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Curriculum for Learning Disabled Students: More Than Just Textbooks and Workbooks

By Dr. Joe Sutton, Ph. D.  To visit Dr. Joe's Web Site CLICK HERE

Ask virtually any parent what "curriculum" means and youíll get a variety of answers such as textbooks, workbooks, teacher manuals, manipulatives, and the like. Little wonder that curriculum is commonly perceived this way. One of the highlights of many home school conventions today are the "curriculum fairs" that display and sell an almost endless selection of textbooks and related materials. But curriculum entails more than just books and materials.

Traditionally defined, curriculum means a standard course of study for all students. More recently, curriculum has come to mean "the selection and organiztion of content and learning experiences."1 Practically speaking, a curriculum is a carefully sequenced body of skills covering the academic, social, behavioral and spiritual areas that children are expected to master. The breadth and depth of these skills vary according to the chronological age and grade level of the child. Textbooks and other educational materials simply embody the many curricular skills that children are to learn. But "learning experiences" are not limited to just textbooks and workbooks alone. Learning experiences may also include such activities as structured field trips and laboratory experiments.

Unfortunately, equating educational materials with curriculum may be a necessary evil that we all have to live with for the time being. It is important that parent-teachers understand, though, that "one size does not fit all" when it comes to selecting instructional materials that will eventually become part of the childís home school curriculum, particularly if the child has a bonafide learning disability (LD). Yet with all the hoopla and frenzy that surrounds home school curriculum fairs today, it is easy for parents to "shop ítill they drop" and end up with little more than a bag full of instructional materials that are totally inappropriate for an LD child.

It is interesting to note the sales pitches that some of the curriculum vendors, who try to convince you that their line of textbooks is the best or is better than someone elseís. The truth is, each commercially-produced educational product, whether it is a textbook, workbook, or something else, has its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. For example, one set of materials may rely heavily on a childís rote memory skills, while another emphasizes critical thinking skills, and still another may require keen long-term memory and retrieval skills in order for the child to do well. All of these can be weaknesses with LD children.

The most important thing to recognize about many of the commercially-produced curricular materials on the market today is that most of them were written and designed for typical, average learners, not LD students. The authors assume that the average student will be able to master fairly quickly the scope and sequence of skills and lessons presented in the textbooks. At worst, some of the lessons in these books may need to be repeated or reviewed from time to time in order for average learners to grasp them.

But for LD students, itís not that easy. Their learning gaps and processing difficulties will many times prevent them from being able to learn successfully from typical textbooks. Debbie Mills, a home educating mother of a child with a disability, rightly states that, "[f]or many children with disabilities, the traditional scope and sequence do not apply."2

So what are parents of LD students to do with regard to developing home instruction programs that are appropriate for their children? We offer two approaches to curriculum development that home educators may wish to consider. Both require more parent effort and preparation than would be needed for non-disabled children. But we wholeheartedly agree with Susan Parrish, who has correctly concluded that "[home] schooling an impaired child can take three times the energy, patience and knowledge, and is not for the faint of heart."3

Modified Regular Instruction:
A Good Approach

Time or financial constraints simply will not permit some home educating parents to tailor-make a program of instruction for their LD children in a comprehensive way. Therefore, a good approach is to adopt one complete line of curricular materials (e.g., reading, math, science) or a combination of materials from several different standard curricula, but supplement it with instructional modifications and accomodations. Leaning totally on standard educational materials alone for use with struggling learners generally produces only frustration for both parent and child. Simply put, standard curricular materials alone are not enough for LD students.4 Modifications must be applied to these materials in order to make them more "cognitively palatable" for the LD child. Several ideas follow:

Use highlighter pens (bright flamboyant colors) to accentuate instructions, key words and phrases, etc., in textbooks and worbooks.

Make copies of math textbook pages that contain seemingly monotonous rows of math problems and cut them into fewer, more reasonable, more manageable, and less intimidating sets of problems;

Audiotape pages in the science, history, and Bible books that may be beyond the reading level of the child and allow her to listen with headphones while she follows the text visually. (See Strategies for Struggling Learners: A Guide for the Teaching Parent.5 for instructions on how to make audiotapes at home).

Develop strategies or step-by-step checklists that will guide the child on how to complete assignments. (Again, see Strategies for Struggling Learners on how to develop strategies.)

It is critically important that, in addition to providing multiple modifications, parents select regular curricular materials materials that are on the childís functioning level. For example, consider David, who has a documented learning disability in basic reading, written expression, and math computation. His current grade assignment is fifth grade (i.e., he has completed a kindergarten year plus four years of grade school). But David, like many other LD students, is functioning in certain subjects at grade levels that may be several years below his present grade assignment. Studying from fifth grade materials across all the subject areas would be highly frustrating for David (and his parents!)

On the other hand, placing him on grade level materials that reflect his present functioning levels whill allow him to move forward at a more successful pace. Using grade equivalent scores from standardized achievement test results as a guide, his parents surmised that it would be better to choose the following grade level materials for David: reading, third; spelling, fourth; mathematics, third. He would remain on his assigned fifth grade level for science, social studies, and Bible with audiotape textbook modifications to assist him in working around the reading barrier.

Modified Regular Instruction with Remediation: A Better Approach

The major drawback of the "Modified Regular Instruction" approach for an LD child is that, at best, it only minimizes the frustration factor and maximizes his chances of learning more successfully under materials that were never designed for him to start with. The childís learning gaps are still present, though, and will in all likelihood prevent him from consistently succeeding under the prescribed scope and sequence of skills presented in regular curricular materials.

Although instructional modifications are important for LD students as a means of "leveling the playing field,"6 the primary concern in educating LD children properly is to remediate their acdemic skill deficits as soon as possible. A tailor-made home instructionprogram that includes modified regular and remediation instruction is clerly the better approach for LD children. Remediating a childís deficit skills is one of the underlying purposes of the individualized educational plan or IEP concept. Parents can follow the same procedure outlined earlier in choosing and modifying regular curricular materials in this approach. However, in order to develop a remediation component for the home school program, parents must answer two basic questions:

What are my childís specific skill deficits? e.g. digraphs, suffixes, consonant blends in readings; fractions, decimals, geometric concepts in math.

How do I teach these skills? i.e., teaching methods, techniques, and procedures that will help the child absorb and master these skills.

Identifying deficit skills will require some form of testing and assessment, either by the parents (informal) or via professional examiner (formal). Determining which teaching techniques to use in remediating these skill deficits will, of course, mean that parents must read and learn about some of the specialized techniques such as direct instruction, the cloze technique, and the multisensory/VAKT technique that have been found to help LD students learn more effectively. Parents may want to consider various resource books on teaching children with learning disabilities.7,5

1. Armstrong, D.G., Henson, K.T., and Savage, T.V. (1993); Education: An Introduction (4th ed.); New York: Macmillian

2. Mills, D. (1995); "IEPís Made Easy"; NATHHAN News, 3(3), p. 20

3. Parrish, S. (1995); "Homeschooling the Special Needs Child"; Homeschooling Today, 4(2), pp. 42-46

4. Sutton, J.P. (1994); "Standard Curricula Not Enough for LD Students"; NATHHAN News, 3(1), p. 9

5. Sutton, J. P., & Sutton C.J. (1995); Strategies for Struggling Learners: A Guide for the Teaching Parent; Simpsonville, SC: Exceptional Diagnostics

6. Sutton, J.P. (in press). Leveling the playing field. Balance.

7. Mercer, C.D., and Mercer, A.R. (1993); Teaching Students with Learning Problems (4th ed.); New York: Merrill

Joe P. Sutton, Ph.D., is a nationally recognized authority on special education for children with disabilities in private and home schools. He is a frequent speaker at state and national convetions. He is the author of numerous articles that have appeared in leading secular, Christian, and home education journals and magazines. He has recently co-authored a book with his wife, Connie, entitled, Strategies for Struggling Learners: A Guide for the Teaching Parent. Dr. Sutton is a certified educational diagnostician and president of Exceptional Diagnostics, a testing and consulting firm serving a national clientele of students with learning, attention, and behavior difficulties.