Reading and Intellectual Disabilities: What the research says…..

reading and intellectual disabilities

For this month of Research Tuesday, I wanted to share a research article that discusses reading instruction with children diagnosed with an Intellectual Disability (ID). In my many years as a speech language pathologist, I have seen many children and adults diagnosed with ID who struggle with reading for several different reasons (e.g. never received the right instruction, lack of exposure, etc.). When someone has a diagnosed intellectual disability, it does make it more challenging to learn how to read, but not impossible! Unfortunately, many children and adults did not receive the type of training they needed to become a fluent reader, and as a result struggle the rest of their lives with becoming a reader. Struggling with reading also decreases independence around the community and increases reliance on others. Being illiterate or a poor reader can lead to not only dangerous situations for a specific individual (e.g. not being able to read labels on medicine, unable to read signs related to danger) but also difficulties with daily living (e.g. not being able to read a menu at a restaurant). For a child who is non verbal, it also limits communication. I always tell my graduate students that I teach in my AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) class that with literacy, comes freedom.

I wanted to share an interesting article titled Methods for Increasing the Intensity of Reading Instruction for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (Allor, J., Champlin, T., Gifford, D. & Mathes, P., 2010) that describes the effectiveness and success of a specific reading program with children diagnosed with an intellectual disability. The purpose of the article was to “describe the various strategies used in one research project to intensify early literacy instruction for students with ID, including methods for providing outside of teacher-led instruction” (Allor, J., Champlin, T., Gifford, D. & Mathes, P., 2010).

This article is important for both parents and teachers because there are many assumptions made regarding a person diagnosed with an intellectual disability. One assumption is that people diagnosed with ID can only learn a limited amount of sight words. This is simply not true! With the right instruction and support, children with intellectual disabilities can make progress and become better readers. It was also suggested in this article that children with ID should be taught in the same matter as others who struggle to read. The authors mentioned the success of a program called the Early Literacy Skills Builder Curriculum with children with intellectual disabilities.

The study was conducted over four years with students that had IQ’s ranging from 40-79. The students were all verbal and in grades 1-4 when they began the study. What were the results? The group that received the intensive reading instruction “made educationally meaningful progress at a faster rate than the control group and these differences were statistically different”(Allor, J., Champlin, T., Gifford, D. & Mathes, P., 2010).

What are the components of an effective reading program? According to Allor, J., Champlin, T., Gifford, D. & Mathes, P.:

1. Instruction must be systematic and explicit, including all reading components

2. Repetitive in its use of routines

3. Fast paced

4. Highly motivating

What are the four key factors that add to the intensity of the reading program?

1. Level of intensity: In the study the teachers led sessions that were 40-50 minutes in length

2. Appropriate level of difficulty: Teachers focused on key skills, not wasting time on material that the child already knew or that skills that were too difficult)

3. Motivation: Each child received some type of tangible reinforcer that was delivered on a regular basis. Another way to increase motivation was set achievable goals to increase self confidence.

4. Meaningfulness to the student: Teachers connected activities to words and concepts that were important to a specific student.

To read the full article, click here.

Try this handwritten on blackboardWhat does this mean for you as a parent? If your child has an intellectual disability, this article can begin to give you some ideas on the components of a reading program that might be successful for your child. You can also take some of the suggestions from this article and try them at home. Teach words that are meaningful and already in your child’s vocabulary. Incorporate literacy during book reading and make it fun and exciting for your child! For example, when reading your child’s favorite book, choose some key words in the book. Write them down on a separate index cards and as you are reading the book, point to the key word. Create a bingo board with the key words from the book and give your child a reinforcer for participating and getting some answers correct.

Write in with your own suggestions!


Allor, Jill, Tammi M. Champlin, Diane B. Gifford, and Patricia G. Mathes. “Methods for Increasing the Intensity of Reading Instruction for Students with Intellectual Disabilities.” © Division on Autism and Developmental Disabilities Methods for Increasing the Intensity of Reading Instruction for Students with Intellectual Disabilities 45 (2010): 500-11. Education and Teaching in Autism and Developmental Disabilities.



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