Strategies for Teaching English Learners and Students with Learning Disabilities
As a researcher, I have always been interested in learning about the instructional strategies that work for students with learning disabilities, for English language learners, and for students in general.
I began my search with Classroom Instruction That Works (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001), a synthesis of research on strategies for students in general, and Classroom Instruction That Works with English Learners (Hill & Flynn, 2006).
From these two sources, I went on to look for other effective strategies for students with learning disabilities that fit the following criteria:
- The strategy should not be entirely new so that teachers don't feel overloaded.
- The strategy has to be relatively easy to learn to keep time and professional development costs down.
- The strategy should be able to be used frequently, if not daily.
- The set of strategies should be interdependent; one strategy can facilitate the use of another one.
In selecting strategies to highlight, I also noted the advice of special education experts (e.g., Winebrenner, 2006; Bender, 2008), as long as there was research-based evidence of a particular strategy's effectiveness for the general student population (Carr & Bertrando, 2012).
Based on these criteria, I discovered six instructional strategies that research suggests are effective for native English speakers and English learners (Carr, Sexton, & Lagunoff, 2007; Carr et al., 2009). Unfortunately, research studies, especially those using rigorous experimental designs, are sparse about the effectiveness of these strategies for students with learning disabilities in the special or general education classroom.
Here are the six instructional strategies that hold promise to work for the diversity of students in a general education classroom and form a cohesive practice.
- Cues—hints, prompting questions, and (most important) advance organizers.
- KWL—a publicly posted chart with three columns in which the teacher writes what students already know (K) and want to know (W) about a new topic before they begin a lesson; near the end of the lesson, the teacher writes what they have learned (L) in the third column.
- Visuals—pictures, diagrams, charts, or other graphics (especially graphic organizers) that support oral instruction and reading long texts.
- Think-Pair-Share—an activity in which students think individually for a brief time, discuss ideas in a pair or triad (perhaps while working on a task), and then offer ideas for consideration.
- Think Aloud—a form of modeling in which teachers describe their cognitive processing (e.g., interacting with a text to derive meaning, exploring strategies to complete a math task, determining cause and effect in a science experiment).
- Summarization—taking notes at key points during a lesson or providing summary statements orally or in writing to identify key concepts, connections between concepts, and supporting details.
Six Strategies Scenario
Although the research tends to treat these strategies separately, my observations led me to believe that these six strategies are most powerful and effective when used together in a cohesive practice. Let's see how a teacher might use them.
Tony is an English language learner and a high school student with learning disabilities in a general education science class. In a unified practice that draws on all six strategies, the science teacher must first know something about her students. To help with this, the special education teacher tells the science teacher that Tony needs visuals to support oral instruction.
On a personal survey that the science teacher gave on the first day of class, Tony indicated that he mostly thinks in pictures, "like professor Temple Grandin," he noted, having read part of her book (Grandin, 1995). He also indicated that his top interests are cars, weather and earthquakes, and Boy Scouts.
The teacher starts a unit on magnetism and electromagnetism with an advance organizer. She states orally and uses a PowerPoint slide to show what she expects her students to learn. Using a form of KWL, the teacher reminds students that they learned about magnets in middle school and asks what properties they can recall. She directs them to use Think-Pair-Share and intermittently shows pictures and illustrations on PowerPoint slides as cues to help them recall facts.
While looking at a slide illustrating the magnetic poles of the Earth, she whispers to Tony, "You are a Boy Scout, and Boy Scouts use a compass when hiking. Look at this slide. What does a compass have to do with the Earth? If you think of an answer, share it in your group."
During whole-class sharing, the teacher writes facts and misconceptions in the K column of the KWL chart. She remarks, "We will explore magnetism and find out which of these ideas are facts and which are not true."
This scenario is just the start of a lesson, and the teacher has already combined four of the six strategies: three types of cues (an advance organizer, slides, and a prompting question personalized for Tony), visuals to support oral instruction and give hints, Think-Pair-Share, and the first part of a KWL chart.
The teacher uses Think Aloud to make explicit how proficient readers interact with text to comprehend key ideas, find evidence, and make connections, such as cause-and-effect, inferences, and generalizations. She asks struggling readers to use the same process as they read aloud to the teacher or in small groups.
The science teacher might say, "I don't quite understand all the words and ideas in this paragraph, so I look in the page margins and I see short definitions and pictures as examples." A student with autism spectrum disorder may not have noticed "the stuff" in the margins or made the connection to words or parts in the text.
A student who "thinks in pictures" gains insight into how the teacher and other students think in words. Tony's teacher is aware that his social skills and expressive language are weak, so she uses Think Aloud to model expected interactions in a small group and places arrows beside certain discussion sentence starters (Carr & Bertrando, 2012; Kinsella, 2007) on a wall chart that students are expected to use during the group discussion.
Summarization is embedded in the "L" part of the KWL strategy. Students are taught alternative ways to take notes (e.g., traditional outline format, graphic organizer) so that each student can choose an appropriate method. English learners and students with learning disabilities might be given a notes template with sentence frames so that they are actively engaged in constructing new knowledge and not thwarted by lack of language or writing skills.
The teacher can pause at key points during direct instruction so that all students can write notes individually or in pairs. Pausing signals that a key idea has been stated and helps students avoid the frustration of writing one idea while listening to a new idea.
Putting the Strategies to the Test
Although research and experts support each of these six strategies as being useful for a diversity of learners, no study has examined a possible synergistic effect of their combined implementation.
Nonetheless, I contend that these six strategies could serve as a core set of practices among teachers to provide a foundation for the science of teaching and still allow ample time for the art of teaching, which may include adding other strategies, techniques, and tools. These strategies would also be ideal as Tier I interventions in a school that is implementing Response to Intervention.
Bender, W. N. (2008). Differentiating instruction for students with learning disabilities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Carr, J., & Bertrando, S. (2012). Teaching English learners and students with learning difficulties in an inclusive classroom. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.
Carr, J., Carroll, C., Cremer, S., Gale, M., Lagunoff, R., & Sexton, U. (2009). Making mathematics accessible to English learners: A guidebook for teachers. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.
Carr, J., Sexton, U., & Lagunoff, R. (2007). Making science accessible to English learners: A guidebook for teachers. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.
Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in pictures: My life with autism. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Hill, J. D., & Flynn, K. M. (2006). Classroom instruction that works for English language learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Kinsella, K. (2007). Language strategies for active classroom participation. Retrieved from http://www.sccoe.org/depts/ell/kinsella.asp
Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J. & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Winebrenner, S. (2006). Teaching kids with learning difficulties in the regular classroom. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.
John Carr is a senior research associate at WestEd.
ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 2. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.