Strategy Instruction for Middle and Secondary Students with Mild Disabilities: Creating Independent Learners


Greg Conderman, Laura Hedin & Val Bresnahan

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    You have probably heard of the Chinese proverb: Give me a fish, and I eat for a day; teach me to fish, and I eat for a lifetime. This statement reflects the learning strategies philosophy. The strategies approach teaches students how to learn and be independent learners rather than isolated skills or facts.

    Rationale for the Book

    Special and general educators from all grades and subjects are searching for ways to be more effective and efficient in their teaching. They are looking for ways to help students eat for a lifetime. School administrators and teachers must demonstrate that students are making academic and social-behavioral gains. For various reasons, some students are more challenging to teach, and they require more powerful instructional tools in order to make significant gains. The good news is that years of research—as well as our experiences teaching adolescents with mild disabilities—support the strategies approach.

    Middle and high school students with disabilities are especially well suited for strategy instruction, because they are expected to meet rigorous general education curriculum standards and pass state and district tests. To accomplish these tasks, students need more than exposure to skills, which is an approach that helps them only to eat for a day. Rather, they need powerful and effective methods to help them understand, retain, and apply difficult skills and concepts. Because the strategy approach teaches students a new way of thinking, it requires more deliberate and explicit instruction (especially teacher modeling) and therefore takes more time than other approaches, but the results, we believe, are well worth it.

    Secondary students are also unique because they have only a few more years remaining of their K-12 education. Unless secondary general and special education teachers use powerful instructional approaches, students may not make sufficient growth to meet goals on their individualized education program (IEP) or meet annual yearly progress goals under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) / No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). Further, without an approach that emphasizes independent learning, students are at a higher risk for dropping out of school and accepting and maintaining entry-level jobs over the course of their lifetime.

    In addition to identifying a need for powerful instructional strategies, researchers have questioned existing instructional practices at the secondary level. One concern is that resource rooms often function as modified study halls, where students primarily complete homework for their general education classes. This often leaves little time for strategy instruction. Admittedly, students need support to maintain satisfactory progress in their general education classes. The challenge (and not an easy one) is for special educators to find the balance between helping students with their class work and teaching them strategies that help them become more independent in those classes and with future tasks.

    Researchers have also noted confusion about the secondary special education teacher's role in co-taught classrooms. Many secondary special education co-teachers function as assistants in general education classrooms because they have not mastered the content to assume instructional parity with their general education co-teaching partner. The one-teach one-assist model is the most frequently used yet least effective co-teaching approach. This model often does not expose students to powerful instructional strategies. In contrast, special educators in co-taught general education classes can establish themselves as strategy experts by teaching efficient and effective learning, organizational, study, or behavioral strategies to all students in the class.

    How to Use This Book

    With these thoughts in mind, we present this practical book on instructional strategies for secondary (middle and high school) students with mild disabilities. The first two chapters provide the context and background for teaching secondary special education. Chapter 1 introduces the array of instructional approaches used by secondary special educators. Of the approaches discussed in Chapter 1, the strategies approach is the focus of Chapter 2 because many experts in the field recommend this approach for initial skill instruction. Strategy instruction is the focus of this book.

    The remaining chapters are of two kinds: assessment chapters and methods/strategies chapters. Using case studies and the strategies approach, each assessment chapter connects student informal assessment results to IEPs, and in the subsequent corresponding methods/strategies chapter, evidence-based strategies are connected to IEPs. The assessment chapters provide background information about the skill or content, informal assessments, and the student's IEP. Methods/strategies chapters describe strategies teachers taught to meet the student's IEP goals in each case. Therefore, “matching” chapters (e.g., chapters 3 and 4 on vocabulary) make more sense if read together. Many chapters provide ready-to-use forms as well as teacher think-alouds for modeling the featured strategy. Subheadings direct readers to a specific strategy, and end-of-the chapter questions provide application activities. This book is also unique in that rather than providing short descriptions of numerous strategies, chapters provide a more intense look at specific evidence-based vocabulary, reading, writing, study, textbook, self-regulation, math, and science strategies.

    Intended Audience

    Strategy instruction can occur in general, special, and Response to Intervention (RTI) settings and is appropriate for all learners (students with and without disabilities) who are learning common core state standards. Therefore, the informal assessments, suggested IEP goals and objectives, and think-alouds provide templates for you, whether you are teaching in inclusive, resource, or self-contained settings; consulting or co-teaching with general educators; designing RTI approaches; studying special or general education as a preservice teacher; or providing district-level leadership as an administrator, teacher-mentor, curriculum coordinator, or staff development planner. Therefore, regardless of your current position, we trust that you will find the ideas in this book informative as you teach your students to eat for a lifetime.


    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    • Sally Jeanne Coghlan
    • Special Education Teacher
    • Rio Linda Preparatory Academy, Twin Rivers USD
    • Rio Linda, CA
    • Debi Gartland
    • Professor of Special Education
    • Towson University
    • Towson, MD
    • Cheryl Moss
    • Special Education Teacher
    • Gilbert Middle School
    • Gilbert, IA
    • Catherine Orlando
    • Teacher, Administrator, Adjunct Professor, Consultant
    • Miami-Dade County Public Schools
    • Miami, FL
    • Karen L. Tichy
    • Associate Superintendent for Instruction and Special Education
    • Archdiocese of St. Louis
    • St. Louis, MO

    About the Authors

    Greg Conderman is full professor of special education at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, where he teaches methods and collaboration courses for elementary education, secondary education, and special education majors. He was a middle and high school special education teacher and special education consultant for 10 years before entering higher education. He has authored over 70 articles on instructional methods and collaboration, which have been published in special education and general education journals. He is a frequent presenter at local, state, and national conferences. He has also received numerous teaching awards for excellence in instruction at the college level.

    Laura Hedin is an assistant professor in the Department of Special and Early Education at Northern Illinois University. She teaches instructional methods courses, including reading methods, in both the graduate and undergraduate special education certification programs. Her research interests include reading in the content areas for intermediate and secondary students with disabilities as well as teacher preparation, science instruction for students with disabilities, and co-teaching.

    Val Bresnahan, EdD, is currently a middle school language arts teacher in a Chicago suburb. She has been a speech-language pathologist, special education teacher, general education teacher, and adjunct university instructor. She has authored books on vocabulary instruction and co-teaching as well as articles on study skills. She also has made numerous presentations on vocabulary instruction, co-teaching, and differentiation.

  • Appendices

    Appendix A: Prefixes, Suffixes, Roots, and Combining Forms

    Most Common Prefixes
    unnot, opposite ofunhappy
    disnot, opposite ofdistrust
    dedown, away fromdeplane
    en, emcause to beenable
    in, imin or intoinput
    overtoo muchovereat
    undertoo littleunderpaid

    All other prefixes (about 100) together account for only 3% of the total number of words containing prefixes.

    Most Common Suffixes
    s, espluralcats, boxes
    edpast tense verbsjumped
    ingverb, present participlerunning
    lycharacteristic ofsadly
    er, orperson connected withjogger, actor
    ion, tion, ation, itionact or processaction
    ible, ablecan be donefixable
    al, ialhaving characteristics offormal
    ycharacterized bymessy
    nessstate of, condition ofkindness
    ity, tystate ofactivity
    mentaction or processenjoyment
    ichaving characteristics ofstrategic
    ous, eous, iouspossessing qualities ofjoyous
    enmade ofgolden
    ive, ative, itiveadjective form of nounactive
    fulfull ofhelpful

    All other suffixes (about 160) together account for only 7% of the total number of words containing suffixes.


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    Most Common Latin Roots
    ruptto tear apartdisrupt
    scrib, scriptto writetranscribe
    cept, ceivetake, catchaccept
    spectsee, watch, observeinspect
    dicttell, speakdiction
    mis, mitsendtransmission
    flect, flexto bendinflect
    duc, ductleadconduct
    pendhang, weighsuspend
    peldrive, pushexpel
    fac, fectmake, dofactory
    vers, vertto turn, changeconvert
    formto shapereform
    aud, audito hear, listenaudible
    vid, visseevisible
    Common Greek Combining Forms

    Greek word parts are referred to as combining forms because several Greek word parts combine to form a word. Some examples are telegraph, geology, and photography. Many of these words are specialized words used in science and mathematics.

    Combining formMeaningExample
    graphwritten downgraphic
    telefar off, distanttelegraph
    Combining formMeaningExample
    ologystudy ofbiology


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    Appendix B: Test-Taking Tips

    For Objective-Type Questions

    Skim the whole test to get an idea of length and sections.

    Read each question carefully and slowly and note special words such as not, except, all but, et cetera.

    Answer known questions first.

    Mark questions for which you are unsure of the answer with a bullet or dot and return to those later.

    Eliminate answers that are identical, silly, or unrelated to the question.

    Carefully read all options. Put a check mark by each option after you read it.

    Immediately write on the test any formulas or mnemonics that serve as prompts.

    After reading the question, anticipate the answer and look for that answer in the choices.

    If one answer choice in a multiple choice question is “all of the above,” and more than one choice is correct, pick “all of the above.”

    Change an answer only if you are sure.

    If you do not know the answer, pick (B) or (C), as those tend to be used most frequently as correct answers or pick the longest and most detailed response.

    Generally, if a true/false question uses absolute terms (all, always, every, only, none, never), the answer is “false.”

    Generally, if a true/false question uses terms such as sometimes, mostly, many, often, usually, or generally, the answer is “true.”

    All parts of the true/false item must be true for the answer “true” to be correct.

    If you are unsure of a true/false answer, answer “true,” as “true” tends to be used more frequently as the correct answer.

    Check the test for clues to help you answer challenging questions.

    For Subjective-Type Questions

    Read the question or prompt slowly and several times.

    Underline key terms in the question or prompt.

    Pay attention to the “writing word” in the prompt. Are you being asked to describe, compare, compare and contrast, contrast, analyze, define, illustrate, explain, or defend? Each of these has a different meaning.

    Note special considerations in the prompt such as the number of items to be explained and if the prompt wants you to use information from the text, class notes, et cetera.

    Spend a few minutes thinking about and planning your response by making an outline, graphic organizer, or bulleted list.

    Write the first topic sentence as a direct reply to the prompt by using some words in the prompt.

    Spend most of your writing time on the body of your essay, which includes details and facts. Spend considerably less time writing the introduction and conclusion.

    If you cannot think of a response specific to the prompt, write something on the topic that you remember. Reading through the test might help you remember some concepts for your response. You might still get partial credit.

    Proofread for spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

    Appendix C: Tips for Developing Effective Study Guides

    Develop a study guide that matches unit objectives such as the following:

    • two-column study guides that have factual questions listed in the left column and their corresponding answers in the right column
    • flip flop study guides (two-column guides with definitions or examples in the right column and their corresponding key concepts or terms in the left column)
    • compare-and-contrast study guides for analyzing similarities and differences between items or groups
    • summative study guides for indicating vocabulary terms, short-answer questions, and review questions likely to appear on the exam
    • textbook activity study guides for noting main ideas and details and for providing a place for students to indicate if they understand or do not understand the material
    • interactive study guides that allow students to collaboratively complete the study guide and discuss responses with a partner
    • sequential or cause and effect study guides that provide items in a graphic organizer with some cells empty that students complete as they read

    Write questions in the same order that the corresponding concepts are presented in the chapter.

    To differentiate study guides, include page numbers where answers can be found for students who need this.

    If students are writing on their guide, leave adequate space for answers.

    Include clear and specific directions.

    Reduce the number of items by including only the most critical content or use the same study guide for all students but mark questions that are most important.

    Simplify the language of the question without sacrificing the objective. Reduce unnecessary wordiness.

    Minimize writing demands by including more true/false, matching, or fill-in-the-blank questions rather than short-answer or essay items, especially for students who struggle with written expression.

    When including vocabulary items, provide the definition and have students provide the word; this reduces unnecessary copying of definitions.

    Use only one or two different formats.

    When writing true/false items, make sure each question assesses only one concept, is clearly true or false, is not copied word-for-word from the text, avoids tricky words, and does not include the word not just to make an obviously true statement false.

    When writing fill-in-the-blank questions, include one blank per question, place the blank at the end of the sentence, provide blanks of the same length, ensure that the blank is an important concept, and include enough detail in the sentence so only one response is correct.

    (For example, “Our president is________” is too vague. “The last name of the current U.S. president is________” is much more clear.)

    When writing matching questions or sections, include no more than 10 items per section, use only homogeneous items, write the longer phrases in the left column, and include lines for students to write the letter of their choice rather than having students connect lines from one column to the other.

    When writing short-answer or essay questions, provide context for the question, indicate a general length, note the learning objectives, and include the point value.


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