Thursday, May 22, 2014

Kids with intellectual disability can learn to read, finds a study--and moms say, "We know!'

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."

Image: Flickr/KOMUnews


  1. Ellen, this is such a wonderful article. I have seen kids with disabilities like Down Syndrome, Autism and Cerebral Palsy do pretty amazing things, including reading, at The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential ( They have been teaching brain-injured kids, even those who are non-verbal, to read since the 60s I think. So many people underestimate these kids - doctors, teachers, etc. But moms and dads know the truth - that their kids are way more than just a diagnosis. Here's a video from IAHP that gives me serious inspiration when I'm running low on hope

  2. As a parent (AND a children's librarian) I LOVE this!

  3. The work of David Yoder, Karen Erickson, Gretchen Hanser, Penny Hatch, Sally Clendon, and David Koppenhaver (from the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies) and Jane Farrell, Erin Sheldon and others prove that ALL children can learn literacy no matter what disability they have, no matter if they have speech or use AAC, no matter if they can hold a pencil or use a keyboard or not. As Dr David Yoder said, "No student is too anything to be able to read and write". What students with disabilities need is literacy instruction and opportunities. The work of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies is phenomenal and if more schools started presuming competence, teaching literacy, and using decent and robust AAC systems then more students would become readers, writers, and autonomous communicators. Thank you so much Ellen for sharing that literacy for ALL children is possible.

  4. I love this too and am a silent fan of your blog.We live in France where kids with intellectual disabilities are so so underestimated,most of them if they can't learn to read by the age of 7 or 8 will never get a chance to continue learning to read.I have a son with Costello syndrome and he is 12 and I never thought he couldn't learn to read that's why I help him everyday and one day eventually he'll be able to have "access to what the rest of us enjoy".The video is great too.Thank you.

  5. As somwomen who worked with kids with I D this news seems akin to "The Sky is blue." Disability doesby mean inability

  6. Because intellectual disabilities are not brightness disabilities.

  7. As one of the teachers in the program and now at one of the schools involved, I want to say amen. I have 48 students with all degrees of abilities and all are reading something but one and he will. Thanks for noticing

  8. Patrick Mathis begin this study years ago. Dr. Reid Lyon was instrumental for his leadership at the National Institutes of Health Learning Disabilities Branch.

  9. Thanks for sharing Ellen. It's a subject so close to my heart. Coopers reading journey is taking a whole lot longer than I had hoped for. At 9 some big visual processing issues are becoming apparent due to his brain injury and the ability to retain written information is proving difficult. He does however read graffiti swear words at the park! ;)


Thanks for sharing!

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