Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Improving Reading Comprehension and Social Studies Knowledge among Middle School Students with Disabilities

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Improving Reading Comprehension and Social Studies Knowledge among Middle School Students with Disabilities

Article excerpt

Secondary students typically enroll in social studies classes focused on state, U.S., or world history and are responsible for demonstrating social studies knowledge through state and national accountability testing. Students with high-incidence disabilities (e.g., learning disabilities, other health impairments, behavior disorders) often attend special classes for at least some portion of the day related to English language arts and math. However, for 60% of these students, special classes are limited to less than a quarter of the school day (Snyder & Dillow, 2012). As a result, it is common for students with learning disabilities, other health impairments, speech or language impairment, and even mild intellectual disability to be included in general education content-area classes, such as social studies.

Students in secondary social studies classrooms are academically diverse. This produces a challenge for teachers when using text to teach social studies content. Whereas some students struggle with word reading and fluency, others demonstrate low vocabulary and content knowledge (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004; Fuchs, Fuchs, & Compton, 2010; Vaughn et al., 2008). In addition, many adolescents experience low motivation to read (Legault, Green-Demers, & Pelletier, 2006). The reasons for these difficulties include (a) a lack of quality early reading intervention, (b) quality early reading intervention followed by a reemergence of reading difficulties when text and knowledge demands increase, or (c) late-emerging reading difficulties that were not apparent in the early grades (Compton, Fuchs, Fuchs, Elleman, & Gilbert, 2008; Leach, Scarborough, & Rescorla, 2003; Lipka, Lesaux, & Siegel, 2006; Vaughn & Fletcher, 2008).

One mechanism for improving the reading outcomes of students with reading difficulties is to infuse content classes such as social studies, with reading instruction as a means of both improving content knowledge and reading for understanding. The social studies have been identified as a promising content area for supporting student literacy (Lee & Sprately, 2010; National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief School Officers, 2010; Scruggs, 2012), and there is research to suggest social studies classroom instruction has the potential to improve reading outcomes for students with disabilities. Gajria, Jitendra, Sood, and Sacks (2007) reported in a synthesis of experimental and quasiexperimental studies that content enhancement techniques, such as the use of cognitive strategies, produced moderate to high effect sizes (ES) on comprehension. Authors of a recent meta-analysis of studies examining the impact of reading interventions delivered using social studies content among students with learning disabilities (Swanson et al., 2012) reported that reading interventions using social studies content have a large overall positive effect on content and comprehension outcomes among students with learning disabilities, with an overall ES of 1.02. This finding is aligned with a Scruggs, Mastropieri, Berkeley, and Graetz's (2010) metaanalysis that reported a mean ES of 1.0 on social studies content outcomes among students with disabilities who were provided instruction in either general education or special education settings. In addition, interventions that focused on vocabulary development resulted in ESs ranging from 0.77 to 1.61 on measures of social studies content knowledge (Swanson et al., 2012).

Indeed, background knowledge and vocabulary are often underdeveloped among secondary students with disabilities (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). With 30% to 60% of variance on content knowledge outcomes attributed to students' prior knowledge (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008), deficits in this area are particularly problematic for older students with disabilities. Informational texts, like those used in social studies classes, can be used to develop background knowledge (Cervetti, Jaynes, & Hiebert, 2009). …

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