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Doing Your Homework:
Teaching a Child to Read: Special Ed or Reading First?

by Suzanne Whitney, Research Editor, Wrightslaw

My son is in 2nd grade and receives special education for reading. He just got a progress report with an "F" in reading even though he gets this extra help in special ed.

We asked the school about putting him in the Reading First program. We were told he couldn't be in special ed and Reading First. Is my son prohibited from being in Reading First because he's in special ed? (he is in regular classes).

From Sue

The "F" in reading is telling you and the school that the current reading program is not meeting your son's needs. He needs to learn to read.

Reading First is a classroom reading program for children in grades K-3. There is nothing in NCLB that says a child who needs more intensive reading instruction must be denied participation in the classroom program. However, since your son is already in second grade and is still behind in reading, it would make sense to give him a more intensive method of instruction than what is available in the classroom.

"Getting help in special ed" is something you should look into more closely.

This is the federal definition of special education - "The term 'special education' means specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of the child with a disability, including instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings; and instruction in physical education." (20 U.S.C. Section 1401)

The federal government has set minimum national standards for reading instruction. You can learn learn about these standards in "4 Great Definitions About Reading."

Note: Congress has reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the statute formerly known as No Child Left Behind. The new statute, Every Student Succeeds Act, was signed into law by President Obama on December 10, 2015.


Strategies for Getting Help

Write to the principal and request this information – (I’ll call your son Joe.)

Is Joe proficient in reading?

If Joe is not proficient in reading, what steps has the school taken to bring Joe to proficiency?

Has the school administered a screener? If so, what were the findings?

Has the school administered a diagnostic reading test? If so, what were the findings?

What reading program is the school using to teach Joe to read?

Is this program a research-based reading program? Does this reading program include the “essential components" of reading listed in 20 U. S. C. § 6368(3)?

What research supports the use of this program?

What assessments does the district use to identify children who may be at risk for reading failure or difficulty learning to read? Has the district used such as assessment with Joe? What were the findings?

What “additional educational assistance” is the district providing Joe?

Is Joe’s teacher qualified to teach reading?

At Joe’s present rate of improvement, will the school teach Joe to read by grade three?

At Joe's present rate of improvement how long will it take the school to teach Joe to read?

Ask all these questions in your letter even if you know the answers. Keep a copy of your letter to the school. Keep a copy of their answers.

Asking these questions in writing will give the principal and the IEP team a chance to assess your grandson’s school situation.

A week or so after you deliver the letter to the principal, request an IEP meeting to review your son’s IEP. By then the school should have a plan about how they propose to teach him to read by grade three.

Your Learning Plan

Don't wait to take these steps, hoping your son's problems will get better on their own. According to research about learning disabilities by the National Institutes of Health, children need to learn to read before the end of third grade. If children are not proficient readers by the end of third grade, most will never be proficient.

While you are waiting for the meeting, read these publications. Use a highlighter. Make margin notes. Take your copies of these publications to the IEP meeting so you can refer to them if necessary.


Note: Congress has reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the statute formerly known as No Child Left Behind. The new statute, Every Student Succeeds Act, was signed into law by President Obama on December 10, 2015.


Guidance for the Reading First Program

Title 1 Paraprofessionals 11-15-02, Draft Non-Regulatory Guidance

Improving Teacher Quality, 9-12-03, Revised Draft Non-Regulatory Guidance

Using Data to Influence Classroom Decisions

No Child Left Behind - A Parents Guide

Grade Retention – Achievement and Mental Health Outcomes (National Association of School Psychologists)

Good luck,

Sue Whitney
Research Editor

Meet Sue Whitney

Sue Whitney of Manchester, New Hampshire, works with families as a special education advocate and is the research editor for Wrightslaw.

Doing Your Homework, Suzanne Whitney gives savvy advice about reading, research based instruction, and creative strategies for using education standards to advocate for children and to improve public schools.

Her articles have been reprinted by,,, The Beacon: Journal of Special Education Law and Practice, the Schafer Autism Report, and have been used in CLE presentations to attorneys.

Sue is the co-author of Wrightslaw: No Child Left Behind (ISBN: 978-1-892320-12-4) that was published by Harbor House Law Press, Inc.

She also served on New Hampshire's Special Education State Advisory Committee on the Education of Students/Children with Disabilities (SAC).

Sue Whitney's bio.

Copyright © 2002-2022 by Suzanne Whitney.

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