Early Literacy and Basic Reading Disabilities:

Learning to read is a complex process that begins before children even enter school. Children in stimulating oral language and literacy environments often have a richer background knowledge than their peers who come with fewer early literacy experiences. A child's ability to comprehend what they hear and read is linked to their depth of background knowledge. The average middle class child is exposed to approximately 500,000 words by the time he enters Kindergarten. Economically disadvantaged children are exposed to half as many words. There is a strong connection between reading difficulties and early literacy experiences.

A child with a basic reading disability approaches the reading of words and text in a laborious manner, has difficulty connecting sounds to letters and letter patterns and may have trouble blending the separate sounds together to form a word. Their reading is hesitant; characterized by starts, stops and mispronunciations. The meaning of what has been read is lost because excessive effort is expended on decoding. Because of this interference, fluency is compromised and comprehension is often poor as well. Lack of fluency describes reading that is jerky and slow. Children with fluency problems will often not pay attention to punctuation. It then becomes difficult to understand what was just read. The book "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" by Lynne Truss and Bonnie Timmons paints a vivid picture of why punctuation is so important. Comprehension is an end product that can be adversely affected when basic reading or fluency disabilities exist.
Children who struggle with reading are often bright and motivated to learn. Below is a clip featuring well known people with dyslexia who have compensated for this disability and achieved many things.

What Teachers and Parents Will See:

A child who:
  • Avoids reading aloud
  • Does not complete assignments
  • Has trouble sounding out unfamiliar words
  • Knows the beginning sound of a word but guesses the rest
  • Is easily distracted from the task of reading
  • Says he hates reading

Assessments: DSCN1749.JPG

Assessments can be either formal or informal. Early assessments can be used when it is suspected that a child is at risk for a reading disability. Two formal assessments that I have had personal experience with are:
  • The Phonological Awareness Test (LinguiSystems, Inc.) This test is for ages 5 through 9 years 11 months. It is norm referenced, standardized and assesses ability based on a child's age rather than grade level. It is easy to administer and gives a clear picture of strengths and weaknesses in different categories of phonemic awareness.
  • RAN/RAS - Rapid Automatized Naming and Rapid Alternating Stimulus Tests (Pro-ed) This test is for ages 5 through 18 years 11 months. It is also norm referenced and standardized. It is easy to administer and is used for early identification of children at risk for reading and learning difficulties, particularly targeting the area of fluency.

Informal assessment choices are many, here are a few:
  • Running Record - you can use commercially made running records or develop your own for existing reading material that you wish to use. Fountas and Pinnell has even developed a Running Record Calculator that takes all the math out of scoring!
  • Graded Word Lists - help to quickly identify where a child's reading level is.
  • CBM - Curriculum-Based Measurement is rapidly becoming more popular. An excellent book explaining CBM is "The ABC's of CBM: A Practical Guide to Curriculum-Based Measurement" by Hosp, Hosp, and Howell
  • For other assessment ideas, consult this comprehensive source: "Teaching Students with Learning Problems" by Mercer, Mercer and Pullen

Teaching Strategies:

  • Explicit Instruction: this is a bottom up approach with a primary emphasis on decoding and lots of teacher directed instruction as opposed to a top down meaning emphasis with more student directed activities. Students with reading disabilities need explicit instruction. Read Well is an example of a research based reading intervention program for Kindergarten and First Grade and has been evaluated by the Florida Center for Reading Research.
  • Multisensory programs incorporate activities in the visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile modalities and are especially effective with students who have great difficulty learning to read.
  • The Orton Gillingham Method is a highly structured, phonetically oriented approach that uses both direct instruction and a multisensory approach. There are many products available that are based on this approach. School Specialty carries many reading products that use the Orton Gillingham approach. They are worth checking out.
  • The Neurological Impress Method is specifically designed to help students with reading fluency problems. Text is chosen at a student's independent level and the student and teacher read jointly at a rapid pace. The student is seated slightly in front of the teacher and the teacher's voice is directed into the student's ear. As the student becomes more competent the teacher reads more softly.
  • Repeated readings are also successful for progress with reading fluency. The student rereads a passage on a daily basis for one week. Record the fluency rate at the beginning and end of the week. Stay on the same reading level until a satisfactory level of fluency is achieved, then move up one reading level and repeat the process. Fluency passages are available at A-Z Reading, the target rate is identified so you will know what your goal should be. This website requires a membership fee.
  • Evidence Based Practices can be found at What Works Clearinghouse, and Promising Practices


In addition to adjusting your teaching strategies, the following accommodations need to be considered:
  • Devise a nonverbal signal that the child can use to signal when he is willing to read aloud.
  • Arrange for the child to be a Reading Buddy to a child at a lower grade level.
  • Make sure directions for other assignments are at the child's reading level.
  • Have the child listen to more difficult books on tape to build background knowledge.
  • Be sensitive to the child's need to not be put in an embarrassing oral reading situation.
  • Allow more time to complete assignments.

Interesting Statistics:

  • 50% of American adults are unable to read an eighth grade level book. (Jonathan Kozol, Illiterate America)
  • There are almost half a million words in our English Language, but a third of all our writing is made up of only 22 words. (Paul Kropp "The Reading Solution").
  • Only 32% of American fourth graders read at or above grade level. (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2001)
  • When the State of Arizona projects how many prison beds it will need, it factors in the number of kids who read well in fourth grade. (Arizona Republic)
  • In 1999, only 53% of children aged 3 - 5 were read to daily by a family member. Children in families with incomes below the poverty line are less likely to be read aloud to everyday than are children in families with incomes at or above the poverty line. (The National Center for Education Statistics - NCES)
  • Out-of-school reading habits of students has shown that even 15 minutes a day of independent reading can expose students to more than a million words of text in a year. (Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988)

How Teachers Can Help Parents: DSCN1753.JPG

Parents who struggle with reading do not model reading as an enjoyable practice to their children. They also engage in literacy activities less frequently with their children at the very young ages. These children come to school already with a deficit when compared to their peers who have come from a literacy rich environment. Teachers can encourage parents to engage in literacy activities at home. Book-it is a home reading program sponsored by Pizza Hut that can be used effectively to motivate families to read together and "The Learning Disabilities" website has a "Top 5 Ways to Motivate your Child to Read".

One Teacher's Story:

When Emily was in fourth grade and still struggling with reading, she was placed in my class. Emily struggled with remembering words and letter sounds. She often came to school feeling tired, which contributed to her reading disability. I found out she had younger brothers at home for whom she provided much of the care. I tried to find ways to encourage her to keep trying, but some days were really tough. Emily did enjoy singing, so she joined the school chorus. She also had a creative mind, so I found a creative writing contest and we submitted a piece of her writing. A friend of Emily's got her into an acting group through a local church. She became involved with this group and developed her singing and acting abilities. Emily is now in high school. Although she continues to struggle with reading, she has become a self-confident, bouncy and happy young lady. Despite her limitations, she has found a way to succeed - she is my inspiration. (2006)

Useful Resources:

  • About Learning Disabilities - informational website on a variety of disabilities. Lots of information on reading disabilities.
  • LD OnLine - information on Response to Intervention (RtI) and reading.
  • About Learning Disabilities - a plethora of information on all kinds of learning disabilities. This website defines and identifies specific reading disabilities; including dyslexia.
  • Florida Center for Reading Research - this site has a vast array of resources and teaching ideas regarding reading.
  • ED.gov - No Child Left Behind questions and answers to commonly asked questions about helping children learn to read.
  • Council for Exceptional Children - helpful information on working with children with exceptionalities.
  • Vision Therapy - the success of vision therapy is controversial, but many have had reading success with this approach. This website explains what vision therapy is.

  • Fountas & Pinnell (2009). When Readers Struggle: Teaching that works. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Gentry, Richard (2005). Breakthrough in Beginning Reading and Writing: The evidence-based approach to pinpointing students' needs and delivering targeted instruction. New York: Scholastic.
  • Hosp, Hosp & Howell (2007). The ABC's of CBM: A practical guide to curriculum-based measurement. New York: Guilford Press.
  • McGrath, Constance (2007). The Inclusion-Classroom Problem Solver: Structures and supports to serve all learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Mercer, Mercer & Pullen (2011). Teaching Students with Learning Problems: Eighth Edition. Boston: Pearson.
  • Smith, Polloway, Patton & Dowdy (2008). Teaching Students with Special Needs in Inclusive Settings: Fifth Edition. Boston: Pearson.
  • Strickland, Ganske & Monroe (2002). Supporting Struggling Readers and Writers: Strategies for classroom intervention 3-6. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.
  • Trelease, Jim (2001). The Read-Aloud Handbook. New York: Penguin Books