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Complex Special Education Language Confounds Parents

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Cross-posted from the On Special Education blog.

(This blog post, except for the excerpts and quote, is written at a 5th to 6th grade level, according to online readability calculators.) 

Special education has many rules. One rule is that parents should work with teachers. But sometimes special education language is too hard for parents. They may not understand their rights. They also may not understand their responsibilities. That means they cannot work well with their child's school.

This kind of writing may look familiar to people in special education:

Special education involves the provision of a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment (FAPE in the LRE). FAPE refers to an educational program that is individualized to a specific child, designed to meet that child's unique needs, provides access to the general curriculum, meet grade-level standards established by NYS. LRE means that a student who has a disability should have the opportunity to be educated with non-disabled peers, to the greatest extent appropriate. They should have access to the general education curriculum, or any other program that non-disabled peers would be able to access. The student is provided with supplementary aids and services necessary to achieve IEP goals if placed in a setting with non-disabled peers.

That was taken from a guide for parents written by the Buffalo, N.Y. school district. (The mistakes are in the original.) Now look at this: 

Special education includes a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). FAPE includes three parts. First, FAPE is tailored to a student's unique needs. Second, FAPE provides access to the general curriculum. Third, FAPE meets grade-level standards.

Special education occurs in the least restrictive environment (LRE). LRE is where a student with a disability can learn with non-disabled peers. This will happen as much as is appropriate. LRE includes access to the general education curriculum. LRE includes access to the same programs as non-disabled peers. Supports may be needed to achieve IEP goals. These will be provided in all settings. These supports will still be provided while learning with non-disabled peers.

The first paragraph has many abbreviations. The sentences are long. A tool in Microsoft Word measures how easy or hard a document is to read. The tool says a college student can understand the first paragraph. But an average parent may be confused.

The new paragraph is written at a middle-school level. Students in 8th grade should be able to understand it.

Special education documents often look more like the first paragraph. Documents have gotten harder to read over the past 30 years. This has happened even though many people think simple language is better. 

Writing Can Be Hard to Understand

The findings were part of a study published in the January edition of the Journal of Disability Policy StudiesThe lead author, Sarah A. Nagro, is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She is also a former special education teacher. Nagro wrote the simpler paragraph. She allowed me to share it.

Nagro looked at eight studies. The studies measured how easy or hard it is to read special education documents. The studies were conducted as long ago as 1984. They were also as new as 2014. The 1984 study found that most of the language was at a 9th grade level. The language got harder over time. The 2014 study said most of the language was at  "grade 13."  That is college level.

Best practices have said to use simple words and short sentences. In 1984, people suggested writing for the average 9th grader. By 2014, the new idea was to write for the average 5th grader. Most parents can understand language at that level.

So what happened? Nagro has two ideas. She said teachers might not think about their writing when they send notes to parents. They may be focused on other things, such as deadlines.

Her second idea is about official documents. Districts and states do not want to make mistakes. They may find it easy to use legal language. That way, they know they are saying the right thing.

But that language can be hard to understand. Many parents do not speak English well. Some parents may have disabilities that make reading difficult. Other parents do not have a college education. Others may not know legal words.

Nagro has written an article that will appear in Teaching Exceptional Children. That is a magazine published by the Council for Exceptional Children in Arlington, Va. The article will show her ideas on simple writing. Nagro plans to give several examples. They will look like what she provided for me. She said Microsoft Word makes it easy to check how simple a document is to read. She does not know yet when the article will appear. I will update readers when it is printed.

Readability "might not be something people are considering," she said. "This is something we have to be thinking about." 

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