Two years ago, legislators in my home state of South Carolina started to enforce mandates that required teachers to be trained to support students with various reading disabilities. Legislators provided modules to every teacher, whether they were special or general education. It was a powerful prompt to adjust our curriculum to fit the needs of all students in special education.
We were also facing parents’ concerns that students with characteristics of dyslexia weren’t getting the help they needed in school, so it was a pain point we needed to target. My district had used an intervention program by Fountas and Pinnell with great success, 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 had students in middle school who 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.
After two years of hard work and training, we were thrilled to see our most recent state score results: our 75 third-graders in special education ranked number one in the state of South Carolina, while our fourth- and fifth-graders in special education were all in the top 5% in the state. Here’s the work we did to achieve those results.
Adopting a multisensory approach
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.
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 and that would appeal to all students in special education.
We eventually found Reading Horizons Discovery, which focuses on an explicit, multisensory approach to both decoding and phonemic awareness.
Without excellent teachers and general teacher buy-in, the implementation wouldn’t have been as effective as it was. The coaching and professional development piece of our initiative has truly been a game changer. By the end of our back-to-school training this year, all 40 elementary special education teachers were ready to properly, effectively use the program. I typically do not mandate things to look and be a certain way, but since data was showing that students were getting left behind in intervention, we needed to learn together and help each other out to benefit every individual student. Our teachers formed a professional learning community where they’re able to discuss what is working well and what challenges they’re facing.
Advice for other educators
After our success with last year’s state exam scores, Special Education Services from the South Carolina Department of Education reached out to us to figure out how we achieved such progress. The department invited us to share three presentations to special education teachers across the state about our new processes and our journey to improvement and success.
The best advice I give ELA teachers is to know your readers. Determine their strengths and weaknesses individually, and respond to their challenges in a way that will help them explicitly. Whether they learn best through a traditional lesson, independent reading, a workshop, a mini-lesson or shared reading group, identify what they’ll respond to and you’ll see the light bulbs go off in your students. Their abilities and confidence in reading will grow.
I’m grateful that our district is centered on finding a solution and being willing to make a change. We managed to take the concerns we were facing and flip our curriculum to a successful one. We’re now providing students with the right tools to reach their full potential, no matter what level that may be. But literacy instruction is about more than test scores. It’s about giving kids the opportunity to love to read. That’s my personal goal. When these students in special ed who had not felt successful can pick up a book and read for pleasure, then I feel like we have accomplished a goal greater than them being number one in the state in third grade.
Jane Harrison is the assistant superintendent of instruction for Anderson School District One in South Carolina.
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