Sunday, January 12, 2014

Bringing Balanced Literacy to Students with Intellectual Disabilities

In a little over a week my awesome research team and I will be on an airplane headed to Florida for the 15th annual Council for Exceptional Children's Division on Autism and Developmental Delays (DADD) conference. We can't wait.

We're presenting the work we did last year on adapting guided reading and balance literacy practices to work with students with low incidents disabilities (Intellectual Disabilities, Autism). Last year our ID team along with a general education kindergarten teacher and one of our school's reading specialists took current research that supports using balanced literacy approaches that is typically found in the general education classrooms and applied it to working with our students with intellectual disabilities.

We spent today combing over our power point trying to make it bridge the gap between addressing practitioners like us and a more research-based audience. (Sadly it feels like a hard gap to bridge. Why is the gap between research and practice so wide? Why is it that what is currently
published in education research rarely makes it into the hands of actual teachers? )

You can follow my personal growth in the project here as I blogged about it last year. The project came about very organically as our team found a need in our classrooms and began collaborating and seeking resources that would help us bridge the gap between the general education balanced literacy instruction and what we were doing in our intellectual disability classrooms.

We set up our classrooms to meet a balanced literacy structure using reading focus lessons, word walls, shared reading, interactive writing, guided reading, centers, and a reading workshop structure. We took what we knew about guided reading and task analyzed it down to meet the needs of our students so that we were still using a guided reading structure but meeting the exact needs of our students, while still giving them opportunities to interact with real books.

As we talked today we realized that perhaps of all the elements we put in place last year teaching the students to interact with real books was the simplest but most powerful act we did. Many of the programs in place to use with students with intellectual disabilities teach specific skills in isolation without giving students an opportunity to open a book, turn the pages, look at the pictures, think about the story and look at the words all at once. Although the programs can be great and teach excellent skills, solely using a program often holds us back as teachers from pushing our children forward. We assume because they  haven't mastered a certain part of the program or a specific skill that they aren't ready to move beyond and have greater literacy experiences. Following the program allows us to forget that we're teaching a life-long habit and not a rote set of isolated skills. We simply forget to give the children books and let them experience the pleasure of turning the pages in a book themselves.

Using the balanced literacy approach allowed us to use the research-based programs that taught specific skills, but also let us teach the children how to use all their reading skills at once- to open a book, look at the pictures, point to the words, think about the sounds the words made, using the writing skills, answer comprehension questions- the list goes on and on- all around one specific text. Merely putting a book into their hands added an element of fun to the lessons.

The results surprised even us- some of our students made significant gains in both their book handling skills and their ability to interact with a text (essential read simple texts) but also in their specific boxed programs. Our students became more engaged in the mere act of reading. Looking at books was something they could sit and do independently for an extended period of time- which often surprised people who visited our classroom. The assumption was often that our kids could go on the Ipad or the computer to have something to do, but would not read independently. We were able to show their parents that reading was an actual leisure activity. They could buy their child books instead of Ipad apps.

While we found research that supported what we were doing it was not research that fell into our laps- we had to seek it out, which is something that is difficult for any teacher to do. It is rare that we have the time or energy as teachers to look for current research. Frequently we rely on our districts and schools to apply professional development opportunities for us and we often don't question the research behind what is given to us. We're hoping that our presentation next week will reach actual teachers and will be a part of bringing the research into the classroom.

Whenever I leave this collaborative team I feel energized and ready to dive into teaching. Even the tangential conversations that arise as we go through our data and previous lessons lead us to look at our teaching in new ways. As we're considering our children's growth and progress we find more meaning in our project- why it worked and why we need to keep it up.

If you happen to be at DADD next week look us up!

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