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V.4 #3 A Handout for Parents and Teachers - Why Extra Help May Not Help Children with Learning Disab

Brought to you by Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW®) through the generosity of Saint Joseph's University.

Great. The school agreed to give your child the extra reading help he needs. Every day, he’ll join a small group of children to get 45-minutes of extra reading help from a reading specialist in a special reading room.

The specialist has a great reputation; she’s knowledgeable, skilled, and kind. The children love her. And the room is great; it’s loaded with reading materials. Your child should make great progress.

He should … if.

If his regular teachers continue to teach him to read at his proper instructional and independent levels. If his teachers and reading specialist carefully coordinate their instruction. And if they carefully monitor his progress. Otherwise progress may be poor.

Proper Instructional Level

Unfortunately, many schools use frustration level materials to teach children with reading disabilities. This backfires. As Phyllis Newcomer, a well respected scholar and test developer noted, using such materials “can create serious achievement and emotional problems” (1986, p. 26).

Instructional and independent reading levels refer to the difficulty of materials a child can read comfortably—without frustration. Here’s a description from an article I published with Patrick McCabe:

For materials to be at a student’s instructional reading level, students should quickly and correctly read aloud 90 to 95 percent of words in [a text] and understand 70 to 89 percent of the text. [This is before instruction.] Instructional level assumes that teachers will work with students, teaching vocabulary, skills, and strategies; monitoring and guiding practice; and structuring independent practice. For independent level materials, which students should find easier than instructional level materials, students should quickly and correctly read aloud 96 percent or more of the words in [a text] and understand 90 percent or more of the text. Whenever students work by themselves, at their desks or at home, materials should be at their independent level. (Margolis & McCabe, 2004, p. 242)

Some children, however, may need easier instructional level materials. Their comfort level for instruction may require them to easily identify 95 to 98 percent of the words they read in paragraphs.

Coordinated Instruction

Lack of coordinated instruction is a major pitfall. For a variety of reasons—scheduling, indifference, conflicting obligations—many schools and teachers fail to coordinate instruction. For children with reading disabilities, this is often disastrous. Here’s a sampling of the literature:

The instruction provided by the classroom teacher and the [reading] specialist must be carefully coordinated; that is, both should be teaching the student the same reading strategies. Similarly, the information being presented to the student should be carefully controlled. For example, it would be inappropriate for one teacher to present letter-sound correspondences in one sequence while the other teacher presented them using another sequence. Conflicting approaches overload students with too much information and confuse and frustrate them. Furthermore, teachers should not shirk their responsibility to teach reading because a student is receiving outside instruction. Lower performing students generally need more practice than average students to master skills. Therefore, the teacher should provide practice and instruction in addition to that provided by the specialist. (Carnine, Silbert, & Kameenui, 1990, p, 59, emphasis added)

Examinations of the instruction students receive in the classroom and in the remedial setting suggests that there is little [coordination]. On a typical day, remedial students are receiving instruction on different skills, using different materials, and with a different focus in two different environments.... This means that the students who have the most difficulty integrating information and transferring learned skills to new situations are presently receiving the most fragmented, least unified instruction of all. (Lipson & Wixson, 2009, p. 137, emphasis added)

Tutoring needs to be coordinated with classroom instruction.... It is easier for a child who is struggling with learning to read to receive the same method of reading instruction with the same or similar materials in the classroom and during tutoring. If the tutor works with the child on some of the same stories that were presented in class, the child has repeated opportunities to work on challenging materials. An at-risk child has enough trouble learning one approach in reading without having to juggle or reconcile two different approaches. As the child masters material, he or she is more likely to perform better in class and is likely to become motivated to read. This is not to say that the tutoring session should be the mirror image of what is done in class. During tutoring, the tutor can present strategies and provide explanations for things that the struggling reader is not likely to get from class. (Wasik, 1998, p. 569, emphasis added)

Simple push-in programs will not assure congruent instruction…. ‘It is quite possible to have classroom and remedial teachers occupying the same space yet delivering unrelated programs.’…. It seems likely that congruence between instructional settings for remedial readers will depend on teachers having serious discussion about the nature of reading and the rationale for delivering ‘more of the same’ or ‘different” instruction.’ (Lipson & Wixson, 1991, p. 342, emphasis added)


Without frequent monitoring of your child’s progress, and adjustment of instruction to overcome problems that monitoring identifies, instruction may well frustrate him, sap his energy, waste irreplaceable time, waste opportunity, erode his confidence, make him angry, destroy his hope. The good news is that many teachers, reading specialists, and Individualized Education Program (IEP) Teams know a great deal about monitoring. If they don’t, they can easily learn how to monitor progress. For a wealth of information on how to monitor your child’s progress, read chapter 7 of Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds (

What To Do

Speak to your child’s teachers and reading specialist. Make sure they understand your concerns about the need for proper instructional level, coordinated instruction, and frequent monitoring. If necessary, show them the quotes above and chapter 7. Keep in mind that the vast majority of teachers want to help children, and attending to these concerns will increase their likelihood of success.

If your child is in special education, make sure his IEP accurately states his levels of academic functioning, how his progress will be measured, and when you will get progress reports. As his parent and a member of his IEP Team, it’s your right. Here’s what the rules and regulations for the federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA; 2006), say:

[Each child’s IEP] must include … a statement of the child’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance [and] a description of how the child’s progress toward meeting the annual goals [of his IEP] will be measured [and] when periodic reports on the progress the child is making toward meeting the annual goals … will be provided.” (§300.320)

As a member of the IEP Team, you can also request that your child’s teachers and reading specialist meet regularly to plan and coordinate his instruction or that they develop a way to assure well-planned, coordinated instruction that meets his needs. Failure to plan and coordinate instruction may severely impede or block his progress. If this happens and you bring it to the attention of the school—in writing—and if the situation is not rectified, the school may be denying your child what federal law requires: a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

If, after this, the school continues to reject your written request for coordinated instruction, think about hiring an advocate or special education attorney. Why such a drastic step? Because failure to get coordinated instruction may doom your child’s program to failure.


Carnine, D., Silbert, J., & Kameenui, E. J. (1990). Direct Reading Instruction (2nd ed.). Columbus, Ohio: Merrill, p. 59.

Lipson, M. Y., & Wixson, K. K. (1991). Assessment & Instruction of Reading Disability: An Interactive Approach. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 342.

Lipson, M. Y., & Wixson, K. K. (2009). Assessment & Instruction of Reading and Writing Difficulties: An Interactive Approach. Boston: Pearson, p. 137.

Margolis, H., & Brannigan, G. G. (2009). Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds. Voorhees, NJ: Reading2008 & Beyond (

Margolis, H., & McCabe, P. P. (2003). Self-efficacy: A key to improving the motivation of struggling learners. The Clearing House (2004, July/August), 77(6), 241-249.

Newcomer, P. L. (1986). Standardized Reading Inventory (manual). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed, p. 26.

Rules and Regulations for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA): Federal Register / Vol. 71, No. 156 / Monday, August 14, 2006 / Rules and Regulations, § 300.320 Definition of individualized education program.

Wasik, B. A. (1998). Using volunteers as reading tutors: Guidelines for successful practices. Reading Teacher, 51(7), pp. 562-570, p. 569.

© Reading2008 & Beyond

Howard Margolis, Ed.D., is Professor Emeritus of Reading and Special Education at Queens College of the City University of New York. He is former editor of the Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation and for the last 19-years he has edited the Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties. Howard and Dr. Gary G. Brannigan, Professor of Psychology and Chancellor’s Scholar at the State University of New York-Plattsburgh, have recently published a book on reading and advocacy for parents, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds. This column was originally published at

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