Can children with intellectual disabilities learn to read?

9 Replies

I'm sometimes asked whether my materials are suitable for learners with intellectual disabilities, and whether they can learn to read and spell.

Many learners with severe and profound intellectual disabilities don't understand much spoken language, and have little or no speech, so teaching them face-to-face communication, social, self-care and other skills are their families' highest priorities, and what ends up on their individualised learning plan.

However, I know learners with measured IQ scores in the 40s who have learnt to read and write simple texts (though I'm not sure their IQ scores were accurate), and there's no reason to think that someone with an IQ of 60 or more can't learn to read and write at least at a basic level.

What's the difference between someone with an intellectual disability and a slow learner?

The imaginary average IQ is 100, but of course the same person might score 105 on a good day and 95 on a bad day, so someone with scores between 85 and 115 is considered to have average intelligence.

An IQ below 70 is considered to indicate intellectual disability, but there are many children with IQ scores between 71 and 84 who learn more slowly than their classmates, despite no formal diagnosis, and thus no eligibility for extra support at school.

Learning depends on the learner, the program and the teacher. Learners with similar cognitive skills can achieve at very different levels.

Attention control and motivation are important – one teenager with an intellectual disability I worked with was desperate to read, and used to ask at the start of every session "Can we do reading?". He'd read our decodable books nonstop all lesson if myself and his integration aide didn't insist he do some writing/spelling and wordbuilding as well.

Learners with low IQs need an intensive, explicit, systematic program with tiny steps, and a skilled and persistent team. They take longer to learn than mainstream learners, sometimes a lot longer, so it's important to be able to measure and celebrate small gains.

Is scientifically based reading instruction effective for students with below-average IQs?

The journal "Exceptional Children" recently published an interesting article on this topic, called "Is scientifically-based reading instruction effective for students with below-average IQs?". The whole article is available online, via this website.

I've been ploughing through it with my highlighter pen and a furrowed brow at the statistics, occasionally shouting "Yes!" (it's OK, nobody else is in my end of the building today), because like here in Australia, many learners with low IQs in the US finish school with few literacy skills, and this doesn't get enough attention as a serious problem.

Like here, a lot of literacy research in the US excludes children with intellectual disabilities or children with low nonverbal IQs, and literacy programs for them often focus narrowly on training sight-word reading and letter-sound correspondences, and not much more.

This research took four years and studied 141 students with IQs from 40 to 80, with just over half doing a program called Early Interventions in Reading, and the other half doing a variety of programs chosen by their schools. Sometimes these were explicit, systematic programs like Corrective Reading, and sometimes they were not.

Research done over years in schools can be pretty messy, because a lot of factors can vary over time e.g. children changing schools and schools changing what they teach to the kids in the comparison group, but in general on most measures the learners doing the explicit, systematic program performed better than the comparison group. Progress was slower than for mainstream learners, and some learners really struggled with blending.

The authors conclude that their research provides "a clear demonstration of the potential of students with low IQs to achieve meaningful literacy goals and a clear demonstration of the persistence and intensity it takes to help children with low IQs to learn to read."

Shouting "Yes" to that, and putting the new little kid with a low IQ score on my list into as many literacy groups as possible.


9 thoughts on “Can children with intellectual disabilities learn to read?

  1. Robyn Richards

    Thank you , you have given me some little 51/2 year old granddaughter has a partial deletion of the 8th chromosome. Last month her IQ was measured at 47. Her parents (both Lawyers – not that that means anything) are full of grief. Esperance also has a palliative heart condition. The doctor said “even a dog has an IQ of 60”. I refuse to accept this. Esperance can sing and hum a melody perfectly even though her words are difficult to understand, even tunes she has not heard for months.

    Four days ago we were walking past a large retail shop that had a billboard advertising brands of toys. Words only – no We stock Tonka Matell Disney Shopkins etc. Esperance pointed and said “I want that” I said “what do you want” and she said “SHOPKINS” – I almost collapsed with shock.

    She can count to six. She cannot repeat the Alphabet past ABC. She cannot hold a pencil and has very poor muscle control. She is sweet, kind hearted and has a sense of humour.

    Two days ago I made 3 flash cards – doll, baby and Ezzie ( her name). No pictures on these cards. I played “hide the cards” and “Find me – doll” it is slow but she is getting the idea. Perhaps I am wasting my time. She is enrolled in Prep at a Special School for 2017. She is bowel and bladder incontinent.

    Does music come from the same brain area as reading? if one can memorize a tune, then why not words.
    I realise that she may never be able to work words out with phonics and X+y may be beyond her , but it would be great if she could read a simple cookery book or story one day.

      1. alison Post author

        Hi Michelle, sorry to say that this blog post is from 2014 and I see a LOT of clients, so I can’t remember who I was writing about now. But many of the kids I work with who have intellectual disabilities are able to learn basic reading and spelling skills, and the thing that ends up limiting what they can read is their language skills rather than their decoding skills.

    1. Keith

      I am sure I am responding to an old post. Though you should keep hope alive and keep looking and trying. As a substitute teacher I have worked long term with classes of student with severe learning disabilities as class where they were grouped. With those students I saw just about all of them were fluent in 3 languages, English, Spanish, and Sign Language. Signing everything they would say, as they would switch from Spanish to English, almost as if it was one language. One of those students mAy has been borderline for such learning disabilities. He was also in a regular math class I was teaching. That class the students did not have severe learning disabilities but could had likely had some learning disabilities. I was told by many teachers to dont worry if they do not learn. They just went good learners. I went to the head math teacher of the school. I ask to not use the low level books they had for the math classes, which I also thought were poorly written,. And,was not designed to teach what it was teaching well. I told the teacher that I think the could learn algebra. When these students, highschool seniors, struggled with simple addiction, subtraction, multiplication, and division. I broke the math down to its simplistic components. Working only one step at a time, showing every step, and drawing line to show where I was moving numbers from one place to another. I even used different colors to help show and see what part of the equation was changing, and how it was changing. After a while where all students saying they forgot their homework, to actually going out of their was, begging me to give them homework. I believe it’s the teachers job to teach in ways that all students can learn well. I think many teachers forget and don’t think the same. It’s the students job to give honest effort, and teacher to teach so all students can learn well. I make sure to also give clear directions. Many times teachers don’t think of this. Saying one thing and meaning something else. As if some how it is implied. Then these teachers make students oof for not fallowing directions that were never given. As if the student should know what they mean, for something that was never said. Iit is important to be specific in what is said, and what is meant. Almost as if they all have OCD, or a Asperger which is a gorm of autism, where people may have difficulty with understanding meanings that are implied but not stated. had learned such tricks through my own struggles with multiple learning disabilities and school. Which allows me to see, understand, and see solutions most people and teachers can’t understand or relate to. I have done lots of trial and error, reading books, websites, education classes, psychology on learning, and anything I could that may be of help.
      Music has been found in psychology to be a great enhancer to memory of any subject, Cognitive Psychology. Some examples show listening to music while learning a subject, singing a catch phrase of what you are trying to learn. Much like all those commercial jingles used to help people remember whatever they are trying to sell people. Just like singing the ABC over and over is used to teach kids. One of my friends with learning disability used that trick very well. Repetition and trying to memorize is short frequent burst instead of long grilling endless hours with no end.

      As far as physical skills. It does take practice and good direction. Though with great directions I have seen giant changes in people’s abilities from the regular person, to those who might struggle at different degrees, to even those with severe learning disabilities. One year when working as a city lifeguard, we also taught swimming lessons, and had a swim team to complete against other city pools. Most of the kids on the swim team were those who just learned to swim from our classes. A family with a little girl, who had down syndrome asked if she could join the swim team. I let them know if she can swim, she can complete. And, if she does not know how to swim, we have classes for that as well, so she could be on the swim team. Turned out she been part of a swim team the highschool swim coach does for the community of kids of all ages. She out swam almost all kidsat the swim meets.alwats battling it out for 1st place. And, doing so with one of the most difficult swim strokes, the front crawl. So, there are great possibilities. Keep trying to learn each person’s learning style, or styles. Some are visual, auditory, physical by doing. People also use different was to speak, listen and think. Some people may say I hear you are saying this, vs I feel statement.

      I wish you and everyone going through learning struggles of all types and levels the best of luck.

  2. Jillian Jager

    I have a 10 year old with a mild intellectual disability diagnosis, with an IQ of 67. He is reading at about a 2nd-early 3rd grade reading average. I’ve tried finding the answer ( or confirmation) to this question online and it’s just not out there, and maybe it’s because every child is different. I think the best type or genre of book for my son to be reading right now, if at all possible, are non-fiction books. He just doesn’t understand any type of fantasy, action, or mystery, and he doesn’t even really get simple humor. I know he gets humor in other areas however so I don’t know if he is concentrating so much, or just going thru the motions during reading that he doesn’t pay attention enough to understand the joke. He is very black and white and I am more than willing to help read with him every night but I want him to bring home books that he will understand the best, be able to read the best, enjpy the most (I love to read so I want him too as well) and get the maximum amount of learning out of our time. Do you agree with the non-fiction type, or is it always going to be super specific to each child? I’m trying to convince his teachers I know what I’m talking about, but I didn’t come up with this theory until end of summer so I don’t have much background to stand on yet. I was just curious if anyone has ever asked you what type of books children with ID tend to read the best or enjoy the most.

    Thank you, Jillian

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Jillian, I think kids with intellectual disability have different tastes the same as the rest of us. I work a lot with kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders, and their difficulties with perspective-taking often make fiction tricky for them to understand and often thus boring, plus if they have very specific interests those can drive what they want to read. It’s worth thinking about his VIQ or receptive language score as the thing likely to put a ceiling on his reading, as even if his decoding is great, if he’s not understanding what he reads then he won’t want to read it. But it sounds like you and the school have been doing a great job getting him decoding, and some more work on the extended and then advanced code might also help improve his ability to appreciate different types of books. But anything that is too hard to decode will, of course, take up too much of his cognitive energy and thus he won’t have much left over for comprehension. I hope that’s helpful and that you can find books that are decodable to him and also focus on his interests. Alison

    2. alison Post author

      PS I should have also said that fiction is one of the ways that we all learn to appreciate other people’s perspectives and worlds, and can be a useful tool in teaching about these, but the information that the socially typical person can extract from the subtext of a story often has to be made explicit to learners who are socially less typical (i.e. explain what’s going on in the characters’ heads, don’t assume this will be understood).

  3. Shizuka

    It really depends on the child. I have had a student with IQ 50-60 who can decode and read at level but comprehends at Y1 level and could spell well up to Y1 level but started to confuse the various digraphs by Y2 up. I do teach with the systematic synthetic phonics approach and all of my students can read, albeit some very slowly, its the applied spelling in writing that is the challenge.

    1. alison Post author

      Yes, kids with IQs in the 50-60 range are pretty hard to get decoding but many can do at least short, simply-spelt words, usually the ones who have better verbal than nonverbal skills have the most success. What then limits their reading comprehension is the listening comprehension part of the Simple View equation, if your decoding is good but your language comprehension is poor, your reading comprehension will still be poor, because reading comprehension is the PRODUCT of decoding and language comprehension. So to improve their reading comprehension, these kids often don’t need more code work, they need more work on oral language.


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