A New Look at Special Education: Special Education Should Not Be a First-Line Intervention for Students with Learning Difficulties. Regular Teachers Must Remediate Weaknesses in Phonemic Awareness Skills

By Shaw, Jerry L.; Yates, Sonja L. | Leadership, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

A New Look at Special Education: Special Education Should Not Be a First-Line Intervention for Students with Learning Difficulties. Regular Teachers Must Remediate Weaknesses in Phonemic Awareness Skills


Shaw, Jerry L., Yates, Sonja L., Leadership


Over the past 15 years, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has published excellent research regarding the development of early reading skills. As summarized in the article "30 Years of Research: What We Now Know About How Children Learn to Read," we now know that phonological processing (including phonological awareness, phonological processing speed and phonological memory) is the primary ability area where children with reading difficulties differ from other children.

Phonological processing deficits, rather than a discrepancy between IQ and achievement, appear to be the best predictor of reading delays. Lack of phonemic awareness is reported to be the most prevalent phonological processing deficit in disabled readers. Based upon this knowledge, our school district has changed its view of the instructional focus and academic expectations for our reading disabled students.

Like many school districts, we previously believed that it was in the best interest of our learning disabled students that they receive collaborative special education, i.e., resource specialist support within their regular education classrooms.

The resource specialist teacher and/or the resource specialist's instructional aide would "support" these students within regular classroom settings for the amount of time specified on each student's Individual Education Program. In-classroom tutoring was usually focused upon helping these students complete classroom assignments in their identified areas of weakness, such as reading or written language. Emphasis was given to working with these students in their stronger learning modality (visual, auditory or kinesthetic). We were very successful in helping these students to complete their classroom assignments and to matriculate to the next grade level with their peer group.

Unfortunately, these students continued to be classified as "learning handicapped" and, quite often, did not develop the academic skills to become academically self-sufficient. It became apparent that in our zeal to provide "support" for our students with academic delays, we had not taught them the essential skills to become independent learners. They continued to struggle with reading and written language skills.

Lessons learned

As a result of studying current, validated research, we have changed our approach to special education instruction. We no longer solely provide instructional support within the regular classroom to keep resource specialist students moving with their peer group. We now provide daily directed instruction in phonemic awareness, reading and written language.

We no longer focus on instructional accommodations for weaknesses in visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning modalities. We now focus on intensive instruction to remediate weaknesses in phonological processing skills.

We no longer expect or excuse weak academic progress for students with mild learning disabilities. Students receiving resource specialist instruction are expected to meet regular education promotion standards; however, they have two years of special education instruction to meet these standards. Promotion standards are written into each student's IEP.

We no longer have non-standards-based IEP goals and objectives. All IEP goals and objectives are now based upon the California state curriculum standards.

We no longer believe that special education is a first line intervention for students with learning difficulties. We now expect regular education teachers to recognize and to substantially remediate student weaknesses in phonemic awareness skills. Only when phonemic awareness interventions by the regular classroom teacher do not lead to success in reading will a pupil be referred for consideration for special education services.

The district provides ongoing phonemic awareness training to all kindergarten, first and second grade teachers.

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