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What the Science Says: Effective Reading Interventions for Kids With Learning Disabilities

Research-based information and advice for sizing up reading programs and finding the right one for your child with a learning disability.

By Kristin Stanberry , Lee Swanson, Ph.D.

A worried mother says, "There's so much publicity about the best programs for teaching kids to read. But my daughter has a learning disability and really struggles with reading. Will those programs help her? I can't bear to watch her to fall further behind."

Fortunately, in recent years, several excellent, well-publicized research studies (including the Report of the National Reading Panel) have helped parents and educators understand the most effective guidelines for teaching all children to read. But, to date, the general public has heard little about research on effective reading interventions for children who have learning disabilities (LD). Until now, that is!

This article will describe the findings of a research study that will help you become a wise consumer of reading programs for kids with reading disabilities.

Research Reveals the Best Approach to Teaching Kids With LD to Read

You'll be glad to know that, over the past 30 years, a great deal of research has been done to identify the most effective reading interventions for students with learning disabilities who struggle with word recognition and/or reading comprehension skills. Between 1996 and 1998, a group of researchers led by H. Lee Swanson, Ph.D., Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of California at Riverside, set out to synthesize (via meta-analysis) the results of 92 such research studies (all of them scientifically-based). Through that analysis, Dr. Swanson identified the specific teaching methods and instruction components that proved most effective for increasing word recognition and reading comprehension skills in children and teens with LD.

Some of the findings that emerged from the meta-analysis were surprising. For example, Dr. Swanson points out, "Traditionally, one-on-one reading instruction has been considered optimal for students with LD. Yet we found that students with LD who received reading instruction in small groups (e.g., in a resource room) experienced a greater increase in skills than did students who had individual instruction."

In this article, we'll summarize and explain Dr. Swanson's research findings. Then, for those of you whose kids have LD related to reading, we'll offer practical tips for using the research findings to "size up" a particular reading program. Let's start by looking at what the research uncovered.

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.


Comments from readers

"When I was at the beginning of a search to find my dyslexic son a reading program, this article would have been a big disappointment. Otherwise, is a fine article for a parent with a kid without a reading disorder. The International Dyslexia Association recommends multisensory reading programs because they have been proven to work. Eg Orton Gillingham, Wilson, Slingerland, Lindamood Bell phonemic sequenceing (LiPS). BTW LiPs is the strongest program who have severe dyslexia and lack phonemic awareness. BUT.. Many reading programs can have 'direct instruction' and mention the buzz words in the article but they will be ineffective for children with dyslexia. That means money down the drain for the parent amd more heart ache and disapointment for the child as they may 'fail' again. "
"I recently attended the COBIDA conference in Columbus Ohio and had the opportunity to hear many notable speakers/authors on this subject. I did learn a lot--especially from visiting the vendors' booths. My experience with Orton-Gillingham has been wonderful for my 9-yr old son who has been attending The Marburn Academy for two years. He is now reading above grade-level, thanks to excellent instruction and early intervention! "
"I was disappointed with this article. the reading programs parents are confronted with have specific names: Lindamood Bell, Slingerland, Orton Gillingham, etc. etc. And it is difficult to get anyb information that would allow us to specifically apply this research. I would LOVE a study that says: Program A works best for children with this list of characteristics, or in this percentage of cases or something similar."
"My granddaughter is going to be placed into 6th grade next year at a 2nd grade level. Her school will only provide her 1/2 hour out of the regular classroom for 'group' reading resources. She sits with a group of 8 children and they take turns reading a sentence from a story! Doesn't even come near to what she should receive at the school level. How can a child remain at 2nd grade level, if attending school 8 hours a day for four years and still remain at 2nd grade level four years later? Narissa, Oceanside, CA"
"these ideas are great , but what if the school has no money for these programs. my son struggles and he is in the 6th grade and i have been told for the program his teacher needed there was no money. this is a concern for not only my child , but the others as well. any suggestions thank amelia Mcelyea Indiana"