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Teaching Reading to Students with Mental Retardation


Reading is a very important skill that should be taught to allstudents, regardless of their mental condition. The skill acts as afoundation for development as well as success in different areas ofstudy. Hence, the main role of America’s education system is toinstruct all students on how to read. Unfortunately, teaching readingto students with mental retardation has been largely ignored in manylearning institutions. Many teachers assume that children withintellectual problems are unable to understand how to read, owing tothe assumption that reading is a talent, which surpasses theirintellectual abilities. As a result, many students with mentalretardation are unable to attain even the slightest reading literacy.

In the following discussion, the paper demonstrates that it ispossible for students with intellectual disabilities to learn how toread. Hence, the paper evaluates the instructional assessment,content and procedures for instructing learners with mentalretardation.

Instructional Procedures

Students with intellectual problems do not learn at the same pacewith those who have no mental retardation. Thus, differentinstructional procedures must be used when teaching reading tostudents with intellectual disabilities. These procedures include:

Phonics Instruction

Phonics refers to how students are taught to match a letter to itssound during word recognition activities. Research supports theability of students with intellectual problems to acquire phonicskills, which makes phonics instruction an effective instructionalprocedure for teaching reading to students with mental retardation(Allor, Champlin, Giffors &amp Mathes, 2010). The strategy isspecifically beneficial due to “the use of stimulus connectedprompting and fading techniques as well as phonics error correctionanalyses” (Allor, Champlin, Giffors &amp Mathes, 2010).

In phonics instruction, students learn how to read, because theinstructional strategy focuses on ensuring that learners are capableof sounding out words. Hence, it becomes possible for mentallychallenged students to identify letters and progress to produce thecorrect sounds for an entire phrase. Research indicates that althoughphonics instruction is not a direct teaching strategy, students aretaught how to read phonologically via sounding out activities (Allor,Champlin, Giffors &amp Mathes, 2010). The activities improve thelearners’ phonemic awareness, making it possible for them to changesounds in spoken words, which in turn improves their reading ability.

Sight Word Instruction

In sight word instruction, teachers focus on ensuring that studentsare able to recognize words, say the term and spell out letters. Theobjective of sight word is to encourage reading in students withmental retardation, for their practical use on a daily basis (Allor,Champlin, Giffors &amp Mathes, 2010). The students are imparted with“stimulus control prompting techniques” (Allor, Champlin, Giffors&amp Mathes, 2010). When students with mental retardation arecontinuously introduced to a word, which they can see, it becomeseasier for them to recall and read out the phrase. The teacher isexpected to introduce a word repeatedly, which can be enhanced bymatching the phrase using a picture.

Sight word teaching focuses on ensuring that students with mentalchallenges are capable of performing functional activities, likecommunication with other people. By understanding how to read words,they are able to use the different phrases they learn, to constructsentences on a daily basis. For instance, teachers can use flashcardsto show students words and their corresponding image (Alnahdi, 2015).The use of flashcards enhances significant as well as functionalacademic skills for learners with mental retardation. The advantageassociated with sight word instruction is that it is a direct methodof instruction. Direct instruction has a positive impact on teachingreading to students with mental retardation (Alnahdi, 2015). Becausethe learners are able to see and say the sight words, it becomeseasier for them to recall the phrases and spell out letters used tocreate a word.

Comprehensive Approach

While phonics and sight word instruction are effective instructionprocedures, which ensure that students with mental retardation canidentify and read out words, teaching reading to such students is acomplicated task. Thus, specialists in the area of special educationsupport a “comprehensive reading instruction” (Alnahdi, 2015).The comprehensive approach focuses on how to summarize words,question their meaning and seek for clarification on new phrases.Hence, as students learn how to read, they are also able tocomprehend the meaning of the words they are reading.

An illustration of the comprehensive teaching strategy is the use ofthe “Early Literacy Skills Builder” program (Alnahdi, 2015). Theprogram introduces complex reading skills to students and providesthem with an opportunity to practice the skills. The curriculum alsoinvolves “the use of direct instruction strategies to teachphonemic blending and segmenting, abilities essential for decodingand fully processing print” (Allor, Champlin, Giffors &amp Mathes,2010). As such, it becomes possible for students to connect the wordsthey see with their meaning. Generally, the comprehensive approachbegins with teachers grabbing the attention of learners, once thestudents are able to concentrate it becomes easier for them to decodeterms, and finally read the words (Alnahdi, 2015).

Frith’s Model

Frith introduces and instructional procedure that comprises of threereading development stages. These are the logographic, alphabetic andorthographic stage. In the first stage, students with mentaldisabilities are taught how to read using visual orientation, insteadof analytical orientation. “Words are learned by rote memory andany visual cue to a word is used and more or less associated with thegraphic representation of the word as in well-known logos of largecompanies” (Ratz &amp Lenhard, 2013). Hence, teachers use visualrepresentations of words, which are shown to the students and theyare required to read what they see.

In the alphabetic stage, Frith’s model suggests that once studentshave learned words visually, they should be taught how to identify“in a word element by element so that the children learn to soundout words” (Ratz &amp Lenhard, 2013). By the third stage, studentshave gained knowledge on how to evaluate phrases in larger units. Forinstance, students should be able to identify words they learnt instage one, when used in a sentence.

Instructional Content

The instructional content taught to students with mental retardationdiffers from that of mentally capable students. Teachers should putinto consideration several essential contents when teaching readingto students with mental retardation. These include phonemicawareness, fluency, text comprehension, phonics and vocabulary.

Phonemic Awareness

This refers to the ability to hear as well as identify sounds inspoken words. When teaching reading, the instruction content mustcomprise of spoken words. The students will be required to listen towhat the teacher is saying, and be in a position to identify thedifferent sounds that they hear. Such content cannot be taught bysimply providing students with mental retardation with content toread. They need to be guided on how sounds are made, for instance, byrepeating what their instructor says. Also, sounds make it possiblefor the students to differentiate between different words that mayhave similar spellings, which can be difficult for students withmental retardation (Wise, Sevcik, Romski &amp Morris, 2010).


Individuals with mental disabilities are unable to speak fluently.Many are unaware of how to pronounce words used in a sentence, whichexplains why many students with mental retardation are likely to makeawkward sentences. Thus, in order to enhance such students’effectiveness in reading, their instructional content should focus onfluency. Fluency is the capability to read text accurately, at therequired pace and by using the appropriate expression. Teachersshould ensure that students are taught how to pronounce words in theproper manner. This is achieved through direct instruction, where theteacher provides guided practice on how to articulate words toenhance fluency.

Text Comprehension

Text comprehension refers to the ability to understand what iswritten on print. Many students with mental retardation are slowlearners. Thus, they are unable to identify what is written. Althoughthey may read out a sentence, they may lack understanding on themeaning of the text. To ensure that students with mental retardationare able to communicate normally, it is crucial for teachers to focuson text comprehension. This is achieved through the use of the sightword instruction strategy. Students are provided with flashcards thatcontain words or images, which they are expected to, identify(Alnahdi, 2015). As a result, it becomes possible for them tocomprehend what is written in the flashcards. Slowly, the studentsare introduced to new words and eventually they are capable ofidentifying an array of words.


In reading, it is important that students understand therelationship amid letters in spoken as well as written language.Although students with mental retardation may be taught how to read,they may be unable to comprehend how and why different letters areused together, or why words have different sounds. Thus, theirinstructional content must focus on the relationship apparent inletters. Thus, sounding out activities should be part of the contenttaught to students with mental disabilities (Allor, Champlin, Giffors&amp Mathes, 2010). The activities ensure the students are able tocoordinate letters to their specific sounds.


Vocabulary is the capability to use words properly whencommunicating. It also involves the identification of words that havebeen used in print. The outcome expected after teaching the readingskill, is that students are able to speak and read fluently. Thus,students must be taught the different words that are used toconstruct sentences. The content taught to students with mentaldisability comprises of oral and written words. The teacher speaksthe words orally and requires the students to repeat what is said.Also, students are introduced to the spoken words through visualcontent.

Instructional Assessment

Once the students with mental retardation have been taught how toread, and the significant content introduced to them, it is importantto assess the instruction. Instructional assessment makes it possibleto evaluate whether the instructional procedures and content usedhave been effective in improving students’ reading skills. It ispossible for students to be taught how to read, but still be unableto read, or understand print text. The strategies used ininstructional assessment include administering tests on the studentsto evaluate the effectiveness of the instructional content taught,and the instructional procedures used.

Students with mental retardation are introduced to words throughstrategies like spoken activities or sight words. Hence, they learnto produce words based on how their teachers utter the word, or onwhat they see in printed text. In order to assess the effectivenessof the instruction, the teacher can organize for the students to dotests. However, the tests differ from those administered on studentswithout mental disability.

Word Recognition Tests

An illustration is word recognition tests. In these tests, studentsare given flashcards that contain words that have already beentaught, and asked to read aloud (Ruwe, McLaughlin, Derby &ampJohnson, 2011). Supposing that the students are able to correctlyidentify the word, and pronounce it as required, it implies that thestudent has gained reading skills. Hence, resulting in the conclusionthat the instructional strategy used to teach reading is effective.

Reading Tests

Another test is the reading test. The objective of the instructionalstrategies used is to ensure that students are able to read withease. Students with mental retardation are incapable of makingcomplete sentences, when compared to students without mentaldisabilities. Such difficulty could be attributed to the inability toidentify the relationship between printed texts in a sentence.However, when the students are repeatedly exposed to different words,how they are pronounced and their use in sentences, they should beable to identify and use the words correctly.

Hence, an instructional assessment strategy that can be used isreading. The assessment entails providing students with text andasking them to read aloud. If the students manage to pronounce thewords correctly and read an entire sentence, it is an indication thatthe instructional procedure has been effective in teaching reading.On the other hand, if students are unable to identify the differentwords in a sentence, through difficulty in pronunciation of printedtexts as required, it is an indication that the instruction procedurewas unsuccessful.

Vocabulary Tests

The tests include providing students with words and asking them tocreate meaningful sentences. Although students with mentaldisabilities are limited in their ability to construct sentences,instructional content that focuses on vocabulary skills ensures thatthey are able to read and understand sentences made. Hence, thestudents are also able to create their own meaningful sentences whencommunicating. Such ability depicts that the instructional procedureand content was effective in teaching reading.


Students with mental retardation are unable to learn how to read inthe same way as students without disabilities. Hence, teachingreading to such students requires the use of specific instructionalprocedures. These include phonics instruction, sight word instructionand the comprehensive approach, such as Frith’s model. Theinstructional content taught to students with mental disabilitiescomprises of teaching on phonemic awareness, fluency, textcomprehension, phonics as well as vocabulary. Equally important isassessing whether the instructional procedure and content taught tostudents has been effective in improving their reading skills. Theassessment strategies used comprises of word recognition tests,reading and vocabulary tests.


Allor, J. H., Champlin, T, M., Gifford, D. B., &amp Mathes, P. G.(2010). Methods for increasing the intensity of reading instructionfor students with intellectual disabilities. Education andTraining in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 45(4),500-511.

Alnahdi, G. H. (2015). Teaching reading for students withintellectual disabilities: A systematic review. InternationalEducation Studies, 8(9), 79-87.

Ratz, C., &amp Lenhard, W. (2013). Reading skills among studentswith intellectual disabilities. Research in DevelopmentalDisabilities, 34, 1740-1748.

Ruwe, K., McLaughlin, T., Derby, K., &amp Johnson, J. (2011). Themultiple effects of direct instruction flashcards on sight wordacquisition, passage reading, and errors for three middle schoolstudents with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Developmental&amp Physical Disabilities, 23(3), 241-255.

Wise, J. C., Sevcik, R. A., Romski, M., &amp Morris, R. D. (2010).The relationship between phonological processing skills and word andnonword identification performance in children with mild intellectualdisabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 31(6),1170-1175.