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Reading Learning Disability in the Inclusion Classroom

By Lisa Carey and Amanda Hughes
February 23, 2016

Education Consultant for the Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education (CILSE) at Kennedy Krieger Institute, Lisa Carey, M.A.T., teamed up with colleague Amanda Hughes, M.Ed., Language Arts Department Chair at Lansdowne Middle School in Baltimore County Public Schools, to discuss meeting the needs of students with reading learning disabilities in inclusion classrooms. Lisa and Amanda have worked together on a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) implementation project that represents a partnership between CILSE at Kennedy Krieger Institute, Towson University, and Baltimore County Public Schools. 

A reading learning disability (LD) can be perplexing in a text-heavy classroom setting. Once students exit the “learning-to-read” phase of schooling and enter the world of “reading-to-learn,” many of those with reading LD become discouraged, while their well-intentioned teachers become frustrated. While students with reading LD need intervention, they also need the ability to work around the barriers that print text present. This places the teacher in the position of simultaneously building reading skills while offering alternatives to reading – a proposition that, at times, appears incompatible.   How do we continue to teach necessary reading skills while moving on with content?

Vocabulary Instruction for All

Teachers of every subject area teach vocabulary. This is the nature of academic learning; we use an ever-growing number of words as we delve deeper into the specifics of content matter. Students with reading disabilities struggle with new vocabulary, but they are not alone. Luckily, the vocabulary instructional methods that work best for students with reading LD can benefit all students.

Evidence-based strategies such as the Frayer Model or the Morphological Method can enhance student understanding of vocabulary. The Frayer Model of vocabulary instruction asks students to define the  word, break down its morphology, provide non-examples, and draw images. This method has been shown to help students effectively acquire new vocabulary and, more importantly, use it correctly within their expressive language. The Frayer Model is also ideal for group work, as students work together to construct the meaning of an unfamiliar word. The morphological approach can assist students in breaking down more complex vocabulary and help with spotting common prefixes, suffixes, and root words, which may assist in decoding as well.

Reading Comprehension Strategies for All

Students with reading LD struggle with comprehension, but they aren’t the only students who require techniques for improving this important skill.  By building comprehension strategy instruction into your lesson, you can support all students.  Strategies such as Reciprocal Teaching have been shown to improve higher-order thinking skills related to comprehension and can benefit students of all levels.  The technique models the use of guiding questions to enhance meta-cognitive skills related to comprehension. Students then take on the role of the teacher, asking one another guiding questions.

Teaching students to use text feature supports such as headings, subheadings, images, captions, as well as charts and tables can also benefit them as they are learning to read within multiple subject areas and for multiple purposes. Some of these features are more common within certain writing styles and disciplines as well. It is important to show students how reading differs across curricula.

Alternatives to Reading for Building Vocabulary and Comprehension Skills

Listening to text as you read along can help develop reading skills, and digital tools of the 21st century make it even easier to listen to text. From text-to-speech features to MP3s of books and literature, the written word is more accessible now than ever.

Listening to text is not cheating. While audio books and text-to-speech features are beneficial to students with reading LD, it is important to note that these assistive technologies can help other students as well. Imagine the student who forgot her glasses, or the English language learners in your classroom, or the student who just prefers to listen as he reads – these are all students who could benefit from listening to text while they read.

It is important to not only provide students with supports to help them decode the written word, but to also teach them how to use the resources that are most helpful for their particular needs. While many tools exist that can help students, websites like Actively Learn, CAST UDL Book Builder, and CAST UDL Studio blend several different supports into one online tool. Common features of these digital tools include word definition, read aloud, and the ability for teachers to embed videos and links to websites.

  • When reading on Actively Learn, students have control over the font size and colors on the page and can even switch to a font designed to support readers with dyslexia. Students can also take notes and flag a section of the text that they don’t understand, which will send an immediate notification to the teacher.
     
  • When working in UDL Studio, students have the ability to demonstrate their comprehension through writing, drawing, recording, or uploading answers. By allowing students to respond in the way that works best for them, teachers can truly measure reading skills rather than unintentionally assess students’ writing ability. 
     
  • UDL Book Builder includes a translate feature.  These online tools target specific reading skills (such as vocabulary development) while also offering alternatives to written text (such as the embedded videos).

When selecting an online reading platform, one of most useful features is to have scaffolding tools that can be turned off and on; while all students have the option to use any of the tools, they do not have to use any of them. This provides an opportunity for teachers to teach students how to select and appropriately use resources on their own to better understand reading. The hope is that students will become expert learners who can apply this ability to texts they read outside of one particular website. 

Selecting an online tool that offers readings in multiple content areas can also be helpful. This allows teachers of any subject to present text-based content in a way that all students can access. By allowing students to learn subject-specific content through a website like Actively Learn - instead of a traditional textbook - barriers to comprehension are reduced. Teachers can simultaneously build students’ reading skills and teach science, math, or any other content. By providing students with explicit skill instruction and allowing them to access text in multiple ways, teachers can help students with reading LD succeed in all classes. 

The Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education (CILSE) is currently accepting applications for its 2016-2017 fellowship cohort, designed for special education teachers with master’s degrees in education, as well as leaders in related disciplines within school systems (e.g., school, psychology, speech/language pathology). If you are interested in applying, visit the CILSE fellowship program application page or contact Kimberly Anderson (AndersonK@kennedykrieger.org, 443-923-9252) for more information.

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