Teaching Readers with Special Needs

Instructor: Abigail Cook
Reading is one of the most critical life skills for a child to learn. Children with special needs often have challenges that make it more difficult for them to read. In this lesson we will discuss some evidence-based strategies for teaching readers with special needs.

Mrs. Maxfield, a special education teacher, has noticed that her reading instruction needs some work. Her students continue to have significant challenges with reading and are not progressing toward their reading goals. When she looks at reading research, she is reminded of the five pillars of reading.

Evidence-Based Reading Instruction

The National Reading Panel conducted a thorough investigation to find the most important aspects of reading instruction. They reviewed and considered solid strategies that have been proven successful in teaching reading. Their review included only the best research, with valid and reliable findings. In 2000, they concluded their search and published the five pillars, or most important aspects, of teaching reading. They include phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.

It is important to mention that this research has been proven effective for typical students and those with a variety of disabilities. Students with special needs also benefit from reading instruction that is founded on these five principles.

Students with Special Needs

Although there are specific disorders for some reading challenges, students with a variety of disabilities may struggle with reading. Disabilities include a wide range of issues, and one solution does not work for all. However, there are some commonalities that students with special needs may experience that are barriers to reading. Students with special needs may share the following attributes:

  • Poor memory, short and long term
  • Easily confused and distracted
  • Poor work ethic and self-esteem
  • Slower processing abilities

Teachers of students with special needs have the unique challenge of making their reading instruction individualized and effective for everyone.

In the Classroom

Mrs. Maxfield realizes that she needs to supplement her formal reading program with her own written lessons to include more strategies for the five pillars of reading. She has implemented techniques in each of the five areas as well as some basic techniques for effective teaching. Let's look at some examples.

Phonemic Awareness and Phonics

  • Students listen to her say a word; then they repeat it by clapping out the syllables.
  • Students practice identifying which sounds are first, middle, and last in a word. For example, Mrs. Maxfield says, 'dog'. Her students will hear the word and then raise their hands to tell her that dog starts with 'd'. The ability to separate phonemes leads to sounding out words.
  • Mrs. Maxfield has her students sing the alphabet while following along on her alphabet chart. This allows them to see the letters as they sing them, building in a strong understanding of letters and their sounds.
  • Students also make alphabet books throughout the year to practice writing and cutting out the letter, and coloring a picture to go with it. This reinforces the letter symbols and their sounds, while giving the students a repetitive, hands-on activity.

Vocabulary, Fluency, and Comprehension

  • Mrs. Maxfield engages her students in pre-reading activities to introduce them to new books. Before reading, she talks about the story, shows students the pictures, and has them guess what will happen. This gives her students a head start in understanding what is going on in a story because they already have a basic idea of what it's about.
  • To help motivate her students, Mrs. Maxfield has each child graph their fluency progress. Each week they read a 100 word passage as fast as they can for one minute. She tracks the number of words they read correctly, and each student graphs their progress. Because they are able to see their improvement, her students are more excited about fluency practice.
  • Mrs. Maxfield wants her students to be able to understand all parts of the story to increase their vocabulary. She pre-teaches new vocabulary words before reading a story to give her students a head start. Pre-teaching is done by showing pictures, practicing reading the word, playing word games, or matching words to their definitions.

General Teaching Strategies

In addition to specific strategies for teaching the five pillars of reading, Mrs. Maxfield has also found the following general teaching techniques to be effective for her readers with special needs.

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