ADHD : Reading and the Classroom

Boy Doing Homework


About the Author

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This compilation of ADHD information and teaching strategies was prepared by me, Alan Barnicle. At the time of this site's creation I was in my third year working towards a degree in Teaching Communication Arts and Literature at the University of Minnesota – Duluth. As part of my apprenticeship I worked with a tutee who had ADHD. My work with the tutee was the inspiration for this site.

I was told before I met with my tutee that he had ADHD. I knew a little bit about ADHD but after making some observations I decided I needed to know more. Here is just a short list of the behaviors I have noticed:

The following sections contain information on ADHD, classroom adaptations, individual adaptations, and inclusive practices written from the perspective of a prospective teacher as a resource for other teachers.

Any questions or suggestions appreciated.

Jimmy Student

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Picture of Song Bird

You are paying attention to the teacher, to the birds outside the window, to the hmmm of the computer fan, to the bight lights in the room, to the kid walking past the door in the hallway, to the girl next to you taking notes, to the guy on the other side making a paper football, to whoever is saying your name, “Jimmy”, to the kids faces, you can see them all, odd, it’s your teacher…. “JIMMY”, she is mad at you, again …. “JIMMY, are you paying attention?!” You answer. “Yea. Yes. I mean, I think so”. Your name is Jimmy Student and you have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). You find it hard to concentrate or focus on any one thing for long. Everything comes at you, demands your attention, and usually gets it. You mind makes connections to everything and gets off on tangents to far away places.

Teachers need to understand ADHD, as students with the condition will be in our classrooms. With a basic understanding of the condition, we as educators can identify and use procedures and adaptations that will help children with ADHD, if not all children, learn.

Medical Information on ADHD

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Attention deficit is a breakdown in attention. ADHD is a life long condition that is found in 3-7% of our population. The condition is usually found in males with ratios around three boys with ADHD to one girl or higher (Attention).

Currently, there are four recognized types of ADHD: the predominantly inattentive type, the predominantly hyper active-impulsive type, combined type, and the not otherwise specified type. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association, recommends that a child have 6 or more of 18 criterions met for a period of over six months to be considered for treatment of ADHD. Among these criterion are: often does not follow through on instructions; fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (not due to oppositional behavior or failure to understand instructions); often fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat; and often blurts out answers before questions have been completed. Moreover, these symptoms should not be a result of any other condition or disorder, should be present in more than one setting of the child’s life, and the student should be over the age of seven. For a complete list of types, symptoms, and considerations for the diagnosis of ADHD, refer to the ADHD page of the DSM-IV (Mayeaux).

A study at Stanford University found “decreased frontal and striatal activation in ADHD children…Other studies have also indicated decreased activity in the frontal lobe, as well as functional deficits in the basal ganglia of children with ADHD. The significance of such research is that we will soon be able to have a set of biological characteristics to diagnose ADHD rather than just behavior observation (INC Research | CNS). In practice, knowledge of what is going on inside the head of a student can be beneficial. According to Judy Bromen who is a coordinator at The University of Minnesota Duluth with the Access Center, students with ADHD tend to have lower functioning in the frontal lobe that controls executive cognition, or the ability to choose what to pay attention to and the ability organize and manage time. This set of characteristics is also known as disinhibition.

Treatment in Brief

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Treatment of ADHD is somewhat controversial, and largely out of the scope of the educator. Beyond a doubt the options available for treating ADHD are growing in number. Drugs, such as the widely recognized Ritalin, are a popular option. Drugs tend to modify the activity in the brain, enhancing the executive functions (Bromen). New drugs are being tested all the time and are being prescribed. There are also several non-drug options that are becoming increasingly popular. Such approaches include a diet that reduces intake of sugar and processed foods.

One treatment option that educators regularly partake in is behavior management. By learning about the condition and what the child experiences, educators can adapt their classrooms and lessons to increase the learning potential of students with ADHD and decrease interruptions. Many of these adaptations are generally good practices that will help with classroom management and overall learning, no matter who your students are or what conditions they may be challenged with.

Clearly, ADHD can impact the student’s learning. Moreover, the student’s behavior may very likely impact the learning of other students in the classroom. The teacher is also affected. Suggestions for educators tend to fall into two broad categories: whole classroom procedures, and individual student accommodations.

Five Mental Systems Focusing on the Reader

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In addition to the SDM-IV, Levine identified 5 mental systems that may be affected by ADHD. Knowledge of how these areas break down has driven the development of individual and inclusive instruction practices (Andretti 12). A breakdown in one or more of the following systems can adversely affect reading achievement:

  1. Mental Effort - For students with ADHD, paying attention can take a great deal of effort. Simply trying to pay attention takes so much effort that it may lead to exhaustion or burn out in short order. Therefore, students may appear to be daydreaming, tired or lazy in class. Students may drift off during sustained silent reading and may not be able to follow along with a reading group (12).
  2. Planfulness - Like many may understand the typical structure of a story, many students also understand the typical structure of the classroom. Students know what to do when the get into a class, what procedures to follow, when to hand in thing, when to talk, when to sharpen a pencil, when to get up and move around, etc. There is a difference between understanding these structures and not following them, and not knowing them. It is suggested by Bromen that students with ADHD may not have internalized these structures. Moreover, a student with ADHD will have a hard time coming up with a plan of action for a study hall, extended seat work, or group work. While many students can come up with a plan of action during a study hall or when given time to work on a task, ADHD may end up squandering their time (Bromen).
  3. Selectivity - Students with ADHD have a hard time selecting the stimulus that they are going to pay attention to. Students without ADHD tend to know that the focus of attention belongs on the teacher when she or he is talking. It is not to be taken for granted that ADHD students know what to pay attention to. They may find themselves paying attention to the bird on the windowsill, or other inappropriate stimuli for the situation (Bromen).
  4. Tempo-control - When students lack tempo-control, which is the ability to know when to slow down, they may fidget or twist hair or take part in other distracting activities during instruction (Andretti 12). They may also rush through a task and make careless mistakes.
  5. Self-monitoring - Making sure that one is getting the information needed from a text requires the ability to focus on one's reading to recognize when comprehension is breaking down. Students who can not self monitor may have a hard time reading aloud, following written instructions, finding and correcting errors in writing (Andretti 31).

Reading Specific Practices

Picture Boy Reading

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Tendencies to let the mind wander, daydream, difficulty organizing information, and the inability to maintain focus makes reading difficult for a student with ADHD. While there are many practices that will help students with ADHD learn, the following are a few that are specific to reading and comprehension:

Individual Accommodations

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Practices designed to help students with ADHD have been recognized as beneficial for all students as they tend to help the students organize information, increase metacognition, and know how to behave. Therefore, the list for individual accommodations is quite short.

Inclusive Classroom Modifications

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While special consideration for students with ADHD is appropriate, many techniques that may come from such situation would be suitable for the whole class. Here are several great examples:

Setting clear expectations for behavior and reviewing them often will ensure the students know what is expected of them (ADHD).

Assessing the Student with ADHD

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Standardized testing doesn’t measure students’ learning, especially if the students have ADHD. Students with attention difficulties may not do well on standardized or timed tests because of the needed degree of focused attention to the questions, careful recording of answers, and lack of student-teacher interaction (Andretti 24). Therefore, there is a need for a more authentic measure of learning. Teachers should consider the following:

While these assessment practices work well with students with ADHD, they are also quite appropriate for all students.


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Knowing what ADHD is and expecting it in your classroom is the first step to students’ success. I am confident that if teachers use these inclusive tools, not only will their students with ADHD learn more effectively, but all students will benefit.

Works Cited

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ADHD Inclusive Instruction and Collaborative Practices. Perf. Sandra Rief. Videocassette. National Professional Resources, Inc.

Andretti, Ann P., and Micheal P. French. Attention Deficit and Reading Instruction. 382nd ed. Bloomington: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1995. 17-32.

"Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder." The Encyclopedia of Learning Dissabilities. N.p.: Checkmark Books, 2002.

Bromen , Judy. Personal interview. 28 Apr. 2004.

Hughes, Trudie. Personal interview. 15 Apr. 2004.

INC Research | CNS. Aug. 2001. Apr. 2004

Mayeaux Jr., E j. DSM-IV Diagnostic. 2000. Louisiana State University Medical Center. 28 Apr. 2004