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V.2 #2 Recommended Practices - Teaching Content to Middle School and Secondary Students with Learnin

When I speak to middle and high school teachers, they all express the same trepidation about the start of the school year: how am I going to meet the wide range of academic needs of all my students while teaching the curriculum? Teachers at these grade levels are challenged to meet the increasing academic and cultural diversity of today’s classroom in an atmosphere of high-stakes testing and rigorous achievement standards for all students, including those with learning disabilities (LD). In the United States, there are 2,780,218 students (ages 6-21) being served in the LD category. This is 45% of the total number of students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement ACT of 2004, and 5.2 percent of the U.S. resident population of students in that age group. An estimated 48% of students with LD spend nearly all their instructional time in general education and an additional 29% spend approximately half of their instructional time (U.S. Department of Education, 2005).

So how can teachers create supportive academic environments that engage learners and provide successful academic experiences for all students? Furthermore, how do teachers make accessible the content of their curriculum to all learners in heterogeneous classrooms? Two methods may be differentiated instruction and universal design for learning. Differentiated instruction is an instructional method for teaching content to students with diverse learning needs. Differentiation in instruction can occur in the following areas and in the following ways: (1) content—the selection of curriculum, how it is presented and accessed by students; (2) process—how students come to understand the curriculum through the use of tiered activities (e.g., teachers provide choices for assignments that vary in difficulty), pacing of lessons, and strategically designed lessons; (3) product—how the students will demonstrate knowledge, competency or understanding of a topic or skill; (4) affect—how the tone of the classroom community will be structured to ensure respect and examination of perspectives; and (5) learning environment—how the physical setting of the classroom will support learning, availability of materials and procedures for participating (van Garderen & Whittaker, 2006).

While differentiation is a method for planning accessibility of content, Universal design for learning (UDL) focuses on reducing and eliminating barriers to learning. UDL is a method to consider student diversity while you are preparing lessons, rather than accommodations after the fact. UDL principles suggest that teachers consider appropriate goals, use flexible and supportive digital materials, diverse methods, and flexible assessments.

To begin the process of purposeful planning of curriculum units driven by both the principles of UDL and methods of diversified instruction, teachers must consider the following questions.

  • What is the critical content all students must leave this unit understanding?

  • What are the academic strengths and weakness of the students in my class?

  • What types of course artifacts—print, electronic and multi-media, etc.—can be incorporated into my curriculum to increase access to the information the students’ need to comprehend?

  • How are course instruction and assessment activities designed to make the curriculum content accessible to all learners?

  • What strategies do students need to have in order to learn the content?

The challenge of making curriculum accessible to all learners can be daunting even for the most experienced teacher. The principles of UDL and differentiated instruction come together with research proven instructional strategies in a very practical and helpful resource on how to design and implement accessible curriculum entitled, Teaching Content to All: Evidence-Based Inclusive Practices in Middle and Secondary Schools by Keith Lenz and Don Deshler with Beth Kissam. The authors developed a practical method for planning instruction to meet the needs of academically diverse learners called SMARTER Planning. SMARTER is an acronym for the following:

  • Shape the Critical Questions: identifying the critical, essential topics or ideas in the course curriculum by formulating in 10 questions or less, what you would like your students to learn

  • Map the Critical Content: organizing the essential topics or ideas to elucidate relationships between them

  • Analyze for Learning Difficulties: identifying content that might be difficult for students to learn because of the academic diversity of your students

  • Reach Enhancement Decisions: creating an overall plan for addressing learning opportunities and learning challenges within the context of the class’s diversity including graphic organizers, note taking systems, strategy use, participation options, accommodations, instructional activities and materials

  • Teach Strategically: informing students of how instruction is delivered and explicitly teaching students strategies, methods, and content

  • Evaluate Mastery: planning a variety of evaluation products that assess whether or not students are learning what they are supposed to be learning, are engaged in their learning, and receive commensurate grades that reflect their knowledge

  • Revisit Outcomes: going back to revise your course, asking if the critical course questions were meaningful and accurate

SMARTER Planning helps teachers decide what to teach by identifying the necessary curricular content expected of all students in the course. These are the critical ideas for the curriculum. Each curricular unit is then broken down to identify the following: (a) what content particular to that unit of study all students must know and what skills they must demonstrate to support the critical ideas, (b) what most students must know and what skills they must demonstrate to support the critical ideas, and (c) what will some students know and what skills must they demonstrate to support the critical ideas. Mastery of critical core ideas for all students is necessary for “C” performance—reflecting the core ideas of the unit mandatory for continued progress through the curriculum. Mastery of the critical ideas and the additional supporting skills most students must know is necessary for “B” performance. Mastery of the critical content plus the additional content and additional concepts only some students are expected to know is required for “A” performance. Once teachers identify what they will teach, they must determine how to teach it.

Deciding what to teach and how to teach it is only a part of the process for teaching in an academically diverse classroom. Teachers must also teach students how to learn. Successful classrooms of diverse learners are led by teachers who effectively teach the content of their curriculum and teach their students to be effective and active learners. Through explicit instruction in strategy use, modeling appropriate strategies and monitoring strategy implementation by students, teachers help to create active learners that know how to learn content. A helpful resource in providing strategy instruction to middle school and secondary students is Esther Minskoff’s and David Allsopp’s Academic Success Strategies for Adolescents with Learning Disabilities and ADHD. The techniques in this book were developed at James Madison University through a federal research grant and many of them are available on the grant’s website, The Learning Toolbox []. The Learning Toolbox is a useful resource for identifying appropriate strategies, for teaching strategies, and for educating parents on the strategies their children are using. Strategies for math, reading, study skills, organization, test-taking and content areas are detailed.

Improving educational outcomes for academically and culturally diverse learners has been the focus of recent federal funding initiatives since the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997, and the Individual with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. Several research centers funded by federal research grants have developed websites and web-based trainings to assist teachers in the design and implementation of accessible content area curriculum. These are described in the webliography at the end of this column. Included in this list are the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, whose materials and research are incorporated by Lenz and Deshler, and the Center for Applied Special Technology, which is devoted to the implementation of UDL.

Teaching students with academically diverse needs is the charge of all general education teachers in today’s schools. The presence of diversity, both academically and culturally, in today’s classrooms creates increased variability in academic performance that should not only drive instructional accommodation, but should also take advantage of it. Differentiated instruction, UDL and purposeful course planning and strategy instruction are research proven methods for achieving this mission.


Lenz, B.K., Deshler, D.D., & Kissam, B.R. (2004). Teaching content to all: Evidence-based inclusive practices in middle and secondary schools. Pearson Education, Inc.

Minskoff, E. & Allsopp, D. (2003). Academic success strategies for adolescents with learning disabilities and ADHD. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

U.S. Department of Education. (2005). Twenty-seventh annual report to Congress on implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, DC: Author.

Van Garderen, D. & Whittaker, C. (2006) Planning differentiated, multicultural instruction for secondary inclusive classrooms. Teaching Exceptional Children, 38(3), pp. 12-20.

Related Readings

Friend, M. & Bursuck, W.D. (2009). Including students with special needs: A practical guide for classroom teachers (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

Hitchcock, C., Meyer, A., Rose, D., & Jackson, R. (2002) Access to the general curriculum: Universal design for learning. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35(2), pp. 8-17.

Mastropieri, M.A. & Scruggs, T.E. (2007). The inclusive classroom: Strategies for effective instruction (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice-Hall.

Prater, M.A. (2003). She will succeed! Strategies for success in inclusive classrooms. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35(5), pp. 58-64.


Center on Accelerating Student Learning (CASL) CASL is a research effort to create instructional programs that will accelerate learning for students with disabilities in the early grades and thereby provide a solid foundation for strong achievement in the intermediate grades and beyond. CASL is a five-year collaborative effort supported by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). Participating institutions are the University of Maryland, Teachers College of Columbia University, and Vanderbilt University. Visit the Outreach section of the CASL Web site for information on ordering materials to use in the classroom. []

Center for Applied Special Technology CAST develops innovative, technology-based educational resources and strategies based on the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). A wealth of free resources for educators are available, including: UDL lesson design tools, a digital text book builder, a strategy tutor, online tutorials, and related publications. []

Center for Electronic Studying CES is a research and development group at the University of Oregon College of Education investigating innovative applications of technology for middle school, secondary, and post-secondary students, their teachers and their schools. Their Web site offers information and resources about the projects currently under investigation. []

Institute for Academic Access The Institute for Academic Access is conducting research to create instructional methods and materials that will provide secondary students with disabilities authentic access to the high school general education curriculum. It is a five-year, three-site, federally funded collaborative project of the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning (KU-CRL) and the University of Oregon Institute for the Development of Educational Achievement (UO-IDEA). Each Web site provides information about instructional strategies. []

Learning Toolbox This website was developed at James Madison University with a U.S. Department of Education grant on Steppingstones in Technology Innovation for Students with Disabilities. It contains tools and resources to assist secondary and postsecondary students who have LD and ADHD. The Learning Toolbox provides strategies for test taking, studying, note taking, problem solving, and remembering information. The toolbox has three access areas – one for parents explaining the strategies students may be using and how to help support them at home; one for teachers outlining the steps for selecting and teaching the strategies; and, last, one for students that help them select and use an appropriate strategy. []

National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum (NCAC) In a collaborative agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Programs (OSEP), CAST has established a National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum to provide a vision of how new curricula, teaching practices, and policies can be woven together to create practical approaches for improved access to the general curriculum by students with disabilities. []

National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems The National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (NCCRESt) is a project funded by OSEP. This program provides technical assistance, tools, products, position papers and professional development resources to reduce referrals to special education and close the achievement gap between students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and their peers. []

University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning is an organization noted for creating instructional solutions that dramatically improve quality of life, learning, and performance for students with disabilities. Researchers at the center have developed the Strategic Instruction Model (SIM), a comprehensive group of strategies that include revised curriculum materials and teaching routines to address the needs of learners in their classrooms. The Center offers training and professional development programs. []

Annmarie Urso, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the Ella Cline Shear School of Education, Division of Special Education, at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Her current research interests include the role of processing speed in the cognitive profiles of poor readers and effective interventions for students identified as treatment resisters in reading. Dr. Urso also studies pre-service teachers as they prepare to teach culturally and linguistically diverse exceptional learners. She is interested in the role of cultural historical activity theory and cultural modeling design as frameworks for course design in pre-service teacher education programs.

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