Helping Special Education Students Learn Through Reading

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Learning to read can make a huge difference in the acquisition of new knowledge. In this lesson, you will develop some strategies for helping students with disabilities continue their learning through reading.

Learning Through Reading

Ms. Allen is a fifth grade teacher in a public school. Most of her students have been independent readers, who can approach text on their own with solid decoding, fluency and comprehension, since at least the end of second grade. Because of this, Ms. Allen's instruction depends a great deal on reading. Whether she is teaching in science, math, social studies or language arts, Ms. Allen uses the written word to stretch students' awareness, expose them to different perspectives, and help them develop ever more complex literacy skills.

Lately, though, Ms. Allen has become increasingly aware that using reading to increase learning does not work well for all students. In particular, her students with diagnosed learning disabilities, or neurologically-based challenges assimilating new information in spite of overall cognitive strengths, struggle with learning through reading. Even those students who can read independently might not readily transfer their hard-won reading skills to reading text in the content areas. Ms. Allen begins exploring ways she can explicitly teach her students with disabilities to use reading as a way to learn. She finds it most helpful to break strategies down in terms of what she wants students to do before, during, and after reading a content-area text.

Pre-Reading Strategies

Ms. Allen understands that what a student does to get ready to approach a new text will impact their engagement and comprehension. Because students with disabilities might have to expend extra cognitive energy to enact the various skill that are part of reading, it is particularly important to help them prepare to make sense of the text. Ms. Allen finds the following pre-reading strategies especially helpful for these students:

Preview Vocabulary

Before giving her students with learning disabilities a content-area text, Ms. Allen introduces the three to five most important and likely unfamiliar vocabulary words. She helps students understand how to decode these words and use them fluently in sentences.

Access Prior Knowledge

By asking students what they already know about the topic or concept at hand, Ms. Allen activates their schema, or mental structure for assimilating new information. This puts students in the proper mindset for learning more about a topic and can also motivate them to ask helpful questions.

Set Goals

Especially with longer texts, Ms. Allen finds it helpful to get her struggling readers to set concrete goals for how much they will read before they take a break or discuss what they have learned. Goals should be realistic and productive.

Strategies During Reading

Ms. Allen also knows that students with disabilities might need particular scaffolding structures to help them while they read. After experimenting, she finds the strategies below to really help students monitor their own decoding and comprehension and apply what they are learning to what they already know.

Read in Small Chunks

Ms. Allen almost never asks her struggling students to approach an entire text as a whole. Rather, she helps them break their reading into manageable chunks, which might be chapters, pages, or even paragraphs, depending on the text. She has them put sticky notes or pen marks as visual reminders at the end of each chunk. When they get to the end of the marker, she teaches them to ask themselves to summarize what they just read.

Read, Re-read, Stop, Think, Jot

Ms. Allen teaches her students the importance of rereading when content is new or potentially tricky. She teaches them the chant, Read, reread, stop, think, jot to encourage them to stop and think over what they have learned, then jot down a few notes for future reference.

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