For Teachers

5 Ways to Help Special Ed Students Reach First Grade Reading Levels

By The Room 241 Team October 16, 2012

The first grade reading level represents the point where children are beginning to build a foundation of literacy that will last them a lifetime. Helping special education students read at the first-grade level is an achievable goal, but it can pose a unique challenge because many of these children have specific issues that make it difficult for them to learn how to read.

At the first grade level, students:

  • Can figure out unknown words and decipher passages and meaning.
  • Begin to understand how reading can be enjoyable.
  • Understand the relationship between letters and sounds, and can play with letter substitutions to make new words.

These skills help students navigate the world, from reading signs to taking written instructions in school and in the community. Hence, getting special-education students to read at the first grade level can help them lead more independent lives.

Special-needs students have dramatically different abilities and disabilities. Some will never be able to learn to read at all, while others can learn to read at first-grade level and perhaps beyond. Here are five tips on helping move special-needs students to the all-important first grade reading level.

Evaluate why the student is struggling

A variety of individual disabilities may hinder a student’s ability to learn. For example, some students may have vision problems that prevent them from clearly differentiating letters. If this is suspected to be the issue, there should be a special evaluation to determine if the student would benefit from learning the Braille alphabet, or maybe they just need glasses.

Other students may have difficulties tracking the words across the page. For these students, the words may jump around on the page and not form any discernible pattern. These students are going to need assistance with training their eyes to follow the words and they often need assistance from reading devices.

Another common issue is with dyslexia and similar difficulties. These students will struggle with how their brain breaks apart the words on the page. This disorder is most commonly associated with children who write their letters backwards. These students often will need extra time, patience and reading-assistant devices.

One or both eyes may struggle with focusing on the words before them. These students may turn their heads to be able to read the material because one eye is stronger than another.

Develop an individualized education plan

An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a list of skills and goals put forth for students by their educators, parents and administrators. These plans detail the unique abilities of the student and the goals to help them throughout the year. These lesson plans help everyone involved in the student’s education know what the educational goals are, what the plan is for meeting these goals, and how to know when these goals are met. The IEP should focus on independent reading and the letter and sound relationship that is critical to the first grade reading level.

Use individualized instruction

Many special education students benefit from one-on-one instruction. This allows them to work slowly through the new skills and receive the attention they need to move forward. It allows teachers to also judge how the student is doing with their IEP and what goals are being met. Many special education students also benefit from repeating lessons and skills, and individualized instruction allows them to move forward at their own pace.

Use explicit instructions

Children with special needs often require very clear instructions that offer useful information. Teachers should focus on helping special education students understand techniques and strategies for deciphering words and understanding plots and concepts. This should include the chance for frequent feedback and practice with new skills until the student begins to feel comfortable.

Put technology tools to work

There are a number of programs designed to help students read. For example, text readers can aid comprehension and model fluency and offer pop-up dictionaries for vocabulary, speech synthesis and student feedback. These programs can help students when the teacher is unavailable and can guide pupils toward independent learning.

Students with special needs have a unique set of challenges when it comes to reading. They may require specialized instruction to help them begin to gain the prized independence associated with the first grade reading level. By following the above steps, teachers can help their students take giant leaps forward in their reading education.

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