Given COVID-19's domination of the 2020-2021 academic year and the severe damage it did to the education of countless struggling readers, parents and teachers need to ask critical questions; questions that will help to accelerate the reading and writing achievements of struggling readers. For special education students, it's best to address these questions to the child's Individualized Education Program (IEP) Team.

Though the questions in this article focus on reading and writing, many of them, with modest revision, can help other special and general education students.

Three important definitions

Before you read the samples, it’s important that you understand these critical definitions.

Mastery: Generally, when orally reading passages, mastery refers to immediately, accurately, and routinely identifying 99% of words read in passages and correctly and fully answering 90% of questions asked.

Almost inevitably, routinely asking struggling readers to read and successfully complete reading assignments at lower levels of word recognition and reading comprehension accuracy backfires. Lower levels of success, such as recognizing only 80% of words and understanding only 60% of reading materials, cause confusion, frustration, and resistance. Technically, these figures represent struggling reader’s frustration level. It’s the level to avoid. It energizes and cements struggling readers’ fears that “I’ll never succeed. It’s too hard. I’m too stupid.”

Special Education: It’s critical that you understand the parts of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that will directly influence the nature of your child’s IEP, the plan that directs your child’s program and offers specialized services (e.g., extra tutoring). Once you and the school agree to the IEP, the school is obligated to implement it and provide each of the services listed.

One of the most important parts of IDEA is its definition of special education.

"Special education means specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability."

The definition makes clear that a school will have great difficulty justifying a program that has previously failed your child or is unlikely to meet his unique needs. As an educator, I believe that blatant statements like the one at the end of this sentence fail to meet IDEA’s intent: "This is the program we give to all students with reading problems. We have nothing else. There's no other option." More sophisticated wording with the same message also fails IDEA’s intent as well as the Supreme Court’s decision below.

Our advice: Study the definition, memorize it, bring copies to the meetings where it might be needed.

Challenging Objectives: In the Supreme Court's 2017 decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the Court unanimously ruled that:

"The IEP must aim to enable the child to make progress.... When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing 'merely more than de minimis' [trivial or minor] progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.... Every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives."

Educationally speaking, “challenging” does not mean bewildering, exasperating, frustrating, or anxiety-provoking. Challenging means lessons and objectives that are realistic, doable, and well within the struggling reader’s reach if, if the struggling reader uses the right strategy, in the right way, at the right time.

Metaphorically, in any one lesson, an appropriate challenge asks the struggling reader to stretch a readily attainable 3-inchs rather than an unattainable 3-yards. In 20 successful 3-inch lessons, 3-inches morphs into 5 feet. In other words, progress is often propelled by doable lessons that require moderate, sustainable efforts. Such lessons help to create the sustainable belief that "If I try, I can succeed. I can do it. I did it before."

Sample questions for parents (and teachers):

  1. Has a reading specialist recently assessed your child with one or two informal reading inventories and with actual books? Did the specialist identify your child's independent, instructional, and frustration levels for word recognition, reading comprehension, and listening comprehension?
  2. Did the reading” assessment include observations of your child during his typical reading and writing lessons?
  3. Did the reading assessment include observations of your child in situations in which he typically does well and in situations in which he typically struggles?
  4. Did the reading assessment include diagnostic instruction to identify strategies and situations that might work well for him?
  5. Does your child typically understand the assignments he's given, or do they confuse him?
  6. Does your child’s instruction generally require moderate but not extraordinary efforts?
  7. Does your child show interest in the topics discussed in reading and writing instruction?
  8. Does your child show interest in the instructional strategies his teachers use (e.g., contests, play acting, paired teaching, group activities)?
  9. Daily, does your child get extra, skilled reading instruction from a teacher or a reading specialist?
  10. Does a reading specialist frequently (e.g., monthly) consult with your child’s teachers?
  11. Is all instruction carefully coordinated with the reading and writing instruction your child receives in his general education or special education classes?
  12. Do your child's teachers demonstrate enthusiasm about teaching him to read and write?
  13. Do your child's teachers systematically follow a plan to create, sustain, or improve his motivation for reading and writing?
  14. Do your child's teachers help him link his effort and the correct use of appropriate learning strategies to achievement?
  15. Do your child's teachers systematically follow a plan to increase his confidence about his ability to read and write?
  16. Do your child’s teachers keep daily records of his progress in reading and writing?
  17. Is your child’s reading and writing instruction quickly modified if he begins to struggle?
  18. Does your child get specific supports to address unforeseen reading and writing problems? Is this support delivered in a non-stigmatizing and motivating fashion?
  19. If new instructional modifications fail to quickly eliminate your child's unexpected struggles, does the school call a new IEP meeting?
  20. Daily, does your child get numerous opportunities to read and discuss materials he finds interesting?
  21. Is your child's program balanced, so that all his current reading and writing needs are addressed? (This may include needs in automatic word recognition, word analysis, fluency, vocabulary development, reading comprehension, study skills, homework, written composition, and listening comprehension.)
  22. Have you and the school agreed on a homework program that doesn't deviate from his independent reading level, the level at which he can comfortably and independently succeed?
  23. In your child’s current program, is he likely to make substantial gains?
  24. Has the school discussed and shown you how to help your child improve his reading and writing abilities in ways that avoid family conflict?
  25. Has the school discussed and shown you how to enhance your child’s motivation for reading and writing?
  26. Has the school discussed and shown you how to enhance your child’s confidence for becoming a competent reader and writer?
  27. Does your child’s writing performance substantially improve when he’s interested in the topic and assignment, fully understands the assignment, believes he can succeed, and believes he can quickly get help whenever it’s needed?
  28. Does his IEP emphasize the use of writing strategies that are strongly supported by peer-reviewed research (e.g., found in academic journals)?
  29. When you request research supporting your child’s program, does the IEP Team provide it?
  30. Does your child's IEP make clear that his reading and writing progress will be objectively assessed at least twice monthly?
  31. Does his IEP suggest that he should frequently have opportunities to choose books, writing topics, and assignments?
  32. Does his proposed or current IEP make clear that all his homework will match his independent levels, the moderately challenging levels at which he can independently succeed?

Challenging? Appropriate?

By getting meaningful answers to these and similar questions, you'll get important insights about your child's reading and writing needs. This will help you determine if the current or proposed goals and objectives in the IEP are challenging rather than overwhelming or overly easy. If overwhelming or overly easy, you need to seek an IEP with goals and objectives likely to benefit him.