Improving reading comprehension of learning-disabled students

iStock_000016876858XSmallA recent study showed how difficult it is to teach learning-disabled students comprehension strategies that they can apply consistently to new material. The two-week training period of this study was not sufficient to enable students to apply strategies they learned to new situations or to maintain them long-term. However, the study did indicate that explicit, rule-based instruction is more effective than a standard basal-reader approach in teaching comprehension of character motives to students with learning disabilities.

Students with learning disabilities often continue to have difficulty with comprehension even after they have mastered the mechanics of reading. The identification of character motive was chosen by researchers at Auburn University, Alabama, as a critical comprehension skill that many elementary children and learning-disabled students of all ages find difficult. Forty fourth-grade students from four schools were taught with either a rule-based, explicit-strategy instruction based on the Direct Instruction Model or a basal-reader, activity-based approach developed from several basal reading programs.

The rule-based approach emphasized teacher-directed strategies and rules. Explicit rules were taught with multi-step procedures and teacher modeling. Students received immediate feedback on their responses. The basal-reader activity approach was more student-directed, emphasizing students’ motivation and interest. Teachers led discussion before reading to activate students’ prior knowledge and encourage them to make predictions about the story. After reading, students answered comprehension questions, discussed the story and participated in creative enrichment activities.

These two groups of learning-disabled students did not differ in terms of IQ, and all placed below the 50th percentile in reading comprehension on screening tests. During the experiment, they were taught reading comprehension for 45 minutes each day for two weeks. The reading consisted of nine unillustrated Aesop fables, rewritten to a 3.5 to 4.0 reading level for this study. Three fables at each of three levels of comprehension difficulty were included. At the easiest level, character motive was explicitly stated in the text; at a more difficult level, the motive was implied in the text; and in the most difficult stories, the motive was neither stated nor implied, so that, students had to draw on their prior knowledge to analyze a character’s actions.

Post-tests showed that students instructed in the rule-based approach had significantly better comprehension of character motive at all three difficulty levels. Rule-instructed students also outperformed the basal group on the recall of critical information from previously taught fables. However, there was no significant difference between the groups when they were tested on new reading material. Students taught with explicit rules for two weeks were not able to transfer these strategies to a new learning situation. And weeks later, the groups performed similarly on a comprehension test.

Learning-disabled students need more direct instruction

These results suggest that learning-disabled students need more direct instruction than most basal-reading programs provide in order to master comprehension strategies. The researchers suggest that successful transfer
of comprehension skills to new materials requires instruction that is both intensive and long-term and incorporates specific practice with a variety of materials. Because these results may not apply to all ages, the researchers further recommend that this study be replicated with students in other grade levels.


“The Differential Effects of Two Systematic Reading Comprehension Approaches with Students with Learning Disabilities” Journal of Learning Disabilities Volume 32, Number 1, February 1999 pp. 36-47.

Published in ERN April 1999 Volume 12 Number 4

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