Reading comprehension is challenging for students with an intellectual disability (ID). The cognitive demands are often out of  reach without significant support. Understanding the demands helps educators wrap their heads around the supports needed. Effective teaching strategies can make it possible for students with an ID to comprehend reading material that is beyond their reading level.

Understanding the Challenge


Imagine a house is mentioned in a book. A good reader brings up a mental image of a house. Then, the author adds more to the description, such as side entrance, mansion, low-come, abandon, or sweeping front driveway. The reader now needs to refine his mental image of the house to picture the house in the story versus a house in general. To do that, the reader needs to know what those descriptors for the house mean, which requires a good vocabulary. The reader also needs background knowledge on the significance of different types of homes . Then, the reader has to hold on to that image and information as the story progresses.

See how hard this is? (and this is a simple example because many schemas are much more abstract). You can see how a lot of what reading comprehension requires is cognitively out of range for people with an ID.

Effective Reading Comprehension Strategies


Front-load with Photos: Use pictures to represent important scenes, settings, characters, and things.Pictures provide visual input to address deficits in background knowledge and vocabulary. They also address challenges with creating mental images needed for comprehension.

Front-load with Summarizing: Use the photos to guide a discussion about the chapter. Use short, blunt sentences to explain what happens in the chapter. Ask a lot of questions to engage students. Explain any implied or abstract information from the story in simple terms.

Deeply summarized content addresses impaired working memory by making the input manageable.

Front-load with Movement: Facilitate acting out scenes or processes from the reading. As you do this, repeat information talked about while summarizing the upcoming reading.

Movement aids comprehension by providing physical input. It also serves as another visual of “what happens” in the story.

These strategies give students with an ID access to the reading material. Good instruction throughout the book facilitates processing the story. Physically acting out simplified scenes reinforces the comprehension.