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Sparking Literacy Gains for Students With Intellectual Disabilities

Many students with intellectual disabilities are thought to have little or no ability to read independently. But new research shows that with intensive, scientifically based instruction, children with IQs of 40 to 80 (the typical range is 80 to 115) can independently read simple text. 

The findings were published in the April edition of the journal Exceptional Children. In contrast to previous studies on reading interventions for students with disabilities, this study followed children for up to four years and did not include children with learning disabilities. By definition, learning disabilities are seen in children with normal IQs. Most reading research focuses on this population and excludes children with IQ scores below 85, the study said. 

For this research, a group of 76 children with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities, most of whom began the study in 1st grade, were randomly chosen for the intervention. Their results were compared to those of 65 children who received their regular teaching with no extra literacy help. By the end of the four-year study, most of the students with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities could independently read 1st-grade-level text. 

The findings "just change expectations," said Jill H. Allor, the principal investigator and a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, in an interview. "We had kids in the project who didn't have literacy skills in their [individualized education programs], they just had functional skills. The message here is that literacy should be an expectation for everyone."

But there is no magic formula to moving children with low IQs to independent reading, Allor said. The specially-trained teachers used the program Early Intervention in Reading, adapting the program as necessary for a child's particular background—for example, some had no literacy skills at all when the research began. Teachers worked one-on-one or in small groups of up to four students, 40 to 50 minutes a day, five days a week—which was a challenge to work around school schedules. For many students who were assessed as having lower IQs, this was the only literacy instruction that they received. The students were studied for one to four academic years. 

For many students, their progress was quite slow—students would appear to master a skill and then be unable to demonstrate that same mastery on a different day, Allor said. "At the end of year one, we were a little depressed. As a field, we need more-sensitive measures. Just because growth isn't showing up on a typical test doesn't mean there's no growth."

Generally, children with higher IQs demonstrated more growth over the course of the study, an expected result. But some students with lower IQs unexpectedly made faster progress than some students with higher IQs, which underscores the importance of providing intensive literacy instruction to all students, the study notes.

The researchers were also told by schools at the end of the study that it would be difficult for them to maintain the intensity of services that the federally-funded intervention was able to provide. Allor and other researchers are currently conducting a study called Project Intensity, which is developing supplemental, intensive reading instruction that can be delivered in addition to the reading intervention provided by the classroom teacher. The goal is to develop an easy way for schools and parents to continue the reading practice that these students need to make progress. 

The final result is worth it, even if the children's reading skills remain at a basic elementary school level, Allor said. 

"For the kids at the lower end of the spectrum, quite a few of them won't ever get past 2nd or 3rd grade reading, but they're reading, simple lists, grocery lists," Allor said. With that skill comes with a level of independence those students would not have otherwise. "It doesn't sound like a lot when you talk about a typical child, but for a child with that significant of a disability that's a lot of reading."

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