Teaching Reading to Special Education Vs General Education Classrooms: The Key Differences

Teaching reading to special education students in your classroom requires a different approach than teaching reading to general education students. Special education children often have learning disabilities or cognitive, behavioral, or physical challenges that can make the process of learning to read more difficult. Because of this, special education teachers need to employ specialized techniques and strategies to ensure that these children are comfortable and thriving in the classroom. 

Nowadays, children with special education needs are spending more time in general classrooms, where inclusivity is a priority. Given that special education students will graduate to navigate the same reality, the same society as general education students, inclusive classrooms make the most sense. That’s unless a child is struggling with severe disabilities, in which case they’re more looked after and can learn better in a ‘separate’ special needs classroom or school. 

“Students educated in segregated settings graduate to inhabit the same society as students without disability,” Kate de Bruin, a senior lecturer at Monash University’s School of Curriculum, Teaching and Inclusive Education, told The Atlantic in a recent piece. “There is no ‘special’ universe into which they graduate.”

The role of inclusive classrooms 

How inclusive classrooms work is by deploying multi-tier systems of support, multisensory teaching techniques, and co-teaching, where a general education teacher might work alongside a special education teacher to make sure that every child’s needs are covered. Teachers often use various teaching methods that incorporate visual, auditory, and movement-based learning styles to help children learn how to read and achieve fluency. This includes visual aids, tableds, computers, or ipads, audiobooks, and interactive games to engage the senses and make reading lessons less intimidating for the students who struggle. 

Enrolling children with special education needs into general education classrooms better prepares them for the future, and helps them develop interpersonal skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Research shows that students with learning disabilities achieve higher test scores and grade averages, and develop stronger math and literacy skills when they’re part of an inclusive classroom. Individualized Education Programs, which are road maps for teaching students with disabilities, also tend to be more complex and more ambitious in inclusive classrooms, because the special needs students will have to navigate the challenge of competing with their general education classmates. Inclusive education has positive long-term effects on special needs children, helping them learn to forge relationships with other people, while also making them feel accepted by their peers. 

Co-teaching to help students reach reading fluency

In an inclusive classroom, students with learning disabilities often require more in-depth, focused instruction from specialized teachers. To better serve the needs of all the children in a classroom, co-teaching is often a good strategy, where a general education teacher works with a special education instructor to help children learn to read. 

Special education students might require additional resources to help them navigate the lessons, like visual or auditory aids, the use of audiobooks or tablets, magnifiers, and so on. They might also struggle and need extra support from their instructor, and this is where the special education teacher can intervene. The special education teacher must constantly assess the progress of each child, and know when to intervene to provide additional support, by either forming small groups of children, taking a bit of time after class to work with children who struggle with the lesson, or do individual, one-on-one work with a student when necessary. 

Modifications and accommodations 

In a general education classroom, the lesson is the same for all children, while in inclusive or special needs classrooms, the teachers must make modifications or accommodations to serve the needs of their students with learning disabilities. 

An accommodation basically means adapting teaching practices to make the lessons more approachable or easier to understand, by using different interactive tools or assistive technology. A modification means adjusting the material and the lesson in itself to make it less complex; for instance, special education students might be assigned tasks or homework that is less complex, helping them navigate the lessons step by step. 

Special education students might also be allowed to use tools like tablets, laptops, magnifiers, audiobooks, visual aids, and more, to help them better process the lessons. They might also get more time to work on a task, and teachers will avoid putting them on the spot by having them read out loud to the entire classroom. This does not mean that special education students get ‘preferential treatment’ or that they have it easier than their peers; it’s because they might struggle with the lessons more than their peers, and therefore need a bit of extra support and accommodation to help them reach reading fluency. 

Teaching reading to special education students

An inclusive classroom or special education classroom requires more participants than just the general education teacher. Such a classroom requires the participation and involvement of specialized instructors, speech therapists, occupational therapists, and more, to make sure that teaching methods and lessons are adapted to meet the needs of each student. 

So, how is teaching reading to special education students different from teaching it to a general education classroom? Here are some things that special education teachers do to help students with learning disabilities learn to read, cultivate a lot of reading, and achieve reading fluency. 

  • Using a multisensory approach – teachers will incorporate visual, auditory, or kinesthetic methods, as well as digital and interactive tools to help students engage with the material and stay focused; 
  • Teaching in blocks – special education teachers will often teach the building blocks of reading, taking the lessons step by step to make the process easier for struggling students; they start with basics like letter recognition, phonics, decoding skills, and allow the students to practice these skills and become comfortable with them before moving on to more complex tasks; 
  • Using visual aids – teachers in inclusive classrooms will often use pictures, diagrams, videos, magnifiers, to support children with reading difficulties; picture books or audiobooks will help these students process the story structure and character development much easier; 
  • Making the best use of technology – assistive technology plays a big part in teaching reading to students with learning disabilities; special education teachers often use apps and tools specifically designed for their students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, and other learning disabilities, to help them process the material and develop their reading skills;
  • Frequent breaks, repetition, and reinforcement – special needs students tend to get overwhelmed during complex lessons, or they might lose focus, so teachers should provide frequent breaks and give children time to practice and go over the lessons as many times as they need; they also support their students through positive reinforcement, feedback, and encouragement;
  • Collaborating with parents and other professionals – special education teachers work closely with parents or guardians to ensure that the needs of the students are met, both at school and at home; they also collaborate with other teachers, counselors, and administrators on a regular basis, developing special education assessments, adjusting teaching methods, or problem-solving. 

If you are a parent trying to find the best possible education for your child struggling with a learning disability, or a teacher looking to learn more methods and strategies to serve the needs of your special education students, feel free to reach out to Da Vinci Collaborative with any questions or inquiries. Be sure to also check out our next training events and our online course catalog to see if there’s anything of interest for you. 

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