Optimizing Literacy Instruction for our Special Education Students: Part 2

If a student has gone through the Response to Intervention (RTI) tiers and is now receiving special education they are showing a need for highly individualized instruction. They need highly trained teachers who have a deep understanding of literacy and can provide the student with individualized support throughout their entire day. The student will receive the most benefit from service providers working together in a coordinated manner to avoid disconnected learning that might be contradictory and confusing to a learner.

There are specific opportunities and supports that we can provide for our special education students (or any struggling readers) that can be applied to both classroom and intervention literacy experiences to increase students’ chances of becoming readers and writers and even decrease the need for classification.

Increase reading and writing opportunities

Students receiving special education often receive more isolated skills work in the form of flashcards and skills worksheets. This type of work has no connection to real reading and writing which is exactly what these students need the most.

Special education students are frequently taught with highly scripted programs that are heavy in phonics instruction and light in teacher decision making. We are shortchanging our students when we take this one size fits all approach. If these programs were the answer we would not continue to have such dismal results with our special education students. No one way of teaching children how to read will meet the needs of all of our students whether they receive special education or not. To make the most impact it is necessary to drop these costly programs, work to make teachers more knowledgeable and as a result improve the quality of the teaching.

In regards to our youngest readers who may know few letters, it is important to note that students do not need to know all of their letters to work with what they know in print (Clay, p. 62). We slow down their learning, compounding the problem when we hold them to that standard. They need opportunities to use the little they know in authentic reading and writing experiences.

Sometimes special education students are in classrooms where there are few texts that they can actually read. There are also some situations where they read less than 10 minutes (out of 30 minutes) during their literacy support services and sometimes there is no reading at all only skills practice (Allington, p. 62).

It can be tricky to increase the amount of reading and writing our special education students engage in because they may avoid reading and writing activities due to their literacy struggles. If students have had repeated exposure to meaningless skill and drill tasks and books that are too difficult they may be turned off from reading and writing not seeing the purpose.

We have to provide all of our students, especially those in special education, meaningful interactions with texts, books that they can access and read with a high accuracy rate, and choice of high quality and high-interest texts. We need to be creative and persistent in matching these students up to books that will get them hooked on reading.

Provide emotional support

“Recent neurological research proves that emotions are central to learning. They impact what children learn, how they learn it, and how they feel about themselves while engaged in the learning process” (Lyons, p. 72).

If a student experiences repeated daily struggles they will begin to feel like a failure. They may start to display avoidance behaviors (e.g., escaping to the bathroom or nurse’s office, arguing, throwing materials). Some behaviors may be quite difficult to work with but a good place to start is by building a trusting respectful relationship at the very beginning of your time together. Try to understand what the child’s words and actions are telling you and try not to be quick to dismiss their feelings. If we provide students with a safe place to learn with routines in place we can help to relieve anxiety making it easier to learn.

Use everything you know about the student to plan for success. We should never have children consistently reading material that is too difficult. Instead, for optimal growth, work within the child’s zone of proximal development. Use all that they know, even if it is very little, to help them learn something new.


When students make a “genuine accomplishment” be sure to praise and encourage them (Lyons, p. 131). If we see signs of anxiety, distress, or discomfort we have to be proactive and offer support before the behavior escalates. When children are feeling angry or anxious they are not able to think clearly let alone learn what you are trying to teach them.

Support what the child should attend to

Be explicit with what the child should be attending to. It is a complex task for readers to divide their attention between meaning, structure and visual information. Sometimes they will over-rely on one source of information and neglect others. This is even more likely to happen if a child is reading a steady diet of texts that are is too difficult. They may spend all of their energy sounding everything out and have no stamina left to put toward actually understanding what they are reading. To read more about the importance of balancing the three cueing systems read Dr. Sam Bommarito’s blog post on the topic.

We need to help students know how to attend to the features of letters and how to attend to words in detail so that they can develop a system for learning words.

For students that find it difficult to maintain their attention to tasks, we want to make sure to limit distractions and avoid disruptions. Once the lesson is disrupted it can be difficult to get these students back on track.

Teach for strategic processing

We are less effective when we stress accuracy over strategic processing. We want to teach for, support, and reinforce behaviors such as searching, monitoring, self-correcting, cross-checking, and confirming.  Teachers who understand literacy processing can provide expert prompting that supports the child in constructing an effective processing system.

Teach for Fast Processing

We want our students’ reading and writing to be quick and efficient. If we want to accelerate learning for these students slow is not an option!  There are many things that we can do to speed up a child with slow processing.

  • Use letter sorts to help your students quickly distinguish the features of letters.
  • Have students quickly find and locate known letters and words in familiar texts.
  • Have students slow down to learn words in detail and then speed things up by making the word so well known that they know it in a “snap” (as Michal Taylor would say it).
  • Help students learn how to link known information and how to check their own reading.
  • When one-to-one match and left to right directionality have been firmly established have the student take out their finger and teach for fluent reading.
  • Teach your students how to notice and read meaningful groups of words together.

Read: “said Father Bear.”

Not: “said-Father-Bear.”

  • Show students more efficient ways to form troublesome letters and work to untangle any confused letters or letter reversals.
  • Teach for over-learning so that letters and words become automatic (Click link to read a powerful article on the importance of automaticity written by Tim Rasinski).

Connect Reading & Writing

Reading and writing are complementary systems that support each other. “Active teaching can remind children to use what they know about one to assist them in the other” (Fountas & Pinnell, p. 38). Reading helps students to learn the “syntax of written language” and provides many opportunities to “process words visually”. (Fountas & Pinnell, p. 38). Writing supports reading by requiring the child to slow down and pay close attention to visual information in detail. Forming letters while writing messages helps students to better learn the features of particular letters.

*If you want to read more about the reading and writing connection visit Literacy Lenses to read an interview with Colleen Cruz on her book Writers Read Better: 50+ Lessons That Turn Writing Craft Work into Powerful Genre Reading. Also, read the Twitter Chat recap from #G2Great.

Provide Opportunities to talk about books

All students should be provided with opportunities to have deep meaningful conversations with others about the engaging books they read. Even early readers can go deeper by making basic predictions, inferring the character’s feelings, or discussing how the author made the book funny. In Guided Reading: Responsive Teaching Across All Grades (2nd edition), Fountas and Pinnell wrote: “talking fuels thinking” (p. 470). All readers develop a deeper understanding and look at things differently when talking with others.

Monitor Progress

Useful progress monitoring tools will provide information as well as inform your instruction. Having students read a leveled text in their instructional range and taking a running record is more likely to encourage instruction that is focused on building an effective processing system.

Curriculum-Based Measurements (CBMs) have become a popular RTI tool for monitoring progress. Using tools such as CBMs can be problematic for several reasons. They require students to read grade-level texts that are too difficult for them.  They do not provide much to the teacher to guide their instruction. They do not promote strategic problem solving or self-corrections because these behaviors slow down the reading. The focus of CBMs is on speed and accuracy which can lead teachers to focus narrowly on these areas.

Our special education population will continue to underperform if we continue to use “one size for all” programs. These students need individualized support from teachers that understand the reading/writing process.  With the new school year, I urge you to take this challenge with our special education students/struggling readers in mind:

say, “No, thank you” to:

  • scripted programs
  • too much phonics instruction
  • too much skill and drill practice
  • meaningless worksheets
  • assessments that do not inform instruction
  • over dependency on standardized tests to label students
  • reading hard texts day after day
  • teaching reading as a “simple” process
  • teaching reading and writing as two separate processes

say, “Yes, please” to:

  • individualized instruction
  • getting to know students
  • teachers highly trained in literacy
  • more time reading real books that allow for mostly accurate reading
  • more time writing for authentic purposes
  • useful assessments that lift the learning and teaching
  • providing a nurturing safe environment & building  trusting relationships
  • teaching for active problem solving that honors all  3 cueing systems
  • showing students how the reading and writing processes work together
  • the hum of productive talk about great books

If you agree with this message and accept this challenge please share this post with a friend and help to spread the word.



Allington, Richard L. What Really Matters in Response to Intervention: Research-Based Designs. Boston: Pearson, 2009. Print.

Clay, Marie M. Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals (2nd edition). Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2016. Print.

Fountas, Irene C. and Pinnell, Gay Su. When Readers Struggle: Teaching That Works. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2009. Print

Johnston, Peter. “Response to Intervention in Literacy: Problems and Possibilities.” The Elementary School Journal. June (2011): 511-534. Print.

Lyons, Carol A. Teaching Struggling Readers: How to Use Brain-Based Research to Maximize Learning. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2003. Print.

2 thoughts on “Optimizing Literacy Instruction for our Special Education Students: Part 2

  1. Thanks for the mention. The concept that is sometimes missing from the 3 cueing discussion is the concept of cross-checking. Cross checking can turn word guessing (e.g. it starts with s, so it must be so or soup or sit or sun or ….) to educated guessing (It’s in the sky and bright plus 1st letter S = it must be sun. Remember the meaning clues can come from the way the story is going, from pictures in in story et. al). Using a meaning clue plus the letter clue (visual/graphophonemic) is always more powerful than just using the letter clue by itself.

    Liked by 1 person

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