Children's Voice Nov/Dec 2006

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Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

You Want Me to What? Read?
Special Challenges for Middle and High School Students

By Sheldon H. Horowitz

Recommended Reading

This article was adapted from ""Don't Give Up on Me! Teaching Reading to Secondary Students with LD, which can be found, along with other Research Roundup columns, online. Visit these online articles for more information about this topic and for a list of web resources, tips for families and educators, and more.

The Truth About Reading

Some children seem to learn how to read with little or no effort, and often, to our surprise, with little or no formal instruction. It seems as though they intuitively understand the importance of the core components of reading (phonemic awareness, systematic phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension) and are able to practice and apply skills in these areas with ease, becoming better readers as they are exposed to more varied and complex reading material and as they expand their general knowledge and core vocabulary.

For most students, however, reading just doesn't come easily. And more than three decades of careful scientific research has taught us that reading is not a skill (or series of skills) that is simply neurologically hard-wired in humans. We have discovered that specific learning disabilities in reading, such as dyslexia, for example, are influenced by genetic and environmental factors. Both appear to play a role in the development of reading, with one or the other more predominant. The challenge for parents and other care providers, educators, and school personnel is to identify signs of struggle in children as early as possible and ensure that
  • classroom reading instruction is a skillful balance of teaching focused on word-level skills (phonemic awareness, decoding, etc.) and comprehension-building skills;

  • children who struggle with reading, despite good instruction, are not left to fall behind without a plan of support; and

  • children at risk for reading failure receive our best instructional firepower. To the greatest extend possible, we must validate tools and research-based strategies that are more intensive, more explicit, and more supportive than what children typically receive in the classroom.

Reading Problems: Here Today, Still Here Tomorrow

Recent years have seen a significant effort to draw attention to the critical importance of effective reading instruction, especially for students in the early school years. In most schools, students "learn to read" in the early grades and are then expected to "read to learn" as they transition into middle and high school.

So what happens when students don't achieve reading mastery during the early grades? The picture is not encouraging.

National Assessment of Educational Progress scores over the past few years suggest almost 40% of fourth graders read below the basic level, defined as "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade." And if these students do not learn to read at or close to grade level by the end of elementary school, they enter the secondary grades unable to succeed in a challenging high school curriculum and, unfortunately, rarely catch up by the time they are ready to graduate.

Today's teenagers are entering an adult world where reading and writing are essential skills for independence and success. Most well-paying jobs require high levels of literacy, and being a skilled reader is often a prerequisite for tenure or advancement in the workplace.

We also know how important reading is to running households, participating in community activities, and, in so many other ways, conducting activities of daily living. In a complex and sometimes dangerous world, the ability to read is crucial. Adolescents with low literacy skills are especially vulnerable for underachievement, underemployment, and threats to personal safety.

Many of these adolescents and young adults are lifelong remedial readers, all too familiar with the cycle of failure that, more often than not, typifies their earlier school years. Some have been exposed to a number of different instructional programs, perhaps because of multiple transfers from one school or classroom to the next. Some have been labeled as needing to catch up but have had little or no formal instruction since the third or fourth grade, when teaching reading was no longer an educational priority.

The result of many years of frustration and struggle in reading is a student who gains little enjoyment from literacy activities, who more often than not also struggles with writing and spelling, reads slowly and with poor understanding, and does everything possible to avoid tasks that involve reading.

Approaches to Improve Reading for Adolescents

Although many instructional models are available to help students in the high school years to become more efficient, skilled readers, research conducted specifically with this age group suggests four factors contribute significantly to building reading proficiency:
  • Students must be motivated to read and improve their skills. Students often find it difficult to admit their weaknesses and sustain positive effort, even with support, given ingrained feelings of embarrassment and hopelessness.

  • Students must be able to decode print. This becomes increasingly difficult for many students, in part due to their having made incorrect assumptions about the alphabetic principle and how letters and sounds work; for others, decoding skills are so slow and labored that the mechanics of decoding interferes with understanding what is being read.

  • Students must be able to comprehend language. Students whose reading is not "automatic" and fluid often need to focus their efforts on sounding-out or guessing at words, making it all the more difficult to check their understanding of the material as they read.

  • Students must be able to seek information and formulate personal responses to questions. Efficient readers employ a number of different strategies to validate the assumptions they make about the material they are reading.
Descriptions of two successful models that have incorporated these four features follow. And they aren't just for educators! Anyone working with students can use these strategies in a variety of instructional or recreational settings.

Collaborative strategic reading (CSR) was designed specifically for students with learning disabilities and those at risk of reading failure. The teacher uses four distinct strategies with the class and introduces and reviews any new vocabulary students will encounter that they might not be able to figure out during group activities and instruction. Once the teacher introduces the material to be read to the entire class, the students take charge and the teacher provides assistance and support as needed, then oversees a brief wrap-up activity at the end of each lesson.

The four strategies used in the CRS model are
  • preview, in which students brainstorm about the topic and predict what will be learned before starting to read;

  • click and clunk, where students identify parts of a passage that are hard to understand and use four "fix-up" strategies;

  • get the gist, in which students identify the most important information in a passage; and

  • wrap up, when students ask and answer questions that demonstrate understanding as a way to review what was learned.
Students are assigned different cooperative group roles, such as Leader, Clunk Expert (the one who reminds the group of the necessary steps and strategies), Gist Expert, Announcer (the one who asks group members to carry out different activities), and Encourager.

The strategic instruction model (SIM) was developed for students who already have basic decoding and word recognition skills. Students who struggle with early reading skills need to learn how to learn, and they benefit from classroom routines and strategies that help ensure they are learning critical content--the course material students need to meet educational standards--in ways that prepare them for class promotion, high school graduation, and success after graduation.

SIM's focus is to promote effective teaching of this critical content. It helps teachers make decisions about what is of greatest importance and what classroom strategies are effective in helping students learn. SIM also introduces the skills and strategies that will help students succeed in postsecondary settings like college and the workplace.

SIM consists of a menu of components for students with learning disabilities, as well as instructional tools for teachers. Specific strategies related to reading include
  • paraphrasing (students express main idea and details in their own words);

  • self-questioning (students develop questions concerning reading passages, and read to find answers);

  • visual imagery (students visualize scenes in detail); and

  • word identification (students decode unfamiliar words by using context clues and word analysis).
SIM also offers a number of content enhancement routines to help teachers manage and present classroom content in ways that help all students learn. Some of these routines focus on
  • organization, which helps students understand how information is organized;

  • understanding, which helps students identify main ideas and concepts in reading;

  • recall, which help students remember key information; and

  • application, which helps students apply what they have learned.
Evidence suggests that when teachers present these strategies in a systematic, intentional, intensive fashion, students demonstrate gains that enable them to perform at or near grade level.

Other Approaches to Help Struggling Readers

Research has identified a number of reading approaches as being helpful for working with secondary-level students who struggle with reading:
  • Fluency strategies. Fluent readers model oral reading for nonfluent readers, and nonfluent readers repeat readings of text aloud.

  • Vocabulary strategies. Students or teachers select vocabulary words, and students use the words in sentences or create visual images to help remember them.

  • Study guide strategies. Teachers develop study guides to help students identify and understand key concepts in content area reading.

  • Literature-based approaches. Students read stories, poems, and other material, then talk and write about what they read.

  • Reciprocal reading. Students use specific strategies to help them increase their ability to monitor and improve their own comprehension.

  • Text mapping. Students and teachers use four separate strategies to identify key concepts and understand relationships between key concepts in passages they read.

  • Vocabulary and concept mapping. Students learn vocabulary words and concepts by creating a graphic representation of what they read.

  • Word analysis. Students learn and practice ways to decode unfamiliar multisyllabic words.
No one approach is best--often, a combination of different approaches is necessary to help students acquire essential reading and literacy skills.

Want to know more? Visit the National Center for Learning Disabilities  website.

Sheldon Horowitz EdD is Director of Professional Services, National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), New York, New York. NCLD provides essential information to parents, professionals, and individuals with LD; promotes research and programs to foster effective learning; and advocates for policies that protect and strengthen education rights and opportunities. For permission to reproduce this article, or to contact Dr. Horowitz, e-mail
© 2006 National Center for Learning Disabilities. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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