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READ 180 Community Newsletter

Differentiated Instruction: Using What Makes Each Student Special

READ 180 Community Newsletter - Spring 2009

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Mary Keever, Cimarron Memorial High School, Las Vegas, Nevada
Mary Keever, Cimarron Memorial High School, Las Vegas, Nevada

I've been a READ 180 teacher for four years. During that time, I've seen my students make tremendous improvements. I'm sure many of you can report the same kind of success. So what makes my story unique? Well, my situation is a little different because I teach special education students in a READ 180 resource classroom.

Most of my students begin with Lexile® scores below 600. So using READ 180 requires extra work (and creativity) to differentiate the instruction for every student. One particular student named Jesse has helped me find great ways to do just that. He's helped me realize that the key to success is finding what makes each student special. It's figuring out the student's best skills, and then making the most of them in the READ 180 setting.

I have lots more to say about Jesse. But first, here's a little background. I've been a resource teacher for fifteen years. I chose to become a teacher because my own son has a learning disability and I wanted to learn how to help him. He's grown now, but looking back, I sure wish they had READ 180 back then! Before I started teaching READ 180, I often felt defeated at the end of each school year. I was working so hard and so were the kids. But they just weren't making much progress or retaining what they learned, even though I tried so many different approaches. I was always thinking, "What am I doing wrong?" I would do research all summer long looking for ways to improve my teaching, but the results always fell short. Luckily, that has all changed, thanks to READ 180—and to extraordinary students like Jesse.

Jesse, READ 180 Student

"I am living proof that READ 180 works." - Jesse, READ 180 student

Jesse has cerebral palsy and has been in a wheelchair his whole life. He is eighteen years old now and has been my student for three years. Jesse faces numerous challenges with reading because the cerebral palsy makes it difficult for him to verbally express his ideas. It takes him a significant amount of time to process incoming information and organize his thoughts. Jesse also has visual impairment, which limits his ability to see the computer or read normal-sized print. But none of these things stop Jesse. Once his thoughts are out, it is obvious that this kid is sharp and his mind is amazingly complex. Jesse has an extensive vocabulary and a great memory for facts and details. Unfortunately, he was unable to carry these skills to reading. He entered my class with little to no reading skills. He knew the consonant sounds, but could not recognize sight words.

Since he's been in READ 180, Jesse has made great progress. That success has come from differentiating the instruction to utilize Jesse's strengths - and work creatively with his weaknesses. Now I'd like to share some of my approaches for working with Jesse and using READ 180 in a special education setting. I think you'll find that many of these ideas are applicable to a traditional READ 180 setting as well.

Be flexible

Jesse has a full-time aide, Ms. Amy, in the classroom. She is a very important part of Jesse's success, helping him with independent reading, taking dictation for his writing and helping him write responses to the Small-Group Instruction. She also reiterates the material over and over and will say things to Jesse like "what happens to the vowel when an ‘e' is on the end of the word?" This helps Jesse to start running that dialogue in his own head when he's struggling with a word.

But Jesse has other limitations that simply can't be solved, such as his difficulty seeing the computer. So we've learned how to be flexible. We tried using a magnifier over the computer screen, but that just blurred the screen even more. So Jesse just works through the computer sessions as best he can. It may take him two days to complete the SRI, but that doesn't matter to me. The key is allowing him to complete the work according to his schedule and his abilities.

Play to students' strengths

Jesse has great academic language. So during our large group sessions, I will use Jesse as my assistant. I'll say, "Jesse, can you give the class an example using academic language?" Jesse will give a great example and the other kids really listen. They're very receptive to learning something from Jesse because he's older and they really look up to him. He's a real asset to the class. When he struggles to get his thoughts out, the other kids are patient and will wait. Jesse is also a big advocate for READ 180. When he sees other kids goofing off in class, he'll tell them, "Hey, you're taking the learning time from us!" He's heard me say those same things over and over, and he wants everyone to get the most out of our class time. Jesse is always very aware of what's happening in the world. So he usually has a comment on things that we're discussing - and that gets the other kids interested as well.

Be creative with students' weaknesses 

It's common for READ 180 students to be embarrassed about their reading deficiencies. So I reserve the basic instruction for Small-Group. At the beginning of the year we spend a few weeks on just basic phonics. I have each student make flash cards with pictures for long and short vowel sounds. I'll say a sound and ask the kids to tell me which card matches. I've also had great success with this very simple, but effective tool: a dry erase board. Each student has his or her own board. I will say a sound or a nonsense word like "paz" and ask the kids to write down the vowel sound. It's a great exercise to work on auditory skills and letter sounds. The student gets immediate feedback, and so do I. This way, I know who "gets it" and who needs more work

Set up small groups based on skill level

During regular rBook rotations, my kids are in mixed-level groups. But after each workshop, I set up additional small groups by ability. This allows me to provide extra practice in deficient skills like short vowels and open syllables. I always make sure that the groupings and exercises seem random. This way, the kids don't feel badly (or even realize) that they are in a lower group.

Act like you're teaching your own child

Teaching any student with reading deficiencies is challenging, and you can get burned out pretty easily. I stay motivated by working like I am teaching my own child. I tell the kids that my own son has a learning disability. I'll say to them, "I know how you feel, because I know how my own son felt." I also tell them that my job is not to be their friend, but to help them learn the skills that they need to become a productive member of society. That's what I would want for my own son, and that's what I want for these kids.

Thanks to READ 180 (and his aide), Jesse has developed phonics skills and can sound out words. His progress was so remarkable last year that Jesse decided to stay in high school for one more year of READ 180. This year, our goal is for Jesse to master the first 300 sight words and continue making as much progress as possible. But enough of me telling you about Jesse's achievements, I'd rather have him tell you himself. In his end-of-year essay last year, Jesse dictated a well-organized, well-written account of his READ 180 experience. I think his words speak for themselves:

"The READ 180 program has improved my life and has started me towards future opportunities...I believe this program is amazing...I know this might sound too good to be true, but I am living proof that READ 180 actually works."

I hope that Jesse's words will inspire you to find new and creative ways to uncover the skills in even your most challenging students. When they are on the path to becoming proficient readers, the feeling is remarkable—for the student and for the teacher.

Editor's Note:

Jesse recently returned to school after having a special operation on his legs. He has made great progress toward his big goal: learning how to walk.

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