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Reading Methods For Children With Learning Difficulties

This article describes the different approaches that are used to teach children with learning difficulties to read.  In my experience, each method has its merits and often a combination of the different approaches is the best solution.

Why Reading to Children is Important

The simple act of reading to a child during storybook reading can help familiarise the child with many conventions of print, such as where text begins on a page, the directions to take, punctuation, as well as recognising written language.  Without such basic concepts, children may experience confusion when presented with informal reading instruction inside the classroom.

Many children in prep enter school with an underdeveloped set of skills for literacy.  Along with letter-sound knowledge, they may be unfamiliar with story structure and the cadence of written language.  This can lead to a disconnection when it comes to reading and reading instruction, especially children and students with learning difficulties, which have additional impacts as these children progress through their schooling years.  For students with learning difficulties, it is vital to recognise the type of teaching instruction that will suit their individual learning styles.  The good news is that the quality reading instruction enable successful readers and these can be taught.

Whole Language Learning vs Phonics Instructions vs Phonemic Awareness

Once students begin at school, they may encounter teachers that favour one teaching instruction over another and this leads to debates as to which approach is best.  For example, whole language learning as against phonics instruction.  Some teachers and educators operate on the principle that an acceptance of the benefits of one approach requires rejection of the other approaches, which goes against educational research.  Ideally teachers should integrate direct instruction of phonics with a broad program using children’s literature and individual writing.  There should be an amalgam of the three approaches which also includes phonemic awareness, which is part of phonological awareness.

It should be noted however that quality phonics instruction should not be synonymous with excessive worksheets, nor must it exclude the use of quality literature.  Also, whole language approaches may have an important function early in the process of learning to read depending on the individual student.  However, as the child’s needs shift, they become less effective.  It could be that the philosophy behind whole language approaches is that the function of reading is to communicate, but once learned, children need to be able to decode written language fluently and automatically in order to be able to use reading for that purpose.

Phonemic Awareness

Firstly, we shall look at phonemic awareness, which is the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words.  It is one of the key predictors of early reading acquisition and is one of the main techniques that is used to help children and students with dyslexia.  Instruction progresses from rhythm and rhyme to syllables to long vowels then short to initial then final then blended consonants etc.  Therefore, the phonemic awareness approach is intended to promote growth in word recognition and spelling, thinking, understanding and doing, not through flashcards or drills.  An important distinction here is that phonemic awareness is not phonics and is auditory, so, therefore, does not involve words in print.

Children who do not play rhyming or alliteration games could be an indicator for dyslexia and children with speech sound problems known as articulation, could also have difficulty learning to read.  Phonemic awareness is taught using sound isolation, blending & segmenting.  Examples of segmenting involve deletions by taking away the first sound in ‘rat’, the second sound (‘l’) in ‘flame’ or the final sound in ‘beep’.

Other examples of segmenting involve substitutions such as changing the first sound in ‘nap’ by adding a ‘c’ sound instead, along with adding where we use the word ‘mile’ and add the ‘s’ sound to the beginning to see what word we have.  Therefore, not only does phonemic awareness prime children for reading, it gives them a strategy to sound out new words, along with helping them understand the alphabetic principle.

Dialogic Reading

Another approach to reading for children and students with learning difficulties is dialogic reading.  This simple technique is like a dialogue where the adult helps the child read the story and the child becomes the teller of the story.  The acronym for this method is PEER:

  1. Prompt a child to say something about the book.
  2. Evaluate her response.
  3. Expand the response by rephrasing and adding more detail, and
  4. Repeat the prompt to make sure the child learned.

Apart from the first page, this type of interaction should happen on every page.  This approach is all about using prompts.  For example, reading the first part of the sentence with the child using their imagination along with pictures to complete the sentence and using open ended prompts which focus on the pictures in books where the adult can ask, “What is happening in this picture?”  This is especially useful for stories that have lots of illustrations.  These are just a few of the prompts that can be used.  This approach is helpful because reading can be related to a child’s experiences which assists in reading engagement and is an especially useful technique when reading to children with dyslexia.

Combining Methods Specific to Each Child

Therefore, all skills need to be applied in the context of reading, rather than treated as isolated exercises.  While whole language learning, phonological awareness and phonics instruction should be part of any reading program, this can change depending on the needs of the individual child or student.  This is especially important for students with learning difficulties as adopting a one-size-fits-all reading strategy will not benefit these students.

One goal of any reading instruction should be that children become efficient at constructing meaning from text.  However, approaches that always emphasise the construction of meaning may not be the most effective in achieving their purpose. Children need to go through intermediate stages of mastering word recognition abilities to better develop the reading abilities necessary to read good quality literature with enjoyment and understanding.  These intermediate stages appear to be better served with direct and systematic phonic instruction.

On the other hand, it appears that even the most systematic phonics approaches work better when children have increased opportunities to read children’s literature.  Too great an emphasis on phonics to the exclusion of whole word learning may produce good decoders, but these same students may perform poorly in reading comprehension in later years.  There needs to be an effective balance between direct phonics instruction, guided reading of decodable texts, reading good literature to children, building meaningful vocabulary and encouraging self-expression through writing.

Teaching Children with Learning Difficulties to Read

As described above, teaching children with learning difficulties to read entails firstly identifying their particular difficulty, then working with the child to find the best strategy or combination of strategies to help them to learn to read.

Unfortunately, in terms of teaching children with learning difficulties to read within a  standard classroom situation, it is often not possible for these children to obtain the specific type of reading tuition that they require.  This may mean that in the early years of their school they may need extra support which can be provided by a combination of parents, teachers, teacher aides as well as from a tutor or specialist in teaching children with learning difficulties to read.

Teaching Children With Learning Difficulties To Read

Justin Clark Brisbane Learning Difficulties Tutor


If you think your child would benefit from having a reading tutor, please contact Justin for further information.