Teaching Reading to Students Who Experience Trauma

Teaching Reading to Students Who Experience Trauma

Tim Shanahan

Teacher question:

I’m interested in whether personal grief trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) effect reading comprehension or learning to read. Over the years, I have had students who have lost parents or siblings, and some who are witnesses to (or victims of violence). What does research say about these students’ reading ability and what should we be doing to make sure they learn to read as well as possible?

Shanahan response:

You’re not the only one who has wondered about this.

Researchers, educators, researchers, and lawyers have all taken a swing at it – conducting correlational studies, crafting potentially valuable instructional responses, and filing lawsuits.

My overall sense of the best thinking on this?

The research indicates that traumatic events can have an impact on children’s (and adults’) ability to learn, including their ability to learn reading. For instance, a study (Duplechain, Reigner, & Packard, 2008) surveyed students (grade 2-5) and correlated the results to three years of reading scores. “Results suggested that violence exposure had an adverse effect on reading scores,” and the greater the amount of such exposure, the lower the achievement. Those results are provocative but other studies contradict the results, reporting no such link with reading achievement (Attar, Guerra & Tolan, 1994) or for academic achievement generally (Overstreet & Braun, 1999; Rosenthal & Wilson, 2003).

Trauma is a problem because it can affect memory, cognition, attention, and abilities to organize and process information. It can also disrupt schooling and increase absences. However, the variations in the types and degrees of trauma and in the resilience of those who experience trauma are so great as to make outcomes unpredictable. In other words, even severe trauma won’t necessarily hamper someone’s learning. There is so much individual variation both in the traumatic events and in students that one cannot be sure whose learning will be disrupted.

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