Reading Jane: Improving the Literacy Learning Outcomes of a Grade 4 Student with a Mild Intellectual Disability

By Nicholas, Maria | Practically Primary, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Reading Jane: Improving the Literacy Learning Outcomes of a Grade 4 Student with a Mild Intellectual Disability


Nicholas, Maria, Practically Primary


As teachers we know that there is no 'quick fix', no one off program that can forever eradicate the learning difficulties experienced by a student who presents with a mild intellectual disability. 'Jane', an 11-year-old female enrolled in my Victorian Government Grade 4 classroom had been somewhat fortunate in being diagnosed as having a mild 'intellectual disability' at the age of 5.

I use the term 'fortunate' quite loosely here, its function being to highlight that by labelling Jane as having an 'intellectual' rather than a 'learning' disability, it was widely accepted by medical and educational practitioners alike that she was and continues to be in need of remedial services. She was consequently eligible for inclusion in government funded intervention programs outside of school. She repeated Kindergarten and steps were taken to ensure she received all available support.

Such programs or services play a crucial role in the reading development of students who present with reading difficulties. Most students with these types of diagnoses, even some with a 'neurological basis' such as Jane show significant gains in their reading abilities when they are provided with 'sufficient appropriate instruction' (Allington, 2002, p. 268). Jane demonstrated such gain in Grade 1, 2006. She progressed from Reading Recovery Level 3 to Level 17 (PM story books) during an intensive, one-on-one Reading Recovery Program. Now in Grade 4, and having only moved to Reading Level 23 in the interim, the whole reading process from decoding to comprehension appeared to have become too complex for Jane. She had reached a certain plateau in her overall reading development, a phenomenon that is not uncommon for students who present with intellectual disabilities (Westwood, 2007).

This stagnation may be attributed in part to the number of unfamiliar words and more complex letter clusters present in the classroom texts. These letter clusters need to be read quickly as with sight words and are not easily read when broken down into their individual units of sound (Westwood, 2007). When decoding becomes laboured, comprehension is also compromised.

In order to plan an effective learning program I needed a firm understanding of what it means to be intellectually disabled. Westwood (2007, p. 19) states, 'intellectual disability presents itself as an inability to think as quickly, reason as deeply, remember as easily, or adapt as rapidly to new situations' and that students with intellectual disabilities find it difficult to think about and interpret information, and to problem solve. In fact, the research indicates that students with intellectual disabilities showed deficits in attention, language, visual perception, verbal short-term memory, information processing, generalising, and the ability to store information in their long-term memory (Wuang, Wang, Huang & Su, 2008; Westwood, 2007).

In light of this, I understood that any plan for Jane required my attention to the following points:

Difficulty: Storing information in long-term and short-term memory

Action: Plan activities with opportunities for practise and repetition

Difficulty: Making generalisations with information Action: Provide lots of practise and repetition in a variety of different contexts. Note that 'repetition' has been mentioned twice. This was not by chance. Many, including Gerenser, Forman and Thursday's Child (2007) have found that individuals with developmental disabilities achieve the best outcomes when intervention programs 'use over-learning and repetition as much as possible' (p. 573).

Difficulty: Maintaining attention/motivation/ persistence

Action: Cater to Jane's interests. In addition to being motivational, this also improves the likelihood of her transferring that interest and the skills learned to other texts and contexts (Morgan, Moni & Jobling, 2006). In fact, The New London Group (2000) argues that people generally do not learn well unless they consider 'they will be able to use and function with what they are learning in some way that is in their interest' (p. …

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