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V.3 #4 Social-Emotional Development - Book Review—Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds

Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds By Howard Margolis and Gary G. Brannigan 2009, New Jersey: Reading 2008 and Beyond, 301 pages.

It is no secret that reading difficulties cause a great deal of anguish. Teachers are perplexed about what to do in the classroom, parents are distraught over what they see as a bleak academic future for their child, and the students themselves experience ongoing social and emotional turmoil as they attempt to navigate skills that they see their peers’ master sometimes easily. Despite the distress that the mention of reading disabilities conjures, authors, researchers, and professional educators Howard Margolis and Gary Brannigan present reasons for hope to those affected by this disability and the individuals that care about them.

From first glance, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds is an informative, easy to understand book written for parents and teachers of students who are struggling to master the many tasks that go into learning to read. At the outset, Margolis and Brannigan direct readers to first skim through the book in order to identify those parts that are most pertinent to their situation. The authors’ concept of reading disabilities as a highly individualized disorder is reinforced throughout; never slipping into the assumption that the varied information contained between the covers will be useful to all readers. To this end, the titles of each chapter clearly identify what is contained in that particular section of the book. For example, readers experiencing difficulty navigating the school system’s required obligations to the students and their families can jump right to the middle of the book, Chapters 9, 10 and 11, in order to get an overview of what they can expect from school based evaluations and Individual Education Plans (IEP). In addition to the clear layout of the chapters, within each chapter the information is presented in easily digestible formats. Utilizing bullet points, tables, charts and questions, Margolis and Brannigan make specific information accessible to the reader who is skimming through the book looking to have particular issues addressed.

An important point to note for all readers is the working definition from which Margolis and Brannigan approach reading disabilities. The authors’ make the point that there is little consensus in the field about what exactly constitutes reading disabilities. From their perspective, parents and educators can work from a “…broad, global definition of a child with reading disabilities that is inadequate for research purposes, but adequate for you to help your child…” (p. 5). The definition that Margolis and Brannigan put forth is:

A child with reading disabilities is any child who struggles more than the average child to learn to read. Usually such a child cannot, with typical instruction, successfully read grade-level materials or complete grade-level reading assignments; if she can, she often reads in a slow, laborious manner or has difficulty understanding the materials. The terms reading disability and struggling reader do not suggest any particular cause for the child’s struggle with reading. (p.5)

Readers of this book should understand that the authors approach the difficulties associated with learning to read as a temporary set back for some children, while recognizing that for others it may truly represent a neurological disorder. In this way, parents and educators can recognize that the cause of the difficulty varies from child to child and so the approach to remediate the difficulty also needs to be highly individualized. Parents and educators are asked to notice risk factors that may manifest in three areas: the child, the school and the home.

Risk Factors—Within the Child

  • Expressive and/or receptive language difficulties

  • Letter recognition difficulties

  • Phonological and phonemic awareness difficulties

  • Dialect difficulties

  • Intellectual differences

  • Behavioral and social difficulties

  • Hearing problems

  • Visual problems

  • Other chronic health concerns

Risk Factors—In the School Setting

  • Lack of access to high quality teachers and training

  • Infrequent curriculum opportunities for listening and reading books

  • Broad-based school difficulties with class size, disorganization, communication and student promotion

Risk Factors — In the Family/Home Setting

  • Reading disabilities present in other members of the family

  • Little exposure to print or being read to by others in the home

  • Members of the family struggling with mental illness such as depression

  • Poor parental habits or addictions to dangerous substances such as smoking and alcohol

As indicated, some factors are controllable while others are not. Children who are demonstrating difficulties in the areas noted should have a comprehensive evaluation for a disability. Margolis and Brannigan detail the cautions, steps and procedures associated with psycho-educational evaluations. These evaluations investigate neurological reasons associated with reading disabilities in order to put into place necessary instructional accommodations. However, if the risk factors are external to the child and are present in the school or home setting, the authors suggest that other adjustments may be necessary in order to assist the child’s reading progress. These adjustments may include changes to specific reading instruction such as adding in a phonics approach and/or using specific strategies to address comprehension.

Another topic reviewed for educators and parents is that of reading instruction terminology. Both educators and parents alike can be dismayed by the use of jargon specifically associated with reading skills as they try to sift through a maze of questions when trying to figure out why a child is not learning how to read. Terms such as fluency, decoding, phonological processing and comprehension are just some of the terms that educators and parents are expected to know and understand. Luckily, Margolis and Brannigan understand how intimidating the use of such terms can be and provide an explanation of how those concepts are defined, what they look like in a child and how to work to strengthen them when a child is struggling to read.

As any discussion of reading disabilities can feel overwhelming to parents and teachers simply because of the vast amount of shifting information, on-going research developments, and complex legislation and practice guidelines, Margolis and Brannigan have set up a website as a companion to support parent’s and teacher’s use of their book. In this way, individual consumers who are comfortable with technology and want to have ongoing communication about reading disabilities can sign up for regular information feeds.

In conclusion, Margolis and Brannigan advise parents to persevere in the face of the difficulties their children face. “Develop your knowledge of reading disabilities, ask the right questions, use your problem solving skills, persist, and adhere to the belief that if you don’t ask, and sometimes if you don’t insist, your child doesn’t get.” (p. 288). It is the hard work of the parents, educators and children with reading disabilities that create the possibility that the child with reading disabilities can “beat the odds.”

Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds, written by Howard Margolis and Gary Brannigan is an informative, practical, well written, terrific first step in educating yourself about what and how reading disabilities manifests itself in those children you care for. The text is grounded in research, yet written in a style that is accessible. All educators and parents that have a child who is experiencing difficulties learning to read should have a copy to use as a resource guide for determining what their next step on the journey to reading success should be.


Margolis, H., & Brannigan, G. (2009). Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds. New Jersey: Reading 2008 and Beyond.

Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. In addition to teaching courses in Exceptional Students and Instructional Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Disorders, she has presented at numerous professional conferences, published articles on students with exceptional needs, friendship and teacher attitudes, and has co-authored a book for Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk (2008).

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