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Literacy Supports at the Elementary Level
Literacy and Learning Disabilities
by Bethany Laing and Sara Chmielewski
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
What is Literacy?
Literacy is the process of reading and writing. It is the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential. Being literate helps us perform everyday activities such as reading text messages, following written instructions, and filling out job applications.
Children with Learning Disabilities and Literacy
is a neurological disorder that cannot be cured. When compared to their same grade peers, children with learning disabilities are usually just as smart, if not smarter; however, they may experience difficulties when reading, writing, spelling, reasoning, recalling and/or organizing information if left to infer skills or meaning simply from exposure to instruction—learning through osmosis (What is a Learning Disability, 2010, para. 1; Spear-Swerling, 2005, para. 3). These difficulties are the result of a difference in the wiring of the brain.
In the United States, specific learning disabilities is the largest disability category in special education with approximately 5 to 6 percent of students between six and seventeen years receiving services in public schools. In addition, “about half of all students identified by the public schools as needing special education are learning disabled,” (Hallahan, Kauffman, Pullen, 2009, p. 191). Having a learning disability does not necessarily mean that these students will experience academic failure. Providing students with appropriate instruction that is matched to their unique learning needs will help enable them to achieve academic success.
2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
(IDEA) defines the term specific learning disability as
… a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.
DISORDERS INCLUDED—Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.
DISORDERS NOT INCLUDED—The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; of mental retardation; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage
(Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments on 1997, Sec. 602(26), p.13, as cited in Hallahan, Kauffman, Pullen (2009) p. 187).
National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities
(NJCLD) defines the term specific learning disability somewhat differently than the federal definition:
Learning disability is a general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and the use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction, and may occur across the life span. Problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perception and social interaction may exist with learning disabilities but do not by themselves constitute a learning disability.
Although learning disabilities may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (for example, sensory impairments, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance) or with extrinsic influences (such as cultural differences, insufficient or inappropriate instruction), they are not the result of those conditions or influences.
(National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1998, p., as cited in Hallahan, Kauffman, Pullen (2009) p. 188).
For the majority of students with learning disabilities, reading presents the most difficulty, especially in the areas of decoding, fluency, and comprehension (Hallahan et al., 2009, p. 196). In 2002, the U.S. Department of Education reported that, “of the approximately 2,887,217 school-age children receiving public services for learning disabilities, the majority were identified as having a learning disability because of developmental delays in reading,” (Martin, Martin, & Carvalho, 2008, 113). As a result, there has been great debate as to how to most effectively teach reading to students with learning disabilities. The controversy lies between phonics instruction and Whole Language. Factors contributing to this controversy include scientifically-based research, politics, and the actual application of these two methods themselves (
LeDoux, 2007, p. 11).
What is Phonics?
Phonics is one of the
five big ideas in reading
as identified by the
National Reading Panel in 2000
. It is a method of instruction that teaches students the systematic relationship between the letters and letter combinations (graphemes) in written language and the individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken language and how to use these relationships to read and spell words (Honig, Diamond, Gutlohn, 2008, p. 170). There are several different labels that are often used interchangeably to describe these relationships which include:
(Armbruster, Lehr, Osborn, 2003, p. 12).
Phonics instruction is primarily delivered in the primary grades as well as to older, struggling readers in order to, “help students learn how to convert the printed word into its spoken form (National Reading Panel as cited in Honig, Diamond, Gutlohn, 2008, p. 170). The ultimate goal of phonics instruction is for students to learn and apply the alphabetic principle—the understanding that there are systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds (Armbruster, Lehr, Osborn, 2003, p. 12). Knowledge of letter-sound relationships will enable students to identify familiar words with both accuracy and automaticity while also enabling them to decode unfamiliar words—breaking down unknown words into phonemes and syllables (Armbruster, Lehr, Osborn, 2003, p. 12; Boyles & Scanlon, 2010, p. 151).
There are several approaches to teaching phonics. These approaches are described in the table below:
Approaches to Phonics Instruction
In this systematic and explicit approach, students learn how to convert letters and letter combinations into sounds and then blend (synthesize) the sounds together to form recognizable words.
Students learn to analyze letter-sound relationships in previously learned words. They do not pronounce sounds in isolation.
Students learn to use parts of word families they know to identify words they don’t know that have similar parts.
Phonics through spelling
Students learn to segment words into phonemes and to make words by writing letters for phonemes.
In this approach, phonics instruction is embedded in the context of “authentic” reading and writing experiences. Phonic elements are introduced informally when the teacher senses that students need to know them. Instruction focuses on teaching students to predict the identities of words using a variety of “word-solving skills.” This approach is not systematic or explicit.
Students learn to identify the sound of the letter or letters before the first vowel (onset) in a one-syllable word and the sound of the remaining part of the word (rime).
(Honig, Diamond, Gutlohn, 2008, pp. 172-173; Armbruster, Lehr, Osborn, 2003, p. 13).
What is Whole Language?
Whole Language is a multifaceted philosophy and approach to teaching reading and writing. This movement was started by teachers and is grounded in scientific theory and research including:
and various other fields of study (LeDoux, 2007, p. 11; Newman & Church, 1990, p. 23).
Although its definition varies depending on the practitioner, this method has several common core elements (Danbury, 2007, para. 6):
Language, both oral and written, is at the heart of Whole Language curriculum. In a Whole Language classroom, language is used for the authentic purpose of communication as well as information and enjoyment (Stahl & Kuhn, 1995, para. 4).
Students learn language through reading and writing using
and not learning phonics in isolation but rather incidentally in context—embedded phonics (Stahl & Kuhn, 1995, para. 4; Newman & Church, 1990, p. 21).
Whole Language operates on the premise of a constructivist learning environment, meaning that children construct their own knowledge by actively immersing themselves in learning and in new experiences and further reflect on those experiences (Constructivism as a Paradigm for Teaching and Learning, 2004, para. 1).
In the classroom, students and teachers are co-learners and
guides instruction—instruction responds to the individual needs of students as they use language (Grace, 2007, para. 1; Stahl & Kuhn, 1995, para. 4). Teachers play an “interpretive” or “kidwatching” role in which they observe students’ experimental language use and provide supports and instruction when necessary (Heineman, 1985, para. 5).
Whole Language classrooms use an inquiry-based approach to instruction in order to promote critical-thinking and creativity amongst students (Grace, 2007, para. 2).
Students acquire language by actively engaging and immersing themselves in text to make sense of print. Students in a Whole Language classroom interact with text through various strategies including, but not limited to:
and orally responding
(Brooks & Brooks, 2005, p. 272)
Common activities found in Whole Language classrooms include:
choral reading big books
(Stahl & Kuhn, 1995, para. 4; Danbury, 2007, para. 6)
Dating back to as early as ancient Greece and Rome, phonics methods constituted upper-class citizens’ literacy instruction, with similar methods used to teach reading skills to the wealthy in England through the Middle Ages (Savage, 2011, p.2). Phonics methods (e.g. letter-sound correspondences) were the primary means of teaching literacy throughout the 16th century (Savage, 2011, 2).
Years later in Colonial America, literacy instruction mirrored phonetic reading methodology in order to teach children how to read the Bible. To do this,
The New England Primer
was the primary source for instruction through the 18th century and was used to teach phonics skills (R. Greenfield, lecture, September 8, 2011). Textbooks published after
The New England Primer
were designed in a similar format for the purpose of teaching phonics seeing as the alphabetic method was the only means to teaching basic reading skills until the early 1800s (Savage, 2011, 2).
In the 19th century, the “look-say” method challenged the alphabetic approach to reading instruction and was introduced to the United States by Horace Mann after he observed this approach being implemented in German schools (Savage, 2011, p. 200, 3). During this time, American classrooms used either alphabetic or look-say approaches to teaching reading while some used a combination of both methods; however, there was still an emphasis on phonics instruction (R. Greenfield, lecture, September 8, 2011).
In the early 20th century, the emphasis changed from phonics instruction to a look-say approach which was further reinforced by the release of the
Dick and Jane
basal readers (Whole Language Versus Phonics, 2005, para. 12). The look-say method continued to be used as the main approach to teaching reading in American classrooms into the 1960s.
The focus began to shift back to a phonics approach beginning in 1955 as a result of the book
Why Johnny Can’t Read
by Rudolph Flesch who suggested that look-say instruction was depriving American children from developing letter-sound skills that are pivotal to learning how to read (Savage, 2011, p. 4). Jeanne Chall’s research, that was later published in her book
Learning to Read: The Great Debate
in 1967, further reinforced the need to move away from the look-say method and placed greater emphasis on phonics instruction. As a result, basal readers were reformatted to include phonetic components (Savage, 2011, p. 4); however, there was an eventual shift to a new reading approach known as Whole Language which developed from psycholinguistic research. This sparked what is now known as the “
There was a Whole Language movement in the 1980s and 1990s that challenged phonics and the use of basal readers (Pearson, 2004, p. 218). Phonics, however, was not completely eliminated from reading instruction altogether during this movement. Instead, teachers taught phonics when necessary in order for students to gain meaning when reading and writing text (Newman & Church, 1990, p. 21). This new Whole Language approach was not unanimously accepted which resulted in another shift toward phonics instruction.
Marilyn Jager Adams’ book
Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print
in 1990 supported the notion that phonics instruction enhances students’ overall reading abilities. Furthermore, low reading scores on achievement tests caused states, such as California and Texas, to place more weight on phonics instruction (Savage, 2011, p. 5). The controversy between the role of phonics and whole language in reading instruction began to be publicized and the debate became a prominent political issue (Reyhner, 2008, para. 1). In response to this battle, the 1997 Congress requested that a national panel be formed to evaluate the status of scientifically research-based practices in teaching children to read including the efficacy of these methods (Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read, 2006, para. 1).
In 2000, the National Reading Panel released their report in which members gathered and analyzed 30 years worth of research on literacy instruction. In addition to the five big ideas that are essential to beginning reading instruction, findings concluded that phonics instruction is essential in children’s development of letter-sound correspondences which are needed to decode and read text (Kim, 2008, p. 373). As a result, phonics has remained the dominant approach to teaching reading within the last decade. Although phonics remains to be the prominent method of teaching reading, most teachers do incorporate authentic literature into their instruction. Experts predict that a balanced, comprehensive reading program will be achieved using both phonics and Whole Language elements to help meet the needs of all students (Savage, 2011, 7).
Systematic phonics instruction is effective in preventing reading difficulties
among-at risk students and helping children overcome reading difficulties
—Armbruster, Lehr & Osborn, 2001
Based on numerous studies, it has been confirmed that phonics instruction
is the best and most efficient way to teach students the alphabetic principle.
— National Reading Panel, 2000
Systematic and explicit phonics instruction is more effective than non-
systematic or no phonics instruction.
— National Reading Panel, 2000
Over 180 research studies prove that phonics is the most effective way to teach reading to all students (About Dyslexia and Reading Problems, n.d., para. 8). In addition, the National Reading Panel (2000) reported that phonics instruction had the “greatest impact” on students in Kindergarten and First Grade who are just learning how to read (Honig, Diamond, Gutlohn, 2008, pp. 192). Research also indicates that students with learning disabilities who receive phonics instruction demonstrate positive improvements in their reading abilities.
According to research, phonics is the “only way” to provide reading instruction to students indentified with learning disabilities (About Dyslexia and Reading Problems, n.d., para. 8).
Furthermore, the National Reading Panel (2000) reported that low achieving students and students with learning disabilities alike demonstrate the greatest gains when systematic, synthetic phonics instruction is delivered (National Reading Panel Reports, para. 12).
In order for phonics instruction to be effective, research suggests
systematic and explicit
. Systematic phonics instruction refers to teaching a set of useful sound/spelling relationships in a clearly defined, carefully selected, logical instructional sequence (Honig, Diamond, Gutlohn, 2008, pp. 171). Sound/spelling relationships are introduced beginning with easier skills and gradually progress to more difficult skills over time. These skills reinforce and build on previously taught concepts (M. Coyne, lecture, September 7, 2010). In addition to systematic instruction, phonics lessons should also be explicit.
Students with learning disabilities who have deficits in reading need explicit instruction. Ritchey (2011) explains that when providing explicit phonics instruction, educators directly teach essential skills needed to develop reading competence (p. 29). Explicit instruction is teacher directed, in which the teacher models phonics skills without “vagueness” or “ambiguity” and instead clearly communicate phonics concepts (Ritchey, 2011, p. 29; Honig, Diamond, Gutlohn, 2008, p. 171). It is important to note that when using explicit instruction, students apply knowledge
the teacher has modeled the skills (Ritchey, 2011, p. 29).
Directly teaching carefully sequenced sound/spelling relationships in systematic programs promotes scaffolded instruction and makes these concepts more conspicuous for struggling readers.
Whole Language Perspective
In contrast to skills-based literacy instruction (phonics), Whole Language is comprehension-centered. Whole Language operates on the premise that literacy skills develop naturally through actively engaging in authentic literature, whether it be listening to a read aloud by the teacher or the child reading a book him/herself (Martin et al., 2008, p. 115). Proponents of Whole Language argue that when implemented correctly, there are positive reading outcomes for students.
Supporters of Whole language claim that this approach to reading instruction is effective for students with learning disabilities. These supporters believe that the “fragmented” phonics instruction that is designed to remediate their deficits has failed these students by rendering them dependent on the accurate decoding of words rather than focusing their energy on constructing meaning from the text—the goal of reading instruction (Newman & Church, 1990, p. 23; Zucker, 1993, p. 660).
Whole Language challenges this traditional practice by teaching students how to read through the literal act of reading. Through the use of authentic literature, students interact with text for the sole purpose of deriving meaning and are taught phonics elements when decoding interferes with understanding the text (Brooks & Brooks, 2005, p. 272; Newman & Church, 1990, p. 21). In addition to embedded phonics, Whole language integrates grammar, spelling, and vocabulary instruction into authentic reading tasks (Brooks & Brooks, 2005, p. 272; Newman & Church, 1990, p. 21; Stahl & Kuhn, 1995, para. 9). Rather than teaching these rules in an isolated and disconnected manner, Whole Language is a holistic approach that allows students with learning disabilities to see how these skills must be assimilated in order to be “good readers.”
is a holistic, research-based intervention that can be used to address the needs of struggling readers.
In addition to enhancing reading achievement, proponents of Whole Language believe that this approach dramatically changes the reading attitudes of student’s with learning disabilities, contributing to their overall success. Martin et al. (2008) found that reading difficulties can affect a child both emotionally and psychologically, resulting in feelings of frustration which can lead to a negative outlook towards reading (p. 114). They further explain how students with learning disabilities often experience negative emotions including frustration, inferiority, shame, and embarrassment when engaging in reading behaviors (Martin et al., 2008, p. 116). Whole language is believed to improve self-efficacy by focusing on students’ strengths rather than deficits; therefore, they no longer feel incompetent and approach reading tasks with confidence, motivation, and interest (Zucker, 1993, p. 660; Newman & Church, 1990, p.23; Stahl & Kuhn, 1995, para. 10; LeDoux, 2007, p. 22). Positive attitudes toward reading will increase student engagement in reading tasks which may potentially lead to improved reading achievement.
Research supporting the claims made by Whole Language supporters is significantly limited. Available research was mainly documented in the 1990s when Whole Language was the dominant approach to literacy instruction before the pendulum swung back to phonics. The data that does exist is primarily comprised of case studies with little comparative data regarding the overall effects of whole language instruction (Stahl & Kuhn, 1995, para. 6). This data illustrates that the effectiveness of Whole Language is dependent on the quality of this instruction and how it is delivered (LeDoux, 2007, p. 19).
Although proponents of Whole Language strongly believe that this is the most effective approach to teaching reading, research does not definitively support their beliefs and claims. The lack of research is due in part to no one, all encompassing and accurate definition that describes what whole language entails and how it should be employed (Adams, 1994, p. 218). As a result, the limited case study research that is available delineates how Whole Language is effective (i.e. academic and emotional benefits) rather than which approach produces the greatest overall reading outcomes and why.
Areas of Future Research, Directions, or Controversies
The reading wars are still in full effect. In the field of education, the pendulum regarding reading methodology continues to swing drastically from one extreme (whole language) to the other (phonics) in response to published research and/or support for a particular approach. As a result, there are trends in our education system which favor a specific methodology only to be devalued in the future. Historically, this cycle repeats itself approximately every 5 to 10 years (Martin et al., 2008, p. 113).
The position of the pendulum in the future will be dependent on up and coming research regarding effective reading instruction. These findings will determine the dominant method of teaching reading, ultimately causing a domino effect. Once new research is published, policymakers react to these findings. From there, publishers design instructional programs around these policies which are then purchased and implemented at the state and/or district level.
With phonics being the most current trend, proponents of both camps continue to battle over which approach is most effective in teaching reading. The controversy becomes even tenser when considering which methods most effectively address the needs of students with learning disabilities in the area of reading.
What Does this Mean for Teachers and Schools?
As the controversy continues with no definitive end in sight, educators must provide reading instruction in the meantime. In the midst of this debate, teachers should not fret about employing a specific methodology when teaching reading but instead employ the scientifically-based practices that have been proven to meet the unique needs of students with learning disabilities.
Choosing Scientifically-Based Practices
There is no “fix all” program or set of strategies that meets the needs of struggling readers with learning disabilities because, “the spectrum of learning disabilities is as varied as the students themselves,” (Martin et al., 2008, p. 115). The multidisciplinary team of each student identified with a learning disability under IDEA (2004) should conduct research of peer-reviewed literature in order to develop an appropriate instructional plan for the student.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation
is grounded in scientifically-based research (Honig, Diamond, Gutlohn, 2008, p. 3). The following table provided by the National Institute for Literacy describes the essential components of scientifically-based research that should be considered when selecting instructional practices:
What is Scientifically-Based Research?
The federal perspective on scientifically based research
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 encourages and, in some cases
such as Reading First, requires the use of instruction based on scientific
research. The emphasis on scientifically based research supports the consistent
use of instructional methods that have been proven effective. To meet the NCLB
definition of “scientifically based,” research must:
• employ systematic, empirical methods that draw on observation or
• involve rigorous data analyses that are adequate to test the stated hypotheses
and justify the general conclusions;
• rely on measurements or observational methods that provide valid data across
evaluators and observers, and across multiple measurements and
• be accepted by a peer-reviewed journal or approved by a panel of independent
experts through a comparatively rigorous, objective, and scientific review.
(National Institute for Literacy: The Partnership for Reading, 2006, p. 1).
When evaluating peer-reviewed literature, consider the following questions to determine whether the instructional practice is effective and valid:
Has the study been published in a peer-reviewed journal or approved by a panel of independent experts?
Have the results of the study been replicated by other scientists?
Is there consensus in the research community that the study’s findings are supported by a critical mass of additional studies?
(National Institute for Literacy: The Partnership for Reading, 2006, p. 2).
For additional information on selecting scientific-research based practices in your classroom, use the
What is Scientifically Based Research? A Guide for Teacher
as a resource.
Reading Instruction for students with Learning Disabilities
Although there is no one program that is uniform for all students with learning disabilities, instruction should explicitly and systematically address the five big ideas of reading (Honig, Diamond, Gutlohn, 2008, p. 7; Armbruster, Lehr, Osborn, 2003, p. iii; Report of the National Reading Panel, 2000; Savage, 2011, pp. 183-189). With an abundance of research proving that phonics instruction results in positive reading outcomes for struggling readers with learning disabilities, explicit and systematic phonics instruction is absolutely necessary for these learners to develop reading skills; however, phonics does not constitute a
reading program for beginning readers (Armbruster, Lehr, Osborn, 2003, p. 15). Meaning-based instruction should also be provided alongside this skills-based instruction, incorporating elements of Whole Language (M. Coyne, lecture, November 9, 2010). In addition to phonics skills taught in isolation, students should also be, “listening to [authentic] stories and informational texts read aloud to them…reading texts (both out loud and silently), and writing letters, words, messages, and stories (Armbruster, Lehr, Osborn, 2003, p. 15).
Despite the reading program chosen, three-principles of evidence-based instructional strategies should be used to improve reading achievement for students with learning disabilities across the different stages of reading development (Ritchey, 2011, p. 25).
Reading instruction should be:
(Ritchey, 2011; Honig Diamond, Guhtlon, 2008; Spear-Swerling, 2005).
Instruction that integrates these three principles lets students with learning disabilities “ ‘in on the secret’ of academic success by making essential concepts, skills, and strategies conspicuous” (M. Coyne, lecture, September 7, 2010).
Principle 1: Reading Instruction is Explicit
When instruction is explicit, skills and concepts are taught directly by the teacher rather than expecting students “to infer key skills and knowledge only from exposure or incidental learning opportunities” (Miller, 2009, p. 134; Spear-Swerling, 2005, para. 3). Ritchey (2011) explains that teachers can use explicit instruction to teach all five big ideas of reading to students with learning disabilities.
When focusing on a big idea of reading, educators use modeling to explicitly teach specific reading skills and strategies (Ritchey, 2011, p. 29; M. Faggella-Luby, March, 29, 2010). Directly teaching skills and strategies through modeling and the use of think alouds makes these concepts more conspicuous for students (M. Coyne, September, 7, 2010; Ritchey, 2011, p. 30; M. Faggella-Luby, lecture, March 29, 2010). Think alouds enable the teacher to make metacognitive components conspicuous by verbalizing the process to be learned by talking oneself through the task (Ritchey, 2011, p. 30; Miller, 2009, p. 137; M. Faggella-Luby, lecture, March 29, 2010). In explicit instruction, the teacher also uses prompting when students are given opportunities to practice new knowledge and provides specific, corrective feedback to students (Ritchey, 2011, p. 29; Miller, 2009; p. 139; M. Coyne, lecture, September 7, 2010). It is important to note that when using explicit instruction, students apply knowledge
teacher has modeled/demonstrated the strategy/tasks. Finally, the principle of explicit instruction focuses on teaching students with learning disabilities how to generalize the reading skills to various contexts (Ritchey, 2011).
Principle 2: Reading Instruction is Intensive
Evidence shows that reading achievement can also be improved for students with learning disabilities by increasing the intensity of reading instruction. This can be done through increasing instructional time (e.g. RTI), using small group instruction—smaller teacher-to-student ratio to make feedback more specific and increase student opportunities to respond—and employing reading lessons that are engaging and enriching for students (Ritchey, 2011; Honig, Diamond, Gutlohn, 2008).
Principle 3: Reading Instruction is Systematic
In systematic instruction, essential reading skills and strategies are first identified and then are broken down in smaller tasks which are taught directly and explicitly in a specific sequence (Savage, 2011, p. 128; Spear-Swerling, 2005, para. 3). During the sequencing process, instruction is designed to be scaffolded, beginning with easier tasks and progressing to more difficult tasks over a period of time (M. Coyne, lecture, September 7, 2010). Instruction is then implemented in this systematic manner. The instruction builds on previously taught and learned information and, “clear and consistent examples are introduced prior to exceptions and nonexamples,” (Ritchey, 2011, p. 32). This principles also ensures that potentially confusing concepts are separated when the sequence of skills are delineated. This systematic instruction is essential to the overall effectiveness of a reading program.
To foster the development of reading competence, selecting reading programs/interventions that are explicit, intensive, and systematic is crucial and will help to improve the reading achievement of students with learning disabilities.
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