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A Three-Tier Model of Educational Intervention for Students with Language-Based Learning Challenges

Stewart Miller

The National Institute of Health’s (NIH) research shows that 20 percent of the United States’ school-age population, or one in five American students, are learning disabled. Additionally, NIH’s research documents that 80 percent of this learning disabled subgroup of the population faces a language-based learning disability. Furthermore, recent NIH studies have found that 37 percent of fourth graders were not reading at a basic level. Whether we advertise it or not, whether the students are diagnosed or not, all of our schools work with a subgroup of students with learning challenges, most of whom have language-based difficulties. Some students are able to independently compensate for their learning struggles, some students benefit from structured academic support services, and some students are impacted to the degree that they require a specialized program.

Within the spectrum of educational services for students with learning disabilities, there are three distinct ways that schools are able to address students’ learning challenges and relative weaknesses. A truly comprehensive program will offer a well thought out and deliberate combination of these three approaches. This 3-tier model is:

  1. Direct, skill-based remediation

  2. Teaching a structure to organize, retain, comprehend and express information

  3. Awareness, bypass strategies and self-advocacy

While many institutions offer one or some of these interventions, few programs offer a comprehensive, balanced, and integrated implementation of these interventions, which, in turn, provides the opportunity for a learning disabled person to reach his or her true potential.

The overall goal is for the student to internalize what is being taught and reach a level of independent mastery. It is when the locus of control switches from being externally (school/teacher) driven to internally (child) controlled that students are truly empowered. Students with learning disabilities are generally very intelligent and talented. It's not the student's fault that he or she has not been successful; often times, the LD child simply hasn't had instruction that "fits" his or her learning style. Once given research-proven intervention that is appropriate in frequency, duration, and intensity—and appropriate to an individual student's learning style—he or she can make tremendous gains. In fact, cutting edge brain imaging research shows that the brain actually changes in a fundamental way to improve its performance when engaged in effective remedial intervention.

Effort on the child's part, of course, is a crucial element to this equation. However, responsibility for student effort does not solely fall on the shoulders of the student. Teachers and schools must understand that students will engage with effort if the environment is one that fosters trust, understanding, mutual respect and success. It is the responsibility of teachers and schools to create such an environment.

The First Tier

The first, most difficult, and arguably most important intervention is direct skill-based remediation. Students with learning challenges have a skill deficit (skills that are discrepant from their intellectual potential), and need to develop these weak skills in order to re-enter the mainstream and to be independent, productive members of society. Despite technological developments and advances in educational software, there is no better method for skill development than a specially-trained teacher who has the knowledge and therefore the flexibility to create a comprehensive program that is truly individualized to a particular student's learning needs. This non-scripted, individualized plan, or diagnostic-prescriptive teaching model, will evolve as the student makes gains. Remedial instruction is direct intervention at the micro and macro levels of skill deficits. True remedial instruction is:

  • Different than academic support, in that it addresses more than the "temporary fix" of helping students keep up with the pace and academic demands of a mainstream classroom. Remedial instruction explicitly, directly, and individually addresses skill deficits and empowers the learning disabled person with the skills necessary to function at a level consummate with his/her potential. Remedial instruction will be evidenced by a separate and distinct curriculum delivered by highly trained specialists.

  • Multisensory: New concepts as well as review lessons are presented in a way that engages all the senses (i.e. visual, auditory, and kinesthetic). Engaging all the senses, or learning by doing, is the research-proven most effective way for students with learning challenges to organize, synthesize, retain, store and recall information.

  • Sequential: Instruction that is sequential is presented in a dependant order moving from a specific, smaller concept to larger idea. The goal is for students to internalize the process by which larger assignments or concepts can be broken down into smaller, more manageable parts. A micro example of this is that all words are broken down into specific sound segments (phonemes). Students with phonologically-based reading deficits need to first learn to decode phonemes, and when they reach mastery at the phoneme level, they can then effectively decode words. When they become proficient at both the phoneme and word levels, they become more fluent readers. One skill leads to the development of another if there is a well thought out and effectively delivered educational plan.

  • Integrated: Truly integrated remedial language instruction is delivered by teachers who are specifically trained as remedial language specialists. This specialized training applies not only to remedial language tutors, but to content (i.e. science, social studies, etc.) teachers as well. When all teachers are highly trained specialists, then all teachers can consistently reinforce remedial skill development in the context of content classes. Therefore, teachers will be empowered to deliver a comprehensive curriculum that is rich in content, while simultaneously integrating the remedial skills and concepts introduced in the tutorial setting. For example, the science teacher can incorporate the study of morphology into science lessons or can apply syllable division rules and phonetic analysis to help students decode a vocabulary word in science class. As students appreciate the connectedness of specific isolated skills to content areas, the remediation becomes increasingly meaningful and more easily internalized. As they begin to see how it all fits together, even frustrated students begin to understand the need to work on isolated skills.

  • Success-oriented: Arguably the primary responsibility teachers have is to show students that their efforts result in success; it is imperative that students see the positive results of their efforts. By establishing measurable and attainable goals that students can master, and by consciously helping them recognize when they are meeting goals, and by empowering them with effective strategies, they begin to believe in their ability to succeed. Students will gain confidence and discover, firsthand, that they are in control of their successes and that with effort and perseverance, they can overcome obstacles.

Understanding that all students have unique needs and that no one program can address all students’ learning challenges, below are a few specific examples of skill-based remedial instruction.

  • Remedial reading instruction: Effective remedial reading instruction needs to be structured, sequential, multisensory, and systematic. The instruction needs to be phonetically-based and delivered by a highly-trained remedial language specialist who, because of his or her depth and breadth of knowledge about the structure of language, can create and design a truly individualized program for the student. This tutorial should meet daily for at least 45 minutes. Ideally, the core components of this individualized remedial reading approach should be consistently reinforced across the curriculum. Ideally, each teacher, including content teachers (i.e. science, social studies, etc.), should be a remedial language specialist.

  • Speech and language services: Receptive and Expressive language deficits negatively impact a student's ability to process, synthesize and formulate language, which has far-reaching negative implications. Intervention provided by a Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP) is the most effective way to address expressive and receptive language deficits. A SLP can identify language deficits and provide a focused and pinpointed therapy to treat a specific need. Ideally, the SLP will coordinate with the student's teachers and support the language curriculum. Using this model, the SLP can integrate examples from class lessons into remedial speech tutorials. This integration is important because it provides a context in which students can see the application of newly-learned skills and concepts.



The Second Tier

The second tier in this 3-tier model is teaching a structure to organize, retain, comprehend and express information. Students with language-based learning challenges need a way to organize and structure information. It is not enough to just give these students information; teachers need to also explicitly teach them the process of and strategies for working with information. Using this model, students are taught a structure that will empower them to increase their achievement in a particular area. Once a student understands and internalizes this structure he/she will be more independent and better able to demonstrate skills that are consummate with his or her potential. For example, one research-proven structure is for students to use a graphic organizer to take notes or as a pre-writing step to organize an essay. Teaching methods to organize, retain, comprehend, and express information helps students understand how they learn and what tools they can use to maximize their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses. One fundamental difference between providing a structure and remedial instruction is that providing a structure is teaching a strategy that empowers students to more effectively use and demonstrate the skills they have; it is not, in and of itself, used to remediate skill deficits. Another way that teaching structure differs from remedial skill intervention is that a scripted structure requires students to bring more skills and insight to the table. For example, using a graphic organizer to help students organize and develop ideas for a writing assignment is a structure used for written expression. Formulating and organizing ideas using a graphic organizer does not address sentence structure or spelling, but it does provide a structured map for students to effectively organize and express their ideas. However, it does rely on the student to generate the ideas.

The Third Tier

The third and final tier of this 3-tier model is awareness, bypass strategies and self-advocacy. These three distinct interventions are grouped together because they are connected—one leads to another. Teachers must help students increase their awareness of their strengths and weaknesses through direct instruction and experience. Once a student develops a deeper understanding of his or her relative strengths and weaknesses, he or she can learn to use bypass strategies. Bypass strategies literally help a student bypass a specific challenge. For example, students with significant fine-motor deficits that negatively affect written output can utilize speech-to-print technology; students with reading deficits can listen to books on tape, students with fine motor deficits can utilize a peer note-taker or ask for notes from a teacher. If a student is thought to potentially benefit from such a bypass strategy or assistive technology, it is important for there to be an assessment to determine the need, the specific assistive technologies/bypass strategies that would be most appropriate, and the best implementation strategy. The result of such an assessment would be a comprehensive plan of implementation across the curriculum that would be specific to the individual child's needs.

Once a student reaches an awareness of when and how he or she can use a bypass strategy, this method can be quite effective and show tangible results in the short-term. Unlike remediation, which is a process of skill-building, these results are almost immediate and require less effort from the student. Assistive technologies provide opportunities to work with high-level information and concepts (a student on a third-grade reading level can have access to Shakespeare), as well as offer students a way to increase their productivity (speech to print technology for a student with fine motor challenges).

However, while bypass strategies are an empowering “quick-fix” that “make life easier” for the student, they are also, by far, the most dangerous model for schools as they can mistakenly take the place of remediation and therefore become enabling and limiting. Bypass strategies may help a student keep up by using his strengths, but bypass strategies do not remediate underlying skill deficits. They are not a substitute for skill-based remediation, and students who have the ability to learn skills can quickly become dependent on technology instead of their own insight and potential. It is clearly more powerful for a man or woman to rely on him or herself rather than a technology to function successfully and independently in the world. It is a truly balanced approach of this three-tier model that is most effective. As a general rule, the balance should swing heavily toward skill-based remediation for students in elementary and middle school, and more heavily toward bypass strategies in the high school and college years. When students are using bypass strategies, it is essential that they understand the bigger picture and larger goal of acquiring skills to reach a level of independence.

Finally, when a student is aware of his strengths and weaknesses and he or she knows when and how to utilize bypass strategies, that student can then ask the teacher for what he or she needs to be successful—this is what is referred to as self-advocacy. Self-advocacy is rooted in awareness, and must also be explicitly taught, practiced, and applied for students to reach a level of independent mastery.

It is a balanced, integrated approach of this three-tier model that is most effective. Furthermore, providing opportunities for students to develop (and in many instances discover) their strengths and talents should also be an integral part of any program.

Teaching students with learning disabilities is complex, as there is no one program that will address all students' needs. Effective teaching requires specific training and the knowledge to integrate elements of varying programs to build an educational intervention that is most appropriate for an individual student. As teachers, we should never lose sight of the end goal: to empower young men and women with the skills and strategies to function independently in the world and to be happy, productive members of society.

Stewart Miller is the Headmaster of The Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont.

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