A teacher’s dilemma: Instructional level vs. grade level
Monday, August 22, 2016
As the new school year arrives, mandated testing, No Child Left Behind (now ESSA), inclusion and core curriculum all loom. And special education teachers face a dilemma: whether to teach at the students' instructional level or at grade level.
Voices clamor that the frustration engendered by rigorous curricula can be detrimental to students' hard-won, fragile confidence. On the other hand, parents, administrators and state officials are concerned that students aren't making adequate yearly progress.
In my high school English classes for students with LD, my goal is to empower my students to apply the skills and concepts they learned in elementary and middle school to literature and to spoken as well as written expression. The ultimate goal is to introduce them to more adult contexts and concepts so they can graduate and function as adults in the real world at work and in social situations with their peers.
Yet I still must honor their IEPs.
When I started to plan for this school year, I reflected upon what I had heard from many of the presenters and the many successful young people with LD who had spoken at the LDA International Conference in February. They all talked about the role of caring professionals who support the students through whatever difficulties they face, but they really focused on "grit."
Grit is the determination to persevere and excel. The students all said the key was having someone who wasn't afraid to push them to achieve their maximum potential and to persevere and thereby develop confidence and perseverance on their own.
I thought about my son who once told me, "If I don't reach beyond my learning disability, I will always be defined by my disability." I thought about the recurring conclusion in recent research from the National Reading Panel and others that students with LD need to be challenged with content that is age-appropriate and academically rigorous.
This school year, I was tempted to choose books that are just a little easier than the grade-level books I usually teach. But then, I heard the voices of my former students who came back last spring to thank me for pushing them because now they are succeeding in college and at work. I heard my graduating seniors who are comprehending and quoting Shakespeare.
I saw three-paragraph essays where in September there had been barely a sentence. I saw my students' essays that met the PARCC criteria even though their authors were exempt from passing.
I heard 18-year-olds discussing the upcoming election with their peers and teachers using vocabulary and background information garnered from class discussions of Orwell's "Animal Farm," and I knew I had chosen wisely: grade level, not instructional level.
As parents and educators, we need to sift through the rhetoric and the fads. There is a huge difference between Core Curriculum and the standardized testing used to evaluate students' success in that curriculum. Core Curriculum for English/Language Arts is a rigorous guideline that sets a high bar for performance that is not necessarily beyond the reach of students with LD.
While we may need more flexibility in approaching the Core Curriculum for students with LD, we cannot go back to the days of teaching only what is easiest for the student to achieve.
If we never ask students to do more, they won't. If we never give them literature beyond their decoding instructional level — which may be second or third grade — then how can we expect them to comprehend adult themes, concepts and vocabulary?
How do we achieve success in a rigorous academic curriculum for students with LD? What needs to be modified the most are our teaching techniques, not necessarily the content. We need to teach as the students learn.
If they can't decode it, read it to them. Seek quality over quantity. Make the IEPs specific and meaningful: Use multisensory approaches; provide overexposure and repetition for reinforcement; provide individual and small group instruction; allow for extended time and accommodations.
I choose only one novel a year and teach every imaginable vocabulary word. We take our time and examine all the themes, every character, the setting and the plot with background material, charts, narrative, lecture and discussion all followed up with film.
Sometimes, I alternate reading with the movie to compare and contrast and reinforce comprehension. I ask questions and follow-up questions: "Why?" and "How?" to ensure deeper comprehension and stimulate discussion.
And when they write, good enough is never good enough. We edit, proofread, conference and edit again. If a student is weak, we work in pairs or groups where the strong lead the weak until the weak can stand on their own.
The key is structure. Every student knows exactly what is expected. Instructions are explicit. Formats are part of the assignment because executive functions are just as important as the English.
The point is that special education need not be "stupid education." Less can be more if the quality of the content is not sacrificed. If we teach excellent content, keeping in mind the students' needs and essential best practices for special education, we can instruct at age-appropriate levels to develop functioning young adults by the time they graduate high school.
Have a great school year.
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