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Modifying Instructional Strategies, Materials and Tools to Meet Individual Needs

Mary accesses her BIGMack switch.Because every student with a disability has complex and unique needs, the strategies and tools of instruction must be constantly modified so that each student can succeed at learning. Researchers at the Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies have identified six dimensions of learning tasks that teachers can modify to engender success.

Physical Demands

Typical learning tasks can be physically challenging for students with motor and/or cognitive impairments. Some students may be physically incapable of manipulating the tasks and tools of learning in standard ways. Others may find physical tasks quite strenuous and readily become fatigued. A careful analysis of the physical demands of the tasks and tools of learning can result in effective modification along this dimension. For example, when students are unable to physically turn pages of typical books, minor adaptations such as foam block page separators may be helpful. Students who are unable to use their hands in this way can access many titles on the computer, turning pages by simply hitting a switch. For students who have difficulty writing, adapted pencils and crayons can be provided, as well as computers with specialized software and hardware.

Sensory Demands

Typical learning tasks have both visual and auditory components which can be challenging for students with visual or hearing difficulties. Therefore teachers must adjust the sensory demands of learning tasks and/or provide specific tools that circumvent these demands. For example, students with visual impairments can benefit from large-print books, Braille translations or specialized storybooks that integrate tactile cues to meaning. Software programs with auditory feedback, including music and speech output, are helpful. Students who are deaf or hard of hearing can benefit from software and videos with either captions or American Sign Language translations.

Communication Demands

The ability to communicate can be significantly limited by motor, cognitive, linguistic or socio-emotional difficulties. Whether a child is non-speaking as a result of cerebral palsy, or is unable to engage socially with peers due to autism, strategies and tools can be manipulated to foster interaction and ensure that all children have the opportunity to express their needs and preferences. The systemic use of alternative communication strategies can provide all students access to the key concepts and vocabulary embedded within the curriculum. As you tour Barbara's and Susan's classrooms, you will see numerous examples of how picture communication symbols and boards and simple communication devices with speech output are integrated into all activities to ensure students are full communicative partners.

Experience Demands

Prior experience is an important component of learning new information. Students with disabilities may have less exposure to the broad range of experiences that comprise a student's background knowledge. Students' opportunities to explore their immediate environments can be limited by the disabling condition itself and the demands it places on students and caregivers. However, instructional strategies can be modified to ensure that students have the necessary foundation for learning. For example, before encountering new concepts or vocabulary, students can be immersed in discussion and examples to build a necessary referential base for deeper learning. Students can be encouraged to identify what they do know about a topic and expand this knowledge through language experience stories.

Emotional Demands

Some students with disabilities struggle with tasks that require risk-taking, perseverance, and self-motivation. Students with disabilities frequently rely on assistance from caregivers to initiate and complete tasks; therefore their opportunities may be limited to develop autonomy and a sense of self-worth. However, tasks can be "scaffolded" in such a way that students can achieve independence and success. That is, tasks can be broken down into component parts and students can be given the necessary structure and prompts to succeed over time. For example, repeated reading of the same words, sentences and passages can promote fluency and confidence in reading. Similarly providing a series of increasingly complex written language models can offer students the structure they need to be creative.


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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP)  in collaboration with the Center for Literacy and Disabilities (CLD)  at Duke University.   NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by CLD, NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

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