Reading is a complex psychophysiological process in which the visual, motor, speech, and hearing systems of the brain take part. The basis of reading is the joint activity of various areas of the brain, the violation of which is manifested in special types of disorders (Ratz & Lenhard, 2013). In the process of reading, graphic images are visually perceived, then letters are distinguished and recognized. The process of understanding what is read is determined by the nature of perception. The joint work of visual, acoustic, and kinesthetic analyzers influences the formation of the reading process (Ratz & Lenhard, 2013). The process of mastering reading is a powerful stimulus for a child’s mental development. Teaching students with intellectual disabilities to read makes it possible to form a higher level of thinking processes in them and allows them to develop verbal communication skills. It has a positive effect on the process of social integration. This paper aims at discussing the effective strategies that can be applied to overcome reading difficulties for students with intellectual disabilities. The problems of the formation of reading skills in students with different degrees of disabilities can be corrected using individual and differentiated approaches and strategies.
Types of Difficulties in Developing Reading Skills
During the formation of the psychological basis and reading skills, students with mental retardation may experience different kinds of difficulties. The depth of mastering the material will depend not only on the degree of intellectual disability but also on the nature of the combined disorders (Ratz & Lenhard, 2013). Some children do not quickly relate the sound to the letter, some cannot switch from the letter-by-letter reading to the syllabic one for a long time, or slowly accumulate syllabic images. Some students have difficulties in the semantic perception of the text, which is due to the insufficient formation of the corresponding reading mechanisms. These problems cause special educational needs for mentally retarded children. Methodological support for the organization of training requires the use of special means and techniques, as well as more differentiated and step-by-step training.
Good reading skills are characterized by the following qualities: correctness, fluency, expressiveness, and awareness. The process of the formation of each quality in students with disabilities is peculiar and individual. The success and speed of the student’s progress in reading depend on the formation of mental functions, which underlie the basis of reading (Allor et al., 2013). The most important components of the reading formation process include vocabulary, grammar, the pronunciation of sounds and words of complex syllabic composition, visual and acoustic perception, visual-object memory, as well as attention (Ratz & Lenhard, 2013). The direct dependence of the speed of the child’s progress in reading on the formation of mental functions that underlie the functional basis of reading has been proved. The loss or dysfunction does not lead to the loss of the possibility of the formation and development of higher mental processes. New connections and new ways of perceiving the surrounding reality can be developed.
The structure of speech underdevelopment and the formation of mental processes that provide a functional basis for reading are the main criteria for determining the beginning of learning for children with various disorders. Systemic underdevelopment of oral speech, the lack of formation of visual analysis and synthesis, as well as spatial representations are indicators of dyslexia (Allor et al., 2013). The most common reading disorders in mentally retarded schoolchildren are phonological and visual impairments. Knowledge about letters should be based on the relationship between the auditory and articulatory images of a sound, as well as the visual image of a letter (Allor et al., 2013). Knowledge of the word should be based on the reciprocal relationship between the auditory image of the word, the visual image of its graphic designation, and the visual image of the designated object.
The ability to operate with letters in the process of reading can only be formed under sufficiently stable mutually reversible connections between the images of objects and their sign mediation. The ability to hear a sound in a word, relate it to a letter, and represent its position to other sounds and letters constitutes the child’s readiness to master the reading skills (Allor et al., 2013). It is also important to highlight individual words in a sentence, correlate the word with the image of the designated object, and understand the arrangement of words in a sentence.
The Process of Mastering Reading by Children with Disabilities
An important feature of the higher nervous activity of a mentally retarded child is the difficulty in developing differentiations, the inability to quickly and accurately distinguish one phenomenon from another. In the process of teaching, the assimilation of a new skill involves not only the consolidation of a certain system of conditioned reflex connections but also the delimitation and differentiation of phenomena. For example, when mastering a new letter in the process of reading, it is necessary, first of all, to differentiate the style of this letter from graphically similar letters (Courtade et al., 2014). At the same time, it is important to distinguish the sound corresponding to this letter from all others, especially from similar in-sounding, oppositional speech sounds. Only under these conditions, it is possible to form the skill of correlating a certain letter with the corresponding sound.
Differentiation connections are conditioned at the center of any distinction. In students with intellectual disabilities, these connections are formed slowly, with great difficulties. They can quickly and easily disappear since they are fragile and unstable. Their formation presupposes not only the necessary strength of the excitation process but also the sufficient strength of the process of active internal inhibition of nervous excitement to avoid generalization of the conditioned reflex (Courtade et al., 2014). Thus, when mastering a new letter, it is necessary to inhibit the connection of a sound with graphically similar letters and the formation of conditional connections of a certain letter with phonetically similar sounds.
In the process of mastering reading, children with intellectual disabilities go through the same steps as other students, but much more slowly. The stages of learning to read are stretched in time and the intervals between them are longer. As a result of this slowness, each of the steps receives the most complete and distinct expression (Alnahdi, 2015). If the process of mastering reading among other students proceeds so quickly that individual steps are erased, then in the process of developing the reading skills of mentally disabled children, each step is visible.
It is characteristic of these students that the same child uses both primitive and advanced methods of reading, which depends on the nature of the material. The process of mastering reading by children with disabilities is characterized by qualitative originality and certain difficulties. The assimilation of letters is a great difficulty for them due to the underdevelopment of phonemic perception, inability to distinguish opposition sounds, the lack of formation of spatial representations, visual analysis, and synthesis (Alnahdi, 2015). It is especially difficult for them to merge sounds into syllables. This process is based on a clear understanding of the sound structure of syllables.
As many studies show, the function of phonemic analysis is formed with great difficulty in students with disabilities. It is also difficult for them to form a generalized understanding of a syllable. Correct reading and understanding are carried out based on the synthesis of syllables into a word. Since the ability of sound-syllable synthesis in these children is reduced, it causes delayed recognition and understanding of the read word (Mosito et al., 2017). It is even more difficult for them to understand sentences in a text. There are different points of view about the role that semantic guessing plays in the reading process. For example, students with intellectual disabilities are much more likely to read words by guessing than other children.
Computer-based strategies are one of the best tools to overcome reading difficulties for students with intellectual disabilities. With the help of computer-assisted instruction, all complex processes are divided into the simplest components to be able to track the smaller steps in mastering reading (Saridaki & Mourlas, 2011). Another characteristic of computer training programs is that they can autonomously track the obtained results and adjust further corrective work. In this way, the training program is transformed and becomes individually oriented and adapted (Mosito et al., 2017). The use of computer technology in the educational process has many advantages. Some of the most important is the ability to receive individual feedback immediately while reading the text, as well as the ability to learn at any convenient place.
Headsprout Early Reading is one of such online computer-assisted training programs. It consists of eighty lessons with a gradual increase in the complexity of the used words and syllables. GraphoGame is another program specially designed for children with learning disabilities. The main goal of the program is to prevent reading disorders in children at risk of dyslexia and various mental disabilities (Das, 2020). The program is based on two processes: sound analysis and knowledge of letters. The exercise starts with sound-letter relationships and gradually becomes more difficult to the stage of sound decoding, which is the basis for smooth reading without mistakes. Such multimedia program as Oxford Reading Tree for Clicker is designed to train children to read whole words (O’Sullivan et al., 2017). Another instruction Lexia SOS is good for mastering sound analysis and other skills in interacting with sounds (Das, 2020). These computer-assisted programs are in high demand for teaching children with specific psychological deviations.
Neuroplasticity-Based Video Games
Scientists often use technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging to better understand the disorders in the dyslexic brain. Researchers at Yale University have found that people with dyslexia have abnormal connections between parts of the brain (Munir, 2018). As a result, they must rely on alternative circuits when reading and employ time-consuming strategies. Another research has focused on specific areas of the brain associated with dyslexia. Psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Paula Tallal, using fMRI, has found that children with intellectual disabilities have a low level of activity in the temporoparietal junction of the brain (Tallal & Jenkins, 2018). It is responsible for speech recognition in the process of phonological perception. Further research has shown that, unlike children without impairments, the brains of children with dyslexia demonstrate no activity in the left prefrontal cortex during recognition of fast and slow sound stimuli.
Using brain imaging data, Dr. Tallal teamed up with neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich to develop neuroplasticity-based computer video games. They can help rebuild children’s brains with this form of dyslexia and activate the sleeping areas of the brain necessary for the development of reading skills (Tallal & Jenkins, 2018). Through intense remedial training, their brains begin to function at the same level as that of experienced readers. Thus, the Fast ForWord reading intervention program provides intense, personalized training that develops the cognitive, speech, attention, processing, and reading skills necessary for academic success (Tallal & Jenkins, 2018). The training exercises are monitored by a specialist via the Internet. Other games are designed to improve the speed of brain processing as well as teach a student the rules of grammar. Research has shown significant changes in the brains of dyslexic children after using this computer program (Saridaki & Mourlas, 2011). In the process of phonological perception, the activity in many brain sections has increased, and the subjects’ speech and reading skills have been improved.
Meanwhile, other researchers are focusing more on the impact of video games on students with intellectual disabilities. While many scientists argue that auditory processing impairment is at the root of dyslexia, some believe that the ability to concentrate also plays an important role (Saridaki & Mourlas, 2011). Scientists at Oxford University have found that children with mental disorders respond more slowly to commands to switch attention from pictures to sounds (Munir, 2018). Scientists hypothesize that video games that require reaction speed will help improve the response and will be more successful than programs aimed solely at developing speech.
Supportive E-Text and Electronic Books
Reading e-books can help fight dyslexia and other reading difficulties. In children with intellectual disabilities, the root of the problem is often the lack of visual attention of the reader. It is too difficult for such students to focus on individual letters in a word or words in a line. Fewer words per line, characteristic of e-books, help children read faster and better understand the text (Chanioti, 2017). E-books help overcome this barrier with the help of their text format. In comparison with print books, electronic ones include such multimedia elements as music, sound, animation, and interactive games (Chanioti, 2017). They help students to understand the text better and allow mastering a particular reading task.
In the process, children can read one passage several times and then retell it. Interactive e-books help learners to repeat activities that improve the learning process. This feature is helpful for students with intellectual disabilities who can benefit from supportive e-text. Interactive tools can change the way readers view the text (Winton, 2018). Font size can be modified, text can be read aloud, and pictures can be shown at any time. These features help to customize the text and make the reading process individual.
E-books allow students with disabilities to view a visual representation of the text. They help to build vocabulary and understand the story while demonstrating how to read smoothly. These talking books can contribute to phonological awareness in children with intellectual problems. With the help of e-texts, they can understand how words rhyme and letters form syllables and words (Winton, 2018). This opens future development and allows children to use letters to create new words. Thus, e-books and supportive e-texts can develop reading skills in children with various disabilities.
Story Mapping Strategy
Reading comprehension means the ability to understand written language. Students, especially those with intellectual problems, must work actively to understand the meaning of what they read, constantly integrating the knowledge gained from the text with the information they already know (Yeh et al., 2019). Such students experience difficulties precisely with reading comprehension, so the task of teaching it comes to one of the first places. Mastering this skill can solve learning problems since the student transfers the learned technique to any text. It also solves developmental issues because of activating attention, memory, imagination, thinking, and emotions in the process of reading (Yeh et al., 2019). Moreover, students start to more openly manifest and substantiate their moral positions in the perception of what is read.
Story mapping can also help to overcome reading difficulties for students with intellectual disabilities. This method is presented in the form of a sheet marked with spaces for questions and answers (Yeh et al., 2019). The basis for the students’ answers is retelling since the story map is a tool for assessing the ability to retell the work. To master this skill, children first need to listen to the text, understand its content, memorize the sequence of presentation and speech patterns, and convey the text meaningfully and coherently. Students have to formulate the idea of the story, highlight the main and secondary characters, and express their opinion about what they have read (Yeh et al., 2019). This strategy takes into account the need to guide the learner in teaching text comprehension from simple to more complex.
Text-based discussion can also help take steps to develop reading skills for mentally impaired children. Short segments will help such students retain information as the class discusses materials (Botsas, 2017). It can also help them gain confidence in understanding a complex subject. Children with intellectual disabilities handle reading materials in different ways (Swanson et al., 2019). By incorporating more reading activities into the curriculum, students will find improvements in vocabulary, writing, problem-solving, concentration, and cognitive development that will help build a solid foundation for future learning.
Many strategies influence the process of understanding, and all of them work together to create a meaningful method. Reading materials and assignments should be attractive to students so that they can easily understand the text (Botsas, 2017). Teachers have a great responsibility to motivate their students to read these materials. They need to be sensitive to the difficulties of understanding their students and help them change their outlook on reading (Swanson et al., 2019). Special students should have a positive attitude towards their reading activities so that they can better understand different texts.
New psychological research and teaching methods based on neuroscience and combined with new technologies are gradually improving the quality of life of children with reading problems. Such strategies as computer-assisted programs, neuroplasticity-based video games, e-books, supportive e-texts, text-based discussion, and story mapping have already proved to be effective methods to overcome reading difficulties for students with intellectual disabilities. Psychologists and other professionals continue to incorporate research from neuroscience to further develop innovative ways to correct reading disorders. In addition to the linguistic structure, strategies for overcoming dyslexia in students with intellectual disabilities should take into account the disorders and the formation of higher mental functions that underlie reading activities. Methods for overcoming dyslexia should be aimed at the formation and correction of the reading competence of children with speech disorders. Computer programs designed to teach children to read are showing consistently effective results. The level of modern technology already allows the development of high-quality adaptable training programs, which makes this scientific area an attractive potential direction for research.
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