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Bridging the Gap for Students With Special Needs

by Tara Hamlett
 | Dec 13, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-465389370_x300Here in Hartselle City Schools in Alabama, it is our responsibility to prepare every student, regardless of ability. After all, college and career readiness is about more than which school or profession a student might choose after high school—it is about community readiness, too. Literacy is a key part of that.

When the state of Alabama enacted tougher standards for all students, we knew we had to change as well. The challenge was that, despite our best efforts, many of our students with special needs continued to perform about two or three grade levels behind their peers in general education.

So our district formed a reading task force for students with special needs. I served on the task force along with special education teachers from each of our six schools, and we began looking for a new intervention. Since then, we have made tremendous progress narrowing the achievement gap.

Building foundational skills

At the time we launched our task force, we were using a reading intervention program that provided instruction in word study, fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, writing, listening, and speaking. Although we could see some improvements, we were missing something. After evaluating several programs, we decided to try the neuroscience-based Fast ForWord. My school, F.E. Burleson Elementary, was the first to sign up to pilot the program in our district.

We began using the online reading intervention program with our students with special needs during the 2014–2015 school year. Unlike traditional interventions, the program starts with cognitive skills including memory, attention, and processing speed. It works from the bottom up to address underlying difficulties that keep struggling readers from making progress. It also targets phonics and phonological awareness, grammar and vocabulary, listening comprehension, and following directions.

This approach resonated with me. As a psychometrist, I test a lot of children who have poor working memory skills, which directly affects their ability to learn to read. The Fast ForWord program helps build foundational skills children need to become successful readers.

When we began, we placed students on the program 30 minutes a day, three to five days a week. In one semester, we saw a 25% increase in students’ reading abilities. At the end of the year, we saw improvement in students’ ACT Aspire scores as well.

Taking a structured, intensive, multisensory approach

Two or three days a week, we also break into small groups—with a maximum of three students per group—and provide intensive intervention using the Orton–Gillingham approach to reading instruction. Students begin by reading and writing individual letters and connecting them to sounds. Then they blend these letters and sounds into syllables and words, building on these skills over time.

This is multisensory. For example, students use drill cards, letter tiles, sensory boards, hand and body motions, and songs to build their skills. Tapping into visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning modalities helps students reinforce and remember what they are learning.

In addition, we use the Barton Reading and Spelling System, which uses color-coded letter tiles to help students connect sounds with letters. Like the Orton–Gillingham approach, it is a structured, sequential program using all the senses to help children make connections between sounds and words. 

Achieving measurable gains

In 2015, while many schools struggled with Alabama’s new standards, our school had gains on every benchmark and made the most improvement among schools in the Decatur area. On the ACT Aspire, which includes students with special needs (unlike Alabama’s previous standardized test), our third graders had a 22-point improvement in the percentage of proficient readers and fourth graders showed a 26-point gain.

As a result, the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools (CLAS) selected F.E. Burleson Elementary to be one of 14 CLAS Banner Schools for 2015. The program recognizes schools providing outstanding services for students to serve as models for other schools.

In 2016, our students continued to achieve gains, once again improving their performance on the ACT Aspire.

Seeing the effort our students put into our programs and how much they are improving is gratifying. Our teachers are pleased, too, because students are now ready for their instruction. We are very excited about our results, and our teachers and students are looking forward to what this year holds.

tara hamlett headshotTara Hamlett is a special education teacher and psychometrist at F.E. Burleson Elementary, a Title I school in Hartselle City Schools in Alabama.  

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