Poor reading skills hamper students with learning disabilities (LDs) from learning challenging material presented in classes such as social studies. While there is a great deal of emphasis on giving students with LDs access to the general curriculum, observational research reports that they frequently do not learn much in social studies classes.
In a recent study published in Exceptional Children, researchers conclude that develop approaches to teaching challenging content that do not rely heavily on text reading is not only effective with students who have LDs, but also with average-ability students.
Teaching social studies to LD students
To test the use of alternative approaches in teaching social studies to middle school students with LDs, the researchers developed a history unit on the Civil Rights Movement that did not require strong or even average reading skills. The documentary, Eyes on the Prize, was the primary content source. The documentary is six hours long, but researchers used 18 segments, 4 to 10 minutes in length from a two-hour version developed for secondary schools. The segments were shown over five weeks of instruction. Of the seventy-six middle school students who participated, 33 had LDs.
“We believed that students with LD could learn history if (a) instruction included comprehensible and accessible materials (rather than sole reliance on traditional textbooks), and (b) incorporated instructional delivery strategies that provided numerous opportunities for students to interact with peers and the teacher during the lesson (rather than heavy reliance on lectures and whole-class discussions),” the authors write.
Three measures were used to assess student understanding of the material: a vocabulary matching task, a written exam that included both short answers and paragraph essays and a content interview in which students could verbally articulate their understanding of the civil rights move- ment one-on-one with a project staff member.
The interview was included because students with LD have consistent problems with writing. Because of the reading difficulties of students with LD, the researchers decided that instead of a traditional control group (a group taught the same content but using traditional texts and teaching methods), they would use a comparison group that received the identical curriculum content but without interactive elements such as teacher clarifications during viewing the video and peer-dyad activities. The intervention group only would receive instruction with these interactive elements.
LD students learn complex material
“This study demonstrates that students with LD can learn relatively complex grade-level material in American history when they are provided with instruction that supports active involvement in the learning process and materials that do not rely heavily on textbook reading and are adjusted and monitored for comprehensibility,” the researchers write.
Although the impact of the intervention on students with LD was not significant on the matching test, it was on the written essay test and the content interview.
Average-ability students who received the interventional instruction with interactive elements also showed greater gains in understanding compared with their peers in the comparison group and scored higher on the essay test.
“In terms of CRM (the civil rights movement) focus, we see enormous potential in covering critical issues and topics in 20th Century history with middle school students both without and without LD,” the researchers write.
“Contemporary material is more easily accessible to them in a variety of formats, and relevance to other current topics can be more easily drawn.” Four compare-contrast activities were scheduled (e.g, comparing boycotts and sit-ins), and students were also asked to construct reasonable narratives about the individuals they were learning about. They were asked “How would you feel if ….?” questions, e.g. how would you feel if you were accompanied by a guard to school or how would you feel if you were one of the students integrating a high school.
The researchers emphasize that the approaches used to make content more accessible to students with LD are also highly relevant to average-ability students. History lends itself well to peer-mediated learning “because the content is accessible on many levels and thus relevant to a wide range of students,” they note. Similarly, the use of redundancy (e.g. presenting both a magazine article and video on a key event or fig- ure) seemed beneficial to all students in helping to solidify their knowledge, as did interrupting the video to pose questions and to clarify.
“Rather than disrupting the flow of the content, as one might reasonably fear,” they write, “inserted questions appear to slow things down so that students have more time and opportunity to actively process troubling, unfamiliar, and often abstract content.”
“Eyes on the Prize: Teaching Complex Historical Content to Middle School Students With Learning Disabilities” Exceptional Children Volume 72 Number 3 Spring 2006 pps. 264-280.
Published in ERN May 2006 Volume 19 Number 5