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February 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 5

Peers Helping Peers

With support from their peers, students with special needs can succeed in the general classroom.

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The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 requires schools to include students with disabilities in the general education curriculum to the greatest extent possible, and the No Child Left Behind Act requires educators to hold these students to the same academic standards as their classmates. How can teachers achieve these goals? One strategy is having students help one another (Slavin, Hurley, & Chamberlain, 2003). Peer assistance, cooperative learning, and classwide peer tutoring are three effective methods for improving learning for all students.

Peer Assistance

Peers can assist students with disabilities by helping them read directions for classroom assignments and gather classroom materials or by transcribing lecture notes for them. They can also open doors or move furniture to accommodate a wheelchair and act as a buddy during emergencies or fire drills. The specific tasks will depend on the disability of the student in question and the nature of the classroom. When help is unnecessary, students with disabilities should function as independently as possible (Cushing & Kennedy, 2003).
Peer assistance does not need to be burdensome for the assistants. The assistants generally perform many of the activities anyway, and the tasks usually are not time-consuming. Peer assistance can actually benefit the assistant because it promotes social responsibility and a stronger understanding of others' needs. Students who appear to work well with others would most likely make excellent peer assistants.
To implement peer assistance, the teacher needs to identify the situation that requires assistance and train both students involved in the necessary procedures, reminding them to use appropriate social skills when interacting. It is important to continually monitor the progress of peer assistance and make changes as needed. Appropriately implemented, peer assistance can greatly improve the efficiency and collegiality of the classroom.

Cooperative Learning

For years, teachers have used cooperative learning to raise classroom achievement among diverse groups of learners (Johnson & Johnson, 1986; Slavin, 1991). In cooperative learning, students work in small groups on such activities as solving math problems, collaborating on science experiments, preparing group presentations in social studies, or even resolving interpersonal conflicts. Effective cooperative learning includes several important components.
First, teachers should specify the content objectives and the interpersonal and small-group skills necessary for the activity. It is also important to define the group parameters. Cooperative groups usually include four to six students; however, smaller numbers may be necessary in the lower grades, and higher numbers may sometimes be possible. Teachers can assign students randomly to groups when all students are likely to work well together. But when teachers gauge that students will have difficulty staying on task or behaving appropriately, it's best to deliberately plan groups with a balance of student skills and interests. It's preferable to have only one student with a disability in a group. When a class has high absenteeism, the composition of a group can vary daily, but groups need to be stable for certain activities, such as ongoing science projects.
Giving a specific role to each student in a group can promote cooperation and group efficiency. A group might include a summarizer (to summarize the group's conclusions); a checker (to make sure all students meet the activity objectives); an accuracy coach (to correct or verify responses); and an elaboration seeker (to relate the present activity to other situations) (Johnson & Johnson, 1986). All students, however, should be responsible for all these tasks. For example, all students, not just the accuracy coach, need to know the correct responses to questions the group worked on.
Teachers can assign group roles on the basis of their knowledge of student strengths. For example, they might choose students with strong comprehension skills to be accuracy checkers, good writers to be summarizers, and students with strong verbal skills to be elaboration seekers. Whatever their role, students are usually more successful when teachers explicitly train them to interact appropriately and negotiate individual differences (Gillies & Ashman, 2003; Jenkins & O'Connor, 2003).
Despite the success of cooperative learning, students with special needs may not always benefit from this approach (McMaster & Fuchs, 2002, 2005). The advantages of cooperative learning might be limited when typically achieving peers complete all the tasks for students with disabilities or when students are not held accountable for learning.
While students are in groups, teachers need to ensure that they all stay on task and interact appropriately. At the end of the activity, teachers can provide closure by restating the objectives, summarizing major points, asking students to provide ideas or examples, and answering any final questions. Each student should be evaluated on the group product and on his or her own learning, as well as his or her contribution to the final product and the group dynamic.
We saw cooperative learning at work in a study of three 4th grade classes engaged in a seven-week science unit on ecosystems (Mastropieri et al., 1998). Each class had approximately 25 students. One class worked in cooperative groups to create vertical “ecocolumns” using two-liter soda bottles and to study the effects of such variables as road salt, fertilizer, and acid rain on control and experimental ecosystems. This class included five students with disabilities (two with learning disabilities, one with mild mental retardation, one with emotional disabilities, and one with physical disabilities). Each student with a disability was in a group with two typically achieving students, with one exception. Because the student with emotional disabilities was more volatile, he was in a group with only one partner. All typically achieving students in these groups were selected because they could work well with peers with special needs.
All students took multiple-choice pre- and post-tests and performance-based post-tests and were measured on their attitudes toward science. At the end of the unit, students in cooperative-learning groups substantially outperformed students in the comparison classes who had studied the same content from textbooks. The students with disabilities performed near the middle of their own class and well above the average of the comparison classes.

Classwide Peer Tutoring

Another technique for increasing achievement and addressing diverse learning needs is classwide peer tutoring (Delquadri, Greenwood, Whorton, Carta, & Hall, 1986). The following examples show how classwide tutoring can support student learning.

Classwide Peer Tutoring in Reading

In the Peer Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) program developed at Vanderbilt University (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Burish, 2000), which has been used with students from kindergarten through high school, teachers pair each student with a partner for about 35 minutes a day, three days a week. Pairs usually include one strong and one less strong reader (“a coach and a player” or “an admiral and a general”), and pairings are changed routinely. The stronger reader first reads the passage aloud to the tutoring partner for five minutes. Then the weaker reader reads the same passage aloud for five minutes. While one partner is reading, the other follows along and corrects errors as needed.
At the end of the reading session, students engage in a two-minute Retell session in which both readers ask each other, “What did you learn first?” followed by, “What did you learn next?” In the next segment (Paragraph Shrinking), each partner (1) names the most important person or thing (the “who” or “what”) in the passage; (2) states the most important thing about the who or what; and (3) explains the main idea of the passage in 10 or fewer words. If a student makes an error, the partner says, “No, that's not quite correct” and encourages the student to skim the passage for the answer. The last segment (Prediction Relay) has four parts: (1) predicting what will happen next, (2) reading the next half-page of material, (3) checking whether the prediction came true, and (4) addressing the items from the Paragraph Shrinking step.
The PALS program can be a successful strategy for accommodating students with diverse learning needs and increasing the achievement of the entire class (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2005; Sáenz, Fuchs, & Fuchs, 2005). Educators have successfully implemented similar approaches on the secondary level, including math (Calhoon & Fuchs, 2003); world history (Mastropieri, Scruggs, Spencer, & Fontana, 2003); and middle school English (Mastropieri et al., 2001).

Differentiated Curriculum Enhancements

Differentiated instruction involves modifying curriculum, tasks, or approaches to address diverse needs (Gartin, Murdick, Imbeau, & Perner, 2002). In a model we call Differentiated Curriculum Enhancements, students work on instructional materials differentiated by (1) practice time, (2) embedded strategic information, or (3) levels of difficulty.
Differential practice time. We implemented classwide peer tutoring in four middle school history classes (Mastropieri, Scruggs, Marshak, McDuffie, & Conners, 2006). Of the 55 students involved, 15 had disabilities. We carefully matched students with disabilities with typically achieving peers on the basis of teachers' perceptions of students' abilities to work together. The assigned pairs worked together for the duration of the project.
In collaboration with teachers, we identified important content that would appear on the end-of-year high-stakes tests and developed practice sheets to help students review this content. Tutors asked tutees questions from the practice sheets and laid aside those that the tutee correctly answered. When students had difficulty recalling the information, tutors put the sheet in a separate file for later review. Tutoring pairs moved on to a new set of fact sheets when the tutee mastered the previous set. Tutoring pairs worked on each set of fact sheets for different amounts of time, depending on how much practice the tutee needed.
Unit tests revealed that students in the peer-tutoring classrooms significantly outperformed students in comparison classrooms in which students reviewed the same content independently. Students with learning disabilities in the tutoring classroom were more likely to achieve scores that were similar to those of normally achieving students than were their counterparts in the comparison classes.
Embedded strategic information. When we employed classwide peer tutoring in inclusive high school chemistry classes, we suggested several strategies that peer tutors were to use only if tutees needed help (Mastropieri, Scruggs, & Graetz, 2005). The two classes studied consisted of 39 students, 10 of whom had disabilities. Students questioned their partners on important content (for example, What is a mole? [a unit of weight]) and prompted each other to provide more elaborate responses (What else is important to know about moles?). If tutees knew the correct answers, the tutors provided feedback and proceeded to the next set of questions. If students had difficulty, tutors provided a strategy to help them remember the content. For the mole example, the tutor displayed a picture of a mole (the animal) sitting on a scale and said, “Think of the word mole. Then, think of this picture of a mole on a scale looking at his weight in grams. It will help you remember that a mole is the atomic weight of an element in grams.” When the tutee provided the correct information, the tutor moved on to the next question. Tutoring supplemented regular classroom instruction, taking up about 15–20 minutes of a 90-minute class.
Students took pre- and post-tests consisting of factual and comprehension items. Although students without disabilities significantly outperformed those with disabilities, all students who participated in tutoring significantly outperformed those who did not. Gains were particularly strong among students with disabilities. They outperformed nontutoring students with disabilities by 42.5 percent (compared to only a 16.2 percent difference between tutoring and nontutoring students without disabilities).
Increasing levels of difficulty. Teachers can also differentiate materials according to level of difficulty, as we saw in our study of inclusive middle school science classes (Mastropieri et al., in press). This study included 13 8th grade classes containing a total of 213 students, 14 of whom were classified as having disabilities and 35 of whom were English language learners.
Student pairs studied charts and graphs, measurement, independent and dependent variables, and qualitative and quantitative research methods. We developed materials at three levels of difficulty for each topic. At the least difficult level, students identified science concepts (for example, independent and dependent variables) with the help of prompts included in the materials. The middle level contained prompts that tutors were to share only as needed. The third and most difficult level of materials required students to respond without prompts. All students with disabilities and most English language learners started working with materials at level one and progressed to subsequent levels after mastering the previous level. Both students in the pair worked on the same level.
We implemented these procedures with 13 classes randomly assigned to experimental or control conditions over 12 weeks. Most pairs were able to successfully complete the activities. Pairs in close proximity sometimes helped one another, but students could ask the teacher for help if they encountered a challenge they couldn't solve.
All students took pre- and post-tests consisting of multiple-choice and open-ended items, along with end-of-the-year high-stakes tests. Overall, the average student in a tutoring class outperformed the average control-group student by 10 percent. The advantage was similar for students with and without disabilities.

Meeting Diverse Needs

Today's teachers face significant demands, including the need to increase achievement and respond to diverse learning needs. Enabling students to help one another is an important strategy for creating an effective and efficient inclusive classroom. With careful planning, monitoring, and evaluation, teachers can use these techniques to ensure that their classrooms accommodate students with a variety of learning needs.

Calhoon, M. B., & Fuchs, L. S. (2003). The effects of peer-assisted learning strategies and curriculum-based measurement on the mathematics performance of secondary students with disabilities.Remedial and Special Education, 24, 235–245.

Cushing, L. S., & Kennedy, C. H. (2003). Facilitating social relationships in general education settings. In D. L. Ryndak & S. Alper (Eds.),Curriculum and instruction for students with significant disabilities in inclusive settings (pp. 206–216). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Delquadri, J., Greenwood, C. R., Whorton, D., Carta, J. J., & Hall, R. V. (1986). Classwide peer tutoring. Exceptional Children, 52, 535–542.

Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L. S. (2005). Peer-assisted learning strategies: Promoting word recognition, fluency, and reading comprehension in young children. Journal of Special Education, 39, 34–44.

Fuchs, D., Fuchs, L. S., & Burish, P. (2000). Peer-assisted learning strategies: An evidence-based practice to promote reading achievement.Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 15, 85–91.

Gartin, B. C., Murdick, N. L., Imbeau, M., & Perner, D. E. (2002).How to use differentiated instruction with students with developmental disabilities in the general education classroom. Arlington, VA: Division on Developmental Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children.

Gillies, R. M., & Ashman, A. F. (Eds.). (2003).Co-operative learning: The social and intellectual outcomes of learning in groups. New York: Routledge Falmer.

Jenkins, J. R., & O'Connor, R. E. (2003). Cooperative learning for students with learning disabilities: Evidence from experiments, observations, and interviews. In H. L. Swanson, K. Harris, & S. Graham (Eds.),Handbook of learning disabilities (pp. 417–430). New York: Guilford.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1986). Mainstreaming and cooperative learning strategies. Exceptional Children, 52, 553–561.

Mastropieri, M. A., Scruggs, T. E., & Graetz, J. (2005). Cognition and learning in inclusive high school chemistry classes. In T. E. Scruggs & M. A. Mastropieri (Eds.), Cognition and learning in diverse settings: Advances in learning and behavioral disabilities (Vol. 18, pp. 107–118). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Mastropieri, M. A., Scruggs, T. E., Mantzicopoulos, P. Y., Sturgeon, A., Goodwin, L., & Chung, S. (1998). “A place where living things affect and depend upon each other”: Qualitative and quantitative outcomes associated with inclusive science teaching. Science Education, 82, 163–179.

Mastropieri, M. A., Scruggs, T. E., Marshak, L., McDuffie, K., & Conners, N. (2006, April). Peer tutoring in inclusive history classes: Effects for middle school students with mild disabilities. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco.

Mastropieri, M. A., Scruggs, T. E., Mohler, L., Beranek, M., Boon, R., Spencer, V., & Talbott, E. (2001). Can middle school students with serious reading difficulties help each other and learn anything?Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 16, 18–27.

Mastropieri, M. A., Scruggs, T. E., Norland, J., Berkeley, S., McDuffie, K., Tornquist, E. H., & Conners, N. (in press). Differentiated curriculum enhancement in inclusive middle school science: Effects on classroom and high-stakes tests. Journal of Special Education.

Mastropieri, M. A., Scruggs, T. E., Spencer, V., & Fontana, J. (2003). Promoting success in high school world history: Peer tutoring versus guided notes.Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 18, 52–65.

McMaster, K. N., & Fuchs, D. (2002). Effects of cooperative learning on the academic achievement of students with learning disabilities: An update of Tateyama-Sniezek's review. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 17, 107–117.

McMaster, K. N., & Fuchs, D. (2005, Spring). Cooperative learning for students with disabilities. Current Practice Alerts, 11. Available:www.teachingld.org/pdf/alert11.pdf

Sáenz, L. M., Fuchs, L. S., & Fuchs, D. (2005). Peer-assisted learning strategies for English language learners with learning disabilities.Exceptional Children, 71, 231–247.

Slavin, R. E. (1991). Synthesis of research on cooperative learning.Educational Leadership, 48(5), 71–82.

Slavin, R. E., Hurley, E. A., & Chamberlain, A. (2003). Cooperative learning and achievement: Theory and research. In W. M. Reynolds & G. E. Miller (Eds.),Handbook of psychology: Educational psychology (Vol. 7; pp. 177–198). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

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