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December 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 4

Addressing Learning Differences Right from the Start

Establishing the right of students with disabilities to be included in regular classrooms is one thing, but making it a profitable learning experience is quite another.

Instructional StrategiesInstructional Strategies
James is a gregarious 9th grader who is labeled learning disabled in both language and reading. He has problems with decoding and serious weaknesses in vocabulary and content-area knowledge. His writing is poor, and he has trouble understanding textbooks and articles even when they are read to him.
During elementary and middle school, James's reading and language arts instruction was in pull-out programs; now he is fully included in a high school where he takes a full load of coursework and participates in extracurricular activities. A special education teacher is present in some of his classes and works with him to complete assignments during class time. James also goes to a writing center that provides help to students.
Last semester, James participated in an interdisciplinary unit on the Civil War. Students read The Killer Angels, a novel by Michael Shaara about Gettysburg; watched Ken Burns's Civil War documentary; and read from their history textbook. The students raised the money for a class trip to Gettysburg, and their final assignment was a research paper.
James floundered despite the activity-based focus of the classroom. The novel was too long and had difficult vocabulary. The textbook had some pictures, but the reading level was well above his ability. His special education teacher got him the movie “Gettysburg,” based on the book The Killer Angels. After watching the movie alone during a free period, James said that it was good, but he couldn't retrieve many details. He knew the North won, that Martin Sheen led the South's troops, and that the regiment from Maine was brave.
The trip to Gettysburg was a high point. James was deeply stirred by the number of casualties and chose to research the battle of Gettysburg. He began gathering sources; the encyclopedia was useful, but most of the other books in the high school library were at a high reading level. The learning disabilities specialist helped James cull information from a few sources for his note cards. He completed a traditional outline and went to the writing lab for help with his paper. The writing specialist realized that James knew something about Gettysburg but had not mastered the information in his notes and had difficulty expressing his ideas verbally. James only had time to complete one draft: The paper was two pages long, with stodgy sentences, and three references. James turned it in and the team accepted it with reservations.

What's Wrong with This Picture?

James's experience is typical of many students with disabilities who are in inclusive programs. Without careful attention to James's strengths and weaknesses, learning style, language processing abilities, and reading level, he and students like him miss the opportunity to master both the content of the Civil War—essential knowledge for a successful student—and to develop basic skills in research, reading, and writing. While physically included, James feels intellectually excluded, and acutely inferior to his peers. No one is to blame; everyone did their jobs to the best of their abilities. Yet, how might the Civil War unit be planned to address the learning needs of students with disabilities and still retain the rich content-area resources about the Civil War? The following are suggestions for addressing students' needs within the restructured inclusive classroom.

Providing Support and Promoting Excellence

When first planning the Civil War unit, teachers need to collaborate with special educators and reading specialists. Special educators could provide teachers with information about the students' abilities and help to design classroom activities and projects that give students with disabilities a chance to engage in content-area study. As part of this effort, the curriculum could offer a range of reading materials on the Civil War at different grade levels. Students might be required to choose several readings, one of which provides a historical overview of the war, others that provide greater insight into a specific aspect of the war.
In-class readings for group discussion can be high-interest articles from the popular media or primary sources. Texts might be read out loud in small groups and then analyzed and summarized in the students' own language. For example, a teacher who wishes the students to read and discuss the Gettysburg Address during the class period might first ask students to write or tape their own eulogies to the battle, drawing on their knowledge gained from readings, film, and the field trip. James would be an ideal candidate to tape his eulogy as he would become frustrated at being unable to write a coherent passage in the available time. Students can share their eulogies in small groups by reading them or playing their tapes.
For the actual reading of the Gettysburg Address, several students might volunteer to give a dramatic rendition of the speech. Students in small groups could then translate the Address into contemporary English. Repetitive reading and translation activities serve two functions. They help all students decipher archaic vocabulary, and they help them work with difficult grammar. Students must work through the speech line by line, reading it aloud to the whole group and then writing a contemporary translation. James can listen or participate, but as the dialogue unfolds and the modern translation emerges, he has a good chance of understanding the Gettysburg Address.
In the process, the whole class moves into the heart of the speech, probes the beauty of its language, and examines the nature of its message. For James, this class provides opportunities to learn the Gettysburg Address without asking him to initially use his least preferred and least successful learning styles—reading and writing. To evaluate the students' understanding of the meaning, the teacher might ask them to do a short free-write or taped response to the question “Did Lincoln justify the war in the Gettysburg Address?”
Assigned reading outside of class provides a different kind of opportunity for James. Prior to the Civil War unit, the teaching team, which includes either or both the special education or reading teacher, might identify the critical information and goals that all students must meet. The texts and readings are chosen to reflect students' reading abilities and goals. The learning disabilities specialist provides information on students' reading abilities and helps search for a range of materials in both print and other media. Optimally, these sources are both at and just above students' comfort zones as independent readers. James's outside-of-class reading would be challenging, and while he might be required to do less total reading than other students, he might get much of the same information as his peers.
Another important aspect of the restructured curriculum is diversity of classroom activities. Students might work in small groups, or gather for a large group discussion, or work independently. Decentralized classroom activities allow more students time to work one-on-one with a teacher or a peer. In this way, James receives direct instruction in reading, and strategy instruction to practice sight words, word attack skills, and content-specific comprehension skills appropriate to his instructional level.

Using Media for More than Entertainment

Although the original unit used video and film to present information about the war, certain strategies can ensure that students are active rather than passive movie watchers. The students might view the film in 20-minute segments and have a discussion after each segment. Small groups of students could outline the salient features. The use of semantic or graphic organizers is well suited to this type of in-class outline because they provide a way to organize information conceptually and spatially. For example, if the section viewed was the battle of Gettysburg, then the graphic organizer might be a large sheet of paper representing the battlefield, with essential characters and battle strategies shown in different colors, symbols, and words.
For more abstract topics in the documentary, such as causes of the war, the class could use a semantic organizer to provide a spatial array of interrelated information and concepts. The entire class could construct a mural-sized semantic/graphic organizer and concept map that would become a reference for further discussion and analysis. Every student, including James, could participate in and benefit from viewing a movie this way.

Frontloading Adaptive Teaching Methods

This model of curriculum development accommodates students' learning differences right from the start. Support in the form of adaptive teaching methods, repetition and analysis, and multi-modal, multi-level sources of information are frontloaded during curriculum planning, rather than provided in a remedial or catch-up method as the unit progresses. Successful implementation of this model requires active participation and collaboration by all members of the teaching team. The general education teachers identify key concepts and skills relating to the Civil War. Reading specialists and special educators shed light on individual students' needs for accommodation in materials, expectations, support, and assessment. All members of the team can contribute to the task of finding materials for the unit.

Training Teachers for Diverse Classrooms

The characteristics of students in today's diverse classrooms demand that all teachers diversify. Special educators and reading educators must be trained in content-based education and general education practices. Simultaneously, regular education teachers must be trained to understand and to address the diversity and special needs of students with reading and learning disabilities.
The current system of teacher education does not provide the common learning experiences and skills that all teachers need, regardless of whether they are training to be regular, special, or reading teachers. Courses in curriculum development and assessment must teach the development of multi-level goals for different learners within a common curriculum. Courses in methods and materials development must target different learning styles, and teach strategies for adapting existing materials when variety is not possible.
Finally, all of this attention to accommodation must not ignore students' right to strive for literacy. Mainstream classrooms can support and develop literacy skills if modifications like those described here are implemented. In many cases, however, these supports will not be sufficient. Students like James will continue to need direct instruction, even one-to-one instruction, from reading and learning disabilities specialists. The point is not to replace effective instructional practices for students with disabilities, but to reconfigure those efforts with effective, inclusive classroom practices. James is already a physical presence in his courses. The time has come to welcome him to the intellectual community of his peers. We are only beginning to understand how that welcome might look.
References

Brinker, R. P., and M. D. Thorpe. (1984). “Integration of Severely Handicapped Students and the Proportion of IEP Objectives Achieved.” Exceptional Children 51, 2: 168–175.

Halvorson, A., and W. Sailor. (1990). “Integration of Students with Severe and Profound Disabilities: A Review of the Research.” In Issues and Research in Special Education, Vol. 1 edited by R. Gaylord-Ross, pp. 110–172. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hunt, P., F. Farron-Davis, S. Beckstead, D. Curtis, and L. Goetz. (1993). Evaluating the Effects of Placement of Students with Severe Disabilities in General Education Versus Special Classes. San Francisco: California Research Institute, San Francisco State University.

Hutchinson, N. L. (1994). “Integrative Strategy Instruction: an Elusive Ideal for Teaching Adolescents with Learning Disabilities.” Journal of Learning Disabilities 26, 7: 428–432.

McIntosh, R., S. Vaughn, J. S. Schumm, D. Haager, and O. Lee. (1993). “Observations of Students with Learning Disabilities in General Education Classrooms.” Exceptional Children 60, 3: 249–261.

Patton, J. R., E. A. Polloway, and M. E. Cronin. (1987). “Social Studies Instruction for Handicapped Students: A Review of Curriculum Practices.” Social Studies 78: 131–135.

Pehrsson, R., and P. Denner. (1989). Semantic Organizers: A Study Strategy for Special Needs Learners. Rockville, Md.: Aspen.

Schumm, J. S., and S. Vaughn. (1992). “Planning for Mainstreamed Special Education Students: Perceptions of General Classroom Teachers.” Exceptionality 3: 81–90.

Elizabeth Heron has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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