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Attacking Difficult Reading Problems Through Special Education

judy2By Attorney Judith Saltzman

Recent statistics (Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 2012) tell us that 60,000 Ohio children are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade. What are some common causes of this epidemic?

  • Dyslexia: Dyslexia is a neurologically based disorder that manifests with deficits in phonological skills critical for reading. Children with dyslexia struggle with phonemic awareness – the ability to hear and remember the smallest units of sound in spoken language – and the alphabetic principle – the relationship between written letters and spoken sounds. As a result, they will have difficulty decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling) words. Their reading may lack fluency and automaticity because they are struggling over words, and their comprehension may suffer because they are not reading the words well enough to understand text.
  • Language: Deficits in language understanding will affect reading ability, because even a child who can easily decode words won’t have good reading comprehension if he doesn’t understand language. Similarly, deficits in language retrieval  – the ability to retrieve or recall a word from memory — may slow down a child’s reading rate, and with it, his comprehension of what he is reading.
  • Working Memory: This refers to the ability to hold concepts in the mind and work with them. Working memory deficits may cause reading as well as writing problems because the individual struggles to remember and integrate all the skills that go into being a proficient reader and writer
  • Cognitive Impairments: Intellectual deficits may cause reading problems. Many children with intellectual disabilities learn to decode words, but understanding remains a deficit that will impair their reading comprehension. Traumatic brain injury may affect reading abilities in a variety of ways, depending upon the nature of the injury.

Parents who are concerned that their child is not reading at grade level can request an evaluation to determine eligibility for special education. The request should be written and delivered to people in authority in your district, such as the principal, special education director, and/or superintendent.    The school district may deny an evaluation if it does not “suspect” a disability, but now that Ohio’s new law, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, requires schools to test reading ability yearly and notify parents if their child is not on track for grade level reading, it may be more difficult for them to do so. The new reading law mandates interventions, but does not provide the same rights as special education. Thus, if you receive a notification that your child is not reading at grade level, you may wish to request an evaluation for special education at that time. The U.S. Department of Education advises that interventions are not justification for delaying evaluation for special education (OSEP-11-07).

What do you want in your evaluation? The school is obligated to test in all areas of disability, so you will want testing in any area that may be impairing your child’s reading.  Before an evaluation, the school will have an evaluation planning meeting. If you have a private psychologist, ask him or her to suggest appropriate tests. Whether you do this or not, at your planning meeting, ask the school psychologist and speech therapist to be sure to evaluate phonological skills, reading rate and accuracy, reading fluency, expressive and receptive language abilities, vocabulary, retrieval, memory, written language skills, spelling skills, achievement, cognitive skills, and any other factor you suspect is holding back your child’s reading. And remember that if you disagree with the school’s evaluation, you can request an Independent Educational Evaluation

If your child is eligible for special education under any category and has deficits in specific skill areas such as basic reading skills, fluency, comprehension, writing, or even math, the school is obligated to provide research based methodologies to address these problems. In the area of reading, this will typically mean a program such as Orton-Gillingham, Wilson, or Language! Such programs systematically and explicitly teach to mastery each component of language (e.g. phonology, syllables, morphology) from simplest to most complex, in a structured, predetermined sequence. To enhance memory of difficult concepts, multi-sensory techniques are used.   Such programs are carefully developed and should be taught by individuals specifically certified to teach them.  Combining them with different reading methodologies, for example, using picture cues, will undermine their effectiveness. The success of these programs — their support in the research — is tied to delivering them with fidelity.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz, one of the nation’s leading dyslexia experts, suggests in her book, Overcoming Dyslexia, that children with dyslexia receive 90 minutes per day of research-based remediation. Remember, though, that the programs for dyslexia primarily address the child’s phonological deficits. If the child’s reading is impacted by other problems, such as poor language understanding or retrieval, other services, such as speech therapy, may be required.

The Third Grade Reading Guarantee has provisions that can help you advocate for an appropriate IEP for your child.   It requires the use of “research-based reading strategies” and “intensive, explicit and systematic instruction.”   Students retained in third grade are entitled to “not less than 90 minutes per day of reading.” Intensive intervention in fourth grade, for children who have been excepted from the third grade guarantee, must include an “altered instructional day that includes specialized diagnostic information and specific research-based reading strategies” with a track record of success.   This is a significant new law, and every child with a reading problem is entitled to its benefits, whether or not he has an IEP. Parents may not wish to rely upon it alone, however, because the Third Grade Reading Guarantee creates no enforceable rights and may lead to children being retained in third grade if the school’s instruction is not effective. For enforceable rights, look to special education and an IEP, which may exempt your child from retention in third grade if you so desire.

Experts tell us children not at grade level at the end of third grade have only a 20% chance of catching up. While dyslexia can be remediated at any age, parents have no time to waste. The sooner a child receives intensive, research based reading services, the better off he will be.

Posted in Articles, Articles: Children with Special Needs.