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Read About Best Practices in Supporting the Literacy Development of Special Needs Learners


Today's classrooms have become increasingly diverse. The reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has increased the number of students with special needs who are taught reading instruction within the general education classroom. Since 80 percent of students with learning disabilities have a reading deficit, it is vital that general education classroom teachers be well grounded in the concepts and methodologies of reading (Learner, Learning Disabilities: Theories, Diagnosis, and Teaching). The purpose of this section is to provide you with an overview of special needs students and the way to effectively meet their individual needs within your classroom.

Characteristics of Special Needs Students

As the general education classroom teacher, recognize the challenges that your special needs students might face—difficulties in reading, writing, mathematics, or other school subjects. Also watch for the following characteristics:

  • Inability to attend and concentrate
  • Poor motor skills
  • Memory problems
  • Withdrawn behavior
  • Hyperactivity

The Special Education Process and the Involvement of the General Education Teacher

Step One: Referral

If you notice these characteristics in an individual, notify the appropriate personnel in your building, such as the special education consultant or school counselor, for further testing, observation, and possible diagnosis.

Step Two: Screening

IDEA requires that a multidisciplinary team determine whether or not the student actually has a disability. The team includes representatives from the school—the counselor, social worker, school psychologist, and an administrator—the student's parents or guardians, the special education teacher, and at least one general education teacher. Each member of the team contributes insight into the student's physical, academic, and social development through formal tests, observations, interviews, checklists, and questionnaires.

Step Three: Discussion

If it is determined that the student qualifies for assistance, the multidisciplinary team then develops the Individual Education Program (IEP). Your involvement is important in deciding the educational outcomes and placement for the student, including setting, instructional methods, accommodations, and curriculum.

Step Four: Seeking Help

Since it is common to be overwhelmed as you prepare to implement IEPs, seek assistance:

  • Talk to others in your building, such as experienced classroom teachers, special education teachers, the counselor, the school psychologist, the reading specialist, or an administrator. These experts are ready to assist you with helpful ideas and resources as you take on the additional workload of developing accommodations.
  • Continue professional development training, including individual and group book studies.

Step Five: Implementation

Once the IEP is developed, the document becomes law and classroom teachers must follow it. Therefore, teachers must be active participants in all IEP meetings. The next section guides you in the development of accommodations and modifications.

Designing Instruction

All students in your classroom have special needs, don’t they? Some students are classified as special education students, while others do not qualify for services. Most teachers find this wide variety challenging. After you examine each student’s strengths and weaknesses, how do you design instruction to meet each one’s needs?

The components of effective instructional design include accommodations and modifications, goals for instruction, scaffolding learning, and grouping students. Let’s discuss each design principle one by one as they apply to special needs students.

Accommodations and Modifications

Students with special needs will have required modifications and accommodations written into their IEPs. Since regular education teachers often know students best, their input plays a significant role in designing programs to meet individual needs.

  • A modification is an adjustment to an assignment or a test that changes what is measured.
  • Example: A student completes only a portion of a standard assignment or completes an alternate assignment that is easier than the standard assignment.
  • An accommodation allows the student to complete the same assignment or test as other students within the classroom but with a change in timing, setting, scheduling, presentation, or formatting. An accommodation does not alter what the test or assignment measures.
  • Example: A student takes an untimed test in an area of the room with fewer distractions.

Developing Accommodations

As we discussed, accommodations to facilitate academic success are an important part of a comprehensive plan for the student with special needs. An accommodation should also enhance rather than detract from the learning of other students in the room and must be feasible for you to implement.

Ask yourself:

  • When can I fit the accommodation into the daily schedule?
  • What available materials or resources can I use?
  • Are there other individuals who can help implement the accommodation?
  • How does this accommodation fit with the goals on the student's IEP?
  • How does this accommodation fit with the curriculum?
  • What does the student like or dislike about the accommodation?
  • How effectively does the accommodation promote the student's learning?
  • Is the student ready for a higher level of independence?

Some accommodations are easier to implement than others, such as providing specific praise and encouragement. Procedures and routines are also fairly easy to apply within the classroom setting. Other adaptations, such as individualizing instruction and using alternative materials, can be harder to implement (Schumm, Adapting Reading and Math Materials for the Inclusive Classroom).

Goals for Instruction

Setting instructional goals allows you to plan the path for student learning and provide a tool for measurement. During the planning process, your immediate goal is to eliminate students’ weaknesses and capitalize on their strengths. The ultimate goal is to prepare all students to read and write independently. Ask yourself:

  • Have I set goals that are realistic for the students to accomplish?
  • Have I involved the students in establishing the goals?
  • Have I taken the students' learning and interests into account?

(Bos & Vaughn, Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Problems)

Scaffolding Learning

“Teachers respond to the literacy needs of struggling readers and writers by scaffolding instruction so that students become more confident and competent in the use of strategies that support learning” (Vacca and Vacca).

Scaffolding is the manipulating of instruction so that a student is supported while being challenged to develop a new skill (Bos and Vaughn, Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Problems). Teachers can scaffold instruction to meet the needs of students by manipulating the task, presentation, group size, or materials.

One scaffolding technique is to use a “mediator.” For example, a student who is struggling with the fine motor skills required for writing may first be encouraged to draw lines of different lengths with markers. Once the child is able to master a more difficult concept, the mediator is removed.

  • Lance loved to write, but he only put beginning sounds on paper. One day his teacher used a highlighter to help Lance write his story. As Lance orally composed a sentence, the teacher drew a horizontal line to represent each word. Then Lance “filled in the blanks.” Working this way word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence, Lance was able to write an entire page. Soon, he learned to draw his own lines with the highlighter, and eventually he didn't need it at all. With each success, Lance became more confident and motivated. Using proper support, or scaffolding, the teacher was able to facilitate Lance's self-directed learning. This method empowered Lance to become more independent and function at a much higher level.

With the use of scaffolding, you provide your students with an abundance of support at the beginning of a task and then gradually reduce your role. As you monitor and note achievement, remove the current scaffolding and guide the student to the next level with a new form of scaffolding in place.

Grouping Students

It is often difficult for classroom teachers to find time to effectively monitor and provide ongoing feedback to students with special needs. Using alternative teaching methods and styles is essential to accommodate diversity. The use of whole-class instruction, mixed-ability groups, and same-ability groups can all be used to help meet the needs of different students (Vaughn, Gersten & Chard, “The Underlying Message in LD Intervention Research: Findings from Research Synthesis”).

Small Group

Small groups of no more than six students can provide students with the ongoing feedback that they require. It is helpful to have detailed instructions and goals for the students to accomplish, and you will need to delegate roles to the students and provide ongoing monitoring.


In a partnership, students alternate between being the tutor and the tutee. Studies show that when students with special needs are placed in the tutor role, they often learn important instructional concepts including listening to a model reader, silently following along with the reader, and performing small pieces of silent reading with immediate feedback (Vaughn, Gerstein, and Chard, “The Underlying Message in LD Intervention Research: Findings from Research Synthesis”).

Cross-Aged Tutoring

Cross-aged tutoring is the process of using a partner from a different grade level to assist a student in a reading lesson. An admired older peer can serve as a role model, or the special needs student can work with a younger child.

Teaching Reading

As a teacher, you must determine the way to support the range of diversity in your classroom and decide which aspects of literacy development to teach (Vaughn, Gersten, and Chard, “Underlying Message in LD Intervention Research”). Reading teachers must use a balanced approach when teaching students with special needs. Instruction in sounds, letters, print, and comprehension facilitate the development of reading skills (Sundye, “Helping the Struggling Reader: What to Teach and How to Teach It”).

Students must be able to recognize the sounds, or phonology, of language in order to understand how speech is related to print. Children with special needs require assistance in learning to develop phonological awareness (Fletcher and Lyon, What's Gone Wrong in America's Classrooms).

The majority of students with special needs also fail to master the concept of phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is an understanding that words and syllables are composed of a sequence of elementary speech sounds. This understanding is essential to learning to read an alphabetic language. Model and demonstrate how to break words into onset, rime, and syllables. Also model how to break short sentences into individual words. This skill must be taught in the first years of school to further the students' reading progress and keep them from falling behind (Fletcher and Lyon, What's Gone Wrong in America's Classrooms).

  • Model and practice “continuous” sounds, such as /f/, /m/, and /s/ and then “stop” sounds, such as /b/ and /k/.
  • Model and practice large units, such as words and then smaller units, such as individual phonemes.
  • Model and practice a simple task, such as rhyming, and then complex tasks, such as segmenting and blending.
  • Use additional strategies to help students manipulate sounds, such as using blocks or other concrete objects to represent the phonemes or syllables in a word.

Although reading comprehension must always be the focus, students can devote their full attention only after they have mastered both phonological and phonemic awareness. Reading comprehension is the cognitive process of understanding how vocabulary is related to the meaning of the text. Special needs students can master this skill through the use of direct instruction in effective strategies, scaffolding, feedback, and small-group work (Vaughn, Gersten, and Chard, “Underlying Message in LD Intervention Research”).