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A Synthesis of Content Enhancement Strategies for Teaching Students With Reading Difficulties at the Middle and Secondary Level

August 30, 2008

By Sencibaugh, Joseph M

A review of the literature identifies content enhancement strategies used by general education and special education teachers, who collaborate and co-teach in science and social studies, for improving reading comprehension skills. This paper provides general and special education teachers at the middle school and secondary level with numerous content enhancement strategies for effectively teaching science and social studies to students with learning problems, who have difficulty with reading comprehension. Specifically, the content enhancement strategies reviewed in this paper assist students in organizing the information presented while becoming actively involved in the learning process, storing the new information in their memory, retrieving the necessary information when needed, and generalizing the components in other content areas. The majority of secondary students with exceptionalities are educated in general education classrooms, and few secondary teachers in general education have training in special education. Most general education teachers in Missouri only take one course in special education, which provides an overview of the various exceptionalities. Unfortunately, secondary teachers never learn how to implement effective teaching strategies for students with learning problems; they learn the importance of content knowledge in their specific area, yet they seldom learn the significance of pedagogical content knowledge. Special education teachers serve as consultants and provide direct and indirect services by modeling instructional methods, but secondary educators should be prepared to meet the needs of students with disabilities throughout the day (Schloss, Smith, & Schloss, 2001).

McKenzie (1991) differentiated between two methods for providing secondary special education services: a content approach and a skills approach. A special education teacher using the content approach provides instruction in the core subject areas to students, who will not benefit from inclusion. The skills approach enhances basic reading, writing, computation, and social skills so that secondary students with disabilities can be more successful in the secondary classroom. McKenzie (1991) reported that the content approach was used by 79% of the special education teachers surveyed and the skills approach by 19%. Special education teachers need to focus more on teaching the acquisition of skills. Most special education teachers, who teach content, do not possess a teaching certificate in the specific area, and students with disabilities would benefit from staying in the classroom and learning from a teacher who possesses expertise in the content area. Although secondary teachers are responsible for academic instruction, they may often lack the pedagogical knowledge associated with effective methods for augmenting the success of students with disabilities.

Since many students with disabilities are unable to learn the content material through common instructional methods, they would benefit from differentiated instructional methods or adaptations. Adaptations or techniques that help students identify, organize, understand, and remember information are called content enhancements (Schloss, Smith, & Schloss, 2001). According to Platt (1996) and Schloss, Smith, and Schloss (2001), a content enhancement is based on the premise that students learn more when (1) they are more actively involved, (2) abstract concepts are presented in concrete form, (3) information is organized, (4) relationships between pieces of information are made explicit, and (5) important information is differentiated between unimportant information. Specifically, in an interview with Dr. Janis Bulgren as reported by WaltherThomas & Brownell (2000), content enhancement devices are instructional techniques designed to achieve a single goal in promoting learning. Dr. Bulgren distinguishes between a device and a routine; she states that a device is may be an analogy, a study guide, table, diagram, visual or verbal organizer, or a story that promotes understanding (Walter-Thomas & Brownell, 2000). Dr. Bulgren expounds by identifying a routine, which is a set of integrated instructional procedures revolving around one of these specific teaching devices that is designed to promote broad learning goals associated with acquiring, storing, expressing, demonstrating, manipulating, or generalizing knowledge of content information (Walter-Thomas & Brownell, 2000).

Special education teachers possess expertise in the development and use of content enhancements and through collaborative efforts, they model and teach general education teachers how to implement the methods effectively in the classroom. All students benefit from content enhancements, not only the students with disabilities. General education teachers can recognize the relevance associated with the success of content enhancements for all students.

In this review, the best practices for teaching specific content enhancement strategies to students with learning problems are described and summarized. Analysis of the literature reveals high effects for many of the devices and routines, which have empirical support for improving student performance in the areas of science and social studies. Specific content enhancement strategies, which have emerged from a review of the literature, are presented in the following categories: (a) content enhancement devices (techniques) and (b) content enhancement routines.

Content Enhancement Devices (Techniques)

The purpose of content enhancement devices is to promote learning and comprehension. Content enhancements inform students of the purpose of instruction, increase motivation, and use effective instructional procedures (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2000). According to Haager and Klingner (2005) powerful teaching devices are instructional tools that the teacher uses to enhance learning. These devices are powerful in that they enable the teacher to (a) focus on a specific point, (b) make learning explicit, (c) prompt elaboration on specific points, and (d) make ideas and relationships concrete (Haager & Klingner, 2005). These devices include advanced organizers, graphic organizers, mnemonic devices, and peer-mediated strategies.

Advanced Organizers

Advanced organizers are often used at the beginning of a lesson. The material is presented in advance of what is expected to be learned by the students, and the presentation of the material allows a student to mentally organize the new material with existing knowledge. The material can include the tasks that will be performed, topics to be presented, background information, new vocabulary, or anticipated student outcomes (Schloss, Smith, & Schloss, 2001). Common features of advanced organizers include linking the lesson content to prior lessons or information, introducing the targeted content, explaining tasks to be performed by the teacher and student, providing a rationale for the lesson, and introducing materials and new vocabulary (Mercer and Mercer, 2001). At-risk students learn are more likely to succeed, when class content is structured around a set of advanced organizers. Figure 1 is a sample of an advanced organizer.

Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are visual displays used by teachers to organize information in a manner that makes the information easier to understand and learn (Fisher & Schumaker, 1995). Many secondary teachers in the areas of science and social studies rely heavily on textbooks for presenting information to the students, which causes difficulty for students with learning problems because they often have reading comprehension problems. The use of a graphic organizer helps to illustrate the relationship between two or more pieces of information contained in a content area lesson (Schloss, Smith, & Schloss, 2001). Essentially, graphic organizers are flexible instructional tools used to improve students’ comprehension of stories, organization of their own written stories, and understanding of difficult concepts. Figure 2 is a sample of a graphic organizer.

Mnemonic Devices

These enhancement devices are designed to assist students in remembering content information. Rather than focusing solely on rote memory to remember vocabulary words, mnemonics link target words to carefully chosen words or illustrations. Mnemonics provide students with better ways to encode information, thus making it easier for them to retrieve it (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1998). According to Mastropieri and Scruggs (2000) mnemonic devices are most effective when they are (a) used to reinforce objectives to remember specific content information, (b) directly taught and practiced, (c) combined with comprehension instruction, and (d) included with application activities.

Types of Mnemonic Devices

Mnemonic devices include reconstructive elaborations, letter strategies, and the keyword method. Reconstructive elaborations refers to procedures for reconstructing information into more meaningful and memorable forms (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2000). The reconstructions provide more concrete information in a meaningful manner compared to simple text and use pictures as aids for students to remember information because pictures last much longer (Bender, 2002). Figure 3 is a sample of a reconstructive elaboration. Letter strategies can involve the creation of an acronym or an acrostic. An acronym is a first letter mnemonic, which requires the student to learn the first letter of a word, e.g. TEENS, which represents the sensory organs, including tongue, ears, eyes, nose, and skin. Another acronym is HOMES, which represents the Great Lakes, including Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. Acrostics are phrases, which require the student to learn the first letter of each word in the phrase. For example, the acrostic “Please excuse my dear aunt Sally” represents the order of operations to solve an algebraic equation, including parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction.

Finally, the keyword method involves a word that sounds like the word or factual material to be mastered (Bender, 2004). According to Mastropieri and Scruggs (2000), the keyword method is used to strengthen the connection between a new word and its associated information. Keyword strategies have been successfully used to teach the following: (1) foreign language vocabulary, (2) scientific terms, (3) English vocabulary, (4) people and their accomplishments, (5) map locations of the Revolutionary War battles, and (6) states and capitals, see figure 4, (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2000).

Peer-Mediated Strategies (Peer Tutoring)

This content enhancement strategy involves classmates teaching one another. Peer tutoring is a category of inclusive practice in which one student (the tutor) acts as a teacher, providing instruction to a peer (tutee) (Fisher & Schumaker, 1995). Peer tutoring is an instructional method that is intended to assist in the development of both academic and social skills among children with learning problems (Bender, 2004). According to Maheady, Sacca, & Harper (1988), peer tutoring can be successful with secondary students, who have learning problems, in science and social studies if the teacher carefully plans effectively and teaches the students how to ask questions, judge the accuracy of a response, record, praise, provide corrective feedback, and display materials.

Types of Peer-Mediated Strategies

There are two specific models of peermedicated strategies used at the secondary level: class-wide peer tutoring and cooperative learning. Class-wide peer tutoring involves dividing the students into pairs. They alternate roles of tutor and tutee to master the content. Following the teacherled instruction in a structured format, the students tutor each other on the same material, reinforcing correct responses and correcting any errors. An example of classwide peer tutoring involves the Peabody Class-wide Peer Tutoring Model in reading, which is in Figure 5 (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1992).

In class-wide peer tutoring, the entire class is divided into two teams, and each pair of students accumulates points for its team by responding correctly during the tutoring session. At the end of the two week competition, a test is given over the skills studied, and additional points are given to each team for correct test responses. Each team’s points are totaled, and the winning team is announced (Pomerantz, Windell, & Smith, 1994).

Cooperative learning is another peer-mediated strategy. Cooperative learning involves placing students in small groups of 3 – 5 students. The students collaborate to complete academic assignments and achieve academic goals (Schloss, Smith, & Schloss, 2001). To use cooperative learning in the secondary classroom, teachers should follow these steps: (1) select a task, (2) assign students to heterogeneous groups, (3) pre-teach essential social skills, (4) monitor groups while they are working, and (5) allow students to evaluate their performance (Schloss, Smith, & Schloss, 2001). Figure 6 identifies students’ responsibilities when working in cooperative groups.

Study Guides

Study guides are flexible tools that teachers use to support student understanding of textbook passages, which are often organized poorly and difficult to comprehend for secondary students (Lovitt & Horton, 1988). The study guide highlights the most important information presented in the textbook. They can be used as a review prior to the presentation of new information, during a lesson to maintain student engagement, or after a lesson as notes (Boyle & Yeager, 1997). Study guides have been designed with varying formats and can be used at any time during the presentation of a lesson. For example, a study guide may take the form of a teacher- prepared outline, given prior to reading a chapter, listing the important main ideas from the chapter, or it may consist of a list of questions, given following instruction, highlighting the important main concepts and vocabulary terms in a unit of study (Fisher & Schumaker, 1995). A sample study guide is presented in figure 7.

Content Enhancement Routines

Curricular demands of secondary school may compound existing learning problems (Deshler, Schumaker, Lenz, & Ellis, 1984). The curriculum at the secondary level focuses primarily on content teaching and learning. Content area demands center around learning domain-specific and general concepts (Bulgren & Scanlon, 1998). Understanding of concepts is the foundation of acquisition and application of much knowledge in content areas (Meyer, 1991). According to Fisher and Schumaker (1995), content enhancement routines are inclusive teaching practices that combine an interactive instructional sequence with a teaching device, and they are designed to involve students during the learning process and to prompt teachers’ explicit use of the teaching device.

The primary responsibility of teachers at the secondary level is to present the content. The students are concerned with implementing the required skills to learn the material, yet many students with learning problems have difficulty engaging the processes of learning. They often fail to effectively use questioning techniques, analogic thought, or recognize the structure of expository relationships (Bulgren & Scanlon, 1998; Pressley & McCormick, 1995). Effective teachers at the secondary level use explicit teaching routines to enhance student learning. This is accomplished by explaining to the students the purpose of the teaching device and routine along with using the same teaching routine as an ongoing part of the instruction. Content enhancement routines include comparison routines and concept mastery routines.

Comparison Routine

The comparison routine requires the students to complete a table, which analyzes the similarities and differences between two or more concepts. Dickson, Simmons, & Kameenui, (1995) identified the following steps for helping students to compare and contrast concepts in secondary textbooks:

1. Identify two topics being compared and contrasted.

2. Look for key compare/contrast words such as “alike,”"different,” or “but.”

3. Determine organization of the compare/contrast structure. This can be:

a. Whole/whole, where the author describes each topic separately, with a different paragraph or set of paragraphs for each.

b. Part/part, where the author presents a feature-by-feature comparison of two topics.

c. Mixed, where the author might first discuss each topic separately, and then in another paragraph provide a feature-by- feature analysis.

4. Locate the explanation of how the topics are the same.

5. Locate the explanation of how the topics are different.

Semantic feature analysis is an activity intended to help students learn the vocabulary and major concepts from a science or social studies chapter (Bos & Anders, 1987; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2000). The following description identifies the process for implementing semantic feature analysis:

To use semantic feature analysis, first, analyze the content within a chapter and develop a relationship chart as seen in Figure 8. The chart contains all the vocabulary in a hierarchy of main ideas to lesser ideas. The main ideas are placed along separate columns on the top of the chart, and the related vocabulary are listed in separate rows along the left side of the chart. Several blank spaces can remain to add new ideas that result from class discussions. During instruction, present the information on the chart and have students participate in the discussion of the vocabulary and related concepts. After discussion, students complete the relationship chart by marking whether or not the words in the rows and columns are positively or negatively related or unrelated (Bos & Anders, 1987; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2000).

Concept Mastery Routine

The concept mastery routine is a content enhancement designed around a concept diagram, and it includes the following components: (1) concept name, (2) class or category of concept, (3) important information associated with the concept, (4) instances and noninstrances of the concept, (5) blank space for additions to the diagram, and (6) concept definition (Bulgren, Deshler & Schumaker, 1993). Figure 9 contains a sample concept diagram.

In an interview with Walther-Thomas and Brownell (2000), Dr. Janis Bulgren states that a concept mastery routine ensures that the students have adequate knowledge of a concept to benefit from instruction. The following is a description of a concept diagram by Dr. Janis Bulgren:

In a concept diagram, teachers work with students to develop characteristics always, sometimes, and never present in the various examples of the concept, and then to apply their knowledge to examples and non-examples of the concept. These characteristics are then used to form a definition of the concept. This process helps fill in the missing information for students. Teachers use this type of routine to teach concepts that are absolutely essential to the course content. (Walther-Thomas & Brownell, 2000).

Conclusion

Much of the research validates the use of content enhancements at the secondary level. Students with learning problems show improved achievement; and in most studies examined by Fisher and Schumaker (1995), the application of a content enhancement device or routine significantly improved the performance of students without disabilities as well. The effectiveness of content enhancements on student achievement is contingent upon the combination of effective practices and cognitive strategies. In a synthesis of research studies on the effectiveness of content enhancements on the comprehension of expository text for students with learning disabilities, Gajria et al. (2007) revealed the following implications for practice: 1) The most obvious implication is that educational researchers and practitioners must emphasize instructional methods that are based on evidencebased practices.

2) Another implication is the importance of specially designed and adapted instructional materials during initial learning on expository text comprehension.

Students with learning problems require assistance with organizing the material to be learned, activating prior knowledge, storing information for retrieval, demonstrating a thorough understanding of the material, and generalizing the content knowledge. Special education teachers often serve as consultant teachers to general education teachers and are available to assist in the development and implementation of content enhancement strategies to assist students in learning new material. General education teachers, who combine content enhancements and cognitive strategies with best teaching practices, enable students with learning problems to become independent in their acquisition of content knowledge while achieving academic success in the classroom.

Figure 1

Advanced Organizer for a Social Studies Lesson on Global Studies

Figure 2

Graphic Organizer for Life Science

Figure 3

Sample Reconstructive Elaboration on Dwight D. Eisenhower

Figure 4

Keyword Method for Teaching States and Capital Cities

Figure 5

Peabody Class-Wide Peer Tutoring Model

Figure 6

Student Cooperative Learning Roles in the Full Option Science System

Figure 7

Study Guide on Astronomy Using a Framed Outline

Figure 8

Semantic Feature Relationship Chart

Figure 9

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JOSEPH M. SENCIBAUGH, PH.D.

Harris-Stowe State University

Copyright Project Innovation, Inc. Summer 2008

(c) 2008 Reading Improvement. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.




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