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How to Help Children With Reading Disabilities Cope with Academic Demands

This week we are pleased to have a guest blog co-authored by two professors who are specialists in the area of learning disabilities:

Howard Margolis, Ed.D., is Professor Emeritus of Reading and Special Education at the City University of New York. Howard is former editor of the Reading Instruction Journal and the Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation; for almost two decades he has edited the Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties.

Gary G. Brannigan, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Gary is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and a certified School Psychologist who specializes in parenting issues. He has worked with many children with learning, reading, and other disabilities and their families.

Howard Margolis and Gary Brannigan are co-authors of the book,  Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds. Visit their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/Reading2008 Face


Many children suffer emotionally because they cannot cope with academic demands. But they can develop specific skills to help them cope effectively. By doing so, they increase their motivation for learning and decrease their emotional distress.

These skills form the basis of "self-regulation," which Lyn Corno and Ellen Mandinach (1983) broadly defined as the effort put forth by students to deepen, monitor, manipulate, and improve their own learning. Clearly, such activities are important for learning, which in the final analysis depends on the learners’ willingness and skill to meet the demands placed on them. Moreover, self-regulated learners understand the important links underlying what they think, what they feel, and what they do or don’t do.

Let’s begin with cognitive skills or thinking, because this drives self-regulation.

Generally speaking, when self-regulated learners are presented with an academic task, they’re aware of their thoughts. They think about thinking! Their awareness allows them to:

  • Analyze a task
  • Assess their abilities -- strengths and weaknesses -- relative to the task
  • Set realistic short-term and long-term goals for completing the task
  • Monitor their progress toward reaching these goals
  • Make changes, if needed
  • Evaluate the results

This self-regulatory sequence is a strategy that can be applied to different situations. Yet many children, especially struggling learners, are unaware of this and similar learning strategies. Some who are aware cannot implement the components. Both groups of struggling learners -- those who are unaware of or are unskilled in using the strategy -- need structured, explicit, reinforcing instruction to master it. As part of their instruction, teachers should use "think-alouds" to demonstrate the various components of the strategy. In "think-alouds," teachers talk about what they’re doing as they grapple with a task. For example, if a struggling learner is using the RAP strategy, the teacher might use this think-aloud:

  • I’m using the RAP strategy.
  • The three steps are "R" for Read a paragraph, "A" for Ask myself what the paragraph was about, and "P" for Put the main idea and two details in my own words.
  • I read the paragraph. I’ll check the "R" on my checklist.

To help struggling learners master a strategy, teachers and parents should systematically encourage learners to practice the strategy -- starting with easy tasks that are gradually replaced by increasingly more challenging tasks on which learners can succeed. In addition to sequencing tasks from easy to more challenging, teachers and parents should give the learners corrective and encouraging feedback on their performance. In other words, they should tell them why they succeeded or, if they’re having difficulty, what they need to do differently. If the tasks match the learners’ abilities, feedback will usually stress why they succeeded.

Teaching children to apply a self-regulatory strategy to many different situations is essential. But it’s also difficult. An excellent, practical book that can help is Peg Dawson and Richard Guare’s Smart and Scattered. Here are three of its many how-to "plans for teaching your child to complete daily routines":

  • Use a template for a five-paragraph essay.
  • Before studying, choose from a menu of study strategies.
  • Use a bedroom-cleaning checklist.

Because self-regulation is complicated and, in many respects, invisible, here are five resources. You may want to read and share one or two of these with your child’s teachers:

  • Corno, L., & Mandinach, E. B. (1983). The role of cognitive engagement in classroom learning and motivation. Educational Psychologist, 18, 88-108.
  • Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2009). Smart and Scattered. NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Margolis, H. (2005). Increasing struggling learners’ motivation: What tutors can do and say. Mentoring and Tutoring, 13(2), 223-240.
  • Margolis, H., & McCabe, P. P. (2003). Self-efficacy: A key to improving the motivation of struggling learners. The Clearing House (2004, July/August), 77(6), 241-249.
  • McCabe, P. P., & Margolis, H. (2001). Enhancing the self-efficacy of struggling readers. The Clearing House, 75(1), 45-49.
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#2 SUSAN CARROZZA 2012-08-31 19:57
My grandson has fantastic comprehension when he hears a story read to him- He completely understands what has been read. He just can't decode the words when reading the material himself and because of this he is unable to get the message in the words that are on the page.

What can you do for a child like this?
#1 Carol Henry 2010-09-23 15:01
I dealt with a child that had problems with reading so I begin reading to him every night and after the each story, I asked questions. At the beginning it was not easy getting him to answer, but eventually he begin to enjoy it. At some point this young man begin to look forward to my readings and soon begin wanting to read to me and ask me questions. It was a beautiful experience, and it was done without pressure. I read to him because he loved the stories and because of that he wanted to learn how to read and he did. I propose parents keep reading to their child and make it lots of fun, and they will want to read. Here is a website that will give you fun and diversified reading.



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