Special Education Tips

Monday, February 15, 2016

Tips to Advocate for Effective Reading Instruction for Students with Intellectual Disabilities


Tips to Advocate for Effective Reading Instruction for Students with Intellectual Disabilities


          Can students with the label of ID become proficient readers? In three words… Yes, Yes, Yes! Consider the following study from Southern Methodist University by researchers Jill H. Allor, Patricia G. Mathes, J. Kyle Roberts, Jennifer P. Cheatham, Stephanie Al Otaiba:
Is Scientifically Based Reading Instruction Effective for Students With Below-Average IQs?Abstract: This longitudinal randomized-control trial investigated the effectiveness of scientifically based reading instruction for students with IQs ranging from 40 to 80, including students with intellectual disability (ID). Students were randomly assigned into treatment (n = 76) and contrast (n = 65) groups. Students in the treatment group received intervention instruction daily in small groups of 1 to 4 for approximately 40 to 50 min for 1 to 4 academic years. On average, students in the treatment group made significantly greater progress than students in the contrast condition on nearly all language and literacy measures. Results demonstrate the ability of students with low IQs, including students with mild to moderate ID, to learn basic reading skills when provided appropriate, comprehensive reading instruction for an extended period of time.
Jill Allor, Professor, Department of Teaching and Learning, Simmons School of Education and Human Development, P.O. Box 750381, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX 75275-0381 (e-mail: jallor@smu.edu).

 Here are some of my favorite tips to advocate for effective reading programs:

 What Can Parents Do?

Students who get the best educational programs tend to be those who have the most empowered parents. How can parents help their child develop reading skills?

     Show your child through your actions that you value reading.

     Have a variety of reading materials in your home.

     Read to your child regularly.

     Set the bar high.

     Go to seminars, go online, and take classes on reading.

     Understand the laws that protect your child.

     Your participation on the IEP team is critical. But it must be meaningful. Get copies of reading evaluations and proposed reading goals prior to the IEP meeting.

     Make sure that the reading goals are measurable. Instead of “Zak will improve his reading, demonstrating one year’s growth,” consider “By May 15, Zak will be able to read a passage of text orally at the 8.2 grade equivalent level as measured by the GORT-5 (Gray Oral Reading Test).”

     Ask the following four questions about your child’s reading program:

1. Does my child’s reading program contain the five components of instruction recommended by the National Reading Panel?


2. Is the bar set high enough?

3. Is the person implementing the reading intervention qualified? What training has s/he received?

4. Is the child getting systematic, explicit instruction in reading? 

     If your child has the label of ID or ASD, do not accept a sight word program like Edmark or Reading Milestones. Such interventions do not teach critical phonetic concepts, necessary to “sound out” – and spell – unmemorized words.  Most likely your child will require a program that uses the Orton-Gillingham methodology.

     Work with local parent groups to arrange for seminars and conferences on reading in your area.

     Request a reading evaluation for your child. The reading subtests of the Woodcock Johnson IV or the WIAT do not, in themselves, constitute a reading evaluation – and frequently the information they provide are of little value for a student with an intellectual disability. Use the template below to ask for a reading evaluation (thanks in large part to Wrightslaw.com for this letter).   

What Can Attorneys and Advocates Do?


Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, much of the research on teaching reading to children with significant disabilities focused on sight-word approaches that provided children with functional reading skills (the ability to read a recipe, bus schedule, weather report, etc.) rather than skills in decoding or "sounding out" unfamiliar words. However, since the mid-eighties, many studies have shown that students with intellectual disabilities are capable not only of learning words by sight, but of reading new, unknown words by sounding them out. Thanks in great part to the No Child Left Behind Act, IDEA 2004 requires school districts to hold children with disabilities to higher academic standards. Nevertheless, many schools exclude children with significant disabilities from high quality reading instruction. We need to battle this. Here are some things to do:

     LEARN THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE!!! Go to seminars, go online, and take classes on reading. Understanding reading will help you spot issues when advocating for your clients.  Two great publications are:

Put Reading First: Kindergarten through Grade 3, and Put Reading First: Helping Your Child Learn To Read: A Parent Guide: Preschool Through Grade 3. Get these free publications at www.edpubs.org. 

“I attended a 16 hour COPPA  Pre-Conference course in Orton-Gillingham methodology and it forever changed the way I practiced law. Let’s face it, if you were a medical malpractice attorney, you would need to understand a few things about the human body! Similarly, if you engage in special education law, you MUST understand the fundamentals of reading. Otherwise you’ll be bamboozled by the school district just like the parents are.”   Attorney Treimanis 

     Understand the qualifications and recommendations of the National Reading Panel. Learn more at www.nationalreadingpanel.org.  

     If your client is not a proficient reader, do NOT assume it’s due to his/her disability. Ask the parents to request a comprehensive reading evaluation, performed by a qualified reading specialist (see template below).

     Forge strong relationships with reading specialists in your state. The input of friends and colleagues who are reading experts can be invaluable to preparing for IEP meetings.

     Grow the local reading specialists. Most of them live in the “LD world.” Help them understand that students with intellectual disabilities can become proficient decoders.

     When a reading evaluation is completed, check the recommendations carefully. The evaluation may be accurate, but the school reading specialist may not envision students with intellectual disabilities as readers, hence recommending a sight word program. Do not hesitate to ask for an Independent Educational Evaluation for reading.

     Request an assistive technology (AT) evaluation to see if there are high, mid, or low level AT options that compliment the client’s reading program and increases access to content. 

     Remember that decoding is very distinct from comprehension. Comprehension is more closely tied to intellectual challenges; decoding ability is usually relatively independent of IQ measures.

     Do NOT assume that Special Education Teachers are qualified to do reading evaluations or teach reading. In many states, a highly qualified Master level special education teacher does NOT have to take any reading classes!

     Ask for the resume of anyone doing a reading evaluation on your student. Do not assume the “Literacy Coach” or special education teacher has credentials. If a teacher claims to be “trained” in Wilson, find out if s/he went to the 5 hour class – which essentially shows you how to use the materials – or completed the requirements to achieve certification.  Similarly, a teacher cannot claim to be “Orton-Gillingham trained” unless s/he has achieved certification at the Certified level – a multi-year commitment.  

     Embedded within the specific requirements provided by IDEA 2004 guaranteeing a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for students with disabilities in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is the provision that students, including those with significant disabilities such as ID or ASD, be given evidence-based reading programs. LRE does not require that reading be taught in the general education settings. Frequently, individual instruction or small group instruction with like peers is required in a separate setting. One of the best ways to become fully included in life is to know how to read!

     In later grades, it is NOT appropriate for older students to give up on reading and turn to “functional” skills, such as shopping and learning to do laundry.  Reading is the quintessential functional skill – necessary to obtain and retain a job, navigate transportation options, read recipes or the back of food containers, stay safe, read prescription bottles, go on Facebook, text friends, and have a chance to survive in our print-based community. As proclaimed in Connecticut’s Blueprint for Reading Achievement (2000), “Teaching children to read is a central—arguably the central—mission of formal schooling.”    

Favorite Websites on Reading



Template to Request a Reading Evaluation from the School District

Thanks to Attorney Pete Wright for this – I have been using it for years and I am fairly certain it came from his website…..

February 15, 2016

Nelly Koch, Special Education Teacher

Happy Elementary School

345 Main Street

Stamfire, CT  06906

Re:  Request for reading evaluation for Jimmy Smith

Faxed and also send via first class mail

Dear Ms. Koch,

     My son Jimmy Smith is a 10 year old boy in the 5th grade, yet he reads on a kindergarten level and has made minimal progress during his 7 years at Happy Elementary School. Despite his significant challenges, he has never had a formal reading evaluation nor has he had services from a reading specialist in Stamfire Public Schools.

     What is the plan to bring Jimmy’s reading ability to grade level?

     I am requesting a comprehensive reading evaluation by a qualified reading specialist to determine what peer-reviewed, evidence-based reading program Jimmy needs to become a proficient reader.  In order to avoid any misunderstanding as to what exactly I am asking for, I have provided below a list of reading definitions from No Child Left Behind. Given the enormous reading gap between Jimmy and his same-age peers, I am asking that this request be attended to without any delay. 

Thank you.

Amy R. Smith

Copy to: Molly Arbet, Principal of Happy Elementary School

Sally Simpson, 5th grade teacher, Happy Elementary School 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Four Definitions About Reading in No Child Left Behind


1. Legal definition of reading The term 'reading' means a complex system of deriving meaning from print that requires all of the following:

(A) The skills and knowledge to understand how phonemes, or speech sounds, are connected to print.

(B) The ability to decode unfamiliar words.

(C) The ability to read fluently.

(D) Sufficient background information and vocabulary to foster reading comprehension.

(E) The development of appropriate active strategies to construct meaning from print.

(F) The development and maintenance of a motivation to read.

2. Legal definition of the essential components of reading instruction

The term 'essential components of reading instruction' means explicit and systematic instruction in-

(A) phonemic awareness;

(B) phonics;

(C) vocabulary development;

(D) reading fluency, including oral reading skills; and

(E) reading comprehension strategies.

3. Legal definition of scientifically based reading research

The term 'scientifically based reading research' means research that-

(A) applies rigorous, systematic, and objective procedures to obtain valid knowledge relevant to reading development, reading instruction, and reading difficulties; and

(B) includes research that-

(i) employs systematic, empirical methods that draw on observation or experiment;

(ii) involves rigorous data analyses that are adequate to test the stated hypotheses and justify the general conclusions drawn;

(iii) relies on measurements or observational methods that provide valid data across evaluators and observers and across multiple measurements and

observations; and

(iv) has been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal or approved by a panel of independent experts through a comparably rigorous, objective, and scientific review.
4. Legal definition of a diagnostic reading assessment The term 'diagnostic reading assessment' means an assessment that is-

(i) valid, reliable, and based on scientifically based reading research; and

(ii) used for the purpose of-

(I) identifying a child's specific areas of strengths and weaknesses so that the child has learned to read by the end of grade 3;

(II) determining any difficulties that a child may have in learning to read and the potential cause of such difficulties; and

(III) helping to determine possible reading intervention strategies and related special needs.