There are a number of instructional interventions that will help children with learning disabilities learn social studies content and master social studies processes (Lewis & Doorlag, 2006; Sheehan & Sibit, 2005; Steele, 2005; Tomlinson, 2001; 2003; Turnbull, Turnbull, & Wehmeyer, 2007). Children with learning disabilities have difficulty in basic psychological processes as evidenced by problems with listening, thinking, speaking, reading, writing, spelling, and mathematical calculations. The primary manifestations of a learning disability are problems with reading and any of a number of other characteristics that may include memory deficits or difficulty with fine motor coordination (Sheehan & Sibit, 2005). Our discussion is limited to children with mild disabilities who are able to function in a “general education” classroom along with children who do not have disabilities. As noted previously, differentiated instruction for children with learning disabilities involves three categories of modifications in how we teach: (a) content, (b) instructional processes, or (c) work products.
Modifications in Curricular Content
One option for teachers working with children with learning disabilities is to make changes in the content such students are expected to learn. Caution is in order here. We are not talking about “watering down” the curriculum, our goal is to have children with learning disabilities meet the same standards as other students. Two interventions will help. These are as follows:
Divide material into small, manageable units
Teachers can look at what we expect students to learn and consider presenting it in smaller units or “chunks.” In this section, all instructional examples come from a fifth-grade unit on the American Revolution of 1775. In such a unit, a single lesson could cover the three causes of the Revolution (results of the Seven Years’ War, oppressive taxation, and colonial unity). This topic could be broken into small units, and for children with learning disabilities, the teacher could plan additional, separate “mini-lessons” on each cause.
Present material in a systematic fashion
While teachers should always accomplish this task, it is very important for children with learning disabilities. When starting a unit of study, it is important to present an overview, showing all the topics that will be covered. When moving from one topic to another, we should review what has been learned before and highlight the relationship between each day’s lesson and what immediately preceded it.
Modifications in Instructional Processes
Good news! There are several ways to change how we teach to enable children with learning disabilities. Note that no teacher would implement every option with every lesson; rather, successful teachers choose wisely from the following menu items.
Our goal is to have children learn content. How they acquire that knowledge should vary depending on each child’s strengths and needs. In other words, our objective should not be to “get through the textbook”; it is to have children learn the content specified in our state or district social studies standards. For a unit on the American Revolution of 1775, the textbook could be supplemented or replaced by easier-to-read information books selected from the school or community library. Another useful adaptation is to have audiotapes of chapters in the grade-level social studies textbook. Children who have trouble reading would then have an auditory presentation of the material to supplement the visual. All instructional units and as many lessons as possible should use materials and activities in multiple modalities: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile. Kinesthetics means “bodily movement.” A kinesthetic activity would require students to move. A teacher might plan a dramatic role play of the Boston Tea Party and ask students to work in groups of four to throw imaginary chests of tea off a ship and into Boston Harbor. Tactile means “touch.” Tactile activities are very important for our youngest students. For our fifth-grade unit on the American Revolution, students hand-mixed flour and water to make “firecakes,” a common, but not very tasty, meal for George Washington’s soldiers.
Additional presentations and practice
Children with learning disabilities may need more than one chance to learn content or master a process. After an instructional activity involving the whole class, we could plan an additional presentation for those children who need it. We might present content at a slower pace, use simpler materials, or introduce new supporting resources, like photographs, maps, charts, or diagrams. For a process, like learning to use a scale of miles on a map to calculate distance between two cities, children with learning disabilities will need additional guided practice with close supervision.
Increased use of graphs and charts
Teachers should consider using graphs and charts to support both oral presentations and reading assignments. Graphs and charts simultaneously simplify material, highlight the most important words and phrases, and visually reveal the relationships between subtopics.
Use of instructional prompts and cues
A very useful strategy is to emphasize essential bits of information, words, and phrases by prompts and cues. This can be done with written material by highlighting, underlining, or color coding. For example, in a lesson on how the Colonists responded to the taxes imposed by the British Parliament between 1765 and 1773, one of the teacher’s content objectives was for the children to understand a boycott, a practice used successfully by the Colonists to protest the import taxes known as the Townshend Duties. The teacher prepared a poster with the definition of a boycott, “an organized plan to not buy things.” The key words in the definition were not buy. The teacher used a red marking pen to write those words, the rest of the definition was written in black. Prompts and cues can be used in oral presentations as well. A common prompt is “remember to.” One assignment in the American Revolution unit asked the fifth graders to write newspaper headlines for important events. After giving instructions to the whole group, the teacher might end with “Again, remember to keep your headline short, under six words.” Other cues include repeating words and phrases and clapping hands two times before and after an important phrase or sentence. Some teachers use their hands very effectively when they are talking to their students by showing numbers (holding up one finger when stating “first”) or pointing to places on maps or charts to focus student attention.
Active student involvement
It is important that as many social studies lessons as possible keep all children actively involved. Elementary school teachers should avoid the instructional method used most frequently at the college level and far too frequently at the high school, “lecture/discussion.” The teacher makes an oral presentation and, at certain times, students are asked to respond to questions. While some material may be presented to children in oral presentations by elementary teachers, these lectures should be brief and supported by other materials, such as charts, diagrams, maps, illustrations, and real objects. For children with learning disabilities, it is very important that instructional activities that typically require relatively little student involvement, like oral presentations and silent reading assignments, be modified. At different points in the lesson, students need to be asked to do something. One choice is for a mass response using colored cards. Each student has a red card and a blue card. The teacher asks a question and poses two possible answers, one to be signaled by the red card, the other by the blue card. The teacher restates the question and the possible answer and then says, “Without looking at your neighbor, please show me your answer.” All students show the teacher one of the cards. This also is an excellent way to check to see if the students understand the material presented. Another good choice is to pose a question and ask the students to discuss possible answers with a partner. This technique is called “Think-Pair-Share.”
Modifications in Student Work Product
There are three ways teachers can differentiate instruction for children with learning disabilities by changing the tasks, or work products, they are asked to complete. These three ways are as follows.
Adapt task characteristics/requirements
An example of adapting task characteristics used for many years for older students is to make an examination “open book,” and allow students to refer to a textbook when answering test questions. For elementary school children with learning disabilities, we can modify the characteristics of almost every task we pose to students. By fifth grade, it is appropriate to ask students to answer any questions that appear at the end of a textbook chapter. After students have tried to answer the questions on their own, the teacher may want to help children with learning disabilities, by modifying the task characteristics by providing two possible page numbers where each answer can be found. One of the unit projects challenged students to find out what types of food do not spoil easily, a major consideration for both the Colonial and British armies. Children who would not be able to complete this assignment on their own could be helped in several ways. The teacher could provide reference resources, like appropriate volumes of a hard-copy encyclopedia and Websites. Or the teacher could give a child a list of foods to research. Finally, a very important way to change task characteristics for children with learning disabilities is to allow tasks to be completed while working in groups.
Change task criteria
Another way to differentiate instruction is to change the criteria for “success” for students. Usually, changes are made in the criteria of speed and accuracy. Teachers have to be careful here because there are some school tasks where speed and accuracy are essential and cannot be compromised, especially in reading and mathematics. For many other tasks, though, the path to ultimately finishing a type of task promptly and correctly requires adjusting criteria in early efforts. This is common sense; initially all of us took longer to do things that we now do in half of the time. Think of how long it takes you to look up a word in a dictionary now, as an adult, and how long it took you when you were 10 years old. One activity in the American Revolution unit challenged the fifth graders to make a propaganda poster, which could either encourage Colonists to joint Washington’s Colonial army or it could take the other side and encourage Colonists to join Loyalist regiments and fight with the British. Although most students had five days to complete the project, additional time was given to children who would find the task difficult. Accuracy cannot be sacrificed for “literal comprehension” questions where there is a correct answer. On the other hand, open-ended questions with no one correct answer can allow teachers to accept responses that are, at least, partially justifiable. For example, after the lesson on the Colonial boycott of British goods following the imposition of the taxes on goods imported from Britain, the teacher asked students to write a response to the following question: “Some colonists boycotted British goods for several years. What do you think were some of the effects the boycott had on their everyday lives?” A child with learning disabilities answered, “People would have to learn to live without certain things. Maybe they would drink coffee instead of tea.” This is a reasonable response, though it only mentions a single effect and neglects two other effects a complete answer would mention: merchants selling those items would suffer losses and the Colonists could start growing or producing their own products and stop importing items from Britain. Although a more able student might be challenged by the teacher to come up with at least one more effect, this child’s response should be considered acceptable.
Change task modality
The third modification in task characteristics involves changing the modality of an assignment. In this sense, modality refers to whether the task is written, presented orally, completed through the arts (drawing, singing, acting, etc.), or some combination of modalities. A common modality change is to allow students with difficulty writing an opportunity to complete the same assignment through an oral presentation. For example, one project in the American Revolution unit was a summary report on how the Revolution changed the lives of children living at the time. A student with a learning disability could be allowed to make an oral presentation to the class rather than write a report. In some cases, students can use the visual arts to show what they have learned. Teachers must be cautious here, however. Children will not learn to write if they are never challenged to do so. Thus, on some assignments, children with learning disabilities must be required to produce a written product.
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