Literacy Instruction: Casting a Wider Net

Over the course of 40+ years in Special Education, my enduring passion has been dedicated to individuals with significant reading disabilities (Dyslexia). Historically, professionals working with this population have largely targeted individuals of average or above average intellectual ability who had an unexpected difficulty learning to read relative to IQ. This discrepancy formula dictated “who” qualified for services. Unfortunately, by focusing primarily on individuals of average or above average IQ, an entire group of students with below average IQ may not have received literacy instruction supported by research.

In the mid to late 1990’s research into the field of reading disabilities formed the foundation upon which we now base instructional methodologies. The importance of understanding cognitive-linguistic deficits as causal factors for Dyslexia took root. The underlying factors of phonemic awareness, auditory memory, and rapid naming were identified along with the five foundational components of reading instruction: phonemic awareness and phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and written expression. With this in mind, students who “qualified” for specialized reading instruction benefitted from this research base and were afforded appropriate instructional methodologies based on the five foundational components noted previously. On the other side, students with Intellectual Disabilities (ID) typically were provided with reading instruction focused primarily on sight words and functional reading skills with the belief that these skills would best support students in working towards functional life skills.   

In 1998, Joseph K. Torgesen and Richard K. Wagner published one of the most important research findings relative to the diagnostic and instructional components of reading. The results of their work at Florida State University were presented in “Alternative Diagnostic Approaches for Specific Developmental Reading Disabilities.” Contained within this body of research were the following points relative to individuals with ID: “Recent research has shown that the foundational assumptions about differences between discrepant and non-discrepant reading disabilities are largely incorrect. The word-reading problems of poor readers of low general intelligence appear to result from the same proximal cause as those of children whose intelligence is discrepant from their reading skill AND  the optimal approach to prevention and remediation of word-reading difficulties in both types of children appears to be the same.”  (Fletcher, Francis, Rourke, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 1992; Fletcher et al. 1994).

As it happens, this article was published in the very year High Road Academy (Howard County, Maryland) opened its doors, largely to a population of students with Dyslexia. The Torgesen & Wagner results (along with the work of Reid Lyon and others) informed my decisions as to the components of our rotational model of instructional delivery. It also informed my decision-making as to eligibility requirements for entry into the program.  While most other non-public and private schools for LD students accepted only those students with average to above average IQ, our program accepted students of lower IQ with poor reading knowing that our instructional components and research-based approach to reading instruction would be appropriate for these students as well. In addition, even if a percentage of these students were not able to ultimately earn a diploma, we  knew that the progress made in reading would afford these students MANY more work options as adults than would have been available had we not dedicated the same intensity of instruction as we would our more typical LD students.

The November ( 2016) Research, Review, and Application (RRAPP) presented a summary of more recent research findings relative to this very topic. “10 Research-Based Tips for Enhancing Literacy Instruction for Students with Intellectual Disability,” by Christopher J. Lemons, Jill H. Allor, Stephanie Al Otaiba, and Lauren M. LeJeune provided a fresh perspective on the relevance of research-based reading interventions for individuals with ID.

Research outcomes suggest that integrating components of traditional reading instruction (e.g. phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency) into programs for students with ID will lead to increases in independent reading skills for many (Allor, Al Otaiba, Ortiz, & Folsom, 2014). These increased reading abilities are likely to lead to greater postsecondary outcomes, including employment, independence, and quality of life.

Research by Browder et al. outlined two primary literacy goals: increasing access to literacy and increasing students’ independence as readers. Within the initial goal, the emphasis is on ensuring opportunities are provided for students to access literature (e.g. adapted books, time for literacy) and considering features of instruction necessary to increase students’ abilities to access literature (e.g. task analysis for read-alouds, text awareness). Strategies for increasing reading independence include designing explicit reading instruction (e.g. phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension) and ensuring the student has the opportunity to apply and generalize reading skills (e.g. application of skills in novel texts, instruction to generalize reading skills into functional activities). For the second component, Browder et al. highlighted how the instructional emphasis will likely change as students’ grade level increases. The authors suggest that learning “how to read” will be a prominent focus for many elementary-age students and “functional reading” may gain greater emphasis as students advance to middle and high school. Browder et al. noted that access to age-appropriate literature should remain a focus across all grade levels, and across the life span.

In practice, what does this knowledge teach us about how to provide excellent, research-based reading intervention for our students with ID?  As applied to the Catapult Schools ACI classroom model, consider the following for each of the 10 research-based tips:

  1. Keep “big picture” goals in mind. The IEP Team should consider the “big picture” for the students. This includes long-term goals, such as transition planning for independent living and job skills, as well as short-term goals, such as those related to basic reading skills. A BALANCED approach must be taken to determine priorities for IEP goals in the areas of reading. The team should not assume that instructional time for reading be dedicated only to functional words.
  2. Set meaningful, measurable goals. All students are assessed using i-Ready K-12 Diagnostic Reading Assessments along with other Tier 1 assessments. This data provides an excellent means of determining the strengths and needs of the students. Further the 4-Step Student Plan provides the tool by which data is documented and utilized to plan data-based individualization (DBI). Specific skills are targeted for intensive remediation based on data. Again, this should reflect needed skill development in areas of word reading (phonics, phonemic awareness, spelling, fluency, etc.) as well as the need to develop sight word reading.
  3. Provide explicit, systematic reading instruction. Teacher and assistant teacher rotations provide the perfect opportunity to provide systematic, direct instruction using a systematic research-based intervention (e.g. Orton-Gillingham-Based Programs such as SPIRE, Wilson, Phono-Graphix). A balance of sight word programming should also be provided either by alternating days for phonics-based and sight-word based instruction or splitting these responsibilities between teacher and assistant teacher.
  4. Provide instruction with sufficient intensity to accomplish goals.  Sufficient dosage must be applied to reading instruction. Thirty minute rotations are preferable to twenty minute rotations, if possible.  Consistency is needed in providing direct instruction using a research-based intervention on a daily basis. If available, additional reading tutorial support by a reading specialist or reading support teacher will further accelerate progress (e.g. 1-2 hours per week of additional pull-out time to work on explicit reading skills would provide greater dosage in addition to teacher and assistant teacher rotations).
  5. Seek out professional development opportunities. Additional training can be accessed through a number of sources:  in-school mentoring, publisher offered trainings, local college courses, Instructional Learning Teams (ILTs), Reading Institute, regional facilitators, ACI team.
  6. Remember that language abilities are the underlying foundation for reading skills. Given the vast number of students who, in addition to learning disabilities, also have underlying language deficits, it is important to support language during instruction. Strategies such as K-W-L, Guided Reading, Close Reading, Think-Alouds, Vocabulary (particularly Tier 2 and 3 words) are essential.  Include the Speech & Language Pathologist as well as ELL Teacher to support specific students and activities.
  7. Scaffold working memory. A number of students in our schools are dealing with poor working memory skills. Deficits in working memory affect a number of areas including:  word and concept recall, reading fluency, math fluency, sequencing, blending, and comprehension.  Providing concept maps, think alouds, modeling, graphic organizers (e.g. Frames, Unit Organizers) are some examples of ways in which poor working memory does not impede academic achievement.   
  8. Target specific parts of a scope and sequence to focus instruction. It is extremely important to follow a direct instructional model during teacher rotation as well as during whole group teaching. Utilizing a sequential lesson plan, such as the template provided on ABLE, will facilitate an integrated and focused lesson. During teacher rotations, small, homogeneous groupings allow for specific skills to be targeted, re-taught, and repeated based on the instructional level of the students.
  9. Use data to guide instruction and adaptation. Data collection must be a part of each classroom’s instructional model. In addition to more formal testing, curriculum-based measures are equally valuable in tracking student progress over time. Data can be tracked from performance during rotations, computers, independent seatwork, and homework. Instructional changes should be made based on student mastery of skills. Maintaining a portfolio is a mandatory component of the classroom model. This allows student progress towards IEP goals and objectives to be tracked along with work samples and evidence of student progress.
  10. Involve service providers and family members. Students have the opportunity to make greater and longer lasting gains when related services are integrated and coordinated to support instruction for the student. Involving SLPs, OTs, PTs, and other related services assists in making explicit connections from isolated skill practice to other applications. Parents and caregivers are an excellent resource as well. Providing access to the many web-based tools and apps is a great ways to provide students with the opportunity to have meaningful practice at home.  

     In closing, it is extremely important to cast a wider net when planning instruction for our students with ID!  Research supports the provision of the SAME research-based methodologies for these students as for the typical “Dyslexic” student. Providing a balanced approach to reading intervention for this population may make a world of difference in their future success in life!

1 Comment

  1. Maureen Simmons December 13, 2016 Reply

    Dr. Gaske–I love this article. I was speaking with a former Psychological Examiner in Missouri about challenges we face in the 21st Century in reading. I will share this Blog with staff a my contracted school. I’m sure they will gain an additional appreciation for your research and pedagogy.

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