Every child deserves to learn to read, and a new study says students with low IQs are no exception, with the right teaching techniques and parents' and educators' unwavering determination.
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For a child with an intellectual disability or a lower IQ, learning to read can feel like an insurmountable struggle. Likewise, parents may feel like each ounce of progress has required a gallon of blood, sweat and tears.

But new research offers hope for students with low IQ, as well as their parents and educators.

Funded by a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, the study titled, "Is Scientifically Based Reading Instruction Effective for Students With Below-Average IQs?" was published in the journal Exceptional Children. The research shows persistence and specialized instruction can help students with mild to moderate intellectual disability to learn to read at a first-grade level or better.

"This article is a call for boldness and the redoubling of our efforts to truly teach all children to read," its authors wrote.

In summarizing their findings, authors emphasized the study "is both a clear demonstration of the potential of students with low IQs to achieve meaningful literacy goals and a clear demonstration of the persistence and intensity it takes to help children with low IQs learn to read."

In other words, educators and parents must never give up and must never let up.

Study details

Research took place over four academic years. Participants began the study early in elementary school (grades 1 through 4) and participated in the study for up to four academic years. All qualified students were included regardless of the cause of the disability or comorbid conditions (e.g., Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, Williams syndrome, physical disability).

Students in the treatment group received the intervention daily for approximately 40 to 50 minutes in small groups of one to four, provided by highly trained intervention teachers.

The study's lead author, Dr. Jill H. Allor, professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Simmons School of Education and Human Development, Southern Methodist University, told allParenting the goal was to find out if techniques shown to be effective with students with reading disabilities and average or high IQs would also work with students with lower IQs, including students with intellectual disability.

Tips for parents

Dr. Allor emphasizes the importance of parent involvement by educating themselves and steadfastly advocating for their children. Specifically:

  • Learn as much as you can about your child’s reading instruction.
  • Ask about the techniques being used and whether or not your child is receiving explicit instruction in both word reading skills (e.g., alphabetic knowledge, phonics) and oral language (e.g., listening to books, talking).
  • Seek out reliable sources. Dr. Allor recommends Reading Rockets.

Tips for working with your child

"There is also a lot a parent can do at home to provide additional practice and encouragement," Dr. Allor shares. Her recommendations include: 

  1. Encourage your child to talk. Talk to your child and listen to your child talk. This builds language skills and general knowledge of the world. This will improve comprehension of what is read later.
  2. Read to your child and encourage your child to talk about what he/she has read or listened to.
  3. Ask your child’s teacher to give you specific recommendations about what you can do at home. Learning to read, particularly for students who struggle, requires lots of practice.
  4. Keep reading at home fun and positive. If your child becomes frustrated at all, seek help from your child’s teacher.

What's next?

Dr. Allor said more work must be done to effectively help students succeed and ensure teachers have the right training and tools.

"We need brief tests that will help teachers know when even small amounts of improvement have been made," she says, explaining that it often takes time for a student with an intellectual disability to demonstrate on tests that they're making progress. "Tests that capture small amounts of improvement are needed in order to let teachers and students know they are on the right track," she says.

In addition, Dr. Allor calls for "further refinement of teaching methods." She says "methods and materials are needed that make early reading more meaningful and maximize the development of oral language along with word reading."

Also on the horizon? Dr. Allor wants to investigate how to "help students learn more quickly and easily, possibly through games and technology."

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