Many individuals with mental retardation (MR) read at levels below what might be expected based on other cognitive skills. Further, reading instruction historically has emphasized sight words, and this emphasis limits reading vocabulary to words that have been taught directly. There is a critical need for effective methods to teach word-attack, or decoding, skills to this difficult-to-teach population. Word-attack skills enable reading words that have not been taught directly.
In the literature on reading instruction for normally developing children, the major scientific development of the last few decades has been the identification of prerequisite and component skills that help to make decoding instruction successful. There is now incontrovertible evidence that phonological awareness, especially the ability to perceive sounds that make up spoken syllables, facilitates the acquisition of word-attack skills. Examples of phonological awareness include recognizing rhyming words, and recognizing that several words begin with the same sound. Phonemes are the smallest within-syllable units of sound that make a difference to meaning. It is important to note that learning to produce individual phonemes to corresponding printed letters (a part of phonics instruction) does not automatically ensure the awareness of phonemes within syllables. This is because phonemes within syllables are “smeared together,” they do not have discrete boundaries (this characteristic is called coarticulation).
Our long-term goal is to develop computerized instructional programming to teach foundational skills for reading to individuals with MR. The current project will take a step towards that goal by addressing the most neglected area of instruction for this population: the critical early reading skills of phonological awareness and the related concept that print maps the sounds that comprise syllables. The scientific foundation for our work lies in the conclusion of the National Reading Panel (2000) that phonological-awareness training that involves linking letters to sub-syllable sounds is more effective than training that is conducted only in the auditory mode. Thus, we plan to study the development of these skills using a word-construction task, in which the participants build words that they hear by touching individual letters in a pool of letters on a touch-sensitive computer screen. The word-construction procedures have several benefits. They promote left-to-right scanning and attention to each letter in a word. Further, if carefully composed sets of words that have subsyllable components in common are taught, these procedures can simultaneously promote the development of generalized sound-print relations and phonological awareness.
We will know that a participant has learned generalized skills when the participant can construct words that are composed of new combinations of sound-letter relations contained in words that the participant has learned to construct. For example, if a participant learns to construct the words cat, rat, and ran, and then proves able to construct can, even though can has not been taught, s/he has demonstrated generalization of the sound-letter relations across words. Further, our work has shown that it is not necessary for participants to be able to read words before learning to construct them. Given that the word construction task teaches component skills of individual-word reading, it is important that word-construction training can occur prior to or in conjunction with learning to read the words. This is an unstudied approach to establishing foundational skills in individuals with MR.
The project is being carried out with adults served by Community Living Opportunities and by Cottonwood, in Lawrence. Children participants come from the Educare preschool in the Dole building and we are planning for an expansion to children with intellectual disabilities in the Lawrence Public Schools. Four graduate students within the Department of Applied Behavioral Sciences are working on the project: Janna Skinner, Tanya Bayhnam, Katey Schmidt, and Megan Weaver.