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What Students With Difficulties Need

Students with reading difficulties do not seem to need qualitatively different instruction from children who aren't struggling, but certain students may need more intensive support from a reading specialist. This overview of how children with reading difficulties should be served in school includes an argument for schools to employ reading specialists.

The same good early literacy environment and patterns of effective instruction are required for children who might fail for different reasons.

Does this mean that the identical mix of instructional materials and strategies will work for each and every child? Of course not. If we have learned anything from this effort, it is that effective teachers are able to craft a special mix of instructional ingredients for every child they work with.

But it does mean that there is a common menu of materials, strategies, and environments from which effective teachers make choices. This in turn means that, as a society, our most important challenge is to make sure that our teachers have access to those tools and the knowledge required to use them well.

In other words, there is little evidence that children experiencing difficulties learning to read, even those with identifiable learning disabilities, need radically different sorts of supports than children at low risk, although they may need much more intensive support. Childhood environments that support early literacy development and excellent instruction are important for all children. Excellent instruction is the best intervention for children who demonstrate problems learning to read.

Even with excellent instruction in the early grades, some children fail to make satisfactory progress in reading. Such children will require supplementary services, ideally from a reading specialist who provides individual or small-group intensive instruction that is coordinated with high-quality instruction from the classroom teacher. Children who are having difficulty learning to read do not, as a rule, require qualitatively different instruction from children who are "getting it." Instead, they more often need application of the same principles by someone who can apply them expertly to individual children who are having difficulty for one reason or another.

Schools that lack or have abandoned reading specialist positions need to reexamine their needs for such specialists to ensure that well-trained staff are available for intervention with children and for ongoing support to classroom teachers. Reading specialists and other specialist roles need to be defined so that two-way communication is required between specialists and classroom teachers about the needs of all children at risk of or experiencing reading difficulties. Coordination is needed at the instructional level so that intervention from specialists coordinates with and supports classroom instruction.

Schools that have reading specialists as well as special educators need to coordinate the roles of these specialists. Schools need to ensure that all the specialists engaged in child study or individualized educational program (IEP) meetings for special education placement, early childhood intervention, out-of-classroom interventions, or in-classroom support are well informed about research in reading development and the prevention of reading difficulties.


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Excerpted from: Snow, C. E., Burns, S. M., & Griffin, P. Editors. (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, Executive Summary. National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences. Courtesy of National Academy Press. Reprinted with permission.

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