Fifth grader is reading at 2.7 grade level. Should he be tested for Special Ed?

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We received a question from a tutor about testing a child. The real question is “how can we teach him to read?”

I am Orton-Gillingham/Project Read trained and tutor a fifth grade boy. I gave him the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test. His standard score was 85, age based percentile was 14-19, and grade equivalent was 2.7. He was given Reading Recovery in first grade and taught to “guess” when reading. This boy has average ability in math.
The mother wants more help with her son’s reading/language skills from the school. Last year he attended another school in the same district and the process for special education services was started. Now that this boy is in a different school the process seemed to have stopped. How should she request this help? Does she want the school to test him for special education services?

The big question is whether anyone will teach him how to read if he goes into special ed. Several factors are working against him in special ed.

* Most special ed teachers are not trained to teach children to read. If they have training, it is superficial or they are working in K-3. The colleges that turn out special ed teachers do not teach them any particular method, nor do most teachers get training later from their school district.

* After 3rd grade, the focus of schooling changes from teaching a child to read to the child reading to learn.

This parent needs to ask many questions before she decides whether to allow the school to put him into special ed. Once a child is in special ed, is almost impossible to get the child out.

If the school didn’t teach him to read by the end of 3rd grade, who will teach him now? What are their qualifications and training? What method will they use? How will the school measure and monitor his progress? How much progress will they view as sufficient? What will they do if he doesn’t make good progress?

Has he had a comprehensive psycho educational evaluation by a psychologist in the private sector who has expertise in learning disabilities including dyslexia?

If he didn’t learn to read when the school used Reading Recovery, that doesn’t mean he has a disability. It means he didn’t learn to read because many children who are not disabled don’t learn to read with RR.

What would happen if he had daily tutoring with an OG trained tutor? How long do you think it would take for him to get up to grade level since he is now about 2.5 years behind? (The evaluator can probably answer some of those questions).

Bottom line: We have worked with thousands of youngsters like the one you describe. If he was my child, and his only deficit was in reading, I would never allow him to go into special ed. I would mortgage the house, beg the grandparents, go into debt to get him
tutoring by an expert or place him in a private program with other kids like him.

Pete has severe dyslexia, dysgraphia, and several other learning disabilities. The public school staff always told his parents that he “wasn’t college material” and that they needed to lower their expectations for him.

His parents did not accept this. They searched for a specialist who could work with him and found Diana Hanbury King. Diana King was the top expert in remediating children with dyslexia in the early 1950s and later founded the Kildonan School in Amenia NY. Pete had one-on-one tutoring with her every day after school for two years. He also
went to a residential program in the summer. Because he received that intensive help when he was young, he reads faster writes more legibly than I do. At that time, his parents were young, just starting their family and careers. It was difficult for them to pay
for this tutoring but they knew they had to find a way do it. If they didn’t, Pete’s future was not good. So they did what they needed to do.

I am not usually this outspoken in offering advice. But I have received so much correspondence from reading specialists (not special educators) who tell me how sad they are when a child goes into special ed because they know that child will never learn to read.

Those messages prompted me to do some research into what special educators are taught to do – and it isn’t teaching children to read.


  1. “Once a child is in special ed, is almost impossible to get the child out.”

    This was true 50 years ago, but it wasn’t true in 2008 and most definitely isn’t true now. All it takes is a note (it can be handwritten) saying, “I request that my child is removed from special education and quits receiving all special ed services.” It’s no more “impossible” than signing a field trip waiver form.

    • About 3 years ago I tried to remove my child from special education and was told I would not be able to do so until they do another evaluation testing which they would not be doing until 3 years from the one they had done. So yes it is hard to remove them from special ed
      Very easy for them to place them in special ed but then they make it hard for you to remove them.

    • Bobby, are you being given the regular sophomore texts to read? If so, do you struggle with reading them? Do you have the option to use recorded texts, or text to speech software?

  2. My son is going into second grade and he is in the inclusion classroom. He has a high IQ and got diagnosed by the neuropsychologist with a reading disorder, most likely dyslexia. I already went through such a struggle for him to get reading services, the principal actually told me he was so low they didn’t have a group for him, but he finally got reading in January. I myself am a middle school reading teacher and can’t believe how difficult it is to get reading recovery or Wilson but I am going to call the principal this week to discuss options. I am so upset and frustrated for my son and the lack of services provided for him but I am willing to hire a tutor. I hope that with tutoring and intense intervention, I can help close this reading gap. Any advice on what to say to his principal?

    • You are on the right path and starting early enough for proper interventions. What do you say to the principal? I learned it is more about educating administrators as many of them are NOT reading specialists and their focus is more on staffing, funding, teaching to the middle, etc. It is easier to push dyslexic students through the system. Not everyone is like this but I had too many teachers whisper in my ears that such is the case. Do your own research and become an expert on your child’s issues and supplement at home with some type of remediation along with insuring his extracurriculars. I had a top administrator ask me about dyslexia–that was a red flag and revealing but it opened some doors for education.

  3. What I want to know is why the heck is it up to the parents or grandparents to spend thousands of dollars to tutor their child because the public school system which our tax dollars pay for did not do their job and educate out children???? I am having similar issues with my granddaughter and it is complete BS. why are schools allowed to just push children through to the next grade level without them being able to do the previous grade level work so they get further and further behind and more and more loss of self esteem???? this has to STOP !!!

  4. I had to chime in, since I am fresh out of the skillet. I just completed a Master’s in Teaching (with Master’s in Secondary English), which included EIGHT consecutive classes that covered mastery of interventions and strategies in content literacy for delayed readers, learning disabilities, ELL, ESOL, dyslexia, Autism Spectrum disorders, personality disorders, and mental disabilities. A teacher candidate can no longer become certified to teach in my state (MO) without these credentials, per the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education. I’m over age 50 –
    Years ago, the general ed teacher would not have had to have mastery in these courses – now they do. 80 % of today’s teacher training is in teaching non-English and struggling readers.

    • If you’re in a state that’s raising regs, instead of lowering them, you are extremely lucky! There are only 2 qualified sped teachers at my son’s school, and they’ve just made it even worse. Now you can teach in Louisiana with zero qualifications (with the laws and loopholes as they are now) the sped teachers hired are fresh out of school and still working towards credentials, but most never actually get credentialed. As of this year, you don’t even have to take any praxis exams! They just pass students through, my son never had transition among many other services, and I’ve fought so hard, but it is very corrupt (here, not speaking for everyone, everywhere). There are no lawyers here willing to go up against the school system and the advocates only go over the basics. It’s scary, if parents only knew! I honestly feel like most of the US has no idea how bad it is.

  5. I took several reading classes when I got my special ed credential, not sure where you got your information. We took every class the general ed teachers took. We had added classes to deal with the other information needed for special ed.

    • I didn’t receive one single class on how to teach reading. I only was taught how to do some reading strategies. I have always wished I had received the training as general education elementary teachers.

  6. Parents DO NEED to educate themselves and advocate for their children in both regular education and in special education.

    Ms. Wright – you do a disservice to many students who would do very well to have the accommodations afforded to them ONLY through an IEP.

  7. It is so inappropriate to bash all special ed teachers with your comments. There are many of us who are very dedicated to helping students read. School districts are more and more on the right track and providing SRBI reading programs. There are many factors that affect how a person with dyslexia will learn to read, or not.
    To NOT put them in special education is doing them a disservice because an IEP will provide access to accommodations that will HELP them succeed.
    BUT – and it is a very important BUT….
    Not all districts have the budget or the means to provide the best special education practices…. that’s the reality of our very broken and limping educational system. DON’T BLAME THE TEACHERS! Many times it is a staffing issue. Guess where school staff is cut first!

  8. I am a special education teacher and most definitely have extensive training in teaching reading! You are so wrong in your assessment of special education. I am happy that this student was dyslexic; and research has proven that usually if this is the only deficit that they have, they are able to overcome this ( I have a cousin that was diagnosed at 14! and she now teaches school). On the other hand, some students have deficits that are harder to overcome and we continue to teach them, but they may never be doctors, or scientists. This is Okay. Instead of saying that everyone can be geniuses and making some parents feel bad because their child isn’t, we should accept all students for who they are. Special Ed teachers work hard at educating students that have enormous problems (mental, physical, and emotional) to overcome, and we have so much data and paper work to keep up with. So, think and do some research before you speak next time about special education teachers.

  9. Wow. I have lost all respect for your program after reading this post. How ignorant. I am an ESE teacher and we are usually the most experienced teaching reading. Why would you tell people ESE teachers don’t have the training other teachers do? We have more and please refer me to an educational college program that doesn’t bother to educate their ESE teachers like gen ed majors? Who are you?

    • LHS, can you share with the group your Orton-Gillingham certification information? Having a degree in reading or special education is not enough when working with a student with dyslexia. If you could tell us what your qualifications are, then maybe you would actually see you aren’t qualified to work with a student with dyslexia.

  10. Grandson has been going to a very expensive special Ed school for five years and still does not read at all. Seems very bright but just cannot learn to read. Is there any kind of a brain disorder that prevents someone from learning to read? He’s ADHD BUT OTHER KIDS WITH THAT DO LEARN TO READ………WHAT TO DO, IF ANYTHING CAN BE DONE?

    • Kid with several diagnosis to READ with comprehension and writing taking off.
      No prescription but has a “PRISM” in his lenses (clear lens) which took care of 75 percent of the issues. I took the a, e, i, o, u words and put them all on flash cards. For example there are 3 different A sounds. First “A” like “A” dog ran. Second “A” sounds like “AW”. Third “A” is like in AT. Get it “A” , “AW”, “A” T. Put every simple word you can think of on flash cards…such as “A” ate, bate, hate, date… then for “AW” paw, thaw, raw, ….then for “A” at, hat, fat, bat, sat… and do fun testing on a piece of paper. Do not forget the “th”, “ch”, and others they also go on flash cards.

    • ADHD is not a reason for special Ed nor is it going to stop someone from reading. As the parent of a kid with adhd who skipped a grade in school and reads well above his grade level at almost 9 this kind of attitude is bothersome. The problem isn’t the kid it’s the school. We homeschool and it makes all the difference!

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