With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Jill Allor is a professor with the Department of Teaching and Learning at Southern Methodist University. Her research focuses on reading and reading disabilities.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Tell me about the most important aspects of your research as it relates to kids with disabilities and struggling readers.

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Jill Allor: One of the things that’s really interesting about kids with disabilities is the things we know that are effective for teaching kids in general are also effective for them.

The differences are in how explicit we need to be and how much repetition is needed. A child with a disability needs more intensive instruction — they need more practice and they need every step laid out very carefully. 

Research shows if you start out with explicit instruction in kindergarten and first grade, you can address reading problems extremely early. You can prevent many problems and prevent some kids from even needing a diagnosis. 

Trib+Edu: What are some of the biggest challenges in identifying and addressing these problems?

Allor: There are some kids that have average intelligence or better but yet struggle to learn how to read. We have a lot of research about what to do for them. They need explicit instruction and the primary problem is usually in the phonological areas. So focusing on phonics early and making that very explicit is critical. 

The majority of the kids in special education have learning disabilities. But more recently, since 2005, my focus has been on students who have intellectual disabilities.

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A student with a learning disability generally has an average IQ level but has an unexpected problem learning how to read. For a student with an intellectual disability, they’re going to have problems learning in all areas.

What we found in our research is all of the things that work for students who have a learning disability, who are struggling readers, also work for (students with an intellectual disability) but it needs to be even more explicit and more intensive. 

Trib+Edu: How do you attain that intensive instruction?

Allor: The issue is intensity. Our most recent research project is called ‘project intensity.’ It includes smaller group sizes so kids get more teacher attention. It includes more time with teachers and more time to practice.

Trib+Edu: What are the practical challenges associated with implementing this in public schools, which are already pressed for time and resources?

Allor: It’s a serious challenge to get kids the attention they need. We have to hit it from many different angles and that’s really what our research is all about — ways to be more efficient.

One way is to do a better job early on in providing very targeted practice on high impact skills. For example, in a nursery school it’s great to focus on rhyming. But by the time you get to kindergarten and first grade age — if you’re still not able to rhyme — there are other skills that are more important to focus on, like straightforward blending and segmenting. Knowing how to say “sat” is more important than knowing what rhymes with it.

Cumulative review is a critical piece of providing intensive instruction. Once you learn a skill, you move up a level and learn the next set of skills — but you keep repeating the previous skills. Not every program provides that. 

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We’re creating materials that are really easy to use for teachers, so they require less planning time. We also have material designed specifically for paraprofessionals. So, teachers can provide the initial instruction and paraprofessionals can provide the extra practice.

Having good materials helps you target that child’s sweet spot, customizing it to exactly what they know and what they need to learn next. I would argue one of the biggest challenges in teaching reading is identifying that. As their disability is more severe, the more important it is you tailor that instruction to fit their needs.  

Trib+Edu: How do you go about providing that level of customization?

Allor: When my kids were in school, pretty much every kid in the class got the same set of words to practice — no matter what they knew or didn’t know. I had one daughter who needed to practice those. I had another daughter who already knew all those words.

You should send home what they need to practice right now. This is particularly important for kids who are struggling. You need to be careful. It’s not realistic for a teacher to give 20 different homework assignments. That’s not possible.

But for a child with a disability, you need to be sure you’re tailoring those homework assignments. 

Trib+Edu: Is it hard to diagnose what specifically the problem is with younger readers and whether they’re dealing with a disability?

Allor: The newest way to do this is response to intervention. If you start with really high-quality instruction and some kids are not making progress, that helps you identify who you need to look at more closely.

You can do that really early. We can tell when a child is four or five that they’re likely to struggle with reading and can start providing additional support.

Other disabilities are much more obvious. A lot of the kids I work with, they may have Down syndrome and that’s something that’s usually identified at birth. Or they have needs that really are across the board — those are much easier to spot. 

That’s who we’ve been working with in our most recent research. We’ve created a set of readers and curriculum that we call ‘friends on the block.’ Our readers help them connect spoken language to print.

Some early childhood programs do phonics really well. Some do comprehension really well. It’s hard to get a program that does both really well.

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