Developing the Historical Reading and Writing of Students with Learning Disabilities: Recommendations for Subject-Matter and Special Education Teachers

By Wissinger, Daniel R. | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Developing the Historical Reading and Writing of Students with Learning Disabilities: Recommendations for Subject-Matter and Special Education Teachers


Wissinger, Daniel R., Perspectives on Language and Literacy


Reading and writing instruction in contemporary education have been influenced by unprecedented changes to the system of standards and aligned assessments (Common Core State Standards [CCSS] Initiative, 2010; National Council for Social Studies [NCSS], 2013). These reforms call for greater emphasis on developing skills to adapt to increasing text complexity and subject-matter literacy demands (Hiebert & Mesmer, 2013). And although learning social studies has been missing from most legislation (e.g., No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act), 46 states to date support the CCSS and requirements for all students to become more proficient readers of historical evidence to develop writing skills in genres that are valued in the historical community (e.g., historical arguments and narratives). In response, this article focuses on the following four standards:

1.CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

2.CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.6: Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author's point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).

3.CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.8: Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.

4.CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.

Developing Discipline-Related Literacies

A growing evidence base has formed around approaches supporting academically diverse students in elementary, middle, and high school as they learn to develop discipline-specific literacies in the social studies (O'Connor, Beach, Sanchez, Bocian, & Flynn, 2015; Swanson et al., 2014). This article describes some of the difficulties students with and at-risk for learning disabilities (LD) face in this area. It then continues with a description of complementary evidence-based approaches for teaching students how to read and write in historically valuable ways. To conclude, I highlight several implementation barriers and make recommendations about how these challenges can be addressed.

Over the past several years, research has demonstrated the benefits of bringing the types of literacy instruction called for in the CCSS into subject-matter classrooms (De La Paz & Wissinger, 2017 Swanson et al., 2015). However, the looming question for many special educators remains: How have students with LD performed when asked to apply the sophisticated corpus of skills needed to engage in historical reading, writing, and thinking? Finding practical answers to this question is often difficult when one considers the existing challenges many of these learners must first overcome. For example, reading discipline-specific texts (e.g., historical documents, newspapers, and photographs) of increasing complexity across grade levels is a critical aspect of the CCSS. Most students with LD, however, are reading well below grade level and lack the vocabulary knowledge necessary to read expository text for understanding (e.g., Gajria, Jitendra, Sood, & Sacks, 2007). Moreover, writing has been integrated into subject-specific contexts and forms a centerpiece for bringing the language arts and content area learning together. This too presents many challenges for students with LD who struggle to coordinate and manage critical elements underlying the writing process (e.g., planning, translating, reviewing, and audience awareness; e.g., De La Paz, Swanson, & Graham, 1998). Finally, difficulties with attention and working memory also hinder the ability of students with and at-risk for LDs to memorize and recall the types of declarative knowledge that are still a critical part of measuring achievement in social studies classrooms (Swanson & Sachse-Lee, 2001). Taken together, these are major challenges for students with LD and their teachers; yet, promising lines of research have emerged over the past two decades and provide several evidence-based practices for effective disciplinary instruction in the social studies. …

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