Reading Programs and Disabilities

Reason for absence:
“Since your reading program penalizes students with learning disabilities, we will be having our own ‘RC party’.”

I wrote this today when I sent in an absence slip for my 5th grader.

Accelerated Reader, Reading Counts, there are several programs meant to encourage reading in elementary school. These programs aren’t inherently bad, but how they are implemented can have unintended negative consequences.

At my kids’ school, goals are set for each grade. If a child meets both their points goal (you get points for reading books and taking tests) and their percentage goal (each test gives you a percentage correct that is supposed to tell you your comprehension level) you get to attend a quarterly party where they have jumping castles, movies, games and popcorn. Pretty fun, right?

I used to think so. Then my third child entered school, and was diagnosed with a language learning disability. He is what a teacher might call a ‘reluctant reader’, and reading for him is painful. In addition, his comprehension is very low, due to his disability.

You can see how this program becomes problematic for my son, and other reluctant readers.

For my son, finding time to take the tests is impossible. He gets pulled out of his classroom each day for resource support. That means the time he has in the classroom is spent playing catch-up. Add to that the extra time he has to spend just to get his work done, and you can see how frustrating the school experience is for him.

When we implement programs and systems into our classrooms, it is essential we consider the purpose of the program and who it is for. If it is not aimed at the most vulnerable students, then a game plan should be created for those students BEFORE the program is implemented.

In my opinion, a reading program should be geared toward encouraging reluctant and below-average readers to improve and learn to love reading, not to reward students who already excel at reading and make those who struggle to feel punished or validate self-identity as a poor reader. Unfortunately, many test-based reward programs do just that.


If your school utilizes one of these reading programs, here are some ideas to help:

If you have a reluctant reader or a child with a disability or difference that affects their reading or comprehension, find out what reading programs are used 1. in your child’s classroom and 2. in your child’s school.

Get ALL of the details. How are goals set? How are points awarded? When are tests taken? What is the reward system? Are there different plans in place for kids with 504s and IEPs?

If your child is taken from the classroom for resource instruction, find out how that affects their participation in the program.

Once you’ve gathered all the info, decide how this program will best help YOUR child, and how it might impede them.

Meet with (or email if you have supportive, responsive teachers) your child’s teacher(s), include any support staff or teachers who help implement their IEP, as close to the beginning of the year as possible, and discuss our concerns, your support of the program and how you envision this will help your child. Keep it positive. If necessary, come up with a specific plan.

For instance, help set the goal, set up a special time for your child to take tests if needed, makes sure someone on that team is encouraging and supporting your child to make their goal. Ultimately, make sure the goal will actually benefit your child. In the case of my son, painfully reading books for very low points, and then never getting credit because he can’t pass the comprehension percentage does nothing but discourage him and make him hate reading more. Instead, see if he can do something else to earn points and still access the same rewards as other students in the school.


First, read the tips for parents. 🙂 This will help you come up with some ideas for your students.

At the beginning of the year, or when implementing a new program, consider who in your class might need extra encouragement or some personalized changes to the program. Do your best to have all your students participate and succeed, regardless of their challenges.

After the 1st reward cycle, take note of the kids in your class. You will likely see them fall into one of three groups:
Acheivers: self-motivated, achieve the awards easily
Nudgers: need some motivation, but with some work and some reminders, awards are within their grasp.
Strugglers: have some obstacles in their way that stop them from getting the awards.

To focus on the Strugglers, identify the obstacle. The big three obstacles will be: time, disability, motivation. There are others, but you will find most kids fall into these three obstacle groups.

Time: figure out a plan or schedule to get them reading and taking the tests. Discuss it with their parents, if possible.

Disability: work with their sped teacher or any other resource you have to come up with a personalized plan to help them achieve appropriate goals. Remember, the overreaching goal is to learn to love reading!

Motivation: this is the tough group. Some of these kiddos may have undiagnosed learning disorders or disabilities. These kids will need some extra support, love and motivation. If they don’t want to do the program, you can’t make them. But, you can still help them feel like a part of the group, and help them love learning.

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