Differentiating Instruction for Children With Learning Disabilities (page 2)
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.”
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