Teaching Science to Students with Learning Disabilities

Article excerpt

Byline: Rich Grumbine and Peg Brigham Alden

One of the four guiding principles of the National Science Education Standards is simply "science for all students" (NRC 1996). This principle underscores the belief that all students, regardless of race, gender, or disability, should have the opportunity to learn and understand the essential science content described in the Standards. Because of increasingly widespread inclusion practices and more thorough identification procedures, students with documented learning disabilities (LD) are becoming a larger percentage of the science classroom.

Because many practicing science teachers have little training or experience in identifying and meeting the needs of students with disabilities (Norman, Caseau, and Stefanich 1998), we have outlined basic educational principles that support the unique learning needs of these students. Each principle is accompanied by examples of how a science instructor might put that principle into practice.

LD definition.

Because of both the frequent co- occurrence of learning disabilities and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (Brown 2000; Katz 2001; Willcutt 2000), and because of the challenges to accurate diagnoses (Hammill 2001; Kamphaus, Frick, and Lahey 1991), we have chosen for this article to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's model in their 1998 national survey, and not distinguish between subsets of students based upon specific diagnoses. Although various authors in this article cited may have their own definitions, we consider "learning disability" to encompass the range of learning disorders that interfere with academic achievement and social development (Pastor and Ruben 2005).

The success of LD students

Between 5% and 10% of all K-12 children are identified as having a specific learning disability (Department of Education 2002; Kavale and Forness 1995) and it is anticipated that this number will grow. LD students often struggle with academic challenges in both their general high school curriculum and in their science classes (see sidebar "LD definition," p. 28). Between 36% and 56% of LD students leave high school without a diploma or certificate of completion (Collett-Klingenberg 1998), and LD students score almost one standard deviation lower on science achievement tests than those students without disabilities (Anderman 1998).

Using a biology unit on cell transport as the content anchor, we present six principles and practical examples, which were developed as a follow-up to the Biology Success! project (an NSF grant-funded project designed to give introductory high school and college biology instructors ideas, tools, and inspiration for teaching diverse learners). The principles draw from a review of science teaching and special education literature and the authors' combined 20-plus years of experience working at a school designed to meet the needs of students with LD and/or attention deficit disorders. While we assume that the principles presented would stand up to the test of good pedagogy for all high school science students, they have proven to be essential to the success of LD students.

Principle 1: Learning is enhanced when teachers recognize and teach to diverse learning styles and strengths.

Learners have diverse ways of making meaning, constructing knowledge, and expressing understanding; using this perception as a starting point in our science teaching is particularly important for LD students. These students-who show deficits in certain aspects of their learning such as organization, reading, memory, and writing-have benefited when instructors accommodate and teach to a variety of learning styles (Carbo and Hodges 1988).

Teachers interested in reaching the broadest range of students can offer multiple means of representing the content in their classroom and provide students with multiple means of expressing their mastery of that content. …