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Differentiating Instruction for Children With Learning Disabilities

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

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.

Adapt materials

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.

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