The Right to Read, Chapter 5: Intervention

the-right-to-readThe decisive question is not what methods or procedures are employed, or whether they are old-fashioned or modern, time-tested or experimental, conventional or progressive…. The ultimate criterion for success in teaching is — results!— Mursell



Soon after the “discovery” of learning disabilities in the 1960s, remedial programs of different types were under way, ranging from small one-enthusiastic-teacher size programs to large, nationally funded ones. However, a disappointing shock came to many special educators in the U.S.A. when the President’s Report to Congress, reported by Nixon in 1970 in American Education, stated its findings. After the expenditure of one billion dollars on compensatory education, mainly reading, only 19 percent of children improved their reading significantly, 15 percent fell behind more than expected; and more than two thirds of the children remained unaffected. That is, they continued to fall behind.2

In 1972, Koppitz reported her findings in a five year follow-up of 177 LD students placed in special-education programs. Minimal progress had been made. Students had made a three to four months gain per year in reading and appeared to have reached a plateau in terms of academic progress.3 Similar results were observed by Gottesman in 1979, who reviewed learning-disabled students five to seven years after initial placement in remedial programs. They showed an average gain in reading of only four months per year of remedial instruction,4 which means that they continued to fall further behind. In order to catch up, their reading must improve by more than one year in every year of instruction.

After reviewing a set of long-term studies, Spreen concluded in 1982, “most children who are referred for a learning or reading disability do not catch up. In fact, their disability is likely to become worse in time. In addition, remedial instruction has not been shown to improve the prognosis of these children.”5 A decade later no progress had been made. In 1992 Reiff and Gerber echoed Spreen’s findings, stating that the “available literature of longitudinal and follow-up studies suggests that a learning disability is a lifelong condition.”6

Since the beginning of the 1980s, ever-increasing attention has been directed toward the use of technology with individuals with LD. In the hope of improving methods of instruction and remediation, computers and other electronic devices have been integrated into resource rooms and mainstreamed classrooms. Reflecting over this decade, Hresko and Parma stated in 1991, “no area [in the field on LD] has grown as significantly as high technology.”7 It was hoped that computers and high technology would be able to achieve what teachers and therapists could not. However, in regard to the benefits of computers in special education, Hresko and Parmar stated the following: “Although much has been expected of computers in the education of the exceptional child, those expectations have not been realized. Research to date has failed to substantiate significant or even moderate gains in the academic areas. Furthermore, although some researchers have focused on the potential effects of computers on thinking and reasoning ability, research has failed to show significant gains. Thus the widespread hopes for educational uses of the computer remain to be realized.”8

This was, of course, to be expected. All the intervention efforts that had so far been tried by teachers and therapists were ineffective. Having them applied by computers would not suddenly make them effective.

Because of the inability of LD specialists to “fix” a learning disability, attention has shifted in the 1990s from remediation to compensation. Consequently, students with learning disabilities are taught ways of coping and adapting.9

Creating More Problems than it Solves?

Current federal law states that every handicapped child in the United States has the right to an appropriate education. Many parents whose children aren’t learning in the schools have chosen to have their children tested and declared “learning handicapped” to make them eligible for special LD programs.10 While the statistics above demonstrate quite clearly that there is often nothing “special” about these programs, they frequently cause more problems than they solve.

Like prisons, LD classrooms often serve as a training-ground for misbehavior, where a small number of children referred for severe emotional problems pass on their instability to the rest of the students. Carl Milofsky, a California sociologist who spent several months in classes for the educationally handicapped wrote of his experience, “It was clear that, if anything, the special class made students more rebellious and harder to handle.”11

A more serious problem with many LD programs is that by removing children from the “mainstream” of regular classroom life, there is a greater likelihood that these youngsters will fall ever further behind their peers. Lee Ann Trusdell of the City University of New York, in a study of remedial programs in New York City, observed that many students were receiving instruction in special classes that was totally unrelated to what was being taught in regular classes. As these children become more disconnected from their homeroom classes, it becomes that much harder for them to return. In fact, many of these youngsters, initially referred to special education for minor remediation, soon make a career out of their disability and slip more deeply into the LD labyrinth.12 The following letter, posted on an LD bulletin board on the Internet, is just one example:

If you care at all for your children you will read this and take it to heart. I want to tell of my own nightmare, and how my schoolteachers and parents destroyed my interest in school.

First let me start by letting you all know that I was not a great student. I was an average student who mostly made C’s and B’s with an occasional A and an occasional D. But the D’s were rare. And I loved school. I worked hard and did the best I could. I can honestly say, that going into fifth grade there was no one on this planet I trusted more than my parents and my schoolteachers. Despite average grades, I felt I was getting a lot out of school and found it fascinating. My standardized scores on tests like the CAT and CTBS were always in the average range — between the 40-60% range. I was about as average as I could be, but I was happy and I was in love with school.

Then, for some reason that puzzles me to this day, a nosy do-gooder, perfectionist teacher decided to stick her nose where it didn’t belong. She coerced my parents into agreeing to a special education evaluation. NOW WHY ON EARTH WOULD SHE DO THAT TO ME?

My parents signed the evaluation — no questions asked. So one day I get called out of my classroom. I was told that I was going to be given a test. Mind you I was a ten-year-old boy. No one else was required to take the test. I was lead down the hall — all by myself — out of the door and down a breezeway to a stand-alone shack, my nerves building all of the way. I was terrified. “Why were they doing this to me?”

My nerves got the best of me. I did well on most of the tests, but my nerves overtook me and I did poorly enough on other parts of the test that I was placed in special ed. I was in classrooms with kids who…were clearly intellectually challenged. I was humiliated, degraded and worst of all betrayed. I now hated my teachers and barely cared for my parents. I started to hate school, whereas before then I loved school.

I was also in the worst of catch 22 situations, as there was no way out. What if I make all A’s? Well it proves you need to be in special ed! What if I make all F’s? Well it proves that you need more special ed. And sure enough I made A’s in those pathetic little special ed classes. But what idiot would not make an A in them. The coursework was pathetically easy. Most of all, what was really bad — despite reassurances to the contrary — I was well aware of the fact that the coursework was not the same as what was in regular classes. I knew for a fact that I was not receiving an equal education. I knew it was unjust. Eventually it took its toll. I lost all interest in school and never made it past the eight grade….

If one considers that less than 2 percent of students placed in special education ever return to regular education,13 it is evident that the LD system has failed more children than it could help. A widespread feeling of dejection has taken root amongst its educators:

I have found that both learning disability specialists and administrators are among the first to tell me of their discouragement with the present system for helping students with learning problems. They are less satisfied with the system than their staunchest critics: they want the most for the students in their care, yet they see the inadequacy of both the special and the regular education systems to meet these needs.14

However, as Coles remarks, persistent academic failure should be no surprise. The invalid assumptions behind the explanation of learning disabilities center almost exclusively on what is happening inside children’s heads, thereby misdirecting the diagnoses and remedial programs. At the same time, they hinder the pursuit of other, scientific explanations, of preventative strategies, and of truly effective methods for addressing the problems when they do occur.15 As stated in the first chapter, there is only one way in which any science can make progress and that is if its point of departure is based on fact. At present, within the field of learning disabilities, it is based on a myth.

Besides failing due to its mythical foundations, remedial instruction and other intervention efforts of an educational nature also fail because to a large extent one of the most important principles of teaching is overlooked, that of sequence. Herbart, who made important contributions to the development of modern pedagogics, insisted that one never apprehends anything in isolation, but always in terms of one’s background of previous experience and learning.16 When teaching, it is therefore of extreme importance always to start with what is known to the pupil and then move to the unknown. In remedial education, this rarely happens, if at all.

A further, very important objection that can be raised against remedial education is that it is mostly symptomatic treatment and never deals with the cause of the problem it is supposed to address. A child’s poor reading ability is the symptom of a deeper lying problem. In remedial education only the reading problem itself, i.e. the symptom, is dealt with.


After remedial instruction, the most common intervention method in dealing with LD children is the use of stimulants. These psychoactive stimulants include Ritalin (methylphenidate), Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine), Cylert (magnesium pemoline) and numerous others.

The production of Ritalin has increased sixfold in the U.S. from 1990 to 1996. According to a report issued by the U.N.’s Vienna-based International Narcotics in February 1996, as many as 5 percent of all American schoolchildren — and 12 percent of all boys between the ages of six and fourteen — are being treated with Ritalin.17 And the production is still increasing. According to Dr. Lawrence H. Diller, author of Running on Ritalin, stimulant drug use in children rose 23 percent between 1995 and 1999.18

Although stimulants are very often administered for other types of learning disabilities, it is especially prescribed for children suffering from a vaguely defined syndrome, “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (ADHD). These children have trouble sitting still in class and giving attention. Eighty percent of children with ADHD also have problems with reading, spelling and writing.19 Almost 60 percent would be anticipated to have failed one grade in school;20 about a third fail to graduate from high school.21

Up to about 1957 hyperactivity was a rare phenomenon, with an incidence of perhaps one out of two thousand individuals. These rare individuals seemed to be driven by an inner whirlwind, not just in school, but constantly. They were always moving, climbing and knocking things over and were in constant danger of injuring themselves or others.22 Today, on the contrary, children are being diagnosed as ADHD even if the symptoms of the “disease” occur only in the classroom. The same child can watch TV or tinker with something for hours without distraction.

The manner in which “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” is diagnosed and the drug prescribed lends credence, as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency puts it, “to claims that methylphenidate is overprescribed and used indiscriminately in place of disciplinary measures at home and at school.”23

One of the concerns about the use of medication for LD children is that the induction of pharmaceutical intervention frequently has not been based on the criteria published by the pharmaceutical companies and medical reference texts. This information is straightforward in the description of the indications, contraindications, and precautions that need to be considered before medical intervention is implemented. The medication is usually prescribed by a physician based only on parent or parent/teacher reports indicating problems with learning/attention. In many instances, sufficient data for a responsible decision is simply not obtained.24

The pertinent data on Ritalin is quite clear. Anxiety, tension, agitation, depression are among the contraindications for the prescription of Ritalin. In spite of these blatant warnings, Ritalin continues to be prescribed without data assessing these conditions. Warnings indicating that Ritalin should not be used for children under the age of six are ignored. Users are increasingly as young as two years of age.25

Stimulants often have side effects, the most commonly reported being the loss of appetite, serious weight loss, insomnia, depression, headaches, stomachaches, bed-wetting, irritability and dizziness. Reports also indicate severe psychological effects. In one case, as told by Schrag and Divoky, a 6-year-old girl on Ritalin started showing bizarre behavior. She hid herself in a closet and cowered in a corner, became apathetic and mute, “almost like a vegetable,” then again started babbling incoherently, staring into space, contorting her body. In another case, a 10-year-old boy started screaming in his sleep on the second day of a Ritalin regimen, then became more irritable, more hyperactive and physically abusive to younger children, saying that he “felt like he wanted to tear everything apart.” He saw animals marching around in a whirlpool, food assumed a strange taste and his mouth went dry. Later he became weak and depressed. A 6-year-old boy who had been “well adjusted except for hyperactivity,” began to exhibit visual and tactile hallucinations, that included seeing and feeling “worms all over him.”26

The history of violence by teenagers who have been subjected to psychoactive drugs cannot be ignored. T. J. Solomon, a 15-year-old at the Heritage High School in Georgia was being treated with Ritalin. On 20 May 1999, he opened fire on and wounded six classmates.27 On 19 April 1999, Shawn Cooper, a 15-year-old student from Notus, Idaho, fired two shotgun rounds, narrowly missing students and school staff. He was taking Ritalin.28 On 21 May 1998, before going on a wild shooting spree at his Springfield, Oregon high school that left two dead and twenty-two injured, 14-year-old Kip Kinkel had been attending anger control classes and was reportedly taking Prozac and Ritalin. Kinkel also shot his parents, killing them.29 While on vacation in Las Vegas on 25 May 1997, 18-year-old Jeremy Strohmeyer raped and murdered a 7-year-old girl in the ladies rest room in a casino. He had been prescribed Dexedrine and started taking it a week before the killing.30

Except for short-term side effects, there are warnings in the literature that stimulants may have fundamental long-term effects, particularly on psychological drug dependence. According to one study, children treated with Ritalin are three times more likely to develop a taste for cocaine.31

Perhaps if stimulant treatment achieved positive results, one could ignore its critics. After all, as Bee remarked, we live in a “drug-taking culture. We pop aspirin into our mouths at the first sign of pain, decongestants when we have a cold, tranquilizers when we are nervous, and sleeping pills when we cannot sleep.”32 That however, does not seem to be the case. Except for keeping parents and teachers happy, there is scant evidence of improved academic performance with stimulant treatment. In The Learning Mystique, Gerald Coles confirms the findings of a 1978 review of both short and long-term studies on the use of stimulants with hyperactive and learning-disabled children. Of a total of seventeen studies included in this review, whether they were short or long-term, whether they met basic scientific criteria or not, all the conclusions converged: “stimulant drugs have little, if any, impact on…long-term academic outcome.”33

It seems that for most children drugs provide only maintenance, and not “treatment.” According to Schrag and Divoky, studies in which drug-treated children were followed into adolescence “suggest that the outlook for children treated primarily with drugs is relatively poor. In their teens, these children were still having trouble in their families, often behaving antisocially and presenting academic and behavioral problems in school.”34

When considering the child who has difficulties with learning, or concentration, or behavior, the purpose of any intervention effort should be to improve the child’s quality of life. Any intervention that does not achieve this, does not achieve anything at all. Besides remedial education and pharmaceutical intervention, that both — considered from this perspective — achieve very little, there is a legion of other controversial techniques and aids that achieve just as little, and often less.

The time has come to put the children first. They, the children, are the ones who are suffering while the wrangling and the arguing are continuing. The fact is that whatever is done under the umbrella of learning disabilities is contributing very little, if anything, towards improving the quality of life of children. In many cases it seems to be downright harmful. As stated by Mursell at the beginning of this chapter, results are the ultimate criterion for success in education. The only observable result that has so far emerged from the field of learning disabilities is the diversity of opinions. This is in agreement with present-day research practices in the human sciences, which are unfortunately not based on achievements, but rather on opinion and speculation.35 This is not good enough for the children who depend on us for receiving a good education.

The purpose of this book is to indicate that it is possible to stop being satisfied with opinions and speculation when the lives and futures of children are at stake and to work towards achievement.


  1. Scriven, M., “Comments on Gene Glass,” Paper presented at the Wingspread National Invitational Conference on Public Policy and the Special Education Task of the 1980s, cited in D. P. Hallahan, J. Kauffman, & J. Lloyd, Introduction to Learning Disabilities (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1985), 298.
  2. Franklin, B. M., “Introduction: Learning disabilities and the need for dissenting essays,” in B. M. Franklin (ed.), Learning Disability: Dissenting Essays (Philadelphia: The Falmer Press, 1987), 1.
  3. Sleeter, C., “Literacy, definitions of learning disabilities and social control,” in Franklin (ed.), Learning Disability: Dissenting Essays, 67.
  4. Kronick, D., New Approaches to Learning Disabilities. Cognitive, Metacognitive and Holistic (Philadelphia: Grune & Stratton , 1988).
  5. Siegel, L. S., “Issues in the definition and diagnosis of learning disabilities: A perspective on Guckenberger v. Boston University,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1 July 1999, vol. 32.
  6. Du Preez, J. J., & Steenkamp, W. L., Spesifieke Leergestremdhede: ‘n Neurologiese Perspektief (2nd ed.), (Durban: Butterworth, 1986).
  7. Miles, T. R., Understanding Dyslexia (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978), 42.
  8. Kavale, K. A., “Status of the field: Trends and issues in learning disabilities,” in K. A. Kavale (ed.), Learning Disabilities: State of the Art and Practice (Boston: College-Hill Press, 1988), 7.
  9. Swiegers, D. J., & Louw, D. A., “Intelligensie,” in D. A. Louw (ed.), Inleiding tot die Psigologie (2nd ed.), (Johannesburg: McGraw Hill, 1982), 145.
  10. Gould, S. J., The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981), 151-152, cited in R. L. Osgood, “Intelligence testing and the field of learning disabilities: A historical and critical perspective,” Learning Disability Quarterly, 1984, vol. 7, 343-348.
  11. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 153-154, cited in Osgood, “Intelligence testing.”
  12. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 159, cited in Osgood, “Intelligence testing.”
  13. Goddard, H. H., Human Efficiency and Levels of Intelligence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1920), 1, cited in Osgood, “Intelligence testing.”
  14. Linden, K. W., & Linden, J. D., Modern Mental Measurement: A Historical Perspective (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), cited in Osgood, “Intelligence testing.”
  15. Osgood, “Intelligence testing.”
  16. Armstrong, T., In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child’s Personal Learning Style (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1987), 27.
  17. Dworetzky, J. P., Introduction to Child Development (St. Paul: West Publishing Company, 1981), 82-83.
  18. Goddard, Human Efficiency and Levels of Intelligence, v-vii, cited in Osgood, “Intelligence testing.”
  19. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 167, cited in Osgood, “Intelligence testing.”
  20. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, cited in Armstrong, In Their Own Way, 28.
  21. Osgood, “Intelligence testing.”
  22. Buros, O. K. (ed.), Mental Measurements Yearbook (Highland Park, NJ: Gryphon Press), cited in Osgood, “Intelligence testing.”
  23. Armstrong, In Their Own Way, 27.
  24. Bjorklund, D. F., Children’s Thinking: Development Function and Individual Differences (Pacific Grove, CA: Brookes/Cole, 1989), cited in P. Engelbrecht, S. Kriegler & M. Booysen (eds.), Perspectives on Learning Difficulties (Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik, 1996), 109.
  25. Broadfoot, P., cited in Engelbrecht et al. (eds.), Perspectives on Learning Difficulties, 109.
  26. Dworetzky, Introduction to Child Development, 348.
  27. Lippman, cited in N. J Block & G. Dworkin, (eds.), The IQ Controversy: Critical Readings (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976).
  28. Armstrong, In Their Own Way, 26.
  29. New York Times, August 1979, cited in S. B. Sarason, Psychology Misdirected (New York: The Free Press, 1981).
  30. National Education Association Handbook, 1984-85 (Washington, DC: National Education Association of the United States, 1984, 240), cited in Armstrong, In Their Own Way, 27.
  31. Armstrong, In Their Own Way, 27.
  32. Siegel, “Issues in the definition and diagnosis of learning disabilities.”.
  33. Siegel, L. S., “IQ is irrelevant to the definition of learning disabilities,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1989, vol. 22(8), 469-478.
  34. Siegel, “Issues in the definition and diagnosis of learning disabilities.”
  35. Ibid; Siegel, “IQ is irrelevant to the definition of learning disabilities.”
  36. Siegel, L. S., & Metsala, E., “An alternative to the food processor approach to subtypes of learning disabilities,” in N. N. Singh & I. L. Beale (eds.), Learning Disabilities: Nature, Theory, and Treatment (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1992), 45.
  37. Smith, C. R., Learning Disabilities: The Interaction of Learner, Task, and Setting (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1991), 63.
  38. Tyler, cited in A. Anastasi, (ed.), Testing Problems in Perspective (Washington DC: American Council on Education, 1966).
  39. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 199-212, cited in Osgood, “Intelligence testing.”
  40. Kavale, “Status of the field,” 6.
  41. Dworetzky, Introduction to Child Development, 347-348.
  42. Langeveld, M. J., Voraussage und Erfolg: Über die Bedeutung von Tests als Voraussage Kindlicher Entwicklung (Braunschweig: Georg Westermann Verlag, 1973).
  43. Cited in J. Sattler, Assessment of Children’s Intelligences and Special Abilities (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1982), 60.
  44. Epps, S., Ysseldyke, J. E., & McGue, M., “’I know one when I see one’ — Differentiating LD and non-LD students,” Learning Disability Quarterly, 1984, vol. 7, 89-101.
  45. Ysseldyke, J. E., & Algozzine, B., “LD or not LD: That’s not the question!” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1983, vol. 16(1), 26-27.
  46. Scriven, M., “Comments on Gene Glass,” cited in Ysseldyke & Algozzine, “LD or not LD?”
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