Intervention Research for Students with Learning Disabilities

By Swanson, H. Lee | The Exceptional Parent, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Intervention Research for Students with Learning Disabilities


Swanson, H. Lee, The Exceptional Parent


Background and purpose

In the last 20 years, the number of children classified as having learning disabilities has increased substantially, from roughly three-quarters of a million in 1976 to more than 2.6 million in 1997. These children currently make up almost half of schools' special education population, yet it is still unclear which teaching strategies best help these children. Furthermore, a review of past literature reveals few systematic analysis of instructional approaches for students who have learning disabilities. This lack of clear direction creates confusion about how best to educate these students.

Clearly, students with learning disabilities are a heterogeneous group and no general or single intervention can be recommended for these students. However, this report can offer recommendations from its investigation of evidence derived from many different studies on teaching students with learning disabilities. In this meta-analysis we synthesize research on the effects of various forms of instruction intended to improve students' academics (e.g., reading, mathematics), cognition (e.g., problem solving) or behavior (e.g., social skills). (Editor's note: Meta-analysis offers a systematic way to look at different kinds of research and compare the effectiveness of different practices.)

We analyzed the effects for a range of studies that included both studies of a single area and studies that examined a mix of subjects across the following instructional domains (e.g., reading, mathematics); sample characteristics (e.g., age, intelligence); intervention parameters (e.g., number of instructional sessions); and methodologies.

Findings

This synthesis, examining research conducted over the last 30 years, produced several findings related to intervention for students with learning disabilities. Unless otherwise noted, these findings come primarily from the group-design studies.

What forms of instruction were most effective?

The most effective form of teaching children with learning disabilities combined components of direct instruction (teacher-directed lecture, discussion, and learning from books) with components of strategy instruction (teaching ways to learn such as memorization techniques and study skills). The main instructional components of this combined model include:

* Sequencing (e.g., breaking down the task, providing a step-by-step prompts);

* Drill-repetition-practice (e.g., daily testing, repeated practice, sequenced review);

* segmentation (e.g., breaking down skills into parts, and then synthesizing the parts into a whole);

* Directed questioning and responses ( e.g., teacher asks process or content questions of students);

* Control of task difficulty;

* Use of technology (e.g., computers, presentation media);

* Teacher-modeled problem solving;

* Small-group instructions; and

* Strategy cues (e.g., reminders to use strategies, think-aloud models).

Of these components, the one most linked to effect on student achievements was control of task difficulty (where, for example, the teacher provided necessary assistance or sequenced tasks from easy to difficult.) Another influential component was the use of small interactive groups of five or fewer students. A third and strongly influential component was the use of structured questioning and directed responses, involving, for example, interactive questions and answers or the teacher directing students to ask questions and summarize.

Children with learning disabilities perform closer to nondisabled (age-related peers) children when treatment included strategy instruction. Not surprisingly, nondisabled students generally out perform learning-disabled students. Importantly, however, there was less difference between the performance of the two groups when learning-disabled students were exposed to treatment that included strategy instruction compared to competing treatments like direct instruction. …

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