A Legal Perspective on the Use of Specific Reading Methods for Students with Learning Disabilities

Article excerpt

Abstract. This article reviews 27 legal decisions published between 1989 and 1998 involving students with learning disabilities and parental requests for specific reading methods selected and used by the school district. These decisions were analyzed in an effort to look at specific parental requests for particular reading methods and the courts' response to this type of request. The review of these decisions indicated that parents of students with learning disabilities were of the opinion that the basic tenets of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) were violated when their child did not receive reading instruction using a specific method. This premise was based primarily on the lack of academic progress made by the child in reading. Parents also expressed concern over the appropriateness of the reading programs offered by the school district and voiced the sentiment that their child would show academic progress if the school district used one of several multisensory methods for reading instruction. The legal issues are defined and interpreted through a careful examination of existing decisions at several judicial levels. Rationales employed by the state-level hearing officers, judges, and federal agencies in reaching decisions related to educational methods and children with learning disabilities are discussed in detail and implications are presented.

Without effective approaches to reading instruction, many students who experience reading problems at a young age continue to have difficulties into high school (Lyon, 1995). Researchers and practitioners alike have searched tirelessly for materials and methods that remediate the decoding and comprehension problems these students encounter. This interest in remediating students' reading problems has yielded an extensive literature base on reading instruction and a myriad published reading programs.

Historically, the dominant approaches to reading instruction and remediation for students with learning disabilities (LD) have utilized multisensory, synthetic techniques originally developed by Samual Orton, Anna Gillingham, and Bessie Stillman (Clark, 1988). These approaches are characterized by the use of multisensory feedback to teach individual grapheme-phoneme correspondences, along with explicit instruction and practice in "sound blending." These methods place heavy emphasis on direct instruction and the development of alphabetic reading skills. Most of the research supporting these methods has come from case studies (Frankiewicz, 1985; Ogden, Hindman, & Turner, 1989). The Lindamood approach, for example, has been found successful in enhancing phonological awareness and spelling skills in very poor readers with LD (Kennedy & Blackman, 1993). In addition, the Orton-Gillingham method has proven to be effective at remediating the decoding problems of students with LD (Vickerey, Reynolds, & Cochran, 1987). Other approaches employing a primarily synthetic phonics method, but with less emphasis on multisensory experiences, also have been evaluated positively with children with LD (Brown & Felton, 1990; Epstein & Cullinan, 1981; Gittelman & Feingold, 1983).

While basal reading programs are used widely by teachers in public schools (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985), multisensory experiences, direct instruction, and the development of alphabetic reading skills may not be a part of the instructional methods included in these programs (Meyer, Green, & Crummey, 1986). These two instructional conditions, and other factors, have led a group of parents of students with LD to question the appropriateness of programs and methods used by schools to teach their children to read (e.g., E.S. v. Independent School District, 1998; Moubry v. Independent School District, 1998; Austin Independent School District, 1997; Brandywine School District, 1994; Garden City Public Schools, 1991).

This is particularly the case for students who have not made adequate progress in school. …


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