Future Reflections        Convention Report 2012

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Reading Issues:
Getting to the Root of the Problem

by Carol Castellano

Carol CastellanoFrom the Editor: Carol Castellano is a past president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and serves the NOPBC as Director of Programs. She is a longtime advocate for the rights of blind children in her home state of New Jersey and across the nation. This article is based on a presentation she delivered at the NOPBC conference in Dallas during the 2012 NFB convention.

In my many years of advocacy for blind/visually impaired children, I have received report after report of children who are reading Braille very slowly or reading below grade level. Why does this phenomenon occur so often? Why might a Braille reader struggle? Could the problem be related to the quality or quantity of Braille instruction? Could it be caused by too much audio and too little time spent reading Braille? Could it be the quality of general reading instruction? Could it be the quality of inclusion in classroom reading activities? Could it be the result of a learning disability? The struggle of an individual child might be caused by any of these factors or by a combination of any or all of them.

What can be done to assist the struggling Braille reader? Theoretically, we could improve the quality and raise the amount of Braille instruction. We could decrease audio and increase Braille reading time. We could raise the quality of classroom reading instruction and provide in-service training for the classroom teacher. We could determine if the student has a learning disability. As many of us know, however, for an array of reasons--personnel and cost constraints, access issues around testing, negative attitudes--these potential fixes are not always easy to achieve. The IEP process does not address the issue of a struggling Braille reader very well. RTI might be a better approach.

What Is RTI?

As outlined in IDEA 2004 (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), Response to Intervention, or RTI, is a new approach to early identification of children at risk for academic and behavior difficulties. Created as an alternative to the IQ/Discrepancy or "wait to fail" method of identifying learning disabilities, RTI seeks to identify problems and provide interventions early, before students fail. Characteristics of RTI include:

Students who are receiving good quality classroom instruction are expected to make progress--or to be "responsive" to instruction. If the student isn't responding to instruction, the RTI process looks more deeply into the matter. Is the child receiving high-quality, research-based instruction that is known to be effective? If not, then the lack of response could be due to poor teaching. If the answer is yes, the child enters the next RTI tier. He/she receives more intensive instruction, probably in a small group. Is the child responding (i.e., learning and progressing) to the more intensive instruction? If not, then he/she receives even more individualized teaching.

RTI: Should We Embrace It or Fear It?

Barriers exist to the universal application of RTI in the schools. RTI is controversial in the special education field, with some arguing that it cannot really identify children with learning disabilities and that it is yet unproven. Another difficulty is that RTI methods seem to be in conflict with the usual evaluation procedures of IDEA. Lastly, some school districts are using RTI to delay evaluating children for more expensive special education services. Concern reached the point that the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) issued a memorandum in 2011 forbidding this practice.

The Promise of RTI

Just as RTI has the potential to raise the bottom line for other children, it may hold a great deal of promise for blind/visually impaired students as well. Imagine if blind/visually impaired students were expected to make progress in the classroom just like any other student! As it stands, a slow reading rate and achievement below grade level are too often accepted as the norm. If blind/visually impaired students were included in early universal screening, those with reading difficulties might be identified and prevented from falling farther behind. Constant monitoring of progress, using research-based strategies, and applying a problem-solving approach would be good for blind/visually impaired students. In addition, RTI would emphasize the "sameness" of blind/visually impaired children rather than their "differentness."

The RTI process could also tease out Braille instruction issues, reading instruction issues, and the possibility of a learning disability. It could bypass such all too common refrains as, "Oh, it's the Braille--Braille is slower than print and harder to learn," and "This student must have a learning disability." The problem-solving method of RTI keeps bringing more expertise to the table. A good reading teacher will know when the student is not picking up reading as expected. By screening for the National Reading Panel's "Big Five"--phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension--a teacher could provide explicit instruction in areas of weakness. A good Braille teacher would know when a student is not picking up Braille as expected and could change the focus and intensity of instruction.

RTI and Visual Impairment--Action Is Needed!

As varying approaches to RTI begin to appear in each state, parents and teachers of blind/visually impaired children must be involved in the development of appropriate models, demonstrating that blind/visually impaired students can and should be included. This involvement is especially important in view of the fact that some states are ruling out the use of RTI for blind/visually impaired students from the start. Two general rationales for this exclusion emerge. First is the idea that the student's lack of progress could be caused by the visual impairment itself. In "The Legal Dimension of RTI, Part III: RTI Legal Checklist for SLD Identification," the RTI Action Network asks, "Did the evaluation determine whether the child's lack of sufficient progress is attributable, instead of to SLD [specific learning disability], to primarily any of the following: a visual, hearing, or motor disability? mental retardation? emotional disturbance? cultural factors? environmental or economic disadvantage? limited English proficiency?" [Retrieved from <http://rtinetwork.org/learn/ld/the-legal-dimension-of-rti-part-iii-rti-legal-checklist-for-sld-identification>]

We appreciate the RTI Action Network's attempt to pinpoint factors other than a learning disability that might affect a student's progress. However, we must take issue with the premise that visual impairment in itself is a cause for poor performance. Of course, we emphasize that the blind/visually impaired student must have the appropriate tools and techniques in order to make the progress expected at his/her grade level. In addition, we would express the hope that the RTI process in itself could be the vehicle for determining situations in which the student did not have adequate tools and techniques. Finally, we would argue that excluding blind/visually impaired children from universal screening denies the ones who have learning disabilities the chance for early identification and intervention.

The second basis for excluding blind/visually impaired students that appears in the RTI literature is the idea that, because they are receiving individualized and specialized instruction from a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI), they are already in the highest tier of intervention. We must clarify for school districts that the services of the TVI are not the sole determinants of literacy and academic success for blind/visually impaired students. In general, TVI services are intended to help the student compete in the mainstream, facilitating the instruction the student receives in the general education classroom.

An offshoot of the above exclusion basis is illustrated by this excerpt from "Response to Intervention: Georgia's Student Achievement Pyramid of Interventions":

Movement between Tier 1 and Tier 2 is fluid and flexible. Adequate time should be given for the Tier 1 instructional program to be implemented before determining Tier 2 support is needed. However, common sense is critical in assessing student performance and individual responses to Tier 1 instruction (i.e., a student with a documented visual impairment would be provided interventions immediately). [Retrieved from <http://www.centeroninstruction.org/files/RTI%20The%20GA%20Student%20
Achievement%20Pyramid%20of%20Interventions.pdf
>]

Again, we applaud the recognition that the provision of blindness services should not be delayed. However, we also need to explain that, while the student should indeed receive these services, he/she should also be included in the universal screening that can identify academic problems and learning disabilities.

What Can Help the Struggling Reader Right Now?

We face a profound lack of research on factors that comprise good Braille reading and good Braille teaching. I hope that that gap in our knowledge will be eliminated soon. In the meantime, I don't see why we shouldn't apply current knowledge about reading in general to our Braille readers. Much is known about the characteristics of good print readers, what works for struggling print readers, and the characteristics of children with learning disabilities. I hardly think that applying this knowledge could make the situation for struggling Braille readers any worse than it is today!

As we work toward needed changes in district, state, and national policy on RTI and apply what is known so that we can assist the struggling Braille reader, we can also encourage research on the relevant questions. These questions include:

If we hold high expectations for our blind/visually impaired students, screen early for problems, provide high quality Braille and reading instruction, intervene for learning disabilities when needed, and monitor progress, I have confidence that the results will be a generation of successful Braille readers.

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