Q&A: UH expert stresses early intervention for learning-disabled kids
The center’s current research includes intense intervention and brain imaging on struggling readers in fourth and fifth grades. Fletcher took time to explain the work to education reporter Jennifer Radcliffe. Excerpts follow.
Q: You spent the last several years researching very young students and middle- schoolers. What did you learn?
A: There’s a lot of evidence that the longer you wait, the harder it is to intervene. Compared to the early elementary school grades, the effects of a year of fairly robust intervention on middle schoolers was very disappointing. What we decided to do after one year was to continue the intervention and then, after two years of intervention, we began to see more robust effects. The point that it drove home for us is that intervening with older children is not a one-year, short-term operation. It takes a great deal of very intensive intervention.
Q: How can a child make it into middle school and still be struggling to read?
A: Even though we talk constantly about the importance of early intervention, that message just continues to get lost and diluted in its translation. Every piece of research I know says that kids who are not reading at grade level by the end of first grade are at very high risk for a learning disability.
Q: So when should parents worry about their child’s progress?
A: By the end of kindergarten, you absolutely want to see children not just recite the alphabet, but know the sounds the letters make. Early in the first grade, they should have a developing sight word vocabulary and by the end of first grade they should be able to read connected text, at least short sentences.
Q: How much are learning disabilities in reading the result of a lack of exposure?
A: We would be hard pressed to tell the difference between a brain that’s had inadequate instruction and a brain that’s had adequate instruction and has just struggled to learn. Reading problems clearly run in the family. Kids with parents who don’t read are at high risk for reading problems themselves, but it’s not like a hard-wired sort of thing. We have a history of thinking about learning disabilities in terms of a bad gene/bad brain type of theory. In fact, we understand learning disabilities as interactions of risk factors that are probably genetic that make your brain at risk. You’re born with a brain organization that makes it harder to learn to read.
Q: So what percent of the population has a learning disability?
A: It’s all part of normal bell-shaped curve, but I think people agree that 5 to 10 percent of kids have a reading disability and we think the number of kids in the population who are really severely intractable or resistant (to intervention) is probably around 2 percent.
Q: Do you think that 5 to 10 percent is getting served in school?
A: I don’t think they’re getting served in ways that would really accelerate their reading. People underestimate the level of intensity it takes to really accelerate reading in someone who’s really behind. We provided two years of instruction to children who were behind at grade six. Some people believe that you ought to be able to fix struggling readers in, say, six months. It doesn’t work that way. We put the child in intervention two hours a day for a shorter period of time and get really rapid acceleration, but it’s the intensity that really makes the difference. Schools by and large are either not able or don’t have the awareness of what it takes to provide this level of intervention.
Q: And if you had a magic wand and could change one or two things in general education to improve reading, what would they be?
A: One thing you can do is eliminate a lot of the excessive stuff, which would be excessive testing, the focus on IQ – really channel all the resources you can into intervention. We spend far too much time trying to figure out who the right child is and what that does is deplete resources that could be used for interventions. I’m a psychologist. We teach assessment. We do too much of it. When I was on the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, we heard testimony that the average cost of the testing for special education eligibility was $800 to $8,000, and the median was $4,000. You can do a really good intervention program for $4,000.