Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Research on Reading Instruction for Individuals with Significant Cognitive Disabilities

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Research on Reading Instruction for Individuals with Significant Cognitive Disabilities

Article excerpt

The "science of reading" that has developed over the last 20 years has led to new optimism that, as a nation, we can do better in teaching all students to read (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Synthesis reports like Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print (Adams, 1990), Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow et al.), and Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks far Teaching Children to Read (National Institute for Literacy, 2001) provide important guidance for teaching reading. Although these reports have relevance for teaching individuals with significant cognitive disabilities, most of the guidelines must be adapted for this population. (The term "significant cognitive disabilities" is used generally in this article to refer to students classified as having moderate or severe mental retardation, who may have additional disabilities such as autism or physical disabilities. The term "mental retardation" is used to refer to the population identified as such in specific research studies or reviews.) Individuals with severe cognitive disabilities may use nonlinguistic communication (Alvares, Falor, & Smiley, 1991) and exhibit learning characteristics that require greater time to learn and intensive forms of instructional support (Westling & Fox, 2000).

Historically, reading instruction for students with significant cognitive disabilities has been underemphasized. Qualitative research including content analyses of textbooks (Katims, 2000) and ethnographic studies of children's school experiences (Kliewer, 1998) reveals a consistent lack of focus on reading. Instead, educators have focused on functional skills reflected in daily living activities. Recently, special educators have emphasized that students with significant cognitive disabilities require intensive instruction in order to learn to read (Browder, Ahlgrim-Delzell, Courtade-Little, & Snell, 2006; Erickson & Koppenhaver, 1995; Kliewer & Landis, 1999). Although these students do need functional skill instruction, reading must be an instructional priority if they are to achieve desired outcomes and make progress. In general, students who do not learn to read have fewer opportunities as adults; not being able to read affects both economic security and general well-being (Chhabra & McCardle, 2004). Educators limit future opportunities if they make an a priori assumption not to teach reading to some students because of the nature or severity of disability.

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 1997 (IDEA) requires that all students with disabilities participate in state assessments and have access to the general education curriculum; alternate assessment must be available for students unable to participate in large-scale testing programs with accommodations. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires schools to evidence adequate yearly progress (AYP) in reading (as well as math and science) for all students, including those with disabilities. Subsequent guidelines for NCLB (U.S. Department of Education, December 9, 2003) permit states to use alternate achievement standards for up to 1% of students with significant cognitive disabilities. These alternate achievement standards must (a) be aligned with the State's academic content standards, (b) promote access to the general curriculum, and (c) reflect professional judgment of the highest achievement standards possible. Schools need information on evidence-based practices to set the highest achievement standards possible for reading by students with significant cognitive disabilities.

The National Reading Panel (NRP; 2000), in response to a charge from Congress to assess the status of research-based knowledge in teaching children to read, identified five essential components of reading instruction: (a) phonemic awareness, (b) phonics, (c) fluency, (d) vocabulary, and (e) comprehension. …

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