Jan 24

Teaching and Engagement Strategies for Students with Disabilities

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 7.2 million students—approximately 15 percent of all public school learners—received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) during the 2020–21 academic year. While learning disabilities interfere with the ability to progress academically, genetic or neurobiological factors that slightly alter brain function and cognitive processes do not reflect an individual’s intelligence level. Moreover, students with disabilities can succeed academically with proper support and intervention. This post spotlights teaching and engagement strategies for students with disabilities. 

Types of Learning Disabilities

Many students with learning disabilities struggle with reading. Reading disabilities, such as dyslexia, make it difficult for students to decode words accurately. They may need help with rhyming, sounding words out, or recognizing the sounds associated with certain letters.

Written language and writing disabilities, also called dysgraphia, manifest as difficulties with spelling, poor handwriting, and overall trouble putting thoughts down on paper. Writing requires the brain networks for memory, vocabulary, grammar, and hand muscle movement to collaborate and be in good working order. A child with a writing disability, for example, might not be able to compose complete and grammatically correct sentences.

Math disabilities, or dyscalculia, affect an individual’s ability to understand numbers and comprehend math facts. Affected students often need help with reading numbers, processing their meaning, counting objects, or remembering the order of operations for solving particular math problems. 

Students affected by nonverbal learning disabilities may have trouble interpreting cues such as facial expressions or body language. Oral language disabilities impact an individual’s understanding of spoken language and ability to express themselves verbally. 

Strategies to Reach, Teach, and Engage Students with Disabilities

Chunk reading passages.

According to research appearing in the article “Effects of Chunked Reading among Learning Disabled Students: An Experimental Comparison of Computer and Traditional Chunked Passages” from the Journal of Educational Technology Systems, chunking makes a significant impact on reading comprehension in students with learning disabilities. 

First popularized by Harvard psychologist George Miller in 1956, chunking is a learning technique that helps students process more information by breaking it down into chunks. The method commits information to long-term memory by repeating material from the previous block as new material is added.  

An example of chunking in practice is to divide an extended reading assignment into more manageable sections, ending each by having students write a summary of what they’ve read. Students review their self-made study materials before moving to the next chapter or unit.

Identify and teach to their preferred learning style.

Visual learners may require more motivation to participate in a typical class discussion comparing two items or ideas. However, using a Venn diagram to display similarities and differences might encourage them to engage. Have students draw pictures or create art representing new concepts or things they’ve read, highlight information in different colors during note-taking, and present material with various images, graphics, or models.

Auditory learners are more likely to thrive in reading aloud and class discussions but dislike silent reading. Try allowing them to use text-to-speech for reading passages. And incorporate sounds and music, mnemonic devices, and rhyming into lessons when possible.

Kinesthetic learners need movement to cement ideas. In a classroom setting, it can be difficult for these students to stay seated for long periods of time. When active listening is required, they may benefit from squeezing a stress ball or other subtle fidget toy. Try incorporating stand breaks and activities that require manipulating objects with their hands. Have them underline or highlight when reading and use flashcards that they manipulate for studying. 

Clearly outline all instructions and expectations.

Students with learning disabilities benefit from specific and sequenced step-by-step instructions explicitly explained by the teacher. It is also helpful for them to have instructions both presented in writing and read aloud. 

To help ensure they’re engaged and on the right track, it’s a good idea to check for potential miscommunications or misunderstandings before any work begins by having students repeat an assignment’s instructions back to you. Set the stage for successful learning by showing students why the material is important, what their learning goals are, and what your specific expectations are for quality performance. 

Create models or examples of quality work that students with learning disabilities can see, reference, and analyze. Including both spoken and written explanations, in addition to work examples they can see, listen to, or touch, helps improve a student’s comprehension or retention of essential instructions.

Provide students with appropriate accommodations.

Often, students with learning disabilities will have an individualized education program (IEP) or a 504 plan that details teaching accommodations, activities, and best strategies for that child’s personal learning success. Specific accommodations don’t alter the material of a lesson, give an unfair advantage on assignments, or change what knowledge a test is designed to measure. Instead, they’re strategies to support students with intellectual disabilities and make it so they can demonstrate what they know and have learned without being impeded by their disability. 

Decisions on specific accommodations must involve a child’s full IEP team and their parents, but some more strategies and activities for students with learning disabilities can include:

  • Provide large-print instructions for easier reading and reduce the number of items per line, paragraph, or page.
  • Give instructions orally or via pre-recorded audio or video.
  • Break down parts of larger projects into smaller, more focused, and manageable assignments.
  • Allow for verbal and recorded responses when available. Depending on the material and testing style, students could be permitted to dictate answers to a scribe, mark them directly in a test booklet, or give responses via computer.
  • Students may require specialized test preparations and study strategies ahead of time, as well as scheduling, setting, and timing accommodations during testing. Examples can include extending the time allotted for a test, providing earplugs or a private space to minimize distractions, and administering tests at a particular time of day or in different sessions over several days.

Discover More Teaching and Engagement Strategies with Avanti

It can be difficult to effectively teach and connect with students regardless of their learning levels. However, through appropriate support, interventions, and strategies to engage those with learning disabilities, your students can thrive and achieve success in the classroom.

For more student engagement strategies and field-tested teaching techniques from fellow teachers, check out the full Avanti library of resources. Join the Avanti community with a one-week free trial today to get started.

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