Sunday, June 12, 2011

Teaching children with mental retardation to read.

How to teach students with Intellectual Disabilities mental retardation) to read!
Are children with Intellectual Disabilities (Mental Retardation) or severe learning disabilities really able to learn how to read? The simple answer is, yes, when the child, parents, and school all seek to make the goal of reading a priority. My personal teaching experience in a self-contained cross-category class taught me all students can read. The reason my first principal hired me was in part, my difficulties learning to read in the primary grades due to my severe dyslexia. My road to literacy was hideously tedious, to say the least, and left me feeling worthless. Endless hours running recorded flashcards through a tape recorder with no chance of reading quality literature.
     After twelve years teaching and a Masters in Special Education and I am still learning from my special needs students better ways to teach reading. The methods, structures, and strategies that I use and developed are all in a philosophy I call Reading Boot Camp. The ideas and structures were developed to help the most sever learning disabled students learn to read. The program as an intervention shows most LD students gain two years ability in the twenty days. Please read more about Reading Boot Camp,

My Story,
Written and spoken English (Morpheme-based grapheme to phoneme) was a bunch of cuneiform squiggles that swam around on the page. My disconnect was the morpheme grapheme to phoneme conversion. I was unable to make a bridge between the auditory and visual patters, rules of reading phonetically. Most of my teachers including special education teachers had no clue what I was experiencing. The schools solution for my dyslexia was modification, accommodation and very infective remediation, that left me illiterate and always two or three years behind my peers. 

My special education teacher used a Bell and Howell tape machine that read flash cards to teach me how to sight read, most of my early memories are sitting with that infernal machine running cards through over and over. My grandmother bought me a record player with read along stories like Jungle Book and Journey to the Center of the Earth. This was superior to the flash cards. I would were-out needles and records listening so hard to make sense of the hieroglyphs on the page that I knew made up great stories.

At home I could read high adventure with the help of my record player, at school I was reading books that I believed and thought were for the stupid kids!

For parents and teachers of exceptional learners I would suggest a listening lab with books on tape also lots of music with lyrics. Please stop and get help from a professional before you use or buy software programs, that are just a modern Bell and Howell tape machine, as I said the learning was hideous! Students must learn and practice tracking text with their finger for all reading activities even if they cannot sight read or decode at the beginning! They need to read along out-loud as much as possible. The repetition of the songs and the books on tape will eventually make a bridge. And always the reading material has to be high interest. I was bored to death page flipping my easy read books and using my tape machine.


  • 107 words make up over 50% of the words you read! 
  • 1000 words make up 75-80% of the words you read! 
  • 5,000 words make up 85-90% of the words you read!
Start by assessing reading levels!

Children that qualify for remedial reading programs have a 500-1000 or even a 2000 word deficit. Children need a crash course in phonics, sight word recognition, and fluency/automaticity all while developing strong vocabulary knowledge. Many programs will refocus on phonics and slowly move into sight words then finally, reading comprehension. Reading Boot Camp is a crash course for struggling readers that hit all 5 domains of reading.  

1. Vocabulary: 

The four types of vocabulary. 



2. Phonemic Awareness  is a subset of phonological awareness in which listeners are able to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes, the smallest units of sound that can differentiate meaning. Separating the spoken word "cat" into three distinct phonemes, /k/, /æ/, and /t/, requires phonemic awareness.

3. Phonics : refers to a method for teaching speakers of English to read and write that language. Phonics involves teaching how to connect the sounds of spoken English with letters or groups of letters (e.g., that the sound /k/ can be represented by c, k, ck, ch, or q spellings) and teaching them to blend the sounds of letters together to produce approximate pronunciations of unknown words.

4. Fluency: is the ability to read text accurately and quickly. Fluency bridges word decoding and comprehension. Comprehension is understanding what has been read. Fluency is a set of skills that allows readers to rapidly decode text while maintaining a high level of comprehension (National Reading Panel, 2001).

5. Reading Comprehension: is defined as the level of understanding of a writing

General Education Students can easily learn to read about 800-1000 words per year! Mentally retarded students can learn 300-500 per year. 


Dolch Sight Words
Sight words are English words that cannot be sounded out using phonics.

PRESCHOOL: a, and, away, big, blue, can, come, down, find, for, funny, go, help, here, I, in, is, it, jump, little, look, make, me, my, not, one, play, red, run, said, see, the, three, to, two, up, we, where, yellow, you

KINDERGARTEN: all, am, are, at, ate, be, black, brown, but, came, did, do, eat, four, get, good, have, he, into, like, must, new, no, now, on, our, out, please, pretty, ran, ride, saw, say, she, so, soon, that, there, they, this, too, under, want, was, well, went, what, white, who, will, with, yes

1st Grade: after, again, an, any, as, ask, by, could, every, fly, from, give, giving, had, has, her, him, his, how, just, know, let, live, may, of, old, once, open, over, put, round, some, stop, take, thank, them, then, think, walk, were, when

2nd Grade: always, around, because, been, before, best, both, buy, call, cold, does, don't, fast, first, five, found, gave, goes, green, its, made, many, off, or, pull, read, right, sing, sit, sleep, tell, their, these, those, upon, us, use, very, wash, which, why, wish, work, would, write, your

3rd Grade: about, better, bring, carry, clean, cut, done, draw, drink, eight, fall, far, full, got, grow, hold, hot, hurt, if, keep, kind, laugh, light, long, much, myself, never, only, own, pick, seven, shall, show, six, small, start, ten, today, together, try, warm

Nouns: apple, baby, back, ball, bear, bed, bell, bird, birthday, boat, box, boy, bread, brother, cake, car, cat, chair, chicken, children, Christmas, coat, corn, cow, day, dog, doll, door, duck, egg, eye, farm, farmer, father, feet, fire, fish, floor, flower, game, garden, girl, good-bye, grass, ground, hand, head, hill, home, horse, house, kitty, leg, letter, man, men, milk, money, morning, mother, name, nest, night, paper, party, picture, pig, rabbit, rain, ring, robin, Santa Claus, school, seed, sheep, shoe, sister, snow, song, squirrel, stick, street, sun, table, thing, time, top, toy, tree, watch, water, way, wind, window, wood

Dr Suess taught countless generations to read using whimsical rhymes, fanciful tales, and kid friendly absurdity. With no more than 300 words we learned phonemic awareness, fluency, sight words and how to read and love books. Today we kill any desire to read and learn as we parse reading into so many boring bits.

Please share your stories or questions about teaching reading!


  1. I am a retired elementary teacher with a grandson who has tested as mildly mentally handicapped. He is now in fifth grade and is still reading very simple I Can Read books (first grade). His special education IEP has placed him in a READ 180 classroom where they read a book and take a test on the computer. He has not progressed any in the last two years of school. I have a hard time persuading him to read to me but when he does, I notice that he seems to move his eyes closer and then farther away like the words are moving on the page. He also does not seems to understand how letters and sounds work. He was diagnosed as language delayed when he was a toddler and started school at age 3. He seems to be able to progress in Math, and understands content of Science and Social Studies. He is also very capable at computer and video games. What kind of instruction should I ask the school to provide or what can I provide to help him. My goal is for him to be able to read functionally as an adult. It breaks my heart to watch him try so hard.

  2. My heart goes out to you!
    Many struggling readers I work with seem to stall at the first grade level (some sight words and CVC words) Blends, Digraphs, Vowel teams, and silent e words require explicit instruction and tons of practice.
    You first need to know what your grandson's strengths and areas of need are.
    If he were in my class, I would first assess his letter sounds, sight words and decoding skills on the the first 5 of the six syllable types: CV words, CVC words, CVCe words, CVVC, and CVrC words. In addition a Phonemic Awareness test would provide useful information.

    Sight words need to be identified instantly...and being fluent in Sight words, will allow your grandson to conserve his cognitive energy for decoding other words. Sight Word cards from Childfirst incorporate a picture into the word, a kinestic gesture and a sentence to help children learn and remember the Dolch sight words, nouns, etc.

    Sight word phrase and sight word sentence practice can help build fluency.
    Letter sounds and word work ideas are available at Many basic cards are free to download, and will help with blending sounds into words. If your grandson is beyond the CVC level, there are others activities available at a small fee.


Thank you!