I am entering my 4th  year teaching reading skills to middle school students who have limited reading skills. The majority recognize all 26 letters of the alphabet but lack any phonetic skills. They are all incoming students that have not received direct, strategic reading instruction, but, I have witnessed thru their social skills and overall functional aptitudes, have the skill set to learn how to read with a daily use of a corrective reading program. Do I move forward implementing consistent, engaging phonics based instruction or teach them, as many modern researchers promote, coping skills that focus on reading comprehension?
Thanks for sharing your insight,
Alexandra 

I believe that a strong systematic approach to phonics is the best approach for most students with Intellectual disabilities, significant learning disabilities and for students with dyslexia.  There is a significant amount of research showing that it can be effective in improving the reading and comprehension skills in all of these populations.  I do however do not believe that systematic phonics instruction should be the exclusive program, there is a need for comprehension and life skills reading instruction.  The great thing is that these can be added to phonics program pretty easily, whereas adding phonics programs to a more comprehension based approach is simply not enough focussed repetitive instruction to make a difference with this population of students.

The strength of a phonics program versus whole-language type approaches lies in the power of habit.  Whole language or comprehension based approaches rely on the memorization of words.  For our general population, this is not much of an issue because typically after seeing a word and hearing it 5-10 times they have the word.  For students that have learning disabilities or intellectual disabilities the number of repetitions required to memorize a word could be as much as 100 times.  When you times that by the number of words needed even to function on a basic level, the challenge becomes insurmountable.  With phonics, however, there are just 44 sounds in the English Language.  Using a systematic approach to teach these skills is more like developing a habit than memorizing a rule. Students that have been taught using this type of approach develop the habit of stating the sound based on the letter patterns that they see.   Given enough practice with these skills nearly anyone can learn to read functionally well.

The key to effective phonics instruction is that it needs to be very systematic, and provide significant practice. A few programs that I have seen and used that seem to work well are:

  • Lexia Core 5: https://www.lexialearning.com/products/core5 This is a computer based program that is very systematic and engaging.  While they do have lessons for teachers to help support struggling areas, Daily instruction with a teacher is not a key component of the instruction.
  • Scholastic System 44: http://www.hmhco.com/products/system-44/ This program is a hybrid of computer based instruction and direct small group instruction with a teacher.
  • Just Words or Wilson Reading http://www.wilsonlanguage.com/ This is a teacher led direct instruction approach that is very effective but is also very time-consuming.  It is based on an Orton Gillingham methodology.
  • SOS to Encode! Part 1: An Intensive, Multisensory Reading, Spelling, & Writing Program The other programs listed are very expensive, and some require school or district level adoption.  This program comes in the form of a book that has everything you need to get started and the book is only $25.  It is also a teacher led instruction program.