Reading instruction is designed to teach two elements of reading:
mechanics and comprehension. While the foundation for reading begins
at birth, the focus of instruction from preschool through third
grade is reading mechanics, and reading comprehension is the focus
from the third grade into early adulthood. It cannot be assumed
that a child with learning disabilities will master the mechanics
of reading by third grade. Thus, it is critical that appropriate
reading instruction is available throughout his/her school career.
Reading mechanics and comprehension comprise various skill levels
that are typically taught in a progressive fashion. Skill levels
involved in reading mechanics include pre-reading, decoding and
fluency. Pre-reading skills build upon an individual's growing range
of experiences that develop awareness and appreciation of printed
words. Individuals should be encouraged to be aware of words wherever
they appear, e.g., on grocery labels, household objects, billboards,
and the like. Individuals can acquire a more sophisticated understanding
of written language by learning:
- the alphabet, including the names, sounds, and shapes of letters,
and how to write them;
- that English has a left to right directionality;
- that words are made up of letters and syllables;
- that words are made up of sound elements or phonemes, and by
learning the practical application of the relationship between
sounds and their representative letters by counting the sounds
in a word, through rhyming games and exercises, phonemic substitutions,
and creating nonsense words by substituting or rearranging phonemes
Decoding is the process translating a written word into a spoken
word ("cracking the code"). An individual who has developed
adequate decoding skills can begin to acquire fluency when reading
no longer requires a conscious, deliberate effort. When fluent,
reading becomes automatic and consists of word recognition rather
than sounding out and combining syllables necessary to decode words.
Teaching decoding provides students with the keys to unlock new
words. Teaching the regular phonetic patterns of English can do
this. These rules can be applied to words with which the student
is already familiar. New words are then introduced beginning with
simple words and working through more complex words. Finally, irregular
phonemic patterns can be introduced and eventually mastered.
Individuals typically shift their attention to reading comprehension
once they have established appropriate mechanical skills (decoding).
Comprehension skills, like mechanical skills, usually build progressively
from fundamental to more sophisticated levels. Therefore, it has
traditionally been helpful for individuals to learn to read for
factual information before they begin to compare and evaluate the
information they read. It will normally be easier for an individual
to learn to read and comprehend material at these two levels before
learning analysis and synthesis.
Reading for factual information requires that the sequence of events
and the details of a story be followed so that, for example, it
is possible to read a murder mystery and solve the story's dilemma
or to understand how it was resolved.
Learning to compare and evaluate information from different sources
requires the reader to be able to derive the main ideas from a text
and isolate its organizing idea or thesis. This fundamental level
of critical reading allows the reader to apply evaluative techniques
like comparing and contrasting what was read in order to solve and
The more advanced critical reading skills of analysis and synthesis
allow the reader to draw salient conclusions and to make reasonable
inferences from the information contained in the text. In addition,
these skills allow the reader to engage the text with greater sophistication
and to evaluate materials for relevance, consistency, and bias.
Reading: A Problem for Many Persons with Learning
For the person with learning disabilities, the process of learning
to read can break down with reading mechanics or comprehension,
and at any of the specific skill levels. It is also important to
note that children with learning disabilities do not always acquire
skills in the normal developmental sequence. If an individual does
not develop adequate phonemic awareness during the pre-reading period,
effective decoding may not be possible, which influences the development
of fluent reading and comprehension skills. Also, children with
learning disabilities often come to the reading task with oral language
comprehension problems. When assessing and planning for instruction,
consideration of these oral language comprehension problems may
facilitate acquisition of reading comprehension.
No single reading method will be effective for all students
with learning disabilities. Most individuals with learning disabilities
will benefit from the application of a variety of methods. Instructors
need a repertoire of instructional methods.
Teachers should be able to appropriately and systematically modify
or combine methods, and utilize different methods in order to meet
an individual's changing needs. Selecting the appropriate program
to apply to the student is not a simple matter, and requires a careful
assessment of where the student is in the developmental process.
It is not uncommon, for example, to observe an individual with all
the pre-reading skills, numerous comprehension skills, and simple
decoding skills acquired during the student's progression through
mechanical reading instruction. Because there may be a lack of understanding
of the sophisticated decoding skills needed, reading with fluency
suffers. Students with learning disabilities should be provided
with sound strategic approaches that empower them as readers, rather
than be allowed to learn and internalize incorrect practices.
Selecting the appropriate method
A significant part of selecting appropriate instructional approaches
is understanding the learning profile of an individual. A diagnostic
program is necessary to identify students with learning disabilities.
A cognitive profile is also necessary to determine precisely what
students' needs are, their strengths and weaknesses, whether they
have difficulty with working memory, if they have inadequate language
skills, etc. Students with learning disabilities need to be taught
strategic approaches explicitly. They need to have ideas made conspicuously
clear to them.
Persons with learning disabilities who need to work on reading
mechanics frequently respond to explicitly taught code-emphasis
developmental reading methods such as phonic, linguistic, or multisensory
approaches. Some of the more popular approaches are briefly described
Phonics approach. The phonics approach teaches word recognition
through learning grapheme-phoneme (letter-sound) associations. The
student learns vowels, consonants, and blends, and learns to sound
out words by combining sounds and blending them into words. By associating
speech sounds with letters the student learns to recognize new and
Linguistic method. This method uses a "whole word"
approach. Words are taught in word families, or similar spelling
patterns, and only as whole words. The student is not directly taught
the relationship between letters and sounds, but learns them through
minimal word differences. As the child progresses, words that have
irregular spellings are introduced as sight words.
Multisensory approach. This method assumes that some children
learn best when content is presented in several modalities. Multisensory
approaches that employ tracing, hearing, writing, and seeing are
often referred to as VAKT (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile)
methods. Multisensory techniques can be used with both phonics and
Neurological Impress Technique. This is a rapid-reading
technique. The instructor reads a passage at a fairly rapid rate,
with the instructor's voice directed into the student's ear. The
teacher begins as the dominant reading voice, but gradually the
student spends more time leading these sessions. Students who have
learned mechanics without adequately learning reading fluency frequently
benefit from this, as do students who read slowly or who hesitate
over a number of words but are able to identify most of the words
in a sentence. A student is directed to read a passage without errors.
This method functions most effectively when it is practiced for
short periods every day.
Language experience approach. The language experience approach
uses children's spoken language to develop material for reading.
This approach utilizes each student's oral language level and personal
experiences. Material is written by the child and teacher for reading
using each child's experience. This can be done in small groups
and individually. Familiarity with the content and the vocabulary
facilitate reading these stories. Each child can develop a book
to be read and re-read. This approach helps children know what reading
is and that ideas and experiences can be conveyed in print.
Reading comprehension support. Persons with learning disabilities
who need work on reading comprehension often respond to explicitly
taught strategies which aid comprehension such as skimming, scanning
and studying techniques. These techniques aid in acquiring the gist,
and then focus is turned to the details of the text through use
of the cloze procedures. The cloze procedure builds upon a student's
impulse to fill in missing elements and is based upon the Gestalt
principle of closure. With this method, every fifth to eighth word
in a passage is randomly eliminated. The student is then required
to fill in the missing words. This technique develops reading skills
and an understanding not only of word meaning but also of the structure
of the language itself.
Persons with learning disabilities will typically require a variety
of instructional approaches in order to make their educational experiences
more productive. There is no one best approach to teach reading
to students with learning disabilities. There are many reading methods
available with ongoing debate about which one is preferable. It
is critical that instructors understand both the student and the
various reading methods available if the student is to have the
best possible learning experience. The importance of a comprehensive
evaluation that will result in prescription for intervention cannot
be over-emphasized. As important, is the notion that teachers must
have the ability to effectively and systematically alter various
methods to meet the needs of individual children with learning disabilities.
This article appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of LDA
Newsbriefs (Volume 38, No.4), the newsletter of the Learning Disabilities
Association. Newsbriefs is published six times a year and is a benefit
of LDA membership.