Essential Elements of General Curriculum for Special Education

Instructor: Linda Winfree

Linda has taught English at grades 6-12 and holds graduate degrees in curriculum and teacher leadership.

In this lesson, you will learn about the Dynamic Learning Maps Essential Elements and how to use them to differentiate a standards-based general curriculum for special education students.

General Curriculum: Special Education

Education is never a one-size-fits-all scenario. Successful inclusion for special education students involves providing accommodations or modifications to scaffold them to success. Some students, including those with an autism spectrum disorder, may require a modified curriculum to access the general curriculum. The Essential Elements, modified standards correlated to the Common Core standards, provide a way for students with cognitive disabilities to receive instruction that parallels the Common Core standards while preparing them for alternative assessments.

Essential Elements and Support

A key role of a special education teacher is to provide guidance, or direction through the learning process and support, or assistance, in instruction. Teachers can use the Essential Elements to guide and support students through modified standards-based tasks. This approach includes identifying the content and skills students need to master each standard, then designing instruction and activities to build mastery of the standard. As a teacher, you might guide your students by pre-teaching the language of the standard and then support them by creating multiple activities for the standard, with each instructional activity providing a different level of scaffolding until they can demonstrate the standard without scaffolding.

Differentiating for Essential Elements

Let's look at how a special education teacher might use the Essential Elements and differentiated instruction, or providing varied forms of instruction based on student needs.

Melissa and Andrea co-teach middle school English language arts (ELA). Melissa is the general education teacher, and Andrea is the special education teacher. Their eighth grade student Terry has a significant cognitive disability, so Melissa and Andrea use the Essential Elements to guide and support him in ELA. Terry is served through an inclusion model in which he receives a modified curriculum and support services in the general education classroom.

For their first unit, Melissa and Andrea's students work with reading literary standards:

  • RL.8.1 requires students to use strong textual evidence to support an analysis or inference.
  • RL.8.2 asks students to determine the theme and analyze how various literary elements develop that theme over the course of a text.
  • RL.8.3 tasks students with analyzing the functions of dialogue and plot in terms of characterization and how they advance the story. General education students work through a unit in which they analyze a picture book and two short stories for theme, plot, and characterization.

As the rigor of these standards is beyond Terry's current cognitive ability, Melissa and Andrea select the correlating Essential Elements for him:

  • EE.RL.8.1 - Terry must cite to support inferences from stories and poems.
  • EE.RL.8.2 - Terry must retell a plot event that is related to the theme and include information about the setting and characters.
  • EE.RL.8.3 - Terry must identify plot events that lead to something else happening in the story.

As with Melissa and Andrea's general education students, Terry is working with citing evidence, understanding theme development, and analyzing plots.

Differentiated Teaching Strategies

So how does Terry's instruction differ from his peers? The original picture book, which all students use as the standards and skills are introduced, is at a reading level appropriate for Terry. When he reaches the short stories, Melissa and Andrea provide him with modified texts appropriate to his reading ability. They also develop differentiated strategies to help him with each standard and its skills. For example:

  • EE.RL.8.1, which involves Terry citing evidence, is taught through his work with EE.RL.8.2 and EE.RL.8.3.
  • As Terry's understanding of plot and character must come before his work with theme, Melissa and Andrea begin with EE.RL.8.3.

To master the grade-level standard, Terry's peers map the plot of each literary work, select a key event, and explain its function in the story. They also select excerpts of dialogue from the stories, rank them in order of importance, and defend their decisions in writing.

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