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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Special Education Opinion

Five Teacher-Recommended Strategies to Support Students With Learning Differences

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 22, 2021 11 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the single most effective instructional strategy you have used with students with learning challenges?

This post is part of a longer series of questions and answers inviting educators from various disciplines to share their “single most effective instructional strategy.”

Four weeks ago, educators shared their recommendations when it came to teaching writing.

Three weeks ago, it was about teaching English-language learners.

Math was the focus two weeks ago.

Last week’s posts were on science.

There are more to come!

Today, Toby Karten, Julia Di Capua, Aubrey Yeh, and Lou Denti offer their responses.

‘Do It, Speak It, Link It, & Own It!’

Toby Karten is an award-winning special educator, international presenter, and author who is passionate in sharing her knowledge with others to build on the strength of students with special needs in inclusive classrooms, thinking about what to do and what to do better! She has taught students ranging from preschool to graduate level across the least restrictive continuum. Her interactive live and online presentations, digital resources, and more than 30 publications offer practical and creative inclusive applications:

Students with IEPs and 504 plans, struggling students, and students who just need to learn differently appreciate active engagements. Let the learning hop, jump, and skip beyond the textbook into inclusive places in each student’s heart and world.

Whether students pay attention to lessons might depend on numerous factors that include their mood, internal or external distracters, or stimuli or situations beyond their prior knowledge and experiences. Although video clips, curriculum songs, interactive whiteboards, and colorful charts or visuals will captivate many students, novel material is usually more difficult for them to learn. Learners often need to see and experience an example or model before they can reproduce an action on their own. Abstract concepts and skills need to be translated into active instructional engagements.

The most effective strategy to accomplish this is to allow students to “do it, speak it, link it, and own it (D-S-L-O)!” Whether they cut up an apple to model fractions or learn about the civil rights movement by reenacting the Rev. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, or stand closer together to represent solids and farther apart to show themselves as liquids and gases, all learning is better processed, remembered, and internalized by the things we do!

These D-S-L-O literacy practices offer ways for students to “do it, speak it, link it, and own it!”

1.Do It! Concrete demonstration with teacher direction and self-discovery (sans worksheets).

As examples, students:

a. Toss or dribble a ball to collaboratively create an oral story.
b. Play sight word hopscotch.
c. Create paragraphs with group discussion.
d. Morph different parts of speech with magnetic letters; e.g., sun to sunny or teacher to teach or teachable.
e. Demonstrate vocabulary through pantomime and charades.
f. Find words in classroom and text “scavenger hunts.”
g. Play word-family toss; e.g., time, rhyme, lime, sublime.

2. Speak It!

Specific language occurs with literacy talks, word walls, songs, stories, informal chats, cooperative forums, curriculum-related songs, and student conferencing to link actions and concepts to precise academic vocabulary to create ongoing literacy discourse. Vocabulary is attached to text, e.g., setting, characters, sequencing, plot, resolution, figurative language. Students can also engage tools such as Read Aloud on Immersive Reader and online sites, such as Newsela, ReadWorks, and Common Lit to hear how to pronounce the words correctly before they say them. Im-mer-sive Read-er al-so has a tool that with a click of a but-ton, breaks up words in-to their syl-la-bles.

3. Link It!

Concepts and representations are connected to paper and/or digital forums to increase fluency, vocabulary, written expression, and comprehension. Tools such as the picture dictionary in Read and Write for Google Chrome has visuals for vocabulary and creates a dictionary that students can reference for practice and reinforcement and to visually link the words to objects.

4. Own It!

Students become the “reading/writing proprietors” who demonstrate knowledge, reflect, and ultimately internalize. Teachers monitor progress with formal, informal assessment:

a. Fluency drills
b. Quizzes
c. Cooperative-learning stations
d. Game-based activity

Students with learning challenges can learn, but they learn differently, so let’s offer them these types of diverse engagements to experience the skills and concepts and to ultimately show what they know in inclusive classrooms and beyond!


‘Wait Time’

Julia Di Capua is a New York state certified English/language arts teacher and a proud member of The Windward School community. Her experience ranges from supporting individual students as a private tutor to teaching students with language-based disabilities in a classroom setting:

The single most effective inclusive instructional strategy I have utilized with students facing learning challenges involves taking a breath and counting to three, five, or perhaps even 10 after posing a question to students. This simple strategy is aptly referred to as “wait time”: the amount of time a teacher waits before calling on a student to respond. Put simply, there is a direct relationship between an increase in wait time and student participation for all learners.

Teachers almost always feel pressed for time. A popular line expressed in the hallways or in the teachers’ lounge is, “There is never enough time in the period,” and this often is the case. However, lost in that line of thought is the fact that teachers have an enormous amount of control over their allotted time. As teachers, we control and manipulate every second of classroom time. As such, we are always making decisions about whether we dedicate it to questioning, listening to student responses, reading, writing, and, we hope, some healthy laughs. Providing students with sufficient wait time is merely giving them the time they need to engage, and it is an easy reallocation of a few of the precious seconds teachers have in each period.

Many students facing learning difficulties, particularly language-based challenges, require additional time to process information and formulate both written and oral responses. As teachers, we want our students to engage meaningfully with content, and, above all, to participate. Without student participation, teachers cannot gauge comprehension, modify, or correct responses, and, perhaps most importantly, provide students with positive reinforcement. Yet, so many teachers have fallen into the trap of calling on the first eager learner who raises his or her hand. While the moments following a teacher question might feel closer to an hour, it is often not enough time for many students to even begin processing the information at hand. The result is discrete but profoundly tragic.

In fact, not utilizing appropriate wait time is virtually the equivalent of placing noise-canceling headphones on students’ ears and then expecting them to answer a question or offer a thoughtful comment. If students cannot process, they cannot comprehend, and how could one participate without having first grasped the question? The terrible irony is that in daily life, we would almost never encourage students to rush, and we certainly praise those who took time and care to complete tasks. Therefore, this simple instructional strategy is key.

While there are countless educational strategies circulating and trending in teacher education programs and schools, we must return to the basics. Rather than focusing on not having enough time, we must utilize our time wisely and lean into the simple concept of wait time. Above all, using this inclusive instructional strategy means maintaining dignity and respect for all learners. It involves leveraging quality over quantity of teacher questions and student responses and creating a space in which all students are given the opportunity to engage.



Aubrey Yeh is a coordinator of language arts & humanities, overseeing art, music, theater, dance, PE, health, world languages, social studies, and language arts for K-12 students in the Boulder Valley school district in Boulder, Colo. Her background includes music education, educational technology, and educational leadership, with a special interest in serving refugee students (learn more at refugeeready.msayeh.com). You can connect with her on Twitter (@ms_a_yeh) or on her website (www.msayeh.com):

This sounds like a cliche, but my best instructional strategy is to get to know them personally. Relationships go such a long way with all students, and especially those who face learning challenges! The more you get to know them, the more you will figure out how they learn, which leads to better instruction.

In terms of a more practical strategy, I have found colors to be a lifesaver in the classroom! You can color-code all sorts of things to help highlight important information, organize notes, and demonstrate understanding without having to write as much (if that is a challenge for the student in question). Additionally, it is not that hard to implement—you do not have to create new materials, you simply take a copy of whatever you are using and add a few colors (or ask the student to add a few colors) to highlight whatever is needed.

It works even better when teachers are consistent with the color-coding across classes! I have a student I started working with in 5th grade who is going into high school, and her teachers have continued to use the same color-coding system we started back then because it works and it’s one less thing she has to learn with each new class and school year. Start small, with colored pencils or highlighters, and utilize the power of colors and visual processing to help students.



Lou Denti is an emeritus professor at California State University, Monterey Bay, and the former Lawton Love Distinguished Professor in Special Education:

Co-teaching, in my estimation, is the single most effective instructional strategy for students with learning challenges. Co-teaching is a service-delivery model wherein students with learning challenges receive instruction in a general education classroom under the direction of both a special- and general-education-credentialed teacher (Friend, M. 2018). Co-teaching requires planning to avoid the ad hominem assumption that placing two teachers together will automatically be better for all students. Too often, administrators attempting to comply with federal and state mandates place students with learning challenges in a general education classroom, assign a special educator, and then tell them to team teach. This is what we term “just do it inclusion,” no preparation, planning, or discussing the viability of co-teaching with faculty as a valuable strategy to support students with mild to moderate disabilities.

Co-teaching, on the other hand, brings two willing teachers together capitalizing on their different training and skill sets to meet the divergent needs of all students in a general education classroom. Both teachers use the basic co-teaching models (one teach, one support, station teaching, parallel teaching, alternative teaching, and team teaching) as underpinnings for lesson planning, design, and instruction.

It must be noted, that without proper time for planning, co-teaching will be moored on the shoals of good intention. However, with planning, support, resources, and administrative support, co-teaching increases the likelihood that students with learning challenges will benefit from the core curriculum. When educators create an opportunity structure where all students participate in meaningful ways in the general education curriculum, co-teaching then becomes a powerful instructional approach.

Friend, M. (2018). Co-Teach! Building and Sustaining Effective Classroom Partnerships in Inclusive Schools (3rd ed.). Naples, FL: National Professional Resources Inc.


Thanks Toby, Julia, Aubrey, and Lou for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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