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Should Students with Moderate Disabilities be Encouraged to Read Grade-Level Text?

Michelle Spain, M.Ed., a devoted special educator for over a decade, brings knowledge, experience, and current research to teach reading.

Reading is Beautiful


The Big Question

Should students with moderate disabilities be encouraged to read grade-level text? Within the special education field, reading challenges are one of the most commonly observed issues. Reading comprehension is a basic fundamental skill that is necessary for students to be successful in school and in life.

Understanding the data behind reading comprehension skills is an important and practical issue that is prevalent across the nation’s schools. To delve into and thoroughly understand if students with disabilities should, in fact, be taught reading comprehension skills from text at their grade level rather than at their instructional level, would offer insights into the way special educators should be teaching reading.

The Big Problem

The problem educators see all too often, is students with reading disabilities that are reading 3-5 grade levels below their typical peers. Students with such disabilities are often removed from the classroom and focus on reading content that is below grade level and closer to their instructional level. This is harmful for the special education students, teachers and their peers, as students often miss valuable classroom content, draw negative attention from their peers, and it can sometimes strain the teacher/student relationship if the student is opposed to leaving the classroom. Reading comprehension studies have been done, and done again over the years. There is a significant amount of information surrounding the topic of reading comprehension that offers a range of insights and findings.

Key Elements to Reading Comprehension

There are many students with disabilities that struggle with reading comprehension within the typical classroom. Students that find reading challenging are less likely to read on their own, avoiding the task altogether; while students that enjoy reading, read more often and are more often met with success. This cycle continuously adds to the achievement gap of reading skills. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “62% of eighth grade students with disabilities read below a proficient level” (Leko, Mundy, Kang, & Datar, 2013). Motivation to read, appropriate leveled texts and diversity continue to be key elements in teaching reading comprehension effectively.

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The Matthew Effect

Allington’s idea, taken from What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs, that adolescents must be engaged in reading in order to become successful readers is the basis of the article, If the Book Fits: Selecting Appropriate Text for Adolescents with Learning Disabilities, written by Leko, Mundy, Kang, and Datar. They go on say, “Students who practice reading improve more quickly and are subsequently more motivated to continue reading, thus creating a cycle of increasing achievement. The opposite is true for students who struggle with reading and therefore avoid it, a phenomenon experts call the Matthew effect (Stanovich, 1986).” (Leko et al, 2013). The Matthew effect is seen all too often in adolescents with disabilities. The authors utilize data from a variety of sources to suggest a three-step process in order to build students’ motivation for reading.

Strategies to Improve Motivation

The article then goes into specific detail about strategies to implement that pertain to each of the three steps. Within the article data from Tyner’s book, Small-group reading instruction: A differentiated teaching model for beginning and struggling readers (2nd ed.), describes the categorical systems used to label appropriate level texts for students. The three levels, independent, instructional, and frustration, are explained with specific definitions pertaining to the percentage of accuracy when reading aloud. The importance of students only reading independently at their independent level, reading with a teacher or peers at their instructional level, and being read aloud to at their frustration level is stressed greatly within this article. The article speaks about the importance of choosing appropriate level texts for independent reading activities, but also describes the benefits of texts read aloud that are above students’ instructional level.

All Students Exposed to Grade Level Text

Since the latest federal regulations in education, such as the reauthorization of IDEA and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, teachers must ensure all students have access to state standard curriculum and that they are assessed through a grade-level academic assessment. This is true for all academic areas, English, Math, Science and Social Studies. Given these requirements, research-proven reading techniques, and the fact that students need motivation to read and comprehend effectively, it can, and should, be recommended that students of all abilities be exposed to grade-level text in a way that is appropriate for their individual needs.

Making sense of a grade-level text together

Making sense of a grade-level text together

© 2021 Michelle Spain

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