The Two Critical Factors When Teaching and Designing Instructional Formats

Phyl T. Macomber, Curriculum Strategist & AT Specialist, Author of T.H.E. P.A.C.T.Make A Difference, Inc.

When teaching students new curriculum content – whether that instruction takes place in the regular education classroom or special education setting – teaching staff need to reduce cognitive demands for all learners. Teams often feel overwhelmed with providing differentiated instruction due to time constraints and reduced blocks for planning time.

Knowing that curriculum content changes quickly in each subject area, you need to embrace and implement tools and resources that not only assist you with time-efficient methods, but also yield the results that you need based on teaching the most important components of that curriculum. Simply put, you need to focus on doing a handful of things and doing them well (Macomber, 2010).

Whether teaching academic, life skills, or social language curriculum – it is critical to design and implement consistent instructional materials that are used to teach any curriculum content. These activity formats should be customized across scaffolded language levels and learning styles for both regular ed students and special education learners. This “one-size does-not fit-all” approach is most successful when implementing multisensory teaching strategies.

Specific to learners with varying disabilities, learning tools need to be designed based on their motoric, cognitive, perceptual, and psychosocial challenges. If these learning tools are designed in a consistent and predictable format, the student builds motor learning patterns for how to use the tools, which in turn assists them to better focus on the language content being taught in the subject area (Macomber, 2010).

A learner with a disability benefits from activity designs that are predictable for each step in the learning process. By predictable, I mean that the learner understands “how” the activity is completed regardless of “what” the content of the activity is. For example, when each time new curriculum content is announced by the teacher, the students know that their classroom teacher will (1) identify the key words to learn about and (2) the class will assist with creating a hallway bulletin board about those key words in an arts and crafts learning activity – the result is that the students anticipate the activity, know the routine of the activity, and focus on the new content area and new key words to learn about the subject area. The teacher creates a learning environment of predictability. 

When learners are presented with a consistent learning format for a specific and predictable learning task, the students are able to focus on learning the new curriculum content being taught and less on how to participate in the learning task. In addition, if the design format is templated for our teaching staff – especially when using technology supports – it is quick and simple to create and use. It gets you “off the bench and in the game” so to speak, to keep up with ever changing curriculum demands.

In addition to needing consistency and predictability, it is essential that teams teach curriculum content in the way a learner acquires, comprehends, processes, and expresses language. Curriculum content IS language. Building a solid knowledge of vocabulary on a curriculum topic is a key foundation to learning curriculum content, along with reading about that vocabulary in context to gain more knowledge on the subject matter. Building meaningful comprehension prior to placing expressive language demands on learners – with or without a disability – assures that our we are truly assessing what students are not only learning, but also retaining (Macomber, 2010).

I spend most of time in real classrooms, supporting real teachers and special education staff, and most of all – working with real students. And I can tell you that I have about 180 seconds to go to the bathroom each day! The tools I recommend for educational staff to embrace need to be “one stop shopping” and versatile across language tasks. They need to provide a range of opportunities for differentiated instruction in meaningful instructional environments. Most importantly, these learning tools need to be at a team’s fingertips to provide the consistency and predictability that is required for student success.

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