HomeGeneralNo Longer Just a Hope: Children With Disabilities Can Be Successful Readers

No Longer Just a Hope: Children With Disabilities Can Be Successful Readers

By Laura J. Colker, Ed.D.,  Reading is Fundamental
Published: September 22, 2009

According to G. Reid Lyon, former Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institutes of Health, “If you do not learn to read and you live in America, you are not likely to make it in life.” As unsettling as this quote may be, it is all too often the outcome awaiting children with disabilities who cannot read. Reading supports all other academic skills. Without being able to read, children are not able to write or spell. Science, social studies, math, and technology will likewise prove elusive.

Most young children approach formal schooling with eagerness and heightened anticipation. Not being able to read, however, is anything but fun for a child. It is embarrassing to stumble across words whencalled on by the teacher. To have this happen day after day humiliates a child and removes all of the joy from learning. Most children in this situation see themselves as failures. At a very young age, a downward spiral can begin. Rather than being motivated to read, they are motivated to expend effort getting out of the task. And without practice and positive motivation, we all know that reading skills will not develop further.

Reid Lyon expounds on this phenomenon in testimony given before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce (July 10, 1997):

It is clear from our NICHD [National Institute of Child Health and Human Development]-supported longitudinal studies that follow good and poor readers from kindergarten into young adulthood that our young poor readers are largely doomed to failure from the beginning. By the end of the first grade, we begin to notice substantial decreases in the children’s self-esteem, self-concept, and motivation to learn to read if they have not been able to master reading skills and keep up with their classmates. As we follow the children through elementary and middle school grades, these problems compound. By high school, these children’s potential for entering college has decreased to almost nil, with few choices available to them with respect to occupational and vocational opportunities. These individuals constantly tell us that they hate to read, primarily because it is such hard work, and their reading so slow and laborious. As an adolescent in one of our longitudinal studies remarked, “I would rather have a root canal than read.”

Writing in the NICHD publication “Why Children Succeed or Fail at Reading,” Robert Bock observes that this sense of failure runs over into everyday life: “Even what, to the rest of us, are everyday conveniences—a roadmap, the instructions for a microwave pizza—become daunting tasks for those with reading difficulties. And as more information becomes available on the Internet, those who can’t read will be left behind by an information revolution that is largely text based. Even people with a mild reading impairment do not read for fun. For them, reading requires so much effort that they have little energy left for understanding what they have just read.”

The impact of not being able to read is obviously far deeper than just depriving one of the inherent pleasures of reading. There are serious social and economic repercussions as well. For children and adolescents who already have a disability, being a nonreader is a double whammy.

The good news, though, is that most children can learn to read—even those with significant disabilities. Cherie Takemoto, Executive Director of the Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center in Springfield, Virginia, writes that it is a “myth that people with mental retardation and other cognitive disabilities cannot learn to read.”

Indeed, Reid Lyon reported that for “85 to 90 percent of poor readers, prevention and early intervention programs that combine instruction in phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, reading fluency, and reading comprehension strategies provided by well-trained teachers can increase reading skills to average reading levels.”

There is thus very real evidence exists that children with disabilities can become readers and enjoy all of the accompanying rewards that go with this skill. As with most things in education,
though, the earlier a problem is identified, the sooner appropriate corrective action can be taken. When it comes to reading, this appears to be especially true. As noted earlier, Lyon predicts that 85 to 95 percent of poor readers can obtain the skills to read at an average level. This figure, however, only applies to children who are identified at a young age, i.e., in preschool, kindergarten, or first grade. If a child is not identified until third or fourth grade (typically children with reading problems are not identified until age 9), the outlook is less promising. In fact, the reality is that only 25 percent of children identified at age 9 as having a reading disability are able to become competent readers.

It should be noted that not all children with reading problems have a disability. Nor do all children with disabilities have reading problems. There is, however, a great deal of overlap between the two. Here are the related statistics, as reported by the Council for Exceptional Children. Of all children with disabilities, 50 percent are identified as having learning disabilities. And approximately 80 percent of these children are categorized as learning disabled because of reading-related problems.

Developmental reading disorders involve 2 to 8 percent of all elementary school children. Children with reading disorders typically have a difficult time distinguishing the sounds in spoken words, or phonological awareness, which is a prerequisite to learning to read. Early intervention can be of enormous help to these and all children, as reading specialists have developed techniques that can help most every child acquire prerequisite skills that underlie reading.

Intervention is also vital when children have reading problems due to more severe cognitive disabilities. According to Foorman, Francis, Fletcher, Schatshneider, and Mehta (1998), “New studies show that the earlier intervention begins, the more quickly children with more profound disabilities can learn to read and write. In addition, if the disability is addressed early, the student may avoid the social, emotional, and educational problems created by repeated failure.”

With some types of disabilities, though, intervention may never correct the deficiencies that interfere with the reading process. A blind child will never be able to see print and a deaf child may never develop phonemic awareness, yet both can be taught to be competent readers.

Intervention and appropriate instruction make a monumental difference in the quality of a life for a disabled child. Those who work with young children have a unique opportunity to facilitate this process. We know from the literature that girls are just as likely as boys to have reading disorders. Yet, boys are identified in far greater numbers than girls. This is most likely because boys tend to take out their frustrations by acting out and behaving willfully. Misbehaving children get noticed. Insightful teachers and RIF coordinators will understand the connection between poor reading skills and poor behavior and have such children evaluated. Girls who have reading disabilities, however, are more likely to withdraw, and slip through the cracks. Educators thus need to be keen observers to look for the signs of a reading disability in both boys and girls.

Having a disability is enough of a challenge. We can make school and life more rewarding and enjoyable for all children by helping them become effective readers.


Bock, R. Why children succeed or fail at reading: Research from NICHD’s program in learning disabilities. Rockville, Md.: NICHD, 1998.

Foorman, B., Fletcher, J., Francis, D., Schatshneider, C., & Mehta, P. The role of instruction in learning to read: preventing reading failure in at-risk children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90:37-55, 1998.

Takemoto, C. Personal communication. October 2002.

White House Summit on Early Childhood Cognitive Development. Address by G. Reid Lyon, Chief, Child Development and Behavior Branch, National Institutes of Health. Summary Comments, July 27, 2001.

Visit RIF.org for more tips and information on helping children discover the joy of reading.

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  • Thank you for this very thoughtful, detailed article. Your statistics are jaw-dropping, but completely changeable. That’s good news.

    September 22, 2009

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