Teaching Reading to Teens With Learning Disabilities
Reading Problems Do Not Just Go Away
During the past few years, there has been a significant effort, both within schools and throughout the community at large, to draw attention to the critical importance (and benefit) of effective reading instruction, especially for students in the early school years. It is also common knowledge that, in the vast majority of schools throughout the country, students "learn to read" during the early grades and are then expected to "read to learn" as they transition into the middle and high school years. The problem remains that too many children, particularly those with learning disabilities, do not learn to read proficiently in the primary grades. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores over the past few years suggest that almost 40% of fourth grade students 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.
The Implications of Reading Failure
Today's teenagers are entering an adult world where reading and writing are essential skills for independence and success. High levels of literacy are needed for most jobs and reading skill is almost a prerequisite for advancement in many employment situations. Reading proficiency is also needed to run households, participate in community activities and in so many other ways, conduct activities of daily living. In a complex and sometimes dangerous world, the ability to read is crucial. And adolescents with low literacy skills are especially vulnerable for underachievement, under-employment and threats to personal safety.
Let's also not forget that many of these adolescents and young adults are life-long 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 that were meant to help them 'catch up' and others have had little or no formal instruction since the third or fourth grade when 'teaching reading' fell off their teachers' radar screens as 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 who does everything possible to avoid tasks that involve reading.
Approaches to Improve Reading for Adolescents
While there are many instructional models available to help students in the high school years to become more efficient and skilled readers, research conducted specifically with this age group suggests that four factors contribute significantly to building reading proficiency. Students need to be:
- motivated to read and improve their skills: it is often very difficult for students to admit their weaknesses and sustain positive effort, even with support, given ingrained feelings of embarrassment and hopelessness
- able to decode print: this is 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
- able to comprehend language: students whose reading is not "automatic" and fluid often need to focus their efforts on sounding-out words or guessing at words, making it all the more difficult to check their understanding of the material as they read
- able to seek information and formulate personal responses to questions: efficient readers employ a number of different strategies to validate the assumptions they made about material being read