Research on the teaching of literacy consistently places great emphasis on the need for as much individualized instruction as possible, especially when teaching students with learning disabilities. However, in this age of standardized testing and misinterpreted ideas about accountability, teachers’ days are already filled to the brim, making it challenging to provide the one on one support that students need. In an inclusion classroom, this becomes increasingly difficult – and increasingly crucial.
To this end, I have sought out strategies and activities for the teaching of reading that are easily applicable to a wide range of lessons and assignments, and that can be used successfully by all students. Because it is important to individualize literacy instruction, it only makes sense to also define children’s success individually and subjectively. Teachers must guide students in developing personal and attainable goals for reading while concurrently communicating high expectations and offering the necessary support that will result in achievement of goals. All of the following methods are tried and tested; in my work in elementary inclusion classrooms, I have either employed them myself or observed them being implemented.
The Teaching of Reading
According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), the process and teaching of reading can be divided into two general areas: decoding and comprehension (LDA, 2005; Fountas & Pinnell, 1998). In order to master comprehension, or the understanding of a text, children must first develop decoding skills, or the problem-solving strategies used in translating written words to spoken words (LDA, 2005). In fact, many elementary reading programs focus on building decoding skills from kindergarten through second grade, leaving the teaching of comprehension skills to begin in third grade (LDA, 2005). Although this is not the approach that I necessarily endorse, it is for this reason that I begin with teaching decoding skills in an elementary inclusionary classroom.
Teaching decoding skills can take on a plethora of forms within the classroom, but the two most common methods are as follows (LDA, 2005; NICHD, 2005; Gersten & Dimino, 1993):
> Phonics approach: the teaching of word recognition through letter and speech sound associations; this involves teaching vowels, consonants, and blends.
> Whole Language approach: the teaching of reading through immersion in rich literature.
Although debates surrounding the effectiveness of each method abound, it is generally accepted that a combination of approaches, that is, the teaching of phonics, phonemic awareness, and the alphabetic principle within great literature, is the best approach. However, in an inclusionary classroom it becomes quite challenging to teach specific decoding skills in a progressive, sequential fashion when some students have not yet mastered the previous skill. For example, if a child has not yet developed phonological awareness, it may be difficult to include that child in lessons aimed at developing phonemic awareness. Thus, success in developing decoding skills must be individually determined; the teacher should aim to guide the child through the progressive sequence of acquiring decoding skills at the child’s individual learning pace.
Similar to decoding, teaching comprehension can take on a variety of methods, but most common and effective is introducing children to a toolbox of comprehension strategies such as making connections, asking questions, and forecasting predictions (Fountas & Pinnell, 1998). As previously mentioned, these comprehension strategies often are not introduced until as late as third grade, simultaneously leaving the joy of reading dormant until then. Although children need decoding skills before they can be expected to build significant comprehension, too often teachers working specifically with learning disabled students focus only on decoding skills, rarely teaching comprehension strategies that empower all students to understand and enjoy what they are reading. In fact, even the tips for teaching learning disabled students how to read offered by the Learning Disabilities Association of America (2005) mention developing comprehension skills only in passing, embedding this aside within a slew of decoding imperatives such as developing phonemic and phonological awareness, teaching the alphabet, and teaching how to sound out words. Thus, the challenge of teaching comprehension skills in an inclusive elementary classroom often involves simply valuing these skills enough to make time to teach them to each student. To be successful then means equipping all students with some form of comprehension skills to grant them access to the enjoyment of reading. As with decoding skills, these forms of comprehension skills must be defined individually, taking into account the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and current decoding ability.
It is evident that the successful teaching of decoding and comprehension skills to all students involves ample individualized instruction based on the unique learning needs of each child. One way for teachers to provide this individualized instruction is to conference with students individually. Through these conferences, the teacher and student can work together to define the strengths of a child’s reading abilities and specific goals to work towards that build off of those strengths (for students with learning disabilities, some of these goals may be outlined in the IEP). Depending on the goal and the student, the teacher may even work one on one with the student to develop a specific strategy that will help the student in achieving the goal. For example, a teacher who notices that a child is struggling to build comprehension skills may provide the student with a book on tape so that the focus becomes understanding the text without concurrently focusing on decoding.
Another technique for providing individualized instruction is the utilization of guided reading groups (Fountas & Pinnell, 1998). Through using qualitative assessments, the teacher can group students based on similar needs (e.g., fluency development). The small student to teacher ratio still allows the teacher to provide concentrated instruction to each child in the group, but it also provides an arena for children to talk about the reading skills that they are developing. As Harvey & Goudvis (2000) explain, fostering thinking and talking about reading leads to the sharing of strategies and understandings.
Important also is the provision of a classroom library with multi-leveled texts across genres and interests. Although definitions of success for teaching reading are created based on each child’s strengths and weaknesses, I believe that overall success in teaching reading for all students is fostering an environment in which every child enjoys reading. However, this is only possible if the child has reading materials available that are interesting to him/her and are at his/her reading ability level.
Lastly, a multisensory approach to teaching reading, or the use of VAKT (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile) techniques can also facilitate a child’s reading (LAD, 2005). For example, a child working on consonant blends may benefit from drawing the letters of a consonant blend in the sand as they hear the sound of the blend being spoken because it combines visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning. Multisensory approaches can be hugely successful once a teacher discovers a child’s learning style.
Challenges: Looking Ahead
When considering goals and techniques for teaching reading to students with special needs, many teachers understandably tend to focus on the technicalities to the detriment of the substance. While the basic building blocks of literacy are necessary to learn, it is the content – the actual reading – that will capture students’ interest. For this reason, it is important for teachers to make sure that they devote equal time to the enjoyment and exploration of the true meaning of being a “literate person. “
\While many teachers may complain (not without reason) that they don’t feel that they have time to address the individual needs of every student in their class, it is essential that they strive to do so. Although standardized testing has uniquely impacted the amount of time and attention teachers can dedicate to any given academic subject, more importantly it has created a classroom arena in which it has never been more essential for teachers to address the individual needs of their students because they are now held accountable. However, true accountability and success in a classroom should not be measured by test scores, but rather by individual growth and engagement in literacy. With a balanced approach to teaching reading, I have high hopes that teachers will be able to find a comfortable medium between improvement of test scores and individual student successes.