudinal Study at adolescence. Pediatrics, 104, 1351-1359.

Jacobson, C. (1999). How persistent is reading disability? Individual growth curves in reading. Dyslexia, 5, 78-93.

Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (1999). Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later. Journal of Educational Psychology, 33, 934-945.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Heterogeneous or Homogeneous for Middle School Disabled Readers?

Dr. Shanahan,

I am a mother of a child with a reading disability (as well as processing and short term memory) who will be entering middle school in the fall. Our middle school is planning on heterogeneously grouping the students in reading/language arts classes. As I'm sure you know this would be the lowest level readers blended with college level readers. Also, reading interventions will be cut from every day to every other day. I am a little concerned about the implications this may have on the students. Do you happen to know what research says about this concept? What are your feelings?Any assistance will be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance for your help! :)

Dear Concerned Parent,

Thanks for your letter. Generally research has not been positive about homogeneous group or tracking by class when it comes to reading instruction (though most of this research has been done with younger kids or older kids in subjects other than reading). Overall the findings are that homogeneous grouping provides a slight academic benefit to the highest kids and no measurable benefit to the others, but of course those are averages and kid’s experiences are individual.

One concern about trying to group all kids by level is that it segregates them which can be socially disruptive and cuts kids off from models of proficiency. Your child benefits from interacting regularly and meaningfully with kids who might not be challenged in the same ways and who might find it easier to see themselves as upwardly mobile when it comes to academics.

One reason there is so little benefit to grouping kids by ability is that most kids are at or near the middle where not much benefit would be expected (think of it this way: if a 7th grade teacher teaches from a 7th grade book in an average school, nearly 70% of the kids are likely to be reading between a 6th and 8th grade level; there would be very little benefit from such a small adjustment for these kids). That leaves 30% of kids who are far enough off the mark who might benefit from an alteration of level, but even a two-year reading difference at this grade level is not that big, especially on the high end, so that means about 85-90% of the kids will likely do fine when they are taught “on grade level” rather than reading level (some teachers might even make some within classroom adjustments reducing the homogeneous advantage even more).

My claim isn’t that there could be no benefit to the vast majority of kids under any conditions, but just changing the book level and placing kids only with those who perform like themselves will not, by itself, change things enough to matter to most kids. For example, one of the big gains that could come from homogeneous grouping would be that the teachers could move along more quickly and cover more instructional ground… Nevertheless, I’ve never seen a school put in place a more ambitious curriculum as a result of such grouping (yeah, the kids often get exactly the same instruction they would have with or without the grouping).

Okay, so homogeneous grouping for reading/language arts could be beneficial 10-20% of kids in the middle and high school grades. About half of those kids are reading above grade level. Perhaps they'd make faster progress in a homogenous setting, but schools are notorious for not actually raising the level with such gifted kids anyway, and school districts tend not to worry about the gifted much in these days of AYP and moribund reading scores.

That means that homogeneous grouping for reading in middle school will probably be of greatest value to the 5-10% of kids at the bottom; the ones reading more than two years below grade level. The ones the teacher really can’t “pull along” to adequate progress with the other kids. The ones who either suck up way too much teacher time in a heterogeneous classroom or who simply fade into the wallpaper and don’t make much progress at all. Schools definitely could (and often do) create an alternative reading class for such kids (or in some cases, it is an additional class—the strugglers take both the regular language arts class AND the special reading class).

Sadly, even when schools create such possibilities they often fail to provide the resources needed to make them work. Remember how far these kids are behind? Just adjusting the instructional level of the materials will probably not alone be sufficient to meet their needs. Struggling readers have to make gains that will help close the learning gap with their peers (that means they need more than a year learning for a year of teaching).

One thing I found when I was doing the research to create my adolescent literacy program (for kids reading 2nd to 5th grade levels) was the great need for intensive instruction with these kids. It isn’t enough to alter the reading level of the materials, but skills and strategies need to be taught with a heightened thoroughness and consistency. Programs for average kids tend to flit from one strategy to another rarely spending even a couple of days on the same thing (I guess in fear of boring this generation); but the effective approaches demonstrated in research studies had a very different design: they stayed with something for days and even weeks, trying the new strategy out in lots of different texts and under varied circumstances and with lots of review. That kind of teaching is especially necessary for kids like yours.

If your child is more than two years below grade level in reading performance, I would push for the school to do some special programming for such kids. The ideal would be to provide them with a special reading class (don’t segregate them, keep them together with everyone else for the rest of their day), and that class should be daily--time matters. I would assign fewer kids to such classes so the instruction could be as individualized as possible. I would push for the use of a reading or special education teacher who knows a lot about this kind of teaching. I would push for the use of the kinds of materials reviewed above. I would even consider pushing for an afterschool program to get my child even more of this kind of teaching than can be afforded in a school day. (Of course, if that isn’t possible or the school isn’t responsive then you need to try to create such a situation for your child away from school. Unfortunately, I don’t know what resources of this type might be available in your community).

I don’t know where you are located, but if you want to see the kind of teaching that really can make a difference with learning-disabled children, I would suggest that you try to visit the Benchmark School in the Philadelphia area. Their teaching is remarkably good and would provide you with a vision for your schools to work towards.

Good luck.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Interventions for Young Learning Disabled Children

Although I have designed instructional programs for teaching reading to older students who lag in learning, I have never tried to design a beginning reading intervention for such students. My AMP program skips phonics and phonological awareness not because I don't think these are critically important reading skills, but because most students in middle school and high school won't lag seriously in these skills. (I didn't say no older students struggle in these areas. A small percentage, maybe 1 in 7 of strugglng secondary school readers, still will need help with alphabetics. But even low middle school readers usually can read at 3rd grade level or above, and by that stage of reading development, phonics doesn't help much according to the National Reading Panel.

But what about young readers who struggle (or older ones who are far below level)? It is estimated that more than 85% of those children have problems with the phonological aspects of reading; and instruction, if it is to be successful, is going to have to address these phonological problems explicitly and thoroughly.

Recently, I received a heart-rending letter from a mother with concerns about her daughter:

I located your name and vita on the internet and was hoping with your education background that you might be able to direct me to documentation that would be helpful towards making education decisions for my daughter. ________ hit her head on a fire hydrant at school and now has a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) and a Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD) diagnosis in 3 deficient areas: Auditory Decoding, Tolerance-Fading Memory, and Integration Type-1.
Are you aware of any data that compares Fast ForWord and Earobics Reach? Are you aware of any studies using either program (Fast ForWord [FFW] and Earobics Reach) for students with TBI and/or CAPD ?

_______ is 9 years old and currently has the auditory processing ability of a 5 year-old as a result of the accident.

Any information or guidance would be greatly appreciated.

An expanded version of my response follows.

Dear Mrs. ________:

I only know one study that directly compared Fast ForWord and Earobics...

Pokorni, J., Worthington, C., & Jameson, P. (2004). Phonological awareness intervention: Comparison of Fast ForWord, Earobics, and LiPS. Journal of Educational Research, 97, 147-157.
This study compared the performance of younger (7.5-9.0 years old) language-impaired poor readers. After 60 hours of training, there were no differences in any measure between Earobics and FastForward (the Lindamood-Bell group did a bit better on one measure of phonemic awareness, blending. But that was it: no reading or language learning differences among these groups.

Then, I checked the What Works Clearinghouse (this is the U.S. Department of Education site that reviews research evidence:
It listed one study of Earobics that met their research standards, and it reported small positive effects for Earobics on children’s learning of alphabetics and fluency, with no evidence of any impact on reading comprehension or writing. Fast Forword had six studies that met the WWC criteria, and these reported positive effects with regard to the learning of alphabetics and mixed effects for reading comprehension. (I also came across a new study on Fast Forword by Gilliam, et al., 2008 and it found no benefits to Fast Foword).

What these studies suggest to me is that both of these programs CAN have a positive impact upon students’ auditory processing skills (at least with regard to phonemic awareness), but that does not automatically transform into better reading achievement. It is not clear whether one of these program is actually "better" than the other given this evidence, but there is no reason from these research studies to conclude that one is consistently superior to the other (which mans that price and motivation should be big factors in the choice--if one costs much more than the other, save your money, or try out both programs with your daughter to see if she likes one better than the other).

Whichever of these programs may eventually be used with your daughter, it must be supplemented by a serious effort to teach her to read and write beyond the alphabetics work in these programs. Your letter does not tell her reading level, but given her age and auditory processing levels, I assume she is very low in reading. That would mean I would work hard to teach her beginning sight vocabulary (build up a long list of words that she can recognize quickly and easily, no matter what her alphabetic skills), involve her in lots of writing activities (with invented spelling where she tries to spell as she thinks the words sound), oral reading fluency work (reading while listening or repeated reading), and reading comprehension too (having her reading stories and trying to retell them or to answer questions about them).

It is important that students learn to decode (to sound out words), but those skills are only part of a larger constellation of skills that must be developed. Although for most children, the development of these phonological skills presage growth in oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing, with disabled children, sometimes these other skills precede and even support the development of the phonological skills. I recommend a full instructional response to your daughter’s needs—not just a targeted, surgical strike at the auditory problems that you describe.

Good luck to you.

Friday, December 21, 2007

What Do I Do about My Reading Disabled Son?

I often receive letters from parents or teachers with instructional concerns about reading. I received the follow plaint from a concerned mother:

I have a son who had a hard time in Kindergarten and 1st grade. He didn't know his alphabet when he left Kindergarten he went to summer school for 6 weeks in the summer. When he started 1st grade this year he only knew a few of his letters and numbers. In the past few months with extra help from his teachers, at home, I hired a private tutor and bought a computer online program Head Sprout he now knows all of his letters and their sounds so, he now can put words together to read. The School wants to start Reading Recovery with him. He is a level 3. I guess the rest of the class is at a level 10. Will that reading program benefit him? Is there more I can do at home? I am very concerned about my son I want to do whatever I can to help him.

Here is my response:

Dear Concerned Mother:           
          No program with any integrity can guarantee educational success. However, Reading Recovery is a good approach that has helped many children, and so there is a real possibility that it could help. A colleague and I published a critical analysis of the research on Reading Recovery (Shanahan, T. and Barr, R. (1995). Reading Recovery: An independent evaluation of the effects of an early instructional intervention for at-risk learners. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 958-997). In that review, we determined that Reading Recovery was effective—though perhaps not as helpful as it proponents sometimes claim. There is a more recent analysis of some of the Reading Recovery research on the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse. They, too, concluded that Reading Recovery can help.

             So, given that research, if I were in your place, I would not hesitate to have my child placed in Reading Recovery. However, let me add a caveat to that. Although Reading Recovery is meant to be individually tailored to a child’s needs, there still has been a tendency for it to ignore phonics instruction or to downplay such instruction. This is unfortunate because perhaps 85% of children who are struggling with reading at this age level will have decoding problems. One study has even shown that adding a more direct version of phonics instruction to Reading Recovery can speed children’s learning gains (Iverson and Tunmer, 1993). So, I would not hesitate as a parent to approve a Reading Recovery placement, but I would hedge my bets by giving some additional phonics help at home (there are also research studies indicating faster Reading Recovery progress when parents provide additional help).

           I don’t know the program that you mentioned and it might be a good one for continued work in this area. There are some others that I think highly of and that I suspect you could make work at home, too. One is something called LeapFrog and the other is Earobics. Both of these are computer based and are designed for youngster’s your child’s age. They are both well-designed and should support sound continued decoding progress for the next year or two. If you do purchase something like that (or if the program you have purchased has lessons that will take your child through the vowel variations, etc.), I would suggest that you work with him on it, rather than just shunting him off to the computer. Better progress is almost sure to result.

          There is a book that you might want to read:
Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz. It
can be of some assistance to you as well.

          One final caveat about Reading Recovery. Although it has been successful, it (like any other program) cannot ensure your son’s long term success. In other words, even if the above regimen catches him up this year, you will need to continue to be vigilant during coming years, making sure that sufficient attention is given to his reading so that he continues to succeed (reading problems are rarely “fixed” in that sense). Once he can really read stories and books, it would be helpful for you to listen to his reading and to guide his practice in rereading until he can do a really good job with a text.

          Learning problems are rarely "cured," but they can often be overcome. Good luck to you.