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October 5, 2014 in Special Education Articles by Doug Goldberg

A Perplexing Problem

In some ways the very idea of a reading disorder makes little sense; particularly in light of the “all things being equal” paradigm – i.e. that reading teachers and curriculum materials are usually adequate vehicles by which to impart this skill. To some extent, this is also true with regard to neuro-developmental factors.

For example, assume a given child has average intelligence, which, according to a study conducted by the Council of Exceptional Children (2011) is typical of most students with reading disorders. The fact that intellectual tests measure many of the same skills needed to learn to read, i.e. auditory memory, visual perception, visual computation and spatial perception suggests the reading disabled child’s cognitive and perceptual faculties are functioning well enough to absorb a wide variety of inputs from various sources (school, family, the general environment). This is especially relevant in light of the fact that the evidence for a specific, neurological dysfunction is varied and questionable. For example while some MRI studies have pointed to prefrontal cortical and executive function deficiencies (Beneventi, Tonessen et al. 2010) other studies have suggested cerebellar dysfunction (Nicolson, Faucett et. al 2001) while still another implicated working memory – presumably arising from temporal left hemispheric roots (Berninger, Raskind, 2008).  These assumptions are mostly based on brain activity levels – as derived from MRI studies and do not point to pathologies per se. In fact Berninger cautioned against drawing conclusions of neuro-pathological roots to reading disorders due to the fact that unusual brain activity patterns can arise from behavioral compensations learned by the child, resulting in skewed shifts in brain blood flow rather than from neuropathy. The idea that various brain sites could be involved in producing the disorder – as it often asserted with regard to more severe learning disorders such as autism, seems somewhat specious.  Children with reading disorders are usually normal in every respect, which runs contrary to the global brain dysfunction hypothesis inferable from these various research and theoretical sources. Read the rest of this entry →

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Help Your Struggling Reader Develop a Strong Vocabulary

August 15, 2014 in Special Education Articles by Doug Goldberg

If struggling readers do not have strong knowledge of the vocabulary they hear in class and see when reading, they cannot become good readers. Below are three easy principles for helping struggling readers develop strong listening and reading vocabularies. Of course, you need to adapt these principles to the developmental level of your child or student. One more “of course”: Make the activities fun and interesting.

Ask Struggling Readers to Go Beyond Dictionary Definitions of Words: If the word’s important, help your child or student discuss its meaning, its parts (e.g., prefix), and its use. If possible, use lots of pictures, diagrams, and skits. If the word is grimace, start grimacing; ask your child or student to start. Read the rest of this entry →

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Orton-Gillingham: Who, Where and Why?

July 10, 2014 in Special Education Articles by Jess

To those of you who have tried (and some have succeeded) it seems like you need a secret handshake to get Orton-Gillingham training. After a quick search on the internet, it might appear that you need to fly to a destination that is most likely east of the Mississippi and requires at least two weeks of your time away from home. Then once you complete this two week training, you must dedicate the rest of your life to become ‘certified.’ But this is all an illusion, an illusion that really hampers the ability of very good people to get their knowledge and training to those who need it the most, the struggling kids. Read the rest of this entry →

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Boys Enjoy Reading Too!: Parents Please Provide the Opportunity

June 20, 2013 in Special Education Articles by Jess

Boys are born with about 100 billion neurons that are waiting for experiences that will build networks between them (Brotherson, 2005). Those neural networks grow when he learns to read, and as he is developing his reading skill into an efficient and enjoyable activity. However, one must also remember, as he is learning to read, that the brain of boys and girls are configured differently. Many boys have highly developed spatial-mechanical processing areas. This allows for abstract reasoning that is necessary for the comprehension of higher levels of math concepts (Gurian & Stevens, 2004). It is also abstract reasoning that is required for understanding humor (Shammi & Stuss, 1998), and boys enjoy books that involve humor (Scholastic, 2012). You might want to try “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” (2-5) (14.99), "Fox at School" and "Horrible Harry in Room 2B” (4-7) (3.59), “Scooby-Doo Scary Carnival Creeps” (4-8) (3.99), “Kid Who Ran for President”(5-12) (4.99) (Scholastic, 2012).  Read the rest of this entry →

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Reading Is Not A Natural Process

March 26, 2013 in Special Education Articles by Jess

Many proponents of ‘whole language’ feel that, since humans learn to speak their native language through immersion, the act of reading follows a similar pattern and exposure to the printed word leads to the development of reading skills.  This reasoning bears a false truth value.  A great deal of care and attention to detail must accompany reading instruction because reading is quite different from speech.

In speech, the listener is provided with many clues as to the meaning of the words presented by the speaker.  Intonation, pitch, cadence, and body language all provide context clues that assist in the comprehension of auditory signals.  Further, according to the Innateness Hypothesis, children are equipped with a blueprint for the innate principles and properties that pertain to the grammars of all spoken human language called universal grammar.  Barring neurologically-based developmental delays, children do not require explicit instruction to master the spoken language.  Universal Grammar aids the child in the task of constructing the “spoken language”.  Structure dependency of the native language and coordinate structure constraint are inherent.  Additionally, through stages in oral communication, a speaker learns from the surrounding linguistic environment the proper cadence, pitch, and intonation associated with the successful display of language ability, as well as, the rules of grammar that are language specific.  This presents speech as a natural process.  Read the rest of this entry →

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Childhood Apraxia of Speech – Reading Help

January 30, 2013 in Special Education Articles by Jess

Reading is a fundamental skill needed for academic success.  In today’s world, strong literacy skills are essential.  Children who struggle in reading tend to experience extreme difficulties in all content areas, as every subject in school requires reading proficiency.  When children are then faced with further struggles such as speech production and receptive and expressive language difficulties, the effects can be even more detrimental.

To read proficiently, a child requires highly integrated skills in word decoding and comprehension and draws upon basic language knowledge such as semantics, syntax, and phonology.  Children with speech and language impairments, such as Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS), have deficits in phonological processing.   For these children, phonemic awareness, motor program execution, syntax and morphology will interfere with the ability to acquire the skills necessary to become proficient Read the rest of this entry →

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Dyslexia: It’s all about goals, goals, goals

November 6, 2012 in Special Education Articles by Jess

I am noticing a disturbing trend when I read IEPs and I have had some nonsensical conversations about reading with IEP teams lately as well. This trend and these conversations center around the goals section of the IEP. What this has revealed to me is what I have suspected all along – there is a lack of expertise and understanding of not only dyslexia, but the progression of teaching reading and the components of the reading process. To correct this trend I offer the following examples to illustrate some fallacies about reading as well as how to fix goals.

Parents have asked me, how important are the goals anyway?  Remember: needs drive goals and goals drive services. The school is only held responsible for the goals that are set and agreed upon in the IEP. If they are low or incorrect and the IEP is signed, the school is only responsible for those goals. It seems to make more sense to make sure the goals are written so that the child receives some educational benefit and that the goals make pedagogical sense.  For example, if there is a need for fluency improvement then there should be a goal for that. Is there is a need for spelling, there should be a goal for that. If there is a need for sight word improvement, then there should be a goal for that. If there are ten needs, then there are ten goals. There is no limit to the number of goals an IEP can have.

IEP Team: We did not include a fluency goal because he is only reading 12 words per minute correctly right now, so what is the point in teaching fluency?

For those of you who have read my prior articles, you can just insert a snarky comment here. I will only say, really? I have to admit, I was speechless while I gathered my thoughts to respond.  When reading improvement is a need, the IEP should always include a fluency goal. Fluency is the ultimate goal of reading and needs to be taught and practiced from day one. Make sure the baseline has a present WPM, not just a grade level. The goal WPM should be high enough that it would be noticeable and measurable progress. Additionally, the tool to assess should be the same for progress monitoring.

IEP Team: We did not include a phonological awareness goal because we have a vocabulary goal.

Again, this is simply a lack of awareness of the reading process. If a child is struggling with single word reading, nonword reading, spelling, and/or fluency, then it is a need and they require a phonological awareness goal. Vocabulary and phonological awareness are not one in the same; in fact they are two entirely separate components of reading. Phonological awareness teaches the student to understand and manipulate the language by understanding phonemes, syllable types and spelling rules. This is accomplished using a multisensory, structured, sequential program. Because we are talking about students with dyslexia, they will always need a phonological processing goal. It is also imperative that the program being used and the teacher qualifications be documented in the IEP – usually in the notes section.

Below is a real example. Please read it and ask yourself what is wrong with the goal.

Proposed Goal: John will be able decode multisyllabic words that include words with long vowel sounds (a,e,i) in words like turmoil and chipper.

Did you find the problems? Are you stunned? Embarrassed for the author of this goal? It is very common to see goals like this and this is a fabulous illustration of the importance of nit-picking the goals. Here are the problems: 1) where are o and u, 2) what grade level, how many words – where is the measurable part of the goal, 3) the goal states that only one concept will be learned in a year (the long vowel sound of only three of the vowels), 4) and last but certainly not least, turmoil and chipper do not contain long vowel sounds!

Below is the same goal rewritten:

New Goal: When given a list of 50 words Scott will be able to accurately decode multisyllabic words that contain closed, open, vowel teams and vowel-consonant-e (beside, statement, remain) syllable types with 90% accuracy as measured by teacher records.

This new goal includes more than one syllable type which means he is expected to learn more than the original goal suggested, it is measurable, and most importantly, the words used as examples are correct and show an understanding of what John will actually be learning.

IEP Team: We don’t really teach spelling, we just do worksheets and weekly tests.

For students who are not struggling, this might work. For those with dyslexia, this is disastrous. The fact of the matter is that most teachers and curriculum developers do not know any other way to teach spelling. How to teach spelling is a topic for another article (please see http://www.wordworkskingston.com/WordWorks/Home.html for an extremely effective way to teach spelling – I have no affiliation, but always share a wonderful resource), but if there is a need to improve spelling, then there is a goal for spelling. Additionally, this should be a stand-alone goal, not grouped in with sight words, etc.

Here is an example of an acceptable, measurable spelling goal with high expectations:

New Goal: When presented with a list of 50 multisyllabic third grade words that includes closed, open and vowel-consonant-e syllable types, John will accurately spell them with 90% accuracy.

Again, ask the IEP to document in the notes how this will be accomplished.

Some additional tips about goals for students with dyslexia:

  • Goals should say either 90% or 4/5 times, but not both.
  • Goals should be measureable.
  • Goals should respond to each and every need identified by assessments and teacher observations.
  • No one reading goal should include more than one component of reading. (i.e. comprehension, fluency and phonological awareness should not be in the same goal – they are different skills).
  • Baselines need to accurate and current. They need to include data, not subjective descriptions.
  • Improving the reading and writing of sight words are stand-alone goals.
  • Goals should be written to expect significant progress. Beware of the low-expectation goals.

Read the IEP from the top down. The present levels need to include data, not observations. Goals should be directly derived from assessments and progress monitoring. Every need should be addressed. Goals drive services, so if the goals are incomplete, low or inaccurate, the services will be incomplete and ineffective. It never hurts to ask an expert to read the IEP and get a second opinion. For students with dyslexia, goals can be very tricky, but they are the pinnacle of the IEP – make them count.

Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley is the co-founder of the Dyslexia Training Institute (www.dyslexiatraininginstitute.org and www.dyslexiadr.com.) She is currently writing Putting the D in to the IEP and you can read excerpts at www.dyslexiadr.blogspot.com. She received her doctorate in Literacy with a specialization in reading and dyslexia from San Diego State University and the University of San Diego. Dr. Sandman-Hurley a Certified Special Education Advocate assisting parents and children through the Individual Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan process. She is an adjunct professor of reading, literacy coordinator and a tutor trainer. Kelli is trained by a fellow of the Orton-Gillingham Academy and in the Lindamood-Bell, RAVE-O and Wilson Reading Programs. Kelli is the Past-President of the San Diego Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, as well as a board member of the Southern California Library Literacy Network (SCLLN). She is a professional developer for California Library Literacy Services (CLLS) as well as a Literacy Consultant for the San Diego Council on Literacy. She was awarded the Jane Johnson Fellowship and the Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE) scholarship. Kelli has presented at numerous conferences as well as provided professional development for k-12 teachers. She is currently working on her book, Putting the D in IEP: A guide to dyslexia in the school system. Join the Dyslexia Training Institute at www.facebook.com/dyslexiatraining


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Embedding an ABA Intervention During Read Aloud

September 4, 2012 in Special Education Articles by Jess

It is well documented that students with ASD benefit from ABA interventions.  It is also well documented that children with disabilities (including students with ASD) benefit from inclusive classroom experiences with the necessary services and supports integrated into the classroom to improve learning outcomes.  When students with ASD are included in general education classrooms, ABA interventions can and should be embedded into as many different instructional and non-instructional activities as possible to provide the intensity of intervention they often need to meet their social communication, behavioral, and academic needs.  Many teachers consider ABA as a 1:1 intervention that can only be implemented in therapeutic settings.  However, as I discuss in my books Bringing ABA into Your Inclusive Classroom and Bringing ABA into Home, School, and Play for Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, ABA interventions can be implemented within everyday routines and activities across home, school, and community settings. Read the rest of this entry →

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Putting the D in to the IEP: Why Advocating for a Child with Dyslexia is so Difficult

August 12, 2012 in Special Education Articles by Jess

Advocating for a child with dyslexia or suspected dyslexia can be tantamount to moving a cruise ship with a piece of string and your teeth. But if you pull hard enough and you give the ship enough fuel to move, you can make progress.  Once you set sail the whole ordeal will be worth the struggle. So, why is it so difficult to get appropriate services or even recognition of a problem from most schools?

“Dyslexia is a broad term that covers a lot of different issues.”  If I had a dime for every time I heard this mantra that has been adopted by countless participants at IEP meetings, I would have a lot of dimes.  I have to admit, I have had to control my smirk when I hear this mantra and wait for my turn to set the record straight. The fact is the opposite is true. Dyslexia has a very narrow definition and only includes those students with a phonological processing problem (www.interdys.org for a complete and official definition). It can be identified with the correct battery of tests that are correctly interpreted. Read the rest of this entry →

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“Mom, I Can’t Read!”: The truth about literacy, struggling readers, and dyslexia

June 4, 2012 in Special Education Articles by Jess


Fact 1:

Approximately 20% of children reach age 11 and are not able to pass a reading test.  

Fact 2:

It is estimated that up to 60 million people in the United States have dyslexia and struggle to read. 

Fact 3:

It doesn’t have to be this way.  

Highly Visual Learning 

With synthetic phonics system firmly in vogue as the go-to method for literacy instruction, many children are learning to read easily nowadays. However, with 1 in 5 children failing to grasp basic phonics, there is clearly more work to be done.  

In fact, some of you may have noticed that your own child labors over reading, reads short words incorrectly, guesses at words based on pictorial clues or context, doesn’t seem to understand what he reads or even flips words like ‘was’ into ‘saw’ in his writing.  


Children, like everyone, have different learning styles. Some children are kinesthetic learners, some are visual, others verbal or aural.  We all naturally use the parts of the brain that work best for us. The more we rely on those parts, the more they develop, to the detriment of other areas. When this scientific truth is applied to literacy, it can have a dangerous result. 

Visual learners seem to be particularly at risk when it comes to reading, though at first this risk may be well hidden. Children with this visual learning style will usually succeed in early literacy tasks, learning the alphabet and simple words through sight-memorisation and repetition. Both of these methods appeal to their highly engaged visual capacity.  

But their reading technique will eventually fail them.    

As text grows more complex they can no longer reliably use sight-reading or context clues as a trigger for the correct word, so they begin to guess, often wildly. Meanwhile their peers progress while they struggle, which leads to frustration, collapsed confidence, and even a refusal to read. 

If you recognize these patterns in your own children, it is likely they are highly visual sight-readers. Some of you will have children who have been labelled as dyslexic. Though not all highly visual learners have dyslexia, most dyslexics are highly visual learners. I should be said that although dyslexia causes problems in some areas of learning, it carries certain distinct advantages. There is a growing body of research in the scientific community on the enhanced perceptual abilities of dyslexics, including acute peripheral vision, excellent processing of “big-picture” gist when presented with a visual scene, and superior perception of variations in spatial patterns or pictorial connections. 

But where does this leave the highly visual learner when it comes to reading? 

The Science of Reading 

In a grossly simplified description, the conventional reader’s brain processes written language by first taking in a word through the visual cortex, and then processing it in the auditory cortex. Here the letters and letter groups are mapped to the phonemes (sounds) which are stored in the auditory memory. These sounds, now recognised by the reader, are blended into words. This stream of words is then passed to the prefrontal cortex where the actual meaning of the words is processed. 

However, in the dyslexic reader’s brain, the auditory cortex is bypassed. You can see this lack of activity in that area of the brain on an MRI scan. The visual information presented by a word moves directly from the visual cortex into the prefrontal cortex. So the word ‘cow’ is processed in exactly the same way as a picture of a cow might be.  

This technique works for a small number of words, but eventually the visual memory cannot keep up with the huge volume of words that need to be processed in the English language and thus sight-reading fails.

The Art of Changing a Brain 

Most reading recovery schemes recommend an intensive application of the same learning approach that has already failed. 

If you think about it, this is like asking someone who is not nearly tall enough to reach a certain tree branch to just “try harder”! 

What must be done instead is to find a way to re-activate the auditory processing cortex in the reading process.  

The best way to accomplish this is to appeal to the visual processing strength of the dyslexic child without allowing a visual-only processing of words. The learner must be given visually imaginative tools which can then be used to help decode (break down) the phonic structure of each word. When the phonic structure of a word is processed, this forces the engagement of the auditory cortex. 

By presenting this child with visually memorable characters which represent the various English-language phonemes and placing these characters above the appropriate letter pattern, decoding can be achieved easily.  These characters enable the child to grasp abstract information like phonemes and retain them in her visual cortex until the brain relearns how to read with an engaged auditory cortex and no longer needs this visual stimulus.  

In this way, sight-readers are weaned off their habit of jumping to a guess and instead are taught to scan each word to match the letter patterns with the sound patterns.  

Easier said than done? 

Many of you might be thinking, “Phew. That was an awfully big mouthful of long words and foreign concepts. Can it actually be done?” 

Yes! It is not an overnight process to say the least, but when the visual learner is engaged in this way through short daily practice, significant progress can be made in anywhere from 3 to 9 months, with most children achieving an excellent level of reading within a year. As always the sooner a reading problem is tackled the better, with the optimal age to embark on this kind of approach being between 5 and 9 years of age. 

There is an abundance of hope for dyslexic children. Understanding the problem and how to solve it is the vital first step in setting your child on the right path to a lifetime of happy reading.  

Oxford Learning Solutions publish the Easyread System. Easyread uses imaginative synthetic phonics to teach struggling learners how to read, specializing in cases of dyslexia, highly visual learning and auditory processing deficits. Visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/easyreadsystem.

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