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Curriculum For Learning Disabled Students

More Than Just Textbooks and Workbooks

By Dr. Joe Sutton, Ph.D.

Ask virtually any parent what "curriculum" means and you'll 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 organization 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 child's home school curriculum, particularly if the child has a bona fide learning disability (LD). Yet with all the hoopla and frenzy that surrounds home school curriculum fairs today, it is easy for a parent to "shop till you 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 better than someone else's. The truth is, each commercially-produced educational product, whether it be a textbook, workbook, or other, has its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. For example, one set of materials may rely heavily on a child's rote memory skills, while another emphasizes critical thinking skills, yet still another may require keen long-term memory and retrieval skills in order for the child to do well, all of which 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, it's 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, "For many children with disabilities the traditional scope and sequence do not apply"2 (p. 20).

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 (p. 42).

Modified Regular Instruction A Good Approach

Time and/or financial constraints will simply 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 (i.e., reading, math, science, etc.) or a combination of materials from several different standard curricula, but supplement it with instructional modifications and accommodations. 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 workbooks;

_ 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 book by J. P. Sutton and C. J. Sutton5 for instructions on how to make audiotapes at home); and

_ Develop strategies or step-by-step checklists that will guide the child on how to complete assignments or solve problems in textbook lessons (again, see the J. P. Sutton and C. J. Sutton's book on how to develop strategies).

It is critically important that, in addition to providing multiple modifications, parents select regular curricular materials that are on the child's 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 5th grade (i.e., he has completed a kindergarten year plus four additional years of grade school). But David, like many other LD students, is functioning at grade levels in certain subjects that may be several years below his present grade assignment. Studying from 5th 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 will allow him to move forward at a more successful pace. Using grade equivalent scores from standardized achievement test results as a guide, the parents surmised that it would be better to choose the following grade level materials for David: reading 3rd; spelling 4th; and mathematics 3rd. He would remain on his assigned 5th 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 of with. The child's learning gaps are ever 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 and a means of "leveling the playing field,"6 the primary concern in educating LD children properly is to remediate their academic skill deficits as soon as possible. A tailor-made home instruction program that includes modified regular and remediation instruction is clearly the better approach for LD children. Remediating a child's 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 child's specific skill deficits? e.g., digraphs, suffixes, consonant blends in reading; fractions, decimals, geometric concepts in math, etc.

_ 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 difficulties (e.g., C. Mercer & A. Mercer7 and J. Sutton & C. Sutton5) for help and guidance in these areas.

1Armstrong, D. G., Henson, K. T., & Savage, T. V. (1993). Education: An introduction (4th ed.). New York: Macmillan.

2 Mills, D. (1995). I.E.P.'s made easy. NATHHAN News, 3(3), 20.

3 Parrish, S. (1995). Homeschooling the special needs child. Homeschooling Today, 4(2), 42-46.

4 Sutton, J. P. (1994). Standard curricula not enough for LD students. NATHHAN News, 3(1), 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., & 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/home schools. He is a frequent speaker at state and national conventions. 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.

Book Review For Strategies For Struggling Learners

Review by Tom and Sherry Bushnell

For too many years, parents of struggling learners have had to depend largely on learning specialists in conventional schools and so-called "therapists" in clinical settings in order to get the help their children needed. In fact, according to Dr. Ruth Bechick, some professionals still arrogantly contend that "parents can't be expected to know how to help their own children." Joe and Connie Sutton, authors of Strategies For Struggling Learners, reject this view, and believe to the contrary that parents are quite capable of teaching their own children, regardless of limitations in learning, attention, and\or behavior that the children may have.

Teaching a struggling learner may be no easy task. Just the jargon alone used with different diagnoses and prognoses can be confusing! Reading Joe and Connie's book is like having an understanding, Christian professional explain the vernacular and how to go about working toward success.

Chapter 2 of Strategies For Struggling Learners, titled Learners with Limitations, describes many ways children find difficulty in learning. This chapter explains various forms of disabilities and even mentions mental retardation, visual impairment and gifted learners.

One very exciting aspect of this well written book, is the Christian emphasis placed on learning. Chapters 3 and 4 share Essential Teaching Beliefs and the Scriptural Model For Teaching.

The Suttons are firm believers in testing. In chapter 5 they thoroughly share their reasons why, types of tests, qualifications of a good examiner, and how often a student should be tested.

Blueprint For Instruction, chapter 6, is handy for parents wanting to know just how to go about writing an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for their child, including a sample IEP at the end of the chapter.

Chapter 8 focuses on Modifying Instruction in the home, with suggestions on how parents can modify both the learning environment and their own teaching behavior.

When a parent is faced with teaching a learning challenged child, they are invariably faced with decisions such as, "Which direction do we go now? Which method should we use to help our child succeed? In chapter 10, Strategies For Struggling Learners includes learning techniques for specific subjects like reading, spelling, and mathematics.


Indeed, this book, presented in twelve chapters, seeks to equip parents with the strategies (i.e. "plans of action") and practical tools they will need to be more successful in this endeavor. Joe and Connie are to be commended for putting this timely book together. Any Christian parent of a struggling learner, taking the time to read and digest this book, would see from the beginning what a priceless jewel they've found. There is no other book like it on the market.

Strategies For Struggling Learners can be ordered through:

Exceptional Diagnostics

220 Douglas Drive.

Simpsonville, SC 29681