Some people assume that kids with disabilities won’t achieve much. But if the teachers and parents featured in this program have anything to do with it, maybe that can change. Educators are rethinking how they teach reading, so that every child has a better chance to become a good reader.
Signs of Literacy
Jedidiah Figueroa is a first grader at Gideon Pond Elementary in Burnsville, Minnesota. In addition to having some skills on the sledding slope, Jedidiah also has some skills in the classroom. His reading and writing abilities are at or above his grade level, and for a hard of hearing student — that's exceptional.
“Statistics show that, on average, a deaf person graduating from high school has a third or fourth grade reading level,” says Dr. Daniel Koo of Georgetown University. Luckily for Jedidiah and his mom Janet, they found someone who is working to change those numbers.
Kitri Kyllo runs the deaf and hard of hearing program at Jedidiah’s school and she’s determined to make all of her students successful readers. In working toward this goal, Kitri’s program has adopted a bilingual mode of instruction. Everyone in the program receives exposure to both American Sign Language (ASL), the language of the deaf community, and a newer form of communication, cued English. While ASL is an entirely different language with its own grammar and syntax, cued English works with the spoken form of the English language. It uses eight hand shapes and four hand placements, along with the natural movements of the mouth to visually represent every sound in the English language.
This bilingual approach allows Jedidiah to have access to the cultural language of the deaf and hard of hearing community, while at the same time allowing him to fully access the spoken language of his home.
At Bellehaven Elementary in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Dennis Higgins teaches seven boys who are refugees from the traditional classroom.
Dr. Higgins’ students are what academics call “twice exceptional.” They’ve been formally identified by the school system as gifted. They all have an identified disability, as well. For example, Zain Bajwa is a second grader who can already do fifth grade math, but he also has dyslexia.
The key to teaching these unique learners is to not only remediate their disabilities, but to also focus on recognizing and developing their gifts.
“If we don’t catch this early and provide appropriate support and help kids understand where their strengths are and where their struggles are, they begin to define it for themselves. ‘I must be stupid.’ ‘They think I’m smart, but they don’t know.’ Or, they might define it as, “I must be lazy.”…They do not perceive themselves as learners and they will not feel good about school situations that require them to do things that they struggle with,” says Mary Ruth Coleman, president of the Council for Exceptional Children.
To identify twice exceptional kids, teachers should watch for inconsistencies in their students’ performance. For instance, a student may be able to verbally tell a teacher all about a specific topic, but when he or she is asked to write that same information down on paper, the student struggles. Writing, even the physical act of holding a pencil, can be very difficult for a twice exceptional child.
In an effort to circumvent this stumbling block for his students, Dr. Higgins utilizes personal computers.
“Even though the spelling issues are still there and the grammar issues are still there, [the student] can get his ideas across in a more sophisticated way,” says Dr. Higgins.
Ultimately, Dr. Higgins hopes to ease the boys back into a general education classroom, providing them with both the confidence and the skills they need to be successful.
Jason Franklin and his fellow students have what are known as cognitive disabilities. In Texas and many other states, that means, among other things, that they have an IQ under 70. As a result, many schools have low expectations for kids like them.
Southern Methodist University’s Dr. Patricia Mathes is testing those assumptions, with a study in Fort Worth.
“I think that the reason that people who work with these groups of children have not really focused on literacy and reading is a belief that it was too cognitively challenging for that population and that, perhaps, these children just could not be readers . . . People often make assumptions about what these kids are capable of doing. I call that 'assumicide,' because they make an assumption that they're not capable and then they never try,” says Dr. Mathes.
For most children, reading instruction involves phonics: learning the relationship between letters and sounds. But many schools teach children with cognitive disabilities just to memorize one word at a time.
Dr. Mathes and her colleagues are trying another approach. They’ve placed specially trained teachers in schools throughout the Fort Worth area. Using a standard, phonics-based curriculum, they hope to prove that children with cognitive disabilities can learn to read — and not just memorize a small group of sight words.
Jason, a student in the study, has Williams syndrome. Like others with this rare genetic condition, Jason has a wonderfully outgoing personality, a strong affinity for music — and significant learning difficulties.
Karen Britton is Jason’s teacher.
“When I first started teaching Jason, to sound out a word would take him a really long time, even a simple word, like, if the word was "cat," and he sounded out "c-"-"at", by the time he went back to say the word, he’d forgotten the first letter,” says Ms. Britton.
To accommodate these memory deficits and learning difficulties Dr. Mathes and her team use a curriculum that moves forward using little, teeny steps.
Bea Jolly is another teacher in the study. And she knows about teeny steps, including teeny steps backward.
Bea teaches Aidan and Jordan, two autistic boys who need her to move very slowly. It may take them a month or more to learn a new sound. But that makes the baby steps feel like triumphs. The memory of a single sound means success and progress.
To keep an eye on progress across the board, the study team regularly performs assessments on all of the students. If they don’t see consistent progress they know that they are not giving the student what they need. So far their results are showing a lot of promise and Dr. Mathes believes, “that at the end of the day, these children will be readers.”
“I can spell my first name. I can spell the street I live on. I can spell my middle name off and on,” says Dr. Christopher Lee.
Dr. Lee has a Ph.D., a great job, a mean butterfly stroke, and learning disabilities.
His LD made school a challenge, even in elementary school. Luckily, his success in swimming gave Christopher the confidence to keep plugging away at school. He wound up swimming for the varsity team at the University of Georgia. And that’s where reading and writing became more than pain and misery.
Now he’s works at the University helping students like himself. He’s the director of the Alternative Media Access Center, or AMAC. They provide electronic textbooks to students with disabilities all over Georgia. They also provide training on the software that helps students get the most out of these books. All of this assistive technology is second nature to Christopher, because he uses these tools every day. For example, he uses a talking pointer to read the newspaper online. He’s even written two books and a 246-page dissertation thanks to technology like voice recognition software.
Christopher works closely with lawyer Tamara Rorie. She’s the head of compliance at AMAC and she’s blind.
Tamara grew up reading Braille. Going through school she had to carry around five or six large Braille books in a big bag, but today she carries around her Braille in her PDA.
“It talks and it has a Braille display. So I can read the notes that I’ve taken. I can read the files that I download. I often download books directly to this PDA and read those.”
So how do you get a history book onto a Braille PDA? Or into any electronic format? Some publishers will provide the files, but if they don’t, AMAC has to digitize the books by hand. It’s tedious and expensive … and critical.
Christopher is working to spread the word about alternative media. He wants to provide his electronic books to college students nationwide, and he’s working to push the message down into grade schools.
For Christopher, this work is a calling and the mission is personal.
“Technology can unlock the minds of these individuals that are right now kind of locked behind a cage of letters and it can get them through college and it can help them keep and maintain a job. It can open the world for them. It can make them independent. Yeah, they can change the world.”
How I See Words
Ethan Ligon, of Denton, Texas, is a ten-year-old Elvis fan. Ethan’s in fourth grade. He likes to horse around with his brother. And he likes to read. Ethan reads
with his fingertips.
Braille is based on a six-dot grid, like half of a domino. There are also two types of Braille. Uncontracted Braille is letter-by-letter. Contracted Braille is a kind of shorthand. And it’s not usually accompanied by printed letters.
When they learned that their child was blind, the Ligons took an unusual step. They decided to learn Braille along with their son. While the process was daunting, the Ligons forged ahead.
“We couldn’t see ourselves sort of that removed from – from the process of – of reading with the kids and checking homework, so we learned Braille,” says Ethan’s dad, Eric.
Even before the Ligons learned Braille, they made sure that Ethan was surrounded by it. They wanted Ethan to associate Braille with reading, so they always made sure that whenever they read to Ethan, he had some sort of Braille there in front of him to touch.
Today, Ethan goes to Woodrow Wilson Elementary. His teacher is Matt Preston. This is Matt’s first year with a blind student. Since all of the work has to be Brailled two weeks in advance, Mr Preston has to make sure to stay organized and plan his lessons well ahead of time.
To keep Ethan organized, Ethan works every morning with his Braille teacher, Diane Briggs. They review what Mr. Preston has planned for the day, like new vocabulary, and they study Braille.
When Diane is one-on-one with Ethan, she’s hands-on. In the classroom, she keeps her distance. While she is there to support him, she doesn’t want to become a crutch, and she also wants to make sure no one else makes any presumptions.
“Oftentimes, some of the reactions are, 'Oh, well, we won’t expect him to do as much as everyone else.' And I do try to dispel that as quickly as possible. We’ve gotta keep the expectations up there, and the child will rise.”
Ethan's a really lucky kid. He's got a terrific Braille teacher — and those are very hard to come by. Only 10% of people who are blind ever get to learn Braille. Even more rare is the unusually dedicated support of his parents. The Ligons have embraced Braille. And they’ve fought to get Ethan the services he needs.
When it comes to her children, Ethan’s mom, Leslie, won’t accept any excuses, “I’m tenacious as a junkyard dog. I’ll fight for my kids. I’ll fight for Ethan, who’s blind, and for [his brother] Spencer, who’s sighted. I’ll do whatever it takes to teach them how to fly and how to be independent, because that’s what we all want for our kids.”