It's not every day that I read about a study in the news and I get all emotional. But one about teaching reading to kids with special needs: yes. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, it found that students with intellectual disability who participated in a four-year program with intensive, specialized instruction learned to read at a first-grade level or higher. The kids, who had Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, Williams syndrome and physical disabilities, started the study around age 7.
I'm well aware that it's possible for kids with ID to learn to read because Max is reading, and making good progress. Still, it's thrilling to see proof-positive research—and it's surely going to inspire many parents out there. The study was done at Southern Methodist University and involved two verbal groups of children; one group of 76 received reading intervention, and the other group of 65 kids got the usual instructional method of teaching reading.
Kids in the intervention group were taught reading 40 to 50 minutes a day in small settings, with a ratio of four students per teacher. They used a program developed by two former special education teachers for struggling readers with average IQs called Early Interventions in Reading (here's a PDF about it). The program helps with letter knowledge and sounds, recognizing syllables and other phonological awareness, sounding out and sight words. Kids repeatedly read in unison, paired up with teachers, and read independently, too. Other activities touched on comprehension and listening.
At the end of four years, the kids who'd gotten the reading intervention outperformed the other group on nearly all literacy and language measures. As the study abstract notes, "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." The findings were published in the special education journal Exceptional Children.
It's no surprise to parents of older children with special needs that they need extra time and attention for learning, although this study can be very inspirational to parents of younger children; when Max was a tot, I needed every speck of hope I could get. It's certainly no shocker that our kids are capable of reading. More than anyone, we know how bright they are.
Hopefully, the teachers, learning specialists and principals in your child's life are also well aware of that, but perhaps they'll pick up ideas from this study. Besides, it's always good for experts to know the proof—especially the doubters. As lead author Jill H. Allor says in this video, "This study raises the expectations for everybody.... It takes away our excuses as educators...We really need to make every effort to teach every single child to read."