Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Individualizing Literacy Instruction for Young Children with Moderate to Severe Disabilities

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Individualizing Literacy Instruction for Young Children with Moderate to Severe Disabilities

Article excerpt

When Congress reauthorized the Education for All Handicapped Children Act as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, it not only created an improved acronym, but also prominently encoded the special education field's concern for the individual into the bill's title. In nearly all aspects of special education policy and practice, individualization is present as a term, an idea, an approach, and a process. The field collectively speaks of individualized assessment, individualized education programs (IEPs), individualized placement decisions, behavior plans, curricula, instruction, and so on.

In considering the implications of the fundamental protection guaranteed by the IDEA, that all children with disabilities are to receive a free and appropriate public education (i.e., the FAPE mandate), the Supreme Court has ruled that states must "adopt procedures which would result in individualized consideration of and instruction for each child" (Board of Education v. Rowley, 1982, p. 188, emphasis added). Writing for the Court's majority in the Rowley case, Justice Rehnquist established that "the basic floor of opportunity [required by Congress] consists of access to specialized instruction and related services which are individually designed to provide educational benefit to the handicapped child" (p. 20, emphasis added).

Individually designed specialized instruction is often upheld as the cornerstone of special education practice. Indeed, individualization is commonly described in professional literature as the very characteristic that makes special education "special" at all. Critics of inclusive education, for instance, argue that general education teachers, by design, teach to a mythological child-of-the-median: a conjectured average monolith thus leaving children above and below to languish amidst irrelevant curricula (Lieberman, 1996). The current slogan in opposition to inclusive education, One size does not fit all rhetorically constructs the general education classroom to be a single, invariant assembly-line churning out facsimile products en masse. As a call for the retention of segregated schooling, those who invoke the slogan mean to suggest that the six or seven other locations on the continuum of placements are, in and of themselves, manifestations of responsive individualization (e.g., Kauffman, 1995).

Due perhaps to the paradox created by its apparent universality in all facets of special education, and its necessarily idiosyncratic nature, individualization is often referred to in the literature, but rarely defined with any specificity. Generally it is alluded to at the theoretical level as a clinical problem-solving process that takes on whatever thoughtful appearance is required in relation to fostering a child's conformity to culturally valued sets of capacities (i.e., appropriate behavior, academic skills, language skills, etc.). Individualization may focus on altering the individual child (e.g., through techniques stemming from applied behavior analysis), altering the individual child's context (e.g., UdvariSolner's [1995] problem-solving process for curricular adaption), or altering both child and context.

Literacy Instruction

While ideas of individualization appear central to special education, reading instruction is considered the bedrock responsibility of elementary schools generally. Failing in classroom reading is often considered to be synonymous with abject school failure, and a life-sentence of reduced opportunity and restricted choices (Kozol, 1985, 1991).

Interestingly, the idea of curricular individualization is not alien to those professionals versed in effective literacy instruction for the general student population. Both Atwell (1998) and Calkins (1994) describe elementary-level reading and writing workshops focused on "creating a richly literate community in which youngsters can `carry on' with their own reading and writing" (Calkins, 1994, p. …

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