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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
(Bos & Vaughn, Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Problems)
“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.
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.
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 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 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.
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).
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”).