Reading Disability and Learning Difficulty Program

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Learners with learning disabilities (LDs) display identifiable curricular strengths and weaknesses. Often, there is a disparity between their reading/spelling skills and practical abilities. According to Rivalland (2000), the acquisition of reading and writing skills requires a combination of cognitive functions, namely, “eye/hand coordination, auditory discrimination, memory, and practical awareness” (p. 14). In this view, a student with a disability in any of these cognitive processes is likely to have reading difficulties. Adrian, a fifth-grade student at Strathmore School, has a reading difficulty that manifests in different ways. First, he is unable to discriminate words that sound similar in writing. Second, he often mispronounces common words and has difficulty recalling terminologies learnt in class. Also, when reading, he often omits some words or lines. These weaknesses, if not intervened, might prevent the learner from achieving high literacy levels.

In the writer’s view, Adrian’s difficulties in reading stem from a poor phonological awareness that has persisted from the lower school. He has difficulty understanding and spelling words. Chan and Dally (2000) attribute this to the inability to combine different phonemes into words. This makes Adrian unable to process texts or comprehend contextual meanings of spoken or written words. Nevertheless, Adrian displays an aptitude for numeracy, art, and music studies. He plays the piano and is an excellent dancer and artist. However, Adrian cannot pronounce words correctly when reading and seems to confuse related words. Robinson (2002) states that reading difficulties stem from an auditory processing disability that makes a student unable to discriminate between letters and sounds. Auditory processing difficulties make one unable to analyse sound resulting in lower phonological awareness.

Below is a summary of what Adrian can do and not do.

What he can do
-Math and numeracy
-Procedural activities, e.g., playing the piano
-Good listener
What he cannot do
-Comprehending figures of speech
-Understand/use of contextual words
-Constructing complex sentences
-Recounting stories or events
-Using vocabularies
-Oral expression

Learning Outcomes Targeted

Effective reading skills enable students to relate personally with the text to draw meanings from it (Fischer, 1999). It is an integral part of literacy acquisition. The proposed reading intervention program aims to improve the student learning outcomes on all aspects of reading. The targeted learning outcomes will be (1) language comprehension, (2) word recognition and memorisation, and (3) pronunciation skills. Effective readers must comprehend words to understand their contextual meanings in various texts. Adrian cannot identify and understand figures of speech and contextual words quickly. In this regard, effective comprehension will enable him to read, understand, and remember phrases and facts/concepts.

Word recognition, as a learning outcome, will help improve his ability to evaluate what he has read. Recognising words and phrases will help the student analyse, summarise, and present content to his peers with ease. Pronunciation skills are essential in developing strong fluency and oral expression skills. The program will enable the student to recognise familiar words easily and thus, improve his automaticity in reading.

Special instructional interventions can help meet the learning needs of students with LDs. For Adrian, being a struggling reader, his immediate learning needs related to reading and comprehension. These include language cues, phonics and phonetics, vocabulary, ‘text forms’, contextual reading, and sentence structuring, among others. His interest in sports and art means that he has no attention disorder. In this regard, Adrian can benefit from an intervention program that focuses on active learning strategies, particularly, visualisation, mnemonics, and verbalisation (Minskoff & Allsopp, 2003). The approach integrates student actions and experiences with classroom learning to improve the recall rate and mastery of content.

Achieving the Learning Outcomes

The intervention consists of six main components of the oral language taught together rather than singly because learning difficulties are heterogeneous and have multiple intrinsic causes (Rivalland, 2000). The components include phonological awareness, phonemics, vocabulary, phonics, reading/comprehension, and reading fluency. Research has established that an effective reading program should cover multiple areas taught in an explicit and balanced manner in a classroom context. Minskoff and Allsopp (2003) define systematic and explicit instruction as a multi-sensory teaching approach that combines “kinesthetic, tactile, visual, and auditory” strategies to make content more accessible to the student (p. 33).

In reading comprehension, the students will be taught skills on how to summarise, connect ideas, reflect, and comprehend texts. The assessment will be based on how a student predicts information, reads passages/texts and formulates relevant questions. Effective identification of students with LDs is often difficult. Most schools use an IQ test, which, however, is highly subjective and does not capture all scientific/educational considerations (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2001). In this view, multiple scientific and educational tools will be used to identify students with reading difficulties.

Phonology will help the student understand how oral language is constructed. Reading difficulty stems from underlying neural abnormalities. However, reading can be modified by one’s learning experience (Robinson, 2002). Exposure to ‘sounds system’, as the basic phonological components, will improve the student’s ability to use new words. Because he has an interest in music, phonological awareness can help him understand rhymes. Fischer (1999) recommends that language (phonics) instruction be tailor-made for all students, i.e., it should (1) involve “interaction with authentic texts and (2) be explicit and systematic” to help at-risk students connect learnt material with individual experiences (p. 329). Assessment will focus on how the student produces the sounds.

Vocabulary instruction will also be an important part of the intervention program. Students will write a list of words they easily recognise and understand their meanings. According to MacArthur (1999), writing of software such as “word prediction and processing tools and speech recognition” help in language instruction (p. 173). Instruction will focus on word learning in class and home settings. Students will be provided with an opportunity to learn new vocabularies in different contexts and units. This will require concerted efforts from all teachers, parents, and peers. Progress will be assessed based on the ability to give word meanings and distinguish between words or phrases. Concerning sentence structure, instruction will centre on punctuation, word recognition, and syntactical patterns.

Reading fluency is another area the program will target. Fluent readers can read texts quickly and correctly. Reading fluency instruction will aim to create ‘automaticity’ in the students to facilitate word recognition. It will involve the use of peer feedback, visualisation, and echo, oral, and repeated readings to create automaticity. Students will be assessed based on their word recognition and pronunciation skills and vocabulary knowledge. A guided inquiry approach involving class and group discussions, individual learning, and student reflection (journal entries) can help learners overcome linguistic challenges (Palinscar, Magnusson, Cutter & Vincent, 2002). The approach will combine the reading/comprehension methods, phonemic awareness strategies, and fluency development to help the students reach the required reading levels. In providing reading support, the teacher will adjust instruction to meet special learning needs and bring about a skills change (Kelly, 1991). Home supporters can also help bring about attitudinal change in the student concerning language development (Kelly, 1991).

A Report for Teacher/Parent/Student

The central aim of reading is to improve one’s ability to comprehend textual meanings. Through “consultation, parental dialogue, professional exchange, and humour”, support teachers can work with instructors to design strategies that suit the needs of struggling readers (Davies & Davies, 1988, p. 13). The goal of this intervention program is to improve reading skills in poor readers concerning language/communication, phonological awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and reading fluency. It is summarised in the table below.

Reading skill Gains achieved Recommendations
Language/communication -Ability to;
– identify/name common items
-express what he/she feels or observes orally
-describe scenarios
-construct simple sentences/phrases
-narrate stories/sing songs with rhyming phrases
-engage in class discussions
-pronounce words correctly
The use of language profile, speaking checklist, vocabulary log, and social communication resource (Saskatchewan Learning, 2000, p. 25) in;
-teaching students oral imaginative plays
-teaching students to sing and recite poems
-engage learners in storytelling and oral expression to improve self-esteem (Cosden, Elliot, Noble & Keleman, 1999)
-use of puppets to explain concepts
-engaging children in role-playing
-making children describe events, things in the surroundings, and their experiences
-teaching vocabulary
Phonological awareness Improved ability to;
-name rhyming words
-pronounce sounds/syllables in a word
-isolate syllables/phonemes
-blend sounds
-instruction involves the use of sound comparison, phonological awareness checklist, and phoneme segmentation and blending (Almasi, 2003).
-students learn to identify word sounds
-engage in oral rhyming activities
-learn phonetic patterns with the help of home supporters
Vocabulary Student displays the ability to;
-recall learnt words
-understand the new word meanings
-recognise familiar words
-use vocabulary in speech/writing
-understand the contextual meaning of words
-use of sample vocabulary log and word games
-teaching students contextual word meanings
-use of mnemonic and visualisation strategies in teaching (Beers, 2003)
Comprehension -the student can read and understand the text
-can reflect on ideas read
-can visualise or form mental images of concepts
-infer or support his/her arguments
-thinking aloud strategy
-guided inquiry
Reading fluency -enhanced automaticity in word recognition
-improvement in phrasing and punctuation
-repeated/shared reading
-peer feedback


The intervention program can raise the performance of poor readers. From the program, the writer has learned that teachers, in collaboration with special educators, can support students with reading difficulties achieve higher performance. The teacher’s role includes dialogue with the parent/guardian, assessment (informal) of the student for any reading difficulty, and identification of the learner’s strengths and weaknesses. An intervention program aims to improve the learner’s strengths and help him/her overcome individual curricular challenges.

In the writer’s view, teacher assessment of student learning should be a continuous process. This helps in the identification of learning disabilities and ensures informed instruction for students with LDs. It also allows LDs to be identified early so that effective intervention strategies can be applied. Children with reading difficulties need a continuous “intensive and explicit instruction” achieved through “consultation, team-teaching, in-class support, and co-teaching” (Todd, 1999, p. 97). It requires inter-professional collaboration to identify SLDs and develop an effective intervention program. As Davies and Davies (1988) put it, inter-professional collaboration enhances respect and credibility of those involved resulting in the effective interventions. A struggling reader requires support from the parents, teachers, and speech pathologists, among others, working collaboratively. The writer has learned that explicit instruction and ‘think-aloud’ models are effective teaching models for struggling readers. The unit has altered the writer’s understanding of learning disability diagnoses and interventions. The diagnosis of LDs and the development of an effective intervention program require inter-professional collaboration and consultation with parents/guardians.


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