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Teach Reading to the “Learning Disabled”

By Sam Blumenfeld
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #10, 1995.

Teaching your student with learning difficulties how to read
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Sam Blumenfeld


Teaching the learning disabled to read can be challenging, as well as rewarding. It challenges our patience and ingenuity and rewards us with the knowledge that we have made a difference in the quality of that child’s life.

First, you must know as much as possible about the nature of the disability with which you are dealing. Is the disability the result of a biological impairment? Is it a result of the miseducation which is now so common in our public and even some private schools? Knowing the answers to these questions will save you time and needless frustration.

Neurological Problems

You can usually tell if a child is afflicted with a neurological problem by the presence of telltale symptoms, such as poor speech and slow cognitive development. If you are dealing with an older child, there will be a school history to refer to.

For example, about 15 years ago, I was asked by some parents if I would consider tutoring their 20-year-old son David, who could not read. He had been in “special education” in the public schools where he was labeled “uneducable.” They taught him some simple maintenance skills to prepare him for work as a janitor.

By his speech and body language I knew that he was severely retarded—or “mentally challenged” as they say nowadays—and I was pessimistic about the possibility of teaching him to read. But his parents were so anxious for me to try that I accepted the challenge, telling them that I could not guarantee success.

For the next ten years I tutored David twice a week, an hour and a half per session. I was able to teach him to read up to about a third-grade level. I taught him to write in cursive script, which he mastered nicely, and I taught him some elementary arithmetic. That was the limit of his cognitive possibilities. Interestingly, he knew where his limits were. When I pressed beyond them, he told me that he couldn’t handle it.

Importance of Spelling

I learned a great deal from that experience. First, I found out that David could learn much more than the schools were willing to admit. Second, even though I had been teaching him to read phonetically, his natural tendency was to look at words holistically. Thus, when he came across a word he couldn’t read, even though he might have previously read it correctly, he substituted a word which made no sense phonetically. To get him to look at the word phonetically, I had to tell him to spell it. Spelling made him focus on the letters themselves and recall their phonetic values.

Even though David had a severe language problem, phonics helped improve his speech greatly. In addition, he developed a good, clear handwriting. However, his ability to do arithmetic was almost nil. But with the use of coins, particularly pennies, he was able to learn some arithmetic facts which had to be memorized by rote.

In other words, David was capable of learning some basic skills within the limits of his own cognitive and linguistic powers. But what made the difference with him was a strong motivation to learn. He always did his homework and always willingly accepted instruction.

Degrees of Impairment

Of course, there are many degrees of biologically-based learning disabilities. Speech is usually the best indicator of an internal, neurological problem. If the difficulty or handicap is minor, then great care and patience must be used to help that child learn the three R’s. Intensive systematic phonics will help the child develop a phonetic reflex, and rote memorization will help the child learn the arithmetic facts.

Cursive writing should always be taught to enable the child to develop good kinesthetic control, learn to blend letters together visually and phonetically, and avoid reversals in reading. In cursive, a child must obey the discipline of the system and write the letters in the proper sequence, whereas in printing or manuscript, children will often write the letters backwards with very poor spacing.

Visual and Auditory Impairment

Blind children can learn to read phonetically by a touch system such as braille. Since their hearing is not impaired and they can speak with facility, there is no reason why they cannot be taught to read phonetically by way of touch.

Deaf or hearing-impaired children have a more difficult time learning to read phonetically. Teachers of the deaf do not agree on how deaf children should be taught language: by signs or by articulation. For years, the deaf were taught to read by a sight method, juxtaposing words with pictures. But that method has its obvious limitations. Methods were then developed by scientists like Alexander Graham Bell to help the deaf learn to articulate language sounds which then enabled them to learn to read phonetically. The tendency today is to try to teach the deaf both sign language and articulation so that they can communicate with both deaf and hearing individuals. Recently, a deaf but highly talented young lady won the Miss America contest. The fact that she could articulate made it possible for her to enter the contest. Had she learned only signs, that entire experience would have been closed to her.

Normal Children With Learning Problems

The kind of learning disabilities that afflict perfectly normal children, with no physical or neurological impairments, are usually the result of educational malpractice. We know that the look-say, whole-language method of teaching reading can cause the symptoms of dyslexia. To determine the severity of the problem, give the child a simple reading test by having him or her read aloud from a book written at the appropriate age level. If the child leaves out words that are there, puts in words that aren’t there, substitutes, guesses, skips, and mutilates words, then the child either lacks vocabulary development or is an inaccurate sight reader who has to be taught intensive, systematic phonics so that he or she can become an accurate, independent phonetic reader. You, of course, will easily be able to tell the difference, since you know your child’s spoken vocabulary level.

Reading difficulties can quickly develop in the first grade if a child is being taught whole language. I recently tutored a first grader who was on his way to becoming a dyslexic basket case. Teaching him to read phonetically proved to be quite a challenge. He squirmed and fidgeted in his seat as if physically unable to focus on the letters. He was a thoroughly holistic reader, trained to guess and substitute and totally disregard accuracy. This youngster had no phonemic awareness whatsoever—that is, an awareness that words can be broken up into irreducible speech sounds and syllabic units. But we persevered. Whenever he had trouble with a word I made him to spell it. Spelling the word required him to focus his eyes on the word, letter by letter. Slowly he developed the necessary phonemic awareness. But whenever I permitted him to read quickly, he would revert back to the bad habits of leaving out words or inserting words that weren’t there. “Accuracy is more important than speed,” I drilled into his head. He is now an excellent reader, but it took sweat and tears to get him there.

Parents can avoid all of that by teaching their children to read by intensive phonics as soon as they are ready to learn. The process is comprised of three simple steps. First teach the child to recognize the letters of the alphabet using the alphabet song, cereal boxes, flash cards, etc. Then teach the child the sounds the letters stand for. Ideally, the sounds should be taught in a logical, easy-to-learn sequence, with plenty of drill to produce the phonetic reflex—that is, the ability to automatically associate letters with sounds. The third step is to have the child read words, stories, and age-appropriate books.

If you do everything right and your child still doesn’t “get it,” don’t immediately assume he has a learning disability. Some children require more time. Children grow in “spurts,” so putting aside your phonics lessons in a week or two may help unlock the learning problem. If speech problems or other physical problems are present, again extra time is the best prescription. Even when profound physical problems are present, virtually all children can learn to read and write at some level when taught systematically and phonetically.

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