By Jane Harrison
(Sponsored Content) – An assistant superintendent of instruction shares how special education students made the highest gains in state reading scores she has seen in her 20 years of work.
In education, and especially in special education, lessons are never one-size-fits-all. My district learned that the hard way when we faced concerns that students with characteristics of dyslexia weren’t getting the help they needed in school. That was three years ago, when our district offered limited dyslexia instruction.
As the assistant superintendent of instruction, I strategized with my department, aiming to provide an alternative option to students who weren’t succeeding with a traditional literacy and reading program. Our district is one of the lowest-funded districts in the state, so we had to be very careful about where we were using funds. Sometimes buying a program you think will work doesn’t turn out to be effective, and it seems like such a waste. We needed a program that our teachers would buy into willingly. It had to address the concerns we were hearing from both our teachers and our parents. It had to appeal to all students in special education.
Last year was our first year of implementation, and after a year of hard work and training, we were buzzing with anticipation as we waited for our state score results. We were thrilled to learn that our 75 3rd-graders in special education ranked number one in the state of South Carolina last year. Our 4th- and 5th- graders in special education were all in the top 5% in the state. Here’s the path we took to get there.
Building a Strong Foundation
To get started, we essentially resurfaced our groundwork. Students in middle school often still lacked the skills and strategies generally acquired in elementary school. Some students who never qualified for special education, but were considered at-risk, spent all or most of their time in some form of intervention. Something wasn’t working.
Two years ago, legislators started to enforce mandates that would require teachers to be trained to support students with reading disabilities. Legislators provided modules to every teacher, whether they were special or general education. It was yet another prompt to adjust our curriculum to fit the needs of all students in special education.
We’ve used an intervention program by Fountas and Pinnell with great success within our district. But when we analyzed it, we found that it didn’t provide a multisensory approach that included decoding and phonics, typical tripping points for students with dyslexia. We started the change to our curriculum by offering teachers intensive training on the Orton-Gillingham method: an explicit, multisensory approach to teaching students with reading disabilities how to read and write. We needed to bring a sharper focus on decoding and phonemic awareness into the classroom. We eventually found Reading Horizons Discovery, which focuses on an explicit, multisensory approach to both.
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