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Reading Instruction for Individuals with Severe Disabilities Focused on Comprehension

Rebekah Reisner

Inquiry Project

Vanderbilt University

November 14, 2017


Table of Contents

Characteristics of Reading Disabilities……………………………………………………......4
The reality
Categories of readers
Readers with autism
The labels
Purpose of Reading…………………………………………………………………………...7
Not one size fits all
Reading trends and initiatives
Setting goals
Important Skills for Instruction………………………………………………………………10
Importance of Comprehension………………………………………………………………..11
Comprehension defined
Role of comprehension in the reading process
Comprehension in the Classroom…………………………………………………………….14
Research-based instruction
Comprehension assessment
Accessing Text…………………………………………………………………………….....16
Teachers’ Attitudes………………………………………………………………………......18
Impact on Student’s Future………………………………………………………………......19
Emotional/social long-term effects
Impact on middle and high school students
Future employment/contribution to society


When I decided to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Special Education my senior year of

high school, a family friend, Susan1, reached out to me. She asked me if I would be willing to

work with her son, Peter2, who has Down syndrome. I had interacted with her son on more than

one occasion when our families got together, so I was more than willing to spend more time

learning with him and from him. What began that summer was not only a job that continued into

subsequent summers, but also an unforgettable friendship.

I typically worked with Peter at his home. We worked on a variety of skills from daily

living, unloading the dishwasher and grocery shopping, to educational activities, math and

reading. Not only did I gain valuable experience working with Peter (as far as problem solving

and capitalizing on strengths), but I also learned about being an advocate, specifically in the

school setting. Susan and I had countless conversations about her experiences with the education

system in our town. She talked about the victories and losses she experienced in conversations

with administrators and teachers. From these conversations, I realized the important role I have

as a future special education teacher to be an advocate for individuals with special needs to be


Peter was a great reader, but he struggled to comprehend what he read. During my first

summer with Peter, we went through a couple hundred flashcards with words on them every

week. We focused more on reading books the following summers. Whether it was reading

about the Avengers or the Muppets, Peter was a very skilled decoder. What he struggled with

was retelling me what he had just read. I began to wrestle with the question: What is the purpose

of reading? What was the purpose of Peter reading if he could not understand the words he said?

Names have been changed in consideration of individuals mentioned for the sake of this paper.
Names have been changed in consideration of individuals mentioned for the sake of this paper.

As I continued to wrestle with this question, I completed a year of student teaching in an

elementary special education classroom. One of my students, Brice3, was a first grade student

with Down syndrome who was also nonverbal. He had an electronic communication device, but

he could not use it proficiently to communicate his wants, needs, or opinions. One of Brice’s

strengths was his listening comprehension skills. After several weeks of teaching the letters

(graphemes) A, B, C, and D with their sounds (phonemes), Brice never could produce the correct

sounds when shown the grapheme. It was challenging to know where to even begin with his

reading instruction. I continued to ponder the purpose of reading. How should my mentor

teacher and I go about teaching Brice to read? Should we focus solely on sight word

recognition? Will he be a “successful reader” if we just get him to recognize words? I strongly

believe we read for understanding. If reading is for understanding, how do we teach readers with

severe special needs to read with the goal of comprehension, not just word recall? In

conjunction with my desire to be an advocate for this population of students, what does research

say about how this can be done most effectively?

Characteristics of Reading Disabilities

The reality. It is crucial that teachers have a realistic understanding of where students

with severe disabilities struggle with reading. It is also crucial that teachers are not discouraged

by the process of teaching these students. Karen Erikson and David Koppenhaver write that a

child with a severe disability has “at best a 30% chance of being able to read and write as well as

a child who can walk and talk but is otherwise just the same as you” (Erikson & Koppenhaver,

1995, p. 676). It is a sobering statistic; however, it cannot cause educators to write off these

students. Research has shown students with significant reading disabilities can learn and be

Names have been changed in consideration of individuals mentioned for the sake of this paper.

successful. The road will not be easy with these students, but the journey is necessary and worth


To give one example of the research referenced above, a study by Erikson and

Koppenhaver shows how students with severe reading disabilities have been successful with

appropriate instruction (1995). One of the students in the study is Erica, a six year old with

cerebral palsy. She was nonverbal and had limited body movement because of the cerebral

palsy. Erica used the Touch Talker communication device. She caught on quickly, so the

teacher capitalized on that strength and taught Erica to use the device during the literacy

instruction time. Books were uploaded to the device where Erica would click on pictures and the

story would be read aloud. At first, a few pictures represented a sentence. The teacher continued

to challenge Erica as she progressed to use one picture for each word. The teacher reported Erica

was a regular, helpful contributor to their group literacy instruction time. With this

communication system and instruction from the teacher, Erica gained more in that short time

than she had in the three previous years combined (Erikson & Koppenhaver, 1995).

Categories of readers. Michael Coyne and Taylor Koriakin divide readers into four

categories based on characteristics exhibited by each group: (1) individuals lacking in code-

based and meaning-based skills, (2) individuals lacking only with code-based skills, (3)

individuals lacking only with meaning-based skills, and (4) readers who are proficient (Coyne

and Koriakin, 2017). In their article, Coyne and Koriakin go on to say that “it is important for

beginning teachers to remember that scaffolding is not a one-size-fits-all approach but should be

tailored to specific needs of individual students” (Coyne and Koriakin, 2017, p. 240). Even

though they divide readers into four categories, the labels are still very broad. A wide variety of

learners can be found in each category.


Readers with autism. An example of a more specific type of reader with a significant

disability is a student on the autism spectrum. Even within the autism spectrum, there are a

variety of characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses in individuals. One common characteristic

of autism is a deficit in the area of cognitive processing (Randi, Newman, & Grigorenko, 2010).

This can understandably have a negative impact on comprehension. A student with autism will

often struggle to understand a character’s emotions and/or motivations. Furthermore, making

abstract inferences is also challenging for students with autism. Randi, Newman, & Grigorenko

challenge teachers to look at what most people would see as a cognitive weaknesses and see how

it can actually be an opportunities on which to build strengths (2010). With inferencing, children

with autism are often strong at using inductive reasoning to make valid surface level inferences

(Randi, Newman, & Grigorenko, 2010). This is a strength that can be built on to develop more

abstract inferences.

The labels. More profiles of readers with significant disabilities could be included, but

they would never come close to the extensive variety of victories and setbacks these students

face. Each student is different, and the people who work closest with them will know them best.

Carlisle and Rice acknowledge that there is even confusion about defining what reading

disability a student might have and how people come to the conclusion of that definition (2002).

Some students who are poor comprehenders might not be identified as having a disability. When

looking at school populations, “most students (perhaps as many as 80%) who have learning

disabilities have significant problems in reading” (Carlisle & Rice, 2002, p. 32). What matters

when considering the characteristics of struggling readers in a classroom is not so much the

labels as it is knowing the instruction the students will benefit from based on their individual

strengths and weaknesses.


Purpose of Reading

Not one size fits all. Based on their research, different researchers have a variety of

opinions on the purpose and process of reading. Judi Randi, Tina Newman, and Elena

Grigorenko say the “ultimate goal” of reading is meaning-making (2010). They acknowledge

the importance of word-reading (decoding) skills to the reading process, but those are just steps

towards the goal of meaning (Randi, Newman, & Grigorenko, 2010). Ken Goodman bluntly

states that simple identifying words correctly does not make an effective reader. “Making sense

of print” is the characteristic of an effective reader that Goodman emphasizes (Goodman, 1994,

p. 2). A similar perspective on the purpose of reading, Sean Walmsley, professor at the State

University of New York, University of Albany, looks at reading comprehension as an

understanding of a text’s “big idea” (the overall theme or moral) (Walmsley, 2006). Based on

Walmsley’s conclusions from his research, understanding the big picture can actually give

context and support the students’ understandings of the smaller aspects, or mechanics, of

reading. Students who can understand the big ideas of what they read are better prepared to

engage in thoughtful discussions about big ideas in the world (Walmsley, 2006).

In 1946, E. A. Betts wrote that: “It has been established in the literature of the subject that

the purpose of reading governs rate and depth of comprehension” (Betts, 1946, p. 95). So, what

teachers believe the purpose of reading is directly impacts the comprehension level of their

students. Understanding the purpose of reading is a characteristic of a good reader. Because an

individual has strong comprehension skills and is aware of why they read, they can choose

strategies to help them create meaning during reading because they understand the purpose of the

activity (Blanton, Wood, & Moorman, 1990). If a characteristic of a good reader is reading with

purpose, the teacher needs to be clear about communicating the purpose of reading to students.

Reading trends and initiatives. Throughout the years, several initiatives have been

enacted based on research trends and discoveries in effective reading instruction. The history of

these trends often shows us what leaders in the reading field believe the purpose of reading is at

the time. Reading First was a program issued after the No Child Left Behind Act was delivered

in 2001. It was “a congressionally mandated evaluation of the federal government’s $1.0 billion-

per-year initiative to help all children read at or above grade level by the end of third grade”

(Gamse, B. et al., 2008, p. xv).

In 2008, the Department of Education published a report analyzing the effectiveness of

the Reading First Impact Study (Gamse, B. et al., 2008). In addition to observations of

implementation, first, second, and third grade students were given the Stanford Achievement

Test – 10 Reading Comprehension subtest to evaluate the effectiveness of the Reading First

instruction. First grade students were also given a decoding assessment. What the program

evaluators discovered from the first grade students’ results was how decoding was positively

impacted by the Reading First program. In fact, they recorded that “the impact was equivalent to

an effect size of 0.17 standard deviations” (Gamse, B. et al, 2008, p. xvi). Interestingly, there

was no statistically significant impact on students’ reading comprehension in any of the three

grades levels tested. The researchers did not explicitly test the following hypothesis, but they


There is a positive association between time spent on the five essential components of

reading instruction promoted by the program and reading comprehension measured by

the SAT 10, but these findings are sensitive to both model specification and the sample

used to estimate the relationship. (Gamse, B. et al., 2008, p. xvi).


The implementation by the teacher does play an important role in the effectiveness of the

implementation. The point of including this analysis of the Reading First program is to show

that each individual’s belief about the purpose of reading influences their interpretation of the

successfulness of a program. This is why knowing your personal approach to reading is

foundational for every teacher.

Setting goals. Teachers need to have an end goal for their literacy instruction. Reading

needs to have a purpose, and a teacher’s instruction should reflect that purpose. In Nonie

Lesaux, Emily Phillips Galloway, and Sky Marietta’s book on advanced literacy, they give a

helpful perspective on planning literacy goals (2016). Even though their book focuses largely on

linguistically diverse populations, what they say about goals is important for any diverse

classroom, linguistically or academically. Lesaux, Phillips Galloway, and Marietta urge teachers

to work strategically instead of simply striving to work harder (Lesaux, Phillips Galloway,

Marietta, 2016). When they looked at the No Child Left Behind Act and the response-to-

intervention structure, they concluded that “these reforms share the goal of promoting advanced

literacies for all students, regardless of disability/language status, family income, or race and

ethnicity” (Lesaux, Phillips Galloway, Marietta, 2016, p. 7). Throughout their book, they look

at advanced literacy with the goal of “improving literacy rates among all students” (Lesaux,

Phillips Galloway, Marietta, 2016, p. 7). Teachers need to model this same practice by

developing their reading instruction time around the goal of improving the literacy for all

students, regardless of abilities. It is from this idea of goal-setting that I am advocating for

reading instruction focused on comprehension for students with significant disabilities.


Important Skills for Instruction

Phonological skills are foundational skills in the reading process. These skills are

typically focused on in the early grades. Success or setbacks in the early grades directly impact

future reading outcomes. In fact, “students must be able to read to access content and

information across all subject areas; therefore, early reading proficiency is essential for later

learning success” (Coyne and Koriakin, 2017, p. 240). Dr. Peter Cowden says that students with

severe disabilities need “language experiences” to understand the purpose of reading and basic

foundational skills of reading such as phonemic awareness and concepts of print (Cowden,

2010). Joseph Torgeson, Ann Alexander, and several other researchers look specifically at the

importance of phonemic awareness for individuals with severe reading disabilities (2001). A

primary difficulty for students of this population is “weaknesses in their ability to process the

phonological features of language” (Torgeson et al., 2001, p. 35). Torgeson and his colleges

suggest explicit instruction in phonemic awareness taught in a systematic way. They

acknowledge there are many ways to teach phonemic awareness. In their study, the researchers

compare two instructional approaches that include phonemic awareness. One of the approaches

is more centrally focused on phonemic awareness compared to the other program with a greater

emphasis on phonics instruction. In the end, they conclude both instructional methods were

effective. Even though they vary on the level of growth in certain areas, both programs show

similar gains in the most important areas of reading. An important take-away with their research

is that instruction for individuals with severe disabilities should not be focused solely on

immediate gains. Careful instructional decisions should be made for growth to be maintained (or

ideally, increased) over time (Torgeson et al., 2001).


Success is possible for students with severe reading disabilities if the appropriate

instructional steps are taken. As mentioned above, phonemic awareness instruction is important.

Maureen Lovett, Léa Lacrenza, and Susan Borden also conducted a study on the importance of

phonemic awareness instruction for children with severe disabilities by evaluating the following

programs’ effectiveness: the Phonological Analysis and Blending/Decoding Instruction Program

(PHAB/DI) and Word Identification Strategy Training Program (WIST) (2000). The three

researchers came to several conclusions of which one was the following:

The phonological processing skills and letter-sound learning of severely disabled readers

could be improved with intensive remediation of this type [the PHAB/DI and WIST

programs], and that effects could be achieved even with later (e.g. Grades 5/6)

intervention and even for children with the most severe disabilities. (Lovett, Lacerenza,

& Borden, 2000, p. 461).

They also concluded that a program focused only on phonological instruction is not enough to

make the greatest reading gains. In addition to phonological instruction, these students also need

strategy instruction. Teaching strategies to students with reading disabilities in combination with

direct instruction is most effective for reading growth to be generalized to multiple reading

contexts (Lovett, Lacerenza, & Borden, 2000).

Importance of Comprehension

Comprehension defined. Comprehension is a challenging concept to describe in a

concise way. Kate Nation and Philip Angell from the University of Oxford give a helpful

definition for beginning to understand comprehension:

To understand text, words need to be recognized and their meanings accessed, relevant

background knowledge needs to be activated, and inferences must be generated as


information is integrated during the course of reading. In addition, control processes are

needed to monitor both ongoing comprehension and the internal consistency of text,

allowing the reader to initiate repair strategies (for example, re-reading) if comprehension

breakdown is detected (Nation & Angell, 2006, p. 77-78).

A little further into their discussion about comprehension, Nation and Angell recognize the two

components that are necessary for an individual to be able to comprehend: spoken language

comprehension and decoding print. They include this helpful diagram to guide the readers

understanding of the factors that impact comprehension:

Phonic sound spelling

Knowledge of Grammatical
context knowledge

Word recognition and graphic


(Nation & Angel, 2006, p. 78)

Nation and Angel give a helpful starting point for understanding what “comprehension” means.

Another helpful component is that comprehension is a concept to be taught, not just a

skill to be assessed (Marzola, 2011). As mentioned above with Maureen Lovett, Léa Lacrenza,

and Susan Borden, students need comprehension strategy instruction (Lovett, Lacerenza, &

Borden, 2000). If students are going to use the “repair strategies” Nation and Angell mentioned,

they need direct instruction on those strategies. Several studies have been conducted to describe

the differences between the skills of good and poor readers before, during, and after their

interaction with the text. By knowing the characteristics of these two kinds of readers, teachers

can explicitly teach poor readers the strategies good readers already have (and probably do

subconsciously). For example, good readers notice the structure of a text and use that knowledge

to support their comprehension. Poor readers do not see any significant organization to a text.

Direct instruction and modeling can be provided by the teacher to show the various ways

organization impacts how the reader approaches texts (Marzola, 2011). There are many

interpretations and facets to comprehension, but essentially, comprehension should be “used

purposefully and in different ways to solve a problem, complete a task, or even to engage in

more learning (Conley and Wise, 2011, p. 96).

Role of comprehension in the reading process. Mark Conley and Antoinette Wise talk

about the “not-so-simple view of reading” (2011). This perspective says that there is more to

reading than decoding and comprehension skills. It is reminiscent of the section earlier on the

theories about the purpose of reading. Conley and Wise go on to explain the factors involved in

their view of reading: vocabulary knowledge, background knowledge, and comprehension

strategies (ex. summarizing, questioning, predicting, etc.). Conley and Wise also point out that

“word recognition and comprehension can be taught side by side, and that one does not have to

wait for the other” (Conley & Wise, 2011, p. 94). This last point is especially important to

consider in my argument that children with severe special needs should be taught that reading is

meaning-making from the very beginning of their reading instruction. Students do not have to

master decoding before they can begin instruction on comprehension. Comprehension supports

the work of decoding and decoding supports comprehension. Both can and should be taught

during reading instruction.


Comprehension in the Classroom

Research-based instruction. There are many articles describing various research-based

comprehension strategies. I am going to mention several here in order to provide a starting

point. When making instructional decisions about what practices to use, each teacher should

consider the specific needs of students in their class. Even though the following suggestions are

based on research, they are not guaranteed to be successful with all learners. No two students

with severe reading disabilities are going to be exactly the same. Also, these strategies are not

limited to students with disabilities, so accommodations or modifications to implementation

might be necessary. Taking students’ needs into consideration, here are a variety of ideas for

teaching comprehension. First of all, summarizing and questioning are two research-based

strategies for increasing comprehension skills (Conley & Wise, 2011). Additionally, graphic

organizers, such as Venn diagrams or Know-Want-Learn (KWL) charts, assist readers’

comprehension. These strategies help students create a visual representation of the text

(Mahdavi & Tensfeldt, 2013). Vocabulary instruction has positively impacted comprehension.

Vocabulary can be taught through kinesthetic learning or with read-alouds focused on a few

important vocabulary words (Mahdavi & Tensfeldt, 2013). These are just a few of the research-

based practices that can be helpful for planning comprehension instruction for your classroom.

Comprehension assessment. If teaching comprehension strategies is important, teachers

also need to know how to assess comprehension. As mentioned above, summarizing and

questioning are two comprehension strategies to teach student to increase their comprehension.

Michael McKenna and Katherine Stahl explain how to assess students using these

comprehension strategies (2015). Types of questions vary from literal questions (where the

answers are found explicitly in the text) to inferential questions (factual answers that require

inferencing from the text) and critical questions (students have to make value judgements). Each

type a question gives different information to the teacher about the student’s level of

comprehension (McKenna & Stahl, 2015). Based on the abilities of the learners in the

classroom, students might need a variety of ways to respond to the questions to demonstrate

understanding including (but not limited to) oral responses.

As far as oral responses go, McKenna and Stahl do suggest giving students the option to

retell orally what they understood from the reading. The teacher keeps a checklist of the details

the student should recount. Based on the teacher’s goals for asking the student to give a

retelling, the teacher can ask probing questions to prompt the student. An important component

for this type of retellings is the student’s ability to express themselves orally. The results from

these assessments are informative for a teacher’s instructional decisions (McKenna & Stahl,

2015). There are many other ways to assess comprehension. Comprehension needs to be

assessed if it is going to be taught.

Mauren Aukerman, an assistant professor at Stanford University, draws attention to an

important consideration for teachers making decisions about assessing comprehension (2008).

She cautions teachers to be careful when choosing comprehension questions that they do not

hinder students from making sense of the text (because they are too afraid of being wrong).

Aukerman says:

Teaching comprehension-as-sense-making does not mean valorizing every textual

hypothesis without question. Rather, it involves offering opportunities for reading in

which developing readers not only engage in textual hypothesizing, but also can make

discoveries about the relationship between ways of textual hypothesizing and the

accomplishment of social purposes (Aukerman, 2008, p. 56).


Individuals often come to the text to make hypotheses with the influences of their prior

knowledge (Aukerman, 2008). Just because the child does not get the exact answer the teacher is

looking for does not mean they are not comprehending. The teacher may need to ask the child

further questions to clarify, or the child might need to be taught something that did not

previously know. No matter how old we get, we are always learning and reading new things.

Our ideas and beliefs are continually being shaped as we are progressing as life-long learners.

Comprehension should be assessed, but it should be done thoughtfully because it is a complex


Accessing Text

Because I believe so strongly that comprehension is the purpose of reading and our

students with severe disabilities need to be taught reading on that foundation, I wanted to include

a section on accessing text. For students to build reading comprehension, they first need to be

able to read the text. Comprehension strategies are best taught and assessed in context. Coulter

and Lambert notice how “children with learning disabilities [have] limited access to general

education curriculum” (Coulter & Lambert, 2015, p. 255). So, what can teachers do to bridge

this gap in ability and text complexity? Hudson, Browder, & Wakeman, have a very helpful

article explaining a wide range of possible text adaptations teachers can make (2013). One

example they give is augmenting the text. Augmenting the text can be adding pictures to

increase comprehension. A single picture can be placed at the beginning to give the text context,

or several small pictures can be added over key vocabulary words. Another way Hudson,

Browder, & Wakeman suggest helping students access the text is by summarizing the grade level

text in a way that is closer to the student’s Lexile level (2013). Those are just two ways students

can be supported to access to the same texts their grade-level peers are reading.

The Common Core sets high expectations for students. Students with severe disabilities

are not exempt from high expectations. It has been the case over the years that “adolescents with

significant cognitive disabilities have historically lacked exposure to authentic, grade level text

in literacy instruction” (Roberts & Leko, 2013, p. 158). With the suggestions Hudson, Browder,

& Wakeman give in their article, there is no reason why students with severe disabilities should

not be given the opportunity to access grade-level texts. If the Common Core has high standards,

we as teachers also need to have high standards. It is not a question of if we will have high

expectations for our students, but rather, how will we support our students to reach those

standards (Robertson et al., 2014).

I want to briefly mention the students who might never be able to access the text no

matter how many supports the teacher provides. This does not mean the teacher decides what

the student is capable or not capable of before accommodating or modifying the text. Laura

Justice, Jessica Logan, and Joan Kaderavek followed up with a small group of 172 preschool

children with language impairments one year after they received print-focused read-alouds

(2017). Print-focused read-alouds are books read by the teacher to the whole class with explicit

instruction on the concepts of print for the text. The researchers wanted to observe whether the

students retained what they learned from the instruction a year after it was implemented. The

results were positive, and the students did retain much of what they learned. Interestingly,

students with language impairments and low nonverbal cognition especially benefited from the

instruction. The researchers acknowledged the limitations to their work especially in the areas

of: (1) generalizing the skills and (2) retaining the information for longer than a year so that it

impacts reading achievement positively (Justice, Logan, & Kaderavek, 2017). As a whole, the

study is helpful to remind teachers that being able to access texts is not the only standard. If a

student cannot access texts after receiving support because of their disability or some other

factor, they can still be taught other concepts of reading, such as concepts of print.

Teachers’ Attitudes

Erikson and Koppenhaver mention that teachers of students with severe disabilities often

assume the students are not “capable” of reading and writing, so the teachers do not give the

students the chance to read or write (Erikson & Koppenhaver, 1995). They go on in their article

to say that:

Even if you are fortunate enough to have teachers who view you as a capable learner and

see literacy as an important part of your instructional program, you are likely to engage

largely in word level skill-and-drill activities, seldom reading or listening to text and even

more rarely composing text. (Erikson & Koppenhaver, 1995, p. 676)

Based on their research studies, Coyne and Koriakin have found that “intensive reading

intervention provided by special educators is one of the most effective approaches for ensuring

that students with disabilities have the best chance of becoming successful readers” (Coyne &

Koriakin, 2017, p. 240). Dr. Peter Cowden reminds teachers to “embrace the fact that children

are active, constructive learners and everyone has the ability to learn, learning disabled or not”

(Cowden, 2010, p.163). Research has shown that these students can learn, so it is not a debate

on whether or not it is possible. The issue is twofold: (1) whether or not the teacher will believe

the student has the capability and (2) whether the teacher will teach the student in light of that


Author Jim Trelease, known for his multiple editions of The Read-Aloud Handbook, tells

the story of a young girl named Cushla (2013). When Cushla was born, the doctors gave her

parents the difficult news that their daughter had a chromosomal abnormality. Among other

things, she had limited vision and spasms that limited her ability to sleep to about two hours a

night. Despite the difficulties Cushla faced, her parents discovered early on that their daughter

loved to listen to books being read to her. Her parents would read about fourteen books a day to

their daughter, and it began to pay off. Trelease recounts in his handbook that Cushla taught

herself to read by the time she was five years old. The doctors said Cushla was “’mentally and

physically retarded’ and recommended that she be institutionalized”, but by five years old,

Cushla was “well above average in intelligence and a socially well-adjusted child” (Trelease,

2013, p.25). Not only is this story incredibly inspiring, it is also an important reminder to

believe our students with severe disabilities can learn; they just need advocates to challenge them

to reach their potential.

Impact on Student’s Future

Emotional/social long-term effects. Reading difficulties do not affect children only in

school. Other areas of their life are also impacted. In fact, “students who do not learn to read are

at risk for serious negative social and economic outcomes, whereas students who establish

positive reading trajectories are much more likely to experience long-term success” (Coyne and

Koriakin, 2017, p. 240). Several researchers from Australia, Smart, Youssef, Sanson, Prior,

Toumbourou, and Olsson, looked at the combination of reading difficulties and behavior

problems (2017). Those two characteristics often co-occur. For a child with these two

characteristics, they often experience academic setbacks and antisocial behavior. They also

might struggle with substance abuse. The characteristics that start in their childhood persist into

their adulthood. In adulthood, employment may be difficult to attain and/or sustain. The

researchers acknowledge the relationships and consequences of reading disabilities and behavior

problems are complicated (Smart, Youssef, Sanson, Prior, Toumbourou, & Olsson, 2017). The

take-away from their study is that reading failure impacts more than students’ report cards.

Impact on middle and high school students. If a young student’s reading disability

persists into their middle and high school years, there is a significant impact on their future

educational decisions. Ziolkowski and McDowell evaluated the effectiveness of a reading

intervention strategy for adolescent students with severe disabilities (2015). Their research was

motivated by the Common Core’s demand for college readiness and the statistics gathered from

the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP found that

“approximately 64% of eighth graders with disabilities scored below proficient on their ability to

comprehend grade level text compared to 18% of eighth graders without disabilities”

(Ziolkowski & McDowell, 2015, p.44). There are a significantly higher number of students with

disabilities who are below the benchmark.

Michael Hock, Irma Brasseur-Hock, and Donald Deshler looked at the same data

distributed by the NAEP, and they drew attention to the results of students performing below

grade-level expectations (2014). The result is students lacking the skills to comprehend the texts

in their basic grade-level classes. A further result is the 20% of the lowest readers that will not

complete their sophomore year of high school. Without a high school diploma, individuals will

battle unemployment and low salaries (Hock, Brasseur-Hock, & Deshler, 2014). To fight against

these outcomes that can too quickly spiral down from one failure to the next, teachers need to be

especially intentional about intervention for students in the elementary grades.

Future employment/contribution to society. The statistics above give a glimpse at how

reading impacts individuals’ lives after graduation based on their success in school. Teachers

must remember they are not just teaching students to be successful in their classroom during that

school year. Furthermore, teachers have to understand that they prepare students both for their

present success, and their future success (Conley & Wise, 2011). Conley and Wise draw

attention to the fact that “research over the past decade highlights the increasing dilemma about

helping postcollege 20-year-olds pursue active citizenship and belonging (Arnett, 2006)”

(Conley & Wise, 2011, p. 95). From this evidence, Conley and Wise connect the importance of

reading and good comprehension (leading to important thinking skills) with helping individuals

“thrive as a worker and an informed citizen” (Conley & Wise, 2011, p. 95). If teachers know the

importance of reading comprehension and the skills that are a part of it, they can better prepare

their students for future success by intentionally choosing research-based practices for the needs

of the individuals in their classrooms.

According to the United States Department of Labor’s report in 2016, 17.9% of

individuals with disabilities are unemployed (U.S. Department of Labor, 2017). The report

contrasts that statistic with the data that 65.3% of non-disabled individuals are unemployed (U.S.

Department of Labor, 2017). Being able to read may not guarantee an individual finds

employment, but it is certainly an important skill employers are seeking. Jennifer Mahdavi and

Lael Tensfeldt give a short list of reading ability needed for future success: “Reading is

necessary to get most jobs; to pass a test to get a coveted license to drive; to access menus,

contracts, transit schedules, and more” (Mahdavi & Tensfeldt, 2013, p. 77). It is not hard to see

that reading is an important skill for the future. In combination with the reality of unemployment

for individuals with disabilities, it is important that teachers take reading instruction seriously

with intentional, strategic, and research-based implementation.


Erikson and Koppenhaver give this challenge to teachers who have students with severe


Don’t equate differences in the children’s physical capabilities or means of

communication with differences in intelligence, interest or academic capabilities.

Stephen Hawking, the internationally famous physicist, uses a wheelchair for mobility

and talks and writes via a dedicated communication device. (Erikson & Koppenhaver,

1995, p. 683)

As evidenced throughout this paper, comprehension is a complex issue. Similarly, the

continuum of individuals with reading disabilities is also a complex issue. Extensive research

has been conducted on struggling readers. Research-based practices of text adaptations help

students of all abilities access the material assigned to their grade level. All students have the

potential to be positive contributors to society, and teachers have the privilege of working with

these diverse learners every day to support their journey as learners. A child with severe

disability does not have a set future of failures. Developing foundational skills (like phonemic

awareness) leads to lessons about comprehension strategies. Reading growth and success

impacts students’ futures. Reading is an important skill for a multitude of reasons.

I am thankful for my experiences with Peter, my conversations with Susan, and my

difficulties working with Brice. I am also incredibly thankful for my professors at the Peabody

College at Vanderbilt University who have equipped me and challenged me to combine research-

based practices and my passions to raise awareness and educate others. Christopher J. Lemons,

Jill H. Allor, Stephanie Al Otaiba, and Lauren M. LeJeune say: “We think big-picture visioning

is important even in the early elementary school years” (2016, p. 19). I completely agree and

that is why I am so passionate about teaching reading on the foundation of comprehension

instruction.to individuals with severe disabilities.



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