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New Ideas in Spec. Ed. Language Arts Instruction

The Council for Exceptional Children is holding its annual conference here in D.C. this week. When I attended on Tuesday, a number of sessions were oriented around studies on tools and techniques for improving instruction for students with special needs.

Some of the studies' outcomes seemed to carry little weight, as their sample sizes were small, the variables inconsistent, and the durations limited. But the techniques being tested were notable.

In a session about teaching writing to middle school students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, researchers from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., presented the results from an ongoing classroom study. During the last three school years, the researchers taught groups of 10-12 students with emotional and behavioral disorders for one period a day, focusing only on writing composition. The instructors used two pre-writing strategies: the P.O.W. strategy, which reminds students to plan, organize, and then write, in that order; and the T.R.E.E. strategy, which teaches students to come up with a topic, reasons, explanations, and ending/examination (with the tree imagery functioning as graphic organizer).

The first year, it took 55 instructional sessions for students to reach the established criterion, said Margo Mastropieri of George Mason, who led the session. (She did not detail those criterion but I believe students had to hit benchmarks before they moved on in the lessons.) The researchers had initially anticipated it would take only a few weeks and were disappointed with this finding. However, the students' writing fluency increased significantly by the end of the sessions—from an average of about 80 words per assignment to about 230. And when students were tested again three months later, the average was still quite high (about 170 words). Over the next two years, student groups showed similar results, with writing fluency improving steadily and progress being maintained.

The presentation left me wondering: Are any teachers using these or similar writing strategies in the general education setting? At what grade level? Have you found them effective?

I also attended a session about improving reading fluency among high schoolers with learning disabilities. Jacqueline Egli, the executive director of Bridges Academy, a private school for students with disabilities in Winter Springs, Fla., described a small (and I mean very small—three students were involved!) study she conducted using two computer-based fluency programs—Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant. Students spent 80 minutes total a day on the two programs. With such a small sample, the results were somewhat inconclusive—but two of the students showed gains after six weeks.

In my days as a reading specialist, I found that fluency was one of the hardest skills to boost for students with LD, so this kind of technology interests me. Reading Assistant, as Egli described it, has students listen to a story three times, then records them reading the same story and tracks their mistakes. Teachers can calibrate it to be more or less rigid in counting errors. And recently it's been tweaked to account for accents and speech impediments. Teachers can easily look at students' portfolios and track the kinds of errors they are making, she said. And by listening to the recording, students can recognize when they are reading slowly or without inflection.

I've seen students record themselves reading on iPod Touches and iPads (and previously tape recorders), but a program that accurately tracks their mistakes sounds like it could be a great individual center at a variety of grade levels.

Have you used these computer programs or ones like them? Are there other fluency programs or activities you prefer?

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