Academic journal article Exceptional Children

English Learner and Non-English Learner Students with Disabilities: Content Acquisition and Comprehension

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

English Learner and Non-English Learner Students with Disabilities: Content Acquisition and Comprehension

Article excerpt

Many students with disabilities are included in general education for one or more content areas. In fact, 94% of students with learning disabilities in the secondary grades are included in general education classes for at least one content area (Newman, 2006). In districts with highly diverse populations, many of these students with disabilities are also English learners (ELs). Students with disabilities who are ELs have been under-studied. A recent synthesis revealed 15 studies across elementary and secondary grades that met the What Works Clearinghouse causal validity standards (Baker et al, 2014).

Although there are large numbers of students with disabilities, including some who are also ELs, in general education content area classes, students with disabilities are less likely to actively participate or engage in classroom activities (Newman, 2006) and are more likely to report failing a class (Geisthardt & Munsch, 1996) than peers without disabilities. One of the most common content areas for inclusion of students with disabilities is the social studies, with 71 % of students with learning disabilities receiving their social studies instruction in general education settings (Newman, 2006). The unique needs of EL and non-EL students with disabilities can create an exceedingly diverse student makeup in general education social studies classrooms. Identifying instructional approaches for effective classroom instruction for these students is one key area of need (McCardle, Mele-McCarthy, Cutting, Leos, & D'Emilio, 2005).

Features of Effective Instruction in Diverse Classrooms

Syntheses of the research on content area instruction indicate that students with disabilities can benefit significantly from instruction that includes clear identification of instructional objectives, high levels of student engagement in practice or application of the material, concrete and meaningful learning opportunities, opportunities for active thinking, reading comprehension strategy instruction, vocabulary development, and content enhancements, such as graphic organizers or mnemonics (Gajria, Jitendra, Sood, & Sacks, 2007; Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2003; Swanson et al., 2014). Students with disabilities who are also ELs require additional attention to their language needs. ELs often have particular difficulty in acquiring content area knowledge due to inadequate relevant background knowledge and unfamiliarity with academic language and discourse skills (Francis, Rivera, Lesaux, Kieffer, & Rivera, 2007). Oral and written language instruction that is integrated in content area teaching and targeted instruction in academic vocabulary have been identified as the two key recommendations, with strong research evidence for improving outcomes for ELs (Baker et al., 2014). Specific to students with disabilities who are also ELs is a recommendation for targeting vocabulary and background knowledge as well as active use of cognitive strategies, such as summarizing, clarifying, or question generating to facilitate dialogue, use of vocabulary, and engagement in learning (Rivera, Moughamiam, Lesaux, & Francis, 2008).

Thus, addressing the instructional needs of students with disabilities, with considerations for those students who are ELs, requires a set of instructional practices that provide opportunities for students to acquire academic vocabulary, integrate new background knowledge with their existing knowledge, apply strategies to understand the written language of the discipline, and have opportunities to practice and apply content knowledge through discourse-based activities that provide structured interactions with peers. Wormeli (2006) adds that formative feedback--allowing students to compare what they have done with what they were supposed to have done and then allowing time to revise the task-is particularly effective among middle school students.

The social studies provide opportunities to engage students with a range of learning needs in instruction that is connected to students' lives and incorporates critical thinking (National Council for Social Studies, 2008). …

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