Helping a special needs child learn to read is a difficult task, but ultimately a very fulfilling one. Learning disabilities are universally frustrating both for the disabled and the educator because often the disabled child appears to be just fine in all other areas, leading to expectations higher than are reasonable. As a person who grew up before LD was acknowledged as a real thing, being told that I was just not trying hard enough, or that I was lazy, did not help me in my learning. What did help was the sure and certain knowledge that I wanted to be able to use language just like my peers. I knew I was smart and that I wasn’t “just refusing to do it” or “being lazy”, but I knew I was having trouble, too. I had to figure for myself how to learn, because fifty-five years ago, there was no program for kids like me.
What did I learn? Three main points came to me:
1. The words on the page didn’t really stir up when I wasn’t looking. I needed to find a way to fix them in my head so I could decode them.
2. The letters on the page could be put together to make words, all I had to do was be able to recognize them.
3. It might take a little longer for me to get started, but once I got going there was nothing I couldn’t do.
When helping a child learn to read it is important for the teacher, be she educator or parent, to remember that learning is an active process. Teaching doesn’t mean that learning is taking place. To be sure that the student is engaged in learning the teacher must have in place some method to be sure of an active cognitive involvement. A favorite method of mine that kids seem to like is to have a read-aloud book in both our hands and have the child read selected, pretaught, words. An example would be a word such as “the”. Every time the selected word shows in the text, the student says it instead of me. After a while, reading most of the words and helping me find words he doesn’t know so the story will go faster. This insures “ownership” of the story for the learner.
During the early stages of reading, following the story with a finger tip keeps the letters from seeming to wander around.
Phonics are vital to independent reading, as are sight words. Once a child understands that some words are pronounced just like they are spelled and others are not, a lot of the mystery is removed from decoding. If you don’t believe this, consider the sound “ough”. Enough thought, though, let’s get through with this idea. It can be tough, but we can do it. The teacher and the child must be on the same team in the war on words, and the child needs to know he is on the same side with the teacher. If the person doing the teaching makes the child think learning is an adversarial process, the LD one will just find a way not to participate. “Better bad than stupid” is a mantra we LDs have used for as long as I can remember
If a teacher wants to help a child read, he must be sure that he knows that progress will almost certainly not be steady. There will be massive jumps ahead in ability, and then totally unexplainable stops or plateaus. Patience is essential, but not the patience of “Be nice to Susie. She’s disabled, you know,” but the patience of “We’ll get this together. It’s all right.” Going back to a comfort zone is the same thing as telling a kid he can’t do it, just as is over prompting.
Basically the steps to teaching reading are three fold:
1. Engage the active participation of the learner.
2. Use both phonics and sight words.
3. Use a team approach, with the student and teacher being on one side and the words on the other.
Reading is fun. Teaching reading should be fun, too! Celebrate every chance you get!