Optimizing Literacy Instruction for our Special Education Students: Part 1

I cannot help but feel troubled and anxious when a student is classified and given a label.  Even with Response to Intervention (RTI) in place, I worry and wonder if we did everything we could for this child before it came to this point?

I wonder if this child received high-quality classroom instruction throughout his/her schooling?  Without high-quality classroom instruction and timely intervention provided by well-trained literacy specialists, students who need support can become very tangled and display behaviors perceived as learning disabilities.  According to Regie Routman, in her book Literacy Essentials:  Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners, “when we offer excellent, relevant teaching to all students, we effectively reduce our special education population” (p. 293).  *emphasis is mine

I wonder if this student’s teachers were led by high-quality assessments that helped to monitor progress and inform instruction?  Did this child’s teachers seek support when the child was not making progress?

I wonder if this child was taught by educators who thought of themselves as learners who always strive to learn more?   Did this child’s teachers work to prevent identification or did they work to seek identification of a student with a learning disability?

Often, when a child is not successful with a program (that was followed with fidelity) the child is blamed and thought to have some sort of learning impairment.   If the program is “scientific and research-based” then there must be something wrong with the child.  Right?  We should keep in mind that there is a difference between “research-based” and “research-tested”.  When a program is research-based it simply means it is based on research.  The publishers become familiar with some research and base their program around their interpretations of that research.  When something is research tested it means that it was actually tested in a research study to check its effectiveness.  What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) is a resource that can be used for unbiased reviews of scientific evidence supporting research-tested programs or approaches.  Our interventions and any core curriculum programs need to be evidence-based and fit the students we work with.

I worry about the future of labeled students.  Some educators may see my worry as silly since the newly identified student with the fancy label will now get exactly what they need to make progress.  Afterall, the students who struggle the most should have the most expert teachers, so this classified student will surely reap the benefits.  Unfortunately, these benefits of special education often do not happen in practice.  Students placed in special education are likely to maintain the disparity between them and their peers or in some cases fall even further behind (Allington, p. 5).

When working with students identified as having disabilities it is essential that we shift our focus from the child’s disability label and deficits to reflecting on our own teaching practices.  This can be a hard pill to swallow but in order to make strides forward we need to acknowledge that “most learning problems exist not within the child but in the inadequacy of the system to find a way to teach him” (Fountas & Pinnell, p. 30).

We can reframe our thinking to make it less child-centered and more reflective of our own instruction.

Instead of:  “He is never paying attention.” 

Ask:  “What am I doing to support engagement?”

Instead of:  “She is not doing any problem solving on her own.”

Ask: “What did I do to support independence?”

Instead of:  “He does not monitor his own reading.” 

Ask: “Did I wait long enough for the student to notice that an error occurred?” 

It is important to continue to have high expectations for our special education students. We should not enter into the learning with assumptions about what a child can and can not do simply because of a label.  In his article, Response to Intervention in Literacy: Problems and Possibilities, Peter Johnston wrote, “Even if a child becomes classified as SLD, the goal must remain the same— optimizing instruction for that child. The classification provides no instructionally useful diagnostic information, rendering its value tenuous, particularly given the effects of teacher expectation” (p. 529).

While I worry about the fate of any student who has been identified and given a label this does not mean that I do not believe that some students require special education services or that I do not appreciate the work of special education teachers.  In fact, I hold special education service providers in high regard as I come from years of co-teaching in an integrated classroom as the general education teacher.  On a personal note, I have a son who benefits from an Individualized Education Plan and his work with special educators.  My concern lies with over-identifying students as learning disabled when core programs fail them. I am also concerned about lowered expectations and narrowed instruction that does not provide students with enough of what they actually need (plenty of reading and writing opportunities).

In order to truly see a decrease in the number of special education students, we need to work toward preventing identification.  If students receive special education services they deserve support from teachers with a deep understand of the reading and writing process.  In conjunction with teachers who know how to provide instruction that centers around the student.  We want to do all that we can for these students so that they are able to become readers and writers and hopefully lose the classification as well as all of the baggage that comes with it.

Be sure to follow Literacy Pages if you would like to read Part 2 which contains specific suggested opportunities and supports that we can give our special education students in order to increase their chances of becoming readers and writers and possibly even decrease their need for classification. 


Allington, Richard L.  What Really Matters in Response to Intervention:  Research-Based Designs.  Boston:  Pearson, 2009.  Print.

Fountas, Irene C. and Pinnell, Gay Su.  When Readers Struggle:  Teaching That Works.  Portsmouth:  Heinemann, 2009.  Print

Johnston, Peter.  “Response to Intervention in Literacy: Problems and Possibilities.” The Elementary School Journal.  June (2011):  511-534.  Print.

Routman, Regie.  Literacy Essentials:  Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners.  Portland:  Stenhouse Publishers, 2018.  Print.

5 thoughts on “Optimizing Literacy Instruction for our Special Education Students: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Optimizing Literacy Instruction for our Special Education Students: Part 2 – Literacy Pages

  2. Kim Schwartz

    Rhonda – thank you for writing this! As a SPED teacher for 29 years and now a Reading Recovery/Interventionist teacher in my home district, I find myself asking why our SPED student population is growing, not shrinking. You have given me much to think about and discuss with my RtI team…


    1. Kim, thank you for your kind comment. I love that you’re a SPED teacher turned Reading Recovery teacher. Your perspective as a special education teacher is so important to our work. Good luck with the new school year and your RTI team meetings.


  3. Jeri Johnson

    Thank you for the insightful article. I love that part 2 includes action steps. The biggest challenge is sending this message to decision makers. Frustrated by product-driven decisions when the focus should really be on effective practices that impact.


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