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Study Finds Reading Possible Despite Low IQ


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For students with intellectual disability, functional skills are often prioritized over academics, but a new study finds that children with low IQ are capable of learning to read.

With persistence and specialized instruction, researchers found that kids with mild to moderate intellectual disability can read at a first-grade level or better. They say the results could have life-changing implications for thousands of students with low IQ.

“If these children, and any other struggling readers, can learn to read, that means they can go grocery shopping with a shopping list, read the labels on boxes and cans and read basic instructions,” said Jill Allor of Southern Methodist University who led the study published in the journal Exceptional Children. “Even minimal reading skills can lead to a more independent life and improved job opportunities.”

For the study, researchers followed a group of 141 kids with IQ scores ranging from 40 to 80, all of whom were able to speak. Of those studied, 76 students received 40 to 50 minutes of intensive reading instruction daily in small groups with no more than four students to each teacher. The remaining 65 students were provided standard lessons with varying levels of reading instruction.

After four years, the students who received the specialized instruction performed significantly better on a variety of reading tests compared to those who participated in the traditional lessons, the study found.

What’s more, researchers said that IQ did not predict a child’s ability to read. While students with higher IQ scores generally improved more quickly, there were cases where children with lower IQ scores outperformed their peers with higher scores.

“This study demonstrates the potential of students with intellectual disability or low IQ to achieve meaningful literacy goals,” Allor said, adding that the findings prove “we should never give up on anyone.”

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Comments (23 Responses)

  1. Judith Greenbaum says:

    Most of these kids can recognize logos (of foodstuffs, etc. at the store) because of their unique typeface and color, that makes it easier to read. They can also recognize the pictures on the package.

  2. Harrison Dixon says:

    In my early grades I attended a very small rural school where all of the students learned to read, yes all of them. Some read much slower than others but functionally. it was a small neighborhood school where the t

  3. LL says:

    This isn’t news to my son or me. In middle school his reading improved immensely because of his teacher and her emphasis on reading. Then he spent 4 years in high school spending very little time learning to read and went backwards in skill level. Since high school, I hired a person to work with him on reading, speech, and writing. All three have improved immensely. He is 22 and continues to gain new skills in reading and writing. I anticipate his advancement to at least a 5th grade reading level and shake my head and finger at the school district for not spending more time on reading skills in high school in their “life skills” classrooms for kids with intellectual challenges. In stead of telling everyone intellectually challenged kids can’t make progress on reading in high school, they should be adding reading to their “life skills” curricula.

  4. ajtmom says:

    Duh! With evidence-based curriculum, direct instruction matched with a trained individual the sky’s the limit. I work with students with an ID and they are easily on grade level.

  5. Rosemary Andrews says:

    Frequency, Intensity and duration is key. These individual can learn to read at a sufficiently proficient level for a independence and success. Various educational therapies like Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment, NILD, NACD, movement programs and others should also be pursued for greater cognitive stimulation and development.

  6. Rob says:

    Our son, whose IQ is assessed in the neighborhood of 40 has indeed learned to read. Although we had used a Phonics method to teach our other children, this was too abstract for our LD son. Instead we used flash cards to teach him what the words looked like. We started with concrete, high-interest words like “tiger” and “elephant” (with a picture on one side of the card, and the word on the other) and only moved on to the less-interesting glue words after he had made significant progress. We conscripted his older siblings to do brief flash card sessions with him several times a day.

    Now, as a teenager he can decode way beyond his comprehension level, but that’s not such a bad problem. The fact that he can read lowers the barrier to many other kinds of learning, as described in this article.

  7. Laura Leibowitz says:

    I teach reading to students with ID. I concur yes these students can be taught to read. I would be interested in learning reading programs were utilized.

  8. Betsy says:

    I work with preschool children and one of the child that I saw loved watching Signing Time videos. Her mother discovered that she could hold up a word and her daughtfer could sign that word. She had taught herself to read basic words. She was basically non verbal at the time. It was very exciting to see.

  9. Monica Burgess says:

    My son with Down syndrome who has never reached 55 on an IQ test is reading at 3rd grade level at 18 years. Insist on the right reading program (e.g., PCI) and don’t give up. Functional literacy is an important goal for employment and independent living. We wasted many years as well.

  10. Martha Gabler says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article. Yes, these children can be taught to read despite low IQ or other disabilities. My son has severe autism and is profoundly nonverbal. I taught him to read with the highly effective Direct Instruction reading programs: Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons and Reading Mastery. These programs break down the necessary skills (phonemic awareness, blending, segmenting, rhyming) into small steps that even my son was able to do–albeit with much more repetition and support than a typically developing child would need. The gift of reading lasts a lifetime, as this article notes. Thank you.

  11. Cathy says:

    My son tested at an IQ of less than 50. I was homeschooling him after a couple of schools failed to do anything other than put him in time-out or let him play all day with Legos and thought “I bet he could learn to read “Fun With Dick and Jane” which I learned from in school. He could. He also recognizes many more complicated words. With computer technology and a basic “unschooling”, he has done quite well. It doesn’t take a high IQ to realize the importance of words/reading and the desire created the drive for him to want to learn and that is more than 1/2 the battle!

  12. Jay says:

    This is not news to any decent teacher that works with this population. However, it would apparently be news to the designers of the new NCSC Common Core-based alternate assessment. They apparently think even kids with severe ID’s should be reading and comprehending at a much higher level. This is what happens when you let bureaucrats and test making companies design tests instead of teachers.

  13. Susan Berkowitz says:

    Finally the research catches up with what many of us in the trenches have known for a long time!

  14. barbara layden says:

    I have never given up on any special needs student. Always strive to get the best from each student and you will be happy for and with them.

  15. Elaine Heyler says:

    “With persistence and specialized instruction, researchers found that kids with mild to moderate intellectual disability can read at a first-grade level or better. They say the results could have life-changing implications for thousands of students with low IQ”. I SECOND this data!! I had a program for 8 years that meet the academic needs of all special ed kids. The reading program was Highly Specialized and taught by my, a qualified special education teacher for 32 years.These kids progressed and their self esteem skyrocketed. Success breeds success! Well the politicians and superintendent got their way and now these kids are drowning in inclusion classes with, no offense intended, regular ed teachers with no experience in teaching this population. Money is more important than the future of our children in our society!

  16. a z soforenko says:

    Reading is important to develop higher levels if life skills. However, being able to speak in terms of the correct phonetic is not neccesarily as effective as the ability to comprehend the written word. I recall that when at the University of Wisconsin in the middle sixties work was done to support that thesis. The study does suggest however, that we pay attention to the basic reading skills as necessary to for developmental growth and not equate them to a function of IQ.

  17. Barb Schade says:

    At The Claus Academy, in Norwalk, CT, we have several adult students who were never taught to read during their school years. With patience and persistence, all of them are beginning to read! The local high school, from which they all graduated, told me these students were “unable to learn”. Not true! With the help of Scientific Learning’s Fast ForWord program, each one of them improves a little every day. This greatly impacts each student’s quality of life.

  18. Bonnie Turner says:

    My daughter who has an IQ of anywhere from 59-68 is now 43. I was told that she would probably only read at a first grade level, but she now reads at a 5th grade level with decoding and comprehension at that level. My late husband and I read to both our children every night and they saw us reading a lot. My son had ADD and his reading level was at 12th grade when he was in the 5th grade. We didn’t do anything special to work with either child on their reading, just read to them. My daughter was in a special ed class from the time she started school until she finished with various teachers and plans – we moved quite a bit so she had different teachers and schools – so different methods. Regardless of what method was used, she went far beyond her prognosis. She reads today and uses her computer a lot. She’s got pretty good computer skills. We always expected her to be able to do more than her early prognosis and we were right.
    It sure would be nice/good if there were more spaces in programs so that people like my daughter could have the help she needs to get a job or have places to go or things to do. We have been on one waiting list after another in several different states. So my daughter is back to living with me and she is very bored with nothing to do. Because she is relatively high functioning, no services are available to her.

  19. Hohjo says:

    I hope that this study makes a huge impact! Our family values literacy, and we spent time teaching all of our children to read when they were preschoolers—including our child with an IQ in the 40’s. She took a longer time to achieve functional literacy than her siblings, but she is able to read & discuss e-mails from work, read programs from music shows, and text her family members. The message is clear: 1) Always include daily reading instruction in school. 2) Small groups allow for optimal learning. 3) Never give up!

  20. Jo Hoeppner says:

    My 14 y.o. daughter is living proof of this. Her most recent IQ score came in at a 59. The public school has failed her miserably and just shuffled her from year to year and with these newest evaluations they are pushing us to put her in the Lifeskills program. If you met her on the street or in the mall you would never know there is anything challenged about her! We recently found a neurologist who has his own reading method for these kids with years of data to support their successes. One of his former non-reading clients is now an astronaut! Does that mean my daughter will be? Probably not, but in just 7 short weeks she has gone from reading at an early first grade level to 4th grade material! Every day she gets better and more comfortable and has gone from saying she hates reading along with major behavioral issues when pressed to attempt it, to looking forward to the 45-60 minutes of help here at home every day and once weekly sessions in their office. It’s not a complicated method for parents to do–and actually should be what SCHOOLS are using for these special needs kids. But every single district in the area that he approached with it would not even consider it. Their methods fail and this one works and they won’t even LISTEN! It’s costing me $$$ and time–$$$ that my tax dollars should have been used for in school. It’s absolutely pathetic that if you don’t fit the neat little mold of a “model” student you get shoved into a room and ignored.

  21. Andrea LaRue says:

    Another plus for learning to read is that, when paired with pictorial or real-life input, it can provide a kind of scaffold or template for developing grammatically correct and/or socially useful language for those children whose language skills are lacking.

  22. Matthew Foster says:

    Drs. Rose Sevcik and Robin Morris of Georgia State University have been leading DOE/IES and NIH grants that have been effective in teaching children with intellectual disability and children with reading disability to read for well over a decade. What’s needed now is research focused on understanding predictors of reading comprehension and methods for improving it.

  23. heather says:

    where is a link to the study? my daughter had an ID diagnosis, but she can read on a 4th grade lvl at 12, SO all the teachers and her latest eval are trying to change her to nonverbal learning disorder, dispite her very low living skills, speech problems, memory issues. her over all IQ is between 64 onc to 78 once. any help to find some studies showing this is possable would be great

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