Learners who are well behind
Integration aides often have to help a learner tackle class work that is simply too hard for them, for example a Grade 5 student whose reading and spelling skills are at a Grade Prep or Grade 1 level. The rest of the class is busy reading to learn, but your student still hasn’t learnt to read.
Unless a child has a significant intellectual disability (e.g. IQ below 60), it’s very likely that with the right sort and amount of teaching, she or he can learn to read and spell.
Students with funding for aide support usually have reports in their school file saying what their difficulties are, and how to help them, but aides are not always given a copy or might need to ask permission to read them, and sometimes reports commissioned by the family are not on the school file. They’re often worth chasing up, though, for detailed individual information.
Why hasn’t this child learnt to read/spell?
Many children take a long time and need a lot of practice to learn how to sound out words, because of difficulties discriminating and manipulating sounds in words. To find out if this is true of your student, look for assessments of Phonemic Awareness (not just phonological awareness, in fact you want to know about older students’ advanced phonemic awareness).
If no recent assessments are available, an idea of phonemic awareness skill level in younger children can quickly be gained from the free, three-minute Test of Auditory Analysis Skills. Older kids’ advanced phonemic awareness can be investigated using the free online Phoneme Substitution Screener. Someone on the student’s team might also have the book Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, which includes free phonemic awareness screening tools.
Another common problem is that a child is struggling to learn the complex, overlapping English spelling system (one sound = many spellings, one spelling = several sounds). For example, they might know “a” as in “cat” but not “a” as in “last”, “want”, “all” or “paper”, or “a” in combinations like the “ar” in “car”, “aw” in “draw”, “au” in “launch”, “ay” in “day” or “ai” in “sail”.
A test of non-word reading or spelling (or preferably both) is a good way to clarify what a learner knows about the spelling system. There are several free ones on the MOTIF website which teachers can sign up to use, or anyone can try my non-standardised, low-frequency word spelling test to get an idea of what a student knows about spelling patterns, and what they still need to learn.
If test results suggest that your learner has difficulties with phonemic awareness and/or learning spelling patterns, formal reports should recommend suitable resources, or you can find many good ones on my Phonics Resources list, and ask the professionals on your team whether they seem appropriate, and if so, whether the school has or can get them.
If a Speech Pathologist or Psychologist visits your school, they should be able to help with programming. Usually this will involve working on both phonemic awareness and spelling patterns at the same time, plus listening to your student read decodable books aloud a lot.
Some older learners who are very focussed on what words look like, and not what they sound like, and who habitually guess words rather than sounding them out, need to work on phonemic awareness in the absence of letters, to really focus their attention on sounds. A great book of activities for such students is Equipped for Reading Success.
If assessment shows that your student has good Phonemic Awareness and good Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondences, but still reads and spells very poorly, please seek a professional assessment of their language skills, including working memory and rapid automatised naming skills, to pinpoint their problem(s) so that these can be targeted well in teaching. The school Speech Pathologist may be able to do this assessment, or if families need to pay for it, they can ask their GP for a medicare referral to help with some of the cost.
The AUSPELD Understanding Learning Difficulties website is a fantastic place to find out things about the different reasons kids struggle to learn, and how to help them.
The Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder YouTube channel also has lots of great information about kids with speaking and listening problems, which often go hand in hand with problems learning to read and spell.