Once in special education, struggling readers (SRs), such as students with dyslexia or mild-to-moderate cognitive impairment, often make little or no progress in reading and writing. They often regress.

This doesn’t make sense. After all, they have smaller classes taught by special education teachers. They have highly personalized Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that meet all their academic, physical, and social-emotional needs.

They have case managers who closely monitor their progress, and when warranted, quickly call a meeting to make program adjustments. It sounds flawless.

It’s not.

Based on my 50-plus years of clinical observations, study, interviews, journal editorships, and teaching, from elementary school through graduate school, I’ve identified several common reasons. Here are two.

The Complexity of Reading Difficulties

Reading requires SRs to memorize letters, their sounds, and the sounds of numerous letter combinations. It requires them to do this almost effortlessly and instantly, within a fraction of a second.

When decoding or sounding out visually unknown words, it requires them to match the rough approximations they sound out with the correct words in their listening vocabulary. It requires them to understand that many words vary from our decoding generalizations; that "come" is not pronounced "comb."

When reading a paragraph, it requires them to understand the meaning of each word and sentence and how they affect the message of the paragraph. And if their text has two or more paragraphs, they’re required to see how each paragraph relates to the others. All of this requires strong working and short-term memories as well as broad experiential and language backgrounds, which include a wide, multi-meaning understanding of vocabulary.

It also requires more than fleeting thoughts. It often requires substantial motivation, concentration and deep thought as well as substantial energy, focus, and the prodigious coordination of every factor in this and the preceding paragraph. And these factors are but a small part of a much more complex task.

I hope the message of the previous paragraphs is clear: Reading (and its counterpart, writing) is complex. It is no wonder learning how to read (and write) our irregular language bewilders, overwhelms, and exasperates many students. Occasionally, this describes skilled readers immersing themselves in complex subjects for which they have little knowledge.

I’m one of these “skilled” readers who’s sometimes frustrated. Recently, I started reading scientific articles about osmolarity — a complex subject foreign to me — that has tried my patience, but because I have a history of successful reading, not my motivation.

So, what does all of this say about case managers and special education teachers?

The Education of Special Education Teachers and Case Managers

In large, brilliant neon letters, it says that special education teachers and case managers involved with SRs must have extensive knowledge about the causes and diagnosis of reading and writing problems plus knowledge and experience in effectively implementing research-supported solutions. But many, including school psychologists who often function as case managers, don’t.

Special education teachers

According to Education Dive, "Most states are not adequately preparing elementary and special education teachers to teach reading, asserts a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. The report shows that while most states have standards for teacher education programs that include reading instruction, just 11 require teachers in both areas to demonstrate their knowledge on a licensing test. While some states require such exams for elementary school teachers, they don’t always do the same for special education teachers — ‘a perplexing stance given that 80% of all students are assigned to special education because of their struggle to read,’ according to a press release on the report."

School psychologists

"Clearly, reading is the greatest area of student difficulties and yet research findings indicated that school psychologists had received limited training in reading."

Many special education teachers and school psychologists have had only a smattering of lecture-discussion coursework about reading difficulties. Few have had deep and comprehensive practicum experiences in identifying, understanding, diagnosing, and remediating serious reading and writing problems.

Without such knowledge and experience, we can’t expect much. Nor should we blame them. It’s not their field. It’s not the focus of their coursework. It’s not a federal requirement.

Asking them to have the coursework, experience, and expertise needed is like asking me to have the competence of a well-trained physical therapist who specializes in teaching patients with spinal injuries how to walk. I’d fail. And though I’d try my best, I’d fail them.

Thus, accepting this situation will only exacerbate the struggles of many SRs. And as their struggles continue, even intensify, they’ll lose ground. Many will fall further behind their age groups; two-year gaps might quickly become three-year gaps. Apathy or dislike or outright anger and resistance to reading and writing may well replace their motivation and effort to learn. Many will develop strong behavioral and mental health problems.

In the book, “Dyslexia and Mental Health,” Lennie Aston, a counselor from the U.K. who suffered from dyslexia, explained:

"The emotional repercussions of dyslexia can be presented in so many convoluted ways because it is so idiosyncratic…. On a day-to-day basis many dyslexic people are dealing with a cocktail of poor concentration, memory lapses, emotional dysregulation, and sensitivity to noise, light and texture. This lies in tandem with feelings of shame, embarrassment, guilt, and fear of limitations being found out…. Being dyslexic is like being on a seesaw of ability and disability, never quite knowing when a mind full of ideas will disintegrate into a mind full of blankness and confusion. It is no wonder that many end up suffering from an unrelenting generalized anxiety that can escalate to full blown Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and despondency triggering adverse emotional coping strategies. Such dyslexia-related attributes and feelings often proliferate into adulthood, often causing havoc."

Similarly, Medical News Today reported:

"Adults with dyslexia often have a wide range of nonspecific mental health, emotional, and work difficulties. They may have low self-esteem, experience shame, humiliation, or lack confidence in their ability to perform at work or school. They may appear highly intelligent or score well on intelligence tests but underperform at work or school."

Because the causes of SRs' problems are often invisible, parents and schools often blame SRs for poorly personalized programs that fail to meet their needs. I’ve often heard variations of "Reggie needs to try harder. This caused him years of failure.” Erroneous comments like this “blame the victim” for common consequences of poorly personalized instruction.

Inevitably, such comments harm everyone: Reggie and his parents as well as his teachers, evaluation teams, IEP teams, and schools.

A far better strategy has been available for innumerable decades: Systematic problem solving. Since much of the problem is structural — the education and training of school personnel — consider these structural suggestions:

  • Whenever students are suspected of having significant reading or writing problems, fully involve specialists with master’s degrees in reading and literacy.
  • Have the specialists function as full-fledged members of both the students’ evaluation and IEP Teams. For students identified as SRs, make the specialists their case managers or highly involved IEP Team members who frequently observe SRs’ instruction, assess progress, demonstrate effective instructional practices, and consult to the SRs’ teachers and parents.

Yes, this may require educating, certifying, and hiring new specialists. It’s expensive and time-consuming. But letting SRs struggle incessantly and adding mental health issues to their constellation of challenges will cost schools and society even more. For SRs, the lifelong costs may prove horrid.

Other Causes

The complexity of reading and writing, and the education of special education teachers and case managers, tell us a great deal about inadvertent factors contributing to SRs’ problems. The complexity of English is here to stay.

Universities, the federal Department of Education, state departments of education, state legislators, and Congress can do much more to improve the reading and literacy expertise and experience of special education teachers, general classroom teachers, case managers, and support personnel.

My next two articles about The Needless Struggles of Struggling Readers will focus on two causes within our grasp to improve. They’re the frequency and validity of progress monitoring and the structural nature of reading instruction.

The structural topic will not deal with conflicts over instruction, such as phonics vs. balanced instruction. Instead, it will address what most teachers and parents believe is sorely needed, but is often missing.