Teaching Students with Disabilities—and All Students Who Need a Learning Boost
Jacqueline is a sixth-grade special education teacher whose school district recently decided to implement an inclusive approach to teaching and learning. Now special and general educators collaborate to provide a stronger system of instructional supports based on their analysis of students’ data. Jacqueline and her colleagues are systematically supporting students with disabilities and others who are struggling in one or more academic or behavioral domains. After months of online learning due to the coronavirus pandemic, they now have a hybrid model in which students are on staggered schedules, coming to school two days a week. While some families have been able to adjust, many are experiencing a great deal of stress. More students than ever are slipping behind, acting out, and withdrawing. The whole sixth-grade instructional team has been searching for more effective practices to foster academic, social, and emotional development.
Jacqueline’s sixth-grade general education colleagues have started to teach using modeling with think-alouds and strategies like summarizing text. They are also using specific scaffolds, including graphic organizers, to better accommodate students’ learning needs. When working with students in small groups, Jacqueline reteaches strategies, models foundational skills necessary for successful participation in the general education curriculum, and helps her students learn to use accommodations that will support learning in both settings (such as text-to-speech software so that students who are still developing reading skills have access to grade-level content).
The changes Jacqueline and her colleagues are making seem to be working. Almost all the students with disabilities and the students who have been struggling during the pandemic are securing better grades and seem more motivated to participate in instruction. Many are even beginning to show their peers how to use strategies they learned in Jacqueline’s small groups.
Jacqueline and her general education colleagues have always worked hard and been dedicated to their students, but in the past their instructional strategies were not well coordinated. As they started working together more closely to adopt the inclusive model, they also dug into research on how to accelerate learning. They found that agreeing on some foundational ideas—like collaborating so that core and supplemental instruction are tightly connected and being more specific about students’ learning goals and the scaffolds the team would use to meet them—made a big difference in their team’s day-to-day work and their students’ development.
Jacqueline’s experience is in keeping with what research has established: students with disabilities can achieve content-area standards and meet social and emotional milestones when they are consistently provided the instructional practices and accommodations that best support their learning. Decades of research have defined effective instructional practices that general and special education teachers can use to help students with disabilities, and students without disabilities who need additional supports, achieve better academic and social-emotional outcomes.1 These well-researched, trustworthy instructional practices are freely available through national centers like the IRIS Center and the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform (CEEDAR) Center, and in publications like Practice Guides published through the Institute of Education Sciences.
The challenge for teachers, however, is translating the many research-based instructional practices that exist into daily classroom instruction. Classrooms are complex environments, and teachers must attend to many demands. Time to study, try out, and reflect on new practices is in short supply. And time to do so collaboratively as an instructional team is all too rare. To address this problem, the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and CEEDAR convened scholars, researchers, practitioners, teacher preparation faculty, and advocates to carefully review the literature and identify high-leverage practices that improve instruction across different content domains and grade levels for students with disabilities and for other students with learning differences. These practices, when used over time, are designed to support and enhance teachers’ implementation of content-specific, research-based practices in such areas as reading, writing, mathematics, and social-emotional learning. (To learn more about these practices and the professional learning system that states, teacher preparation programs, and school districts ought to provide for general and special education teachers, see the companion article, “Systemic Support for Special Education: Making It a More Integral Part of General Teacher Preparation.”)
What Are High-Leverage Practices?
High-leverage practices (HLPs) are instructional approaches educators in K–12 can use to teach different types of learners and content.2 The working group convened by CEC and CEEDAR identified 22 such practices after spending 18 months engaged in the following process: discussing research on effective instruction, distilling that research into a manageable set of practices, incorporating feedback from several focus groups, presenting practices to the CEC representative assembly, and finalizing the HLPs with the CEC executive board. The group deemed the selected practices “high leverage” because they are foundational to effective instruction, they help with managing and intervening in students’ behavior, and they support successful implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the legislation guaranteeing that students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate education with their nondisabled peers to the extent that is possible3). The 22 practices are organized into four essential aspects of teachers’ work: collaboration, assessment, social/emotional/behavioral, and instruction. (For the complete list of practices, see the box on the top right.)
In this article, we describe two HLPs that are foundational for delivering effective instruction: (1) use explicit instruction, and (2) provide high-quality feedback. Research shows that teachers can use these two practices in general and special education classrooms to improve student outcomes. In addition, they are a great starting place for implementing other HLPs. In describing these two HLPs, we provide examples of how teachers might use them. We also provide a list of resources teachers can use to support their implementation (see the lower box on the right).
Explicit instruction (HLP 16) is one of the most well-researched HLPs for teaching students with disabilities in grades K–12. When teachers provide explicit instruction, they make clear for students how to engage in a particular skill, how to be strategic when they approach a task (such as solving a mathematics problem or summarizing a paragraph), or how to define a concept using examples and nonexamples. Explicit instruction has been shown repeatedly to promote skill learning in many domains, problem-solving approaches in mathematics, and strategic thinking in disciplinary literacy instruction.4
- Most educators agree that explicit instruction includes the following components:5
- Break down (or segment) the learning task.
- Set clear, measurable, and feasible lesson objectives.
- Provide numerous opportunities for students to respond to prompts of varying difficulty, and deliver immediate feedback.
- Model by demonstrating and thinking aloud.
- Provide guided and engaging practice.
- Promote student independence.
In the following sections, we describe each component of explicit instruction and provide examples to support implementation. We suggest that teachers spend extra time learning how to engage in the explicit instruction component of modeling, as researchers have found that many teachers find modeling difficult and could benefit from additional professional development.6
Break down (or segment) the learning task. During planning, teachers break down a learning task by analyzing the concept, strategy, or skill and listing key steps needed to teach it. For concepts, they think carefully about an appropriate definition and select examples and nonexamples that will elucidate the critical features or dimensions of the concept when teaching.
Here’s an example from Jacqueline and one of the general education teachers, Tanisha; they want to use a graphic organizer to help students write persuasive essays. During a joint planning session, they list steps students need to learn in order to use a graphic organizer to map out ideas before writing. Jacqueline and Tanisha (1) decide how they will explain the graphic organizer’s purpose; (2) set a measurable learning objective for each lesson; (3) script what they will say while thinking aloud—including the specific topic, examples, and nonexamples—when they model how to map out ideas with a graphic organizer; and (4) choose guided practice and independent practice activities to help students learn to use the graphic organizer. Jacqueline and Tanisha also consider scaffolds, such as speech-to-text software, that some of their students with disabilities may need to record their ideas.
Set clear, measurable, and feasible lesson objectives. This aspect of explicit instruction has been widely adopted. Many teachers begin every lesson by presenting an objective. The most effective approach is to provide a specific and measurable objective that can be accomplished in the time allocated for the lesson; they display the objective (e.g., on a dry-erase board), read it to the students, and discuss its importance. They also conclude each lesson by reviewing those aspects of the objective that were accomplished.
When introducing the graphic organizer for persuasive writing, Jacqueline and Tanisha explain to students that they will learn how to use a graphic organizer to develop a persuasive essay. They display and discuss the lesson objective: “Students will correctly explain to a partner the purpose of writing to persuade as well as how a graphic organizer can be used to organize key ideas and plan before we write.” After introducing and discussing real-world examples of the genre and the purpose of persuasive writing, they explain each part of the graphic organizer, along with its function. Tanisha and Jacqueline provide several writing samples that include a graphic organizer and several others that do not. They then ask students to “explain to a partner the purpose of writing to persuade as well as how this particular graphic organizer will be used to organize ideas and plan before we write.” To see if their learning objective has been met or if additional teaching is needed, Tanisha and Jacqueline close the lesson by assigning student pairs to report back on what they discussed.
Provide numerous opportunities for students to respond to prompts of varying difficulty, and deliver immediate feedback. A key element of explicit instruction is to provide students with numerous opportunities to respond to prompts. This both engages students in the learning process and enables teachers to assess understanding and learning. Teachers should be deliberate in terms of crafting opportunities to respond so they reflect the spectrum of difficulty (e.g., rote or deep/probing questions) and modalities (e.g., responses that are choral, gestural, individual, or written). Jacqueline and Tanisha use planning time to make decisions about what types of opportunities to respond each lesson will feature, and which individual students Jacqueline will focus on to demonstrate their learning. Wanting to ensure that Tanisha calls on many different students while she facilitates a whole-group discussion of which writing samples are or are not examples of persuasive essays, they decide she will use a system that helps keep students engaged: drawing popsicle sticks with students’ names on them from a cup. Jacqueline and Tanisha also plan how they will provide students with immediate and specific feedback (the second high-leverage practice we discuss in this article). Feedback reinforces students’ efforts and prevents them from unintentionally learning incorrect information.
Model by demonstrating and thinking aloud. Modeling includes the following steps: (1) demonstrating, (2) thinking aloud while demonstrating, and sometimes (3) presenting examples and nonexamples to reinforce learning. Although some educators assume that modeling is more applicable to elementary school, modeling is also relevant in grades 6–12, as well as in college and the workplace.* For instance, a 10th-grade history teacher can use modeling with a think-aloud to demonstrate some strategies for detecting bias in documents from a website. Steps may include demonstrating how to navigate to and within a website, describing the criteria he uses to evaluate a document for bias (such as looking for funding sources, for representation of multiple perspectives, or for acknowledgements of limitations of the work), and thinking aloud while he applies that criteria to evaluate the credibility of different documents (e.g., news articles, speeches, or policy papers). Time spent in the modeling phase is determined by skill complexity (e.g., modeling a cursive letter for third-graders versus a multistep algorithm for students in precalculus).
Jacqueline and Tanisha model with a think-aloud to show students how to use their notes from the graphic organizer to compose sentences for their persuasive essays. Jacqueline begins the model by showing students how to take two words from her graphic organizer, “vegan options,” to write an introductory sentence. Jacqueline states, “My notes are brief, but contain good ideas. My notes say ‘vegan options’ for the introduction to my paragraph. Hmm, how will I turn this into a great sentence? Well, what I believe is that there should be at least one vegan option each day. I’ll write, ‘I believe the time has come for students to have a daily vegan option for lunch.’ I like my sentence because it conveys to readers where I stand!” To demonstrate, Jacqueline writes the sentence on the board as she talks through the process.
Provide guided and engaging practice. In this component of explicit instruction, teachers plan highly interactive practice activities to build students’ proficiency. Teachers ask students multiple questions to assess understanding or provide multiple opportunities to demonstrate what they are learning by showing their work. Teachers then provide quality feedback on students’ responses.
Tanisha and Jacqueline realize that many students will require considerable support to independently write a persuasive essay. Along with breaking down lessons for each step—use a graphic organizer to plan ideas, convert notes into an essay, and revise and publish their essays—they also conduct guided practice for each step. In one guided practice session, Jacqueline, Tanisha, and their students generate ideas and notes for the graphic organizer based on the prompt: “Should the voting age be lowered to 17?” Through discussion, the class decides that 17 years old is appropriate. They then brainstorm reasons to support their position. To give students more opportunities to respond, Tanisha and Jacqueline divide the students into two groups, with each teacher facilitating one group. (Once the pandemic is over and it is safe for students to sit close to each other, they plan to pair students for “turn and talk” brainstorming.) In Tanisha’s group, two students argue that 17-year-olds are responsible enough to vote because they had obtained drivers’ licenses at age 16, and doing so demonstrated responsibility. As the students talk, Tanisha provides suggestions to help limit how many words they use during note taking. The students then choose the following words for their notes, “license shows responsibility.”
To support three students whose graphic organizers are only partially completed, Jacqueline breaks a few of the group’s ideas into more specific questions to improve their understanding of and participation in the task. For example, one student says her older brother, who is 17, has a job and that means he is responsible enough to vote; she then argues for being able to vote as soon as you get a job or turn 18, whichever comes first. To engage the three students in considering that assertion, Jacqueline asks a series of brief questions (starting with “Does having a job mean you are responsible?”) and helps the students write their notes after each question. Once the class completes the graphic organizers, Jacqueline and Tanisha bring the whole class back together and provide feedback on ideas they generated. In their next planning period, they agree to create additional modeling and guided practice activities to help students learn how to generate text using ideas in their graphic organizers.
Promote student independence. Teachers gradually remove support during the guided practice phase and plan continued practice opportunities for students to increase their proficiency and their ability to apply what they have learned in new situations.7 Independent practice activities vary in length and format (e.g., independent practice with solving mathematics word problems versus with writing chemistry lab reports), and include immediate and corrective feedback, a return to modeling as necessary, or additional examples and nonexamples if a review is warranted.
Tanisha and Jacqueline allot 30-minute periods spread over several days for independent practice. Students choose a topic to plan and compose a persuasive response. Topics include (1) whether the local government should install solar panels on government buildings, (2) whether the local library should add a computer lab or an art studio, and (3) which historical figure should be honored with a statue at a local park. Jacqueline conferences with students based on their needs. For instance, one student watches Jacqueline model and share examples of using transition words like furthermore, another reason, and besides when introducing a new idea. Jacqueline teaches another student to improve his writing by using the thesaurus on his laptop. Noting that he used the word obviously twice in one paragraph, Jacqueline models using the thesaurus to choose a new word. He then practices using the thesaurus independently.
Importantly, Jacqueline and Tanisha recognize that some students benefit from ongoing review as the school year advances, including repeated modeling of the steps in writing persuasive essays and other instructional scaffolds. After several months, the process of using explicit instruction to specify how to use a graphic organizer for writing a persuasive essay resulted in increased performance and greater confidence among the students, including those with disabilities. When the students with disabilities used the graphic organizer combined with speech-to-text software to support their spelling and handwriting issues, their writing improved substantially.
Feedback (HLP 8, under social/emotional/behavioral, and HLP 22, under instruction) is a powerful research-based practice teachers can use to improve students’ learning and development—from understanding concepts to mastering skills to enhancing social interactions.8 Feedback is a key feature of explicit instruction that occurs after a teacher has provided an opportunity to practice a concept, skill, or strategy that the teacher has modeled and explained. When used effectively, feedback can increase student motivation and effort toward a learning task and improve performance.
- To be effective, teachers’ feedback must be specific. Specific feedback incorporates these qualities:9
- Goal directed
- Immediate or timely
- Positive and respectful
Goal directed. Goal-directed feedback focuses on the academic or behavioral target students are working toward. The learning target should be important for student growth, based on assessment of student performance, explained to the student clearly, and, when possible, developed collaboratively with the student.
Two of Jacqueline’s students have not yet been able to write a cohesive essay. To support them, she and the students are working toward writing strong, well-organized paragraphs that include a topic sentence and three to four supporting details. When providing feedback to one of her students, Sam, she notes he has developed a strong topic sentence because it introduces what the paragraph will be about, and he has two details that support it. Jacqueline also points out that the remaining two sentences contain details that are not related to the topic sentence and helps Sam generate two related details that he can write about. In addition to focusing on Sam’s writing, Jacqueline tells him that he did a good job of working independently, a skill she has been trying to promote. Being more specific, Jacqueline tells Sam that she appreciates that he first asked his peers for ideas and also looked up information on the computer before asking her for help. She emphasizes that it will be important for Sam to continue to seek help on his own to continue growing as an independent learner.
Constructive. Constructive feedback helps students understand specific aspects of performance that are effective and specific aspects that need to be improved. In Jacqueline’s work with Sam, she helps him understand what he has done to meet his learning and behavior targets—such as writing the topic sentence, adding two related details, and improving his work through independent strategies. Then, Jacqueline specifies what he needs to do to improve (replacing the unrelated details in his paragraph). Building on the initiative Sam took by trying to look up information on the computer, Jacqueline later follows up to help Sam learn more about online research. Such support and clarity usually motivate all students, especially those who have been struggling to learn.
Immediate or timely. Immediate feedback is ideal in supporting student learning, whether instruction is focused on academic content or behavior. For example, while Jacqueline is teaching a small group of students to capitalize proper nouns in their essays, she draws attention immediately to the students’ errors. Jacqueline offers this real-time feedback in a helpful manner, with an encouraging tone, such as pointing to a lowercased name in a student’s paragraph and asking what is missing. The same is true for improving behavior. Quickly pointing out that a student engaged in an appropriate behavior is a positive way to increase prosocial interactions. For instance, right after Marcel helped Sam with his writing, Jacqueline tells him that she liked how helpful he was being—and she notices over the next week that Marcel is more frequently helping other students in the class.
Immediate feedback is not always possible, especially in general education classrooms where teachers are working with a large group of students on tasks such as extended writing or applying a summary strategy while reading with their peers. In these instances, teachers will want to provide feedback as soon as possible.
For the general education students’ persuasive essays, Tanisha chooses to provide written feedback on their long-term learning goals: organization, use of details, capitalization, and appropriate punctuation. Tanisha also provides written feedback when her students are honing their ability to summarize. Once her students are ready for independent practice, Tanisha has them underline the topic sentence and then highlight ideas that supported it before writing a 10- to 15-word summary. That approach gives Tanisha insights into the students’ thinking, allowing her to provide written feedback on whether they were able to identify the topic sentence and related ideas before they write their summaries. It also helps Tanisha identify what additional instruction the students need (such as a repeated modeling lesson or additional background knowledge and vocabulary).
Positive and respectful. Positive and respectful feedback helps students feel that their efforts are worthwhile and appreciated by the teacher. Teachers should acknowledge students’ efforts as well as their correct answers and prosocial behaviors. For instance, Jacqueline often tells students she notices they are working well with their peers to read a passage; she appreciates the way they are taking turns and praising each other for reading carefully. Likewise, when students are decoding multisyllabic words but need additional help, Jacqueline is careful to focus on their efforts. She often makes remarks like, “Oh, that was an interesting way to sound out the word, let me show you what I would do.”
To provide constructive feedback, it is most effective to focus only on what students did well and what they need to do to improve—and to avoid criticizing the quality of their efforts. For instance, when a student, Zara, gets stuck solving a word problem, Jacqueline tells her that she did a fine job of reading the mathematics problem aloud and then paraphrasing the question; Jacqueline then reminds Zara that she would find it easier to solve the problem if she drew a picture representing it, as Jacqueline taught the class to do earlier that week. Seeing that Zara looks confused, Jacqueline remodels how to represent the problem in a picture.
These high-leverage practices provide an excellent road map for K–12 educators to consider when designing and implementing instruction for students with disabilities and others who need additional supports. Although all HLPs are important for teachers’ tool belts, use of explicit instruction and feedback stand out as must-have practices to produce strong outcomes for the broadest possible range of students—including large numbers of students who have fallen behind as a result of the pandemic. As noted above, educators can use explicit instruction and feedback across the day to teach just about any content, and then give students positive, timely information about the extent to which they are meeting expectations. But explicit instruction and feedback are not standalone practices.
To implement explicit instruction, teachers must also be able to establish consistent, organized, and respectful learning environments (HLP 7); otherwise, they will be unable to accomplish any instruction. They also must be able to identify and prioritize long- and short-term learning goals (HLP 11), if they are to focus their explicit instruction, and be able to promote active student engagement (HLP 18), if they are to create highly interactive instruction that helps students learn. Because all 22 HLPs reinforce each other but cannot be learned simultaneously, we recommend that educators looking for a logical entry point to adopt the HLPs begin with explicit instruction and feedback. These key practices serve as a strong foundation for other HLPs and are essential elements of many content-focused, research-based practices, such as teaching decoding in a systematic manner and encouraging positive behaviors.
Mary T. Brownell is a distinguished professor of special education at the University of Florida and director of the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform (CEEDAR) Center. Stephen Ciullo is an associate professor of special education at Texas State University. Michael J. Kennedy is an associate professor of education in the Curry School of Education and Human Development at the University of Virginia and head of the STORMED (Supporting Teachers through cOaching, obseRvations, and Multimedia to Educate students with Disabilities) Lab. The content of this manuscript was produced under US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, Award No. H325A170003. David Guardino serves as the project officer. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the US Department of Education. No official endorsement by the US Department of Education is intended or should be inferred.
1. R. Gersten et al., Assisting Students Struggling with Mathematics: Response to Intervention (RtI) for Elementary and Middle Schools, NCEE 2009-4060 (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education, 2009). See also S. Graham et al., “Reading for Writing: A Meta-Analysis of the Impact of Reading Interventions on Writing,” Review of Educational Research 88 (2018): 243–284.
2. J. McLeskey et al., High-Leverage Practices in Special Education (Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children and CEEDAR Center, January 2017).
3. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004).
4. A. L. Archer and C. A. Hughes, Explicit Instruction: Effective and Efficient Teaching (New York: Guilford Press, 2010); and S. De La Paz et al., “A Historical Writing Apprenticeship for Adolescents: Integrating Disciplinary Learning with Cognitive Strategies,” Reading Research Quarterly 52, no. 1 (2017): 31–52.
5. Archer and Hughes, Explicit Instruction; and C. A. Hughes et al., “Explicit Instruction: Historical and Contemporary Contexts,” Learning Disabilities Research & Practice 32, no. 3 (2017): 140–148.
6. D. L. Coker Jr. et al., “Writing Instruction in First Grade: An Observational Study,” Reading and Writing 29, no. 5 (2016): 793–832.
7. Hughes et al., “Explicit Instruction.”
8. J. Hattie and H. Timperley, “The Power of Feedback,” Review of Educational Research 77 (2007): 81–112.
9. M. Kennedy et al., “High-Leverage Practices #8 & #22: Provide Positive and Constructive Feedback to Guide Students’ Learning and Behavior,” 2018, highleveragepractices.org/701-2-3; and McLeskey et al., High-Leverage Practices.
[illustrated by Rachel Sender]