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KU part of grant to improve literacy, inclusion of students with disabilities

Friday, September 04, 2015

LAWRENCE — Not long ago the prevailing attitude was that students with disabilities could not be taught to read. In the last 10 years compelling research has demonstrated that there are specific approaches to literacy development and reading that benefit students with the most extensive needs. That research has been completed in classrooms that segregate students with disabilities from their typical peers. A University of Kansas professor will now lead a grant project to take literacy education for special education learners to the next phase: teaching them to learn to read alongside their counterparts in typical classrooms.

Elizabeth Kozleski, chair of the KU Department of Special Education, and Pam Hunt, professor of special education at San Francisco State University, have been awarded a $2.75 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to help teachers in Kansas and California enact proven methods to teach reading to students with extensive support needs in general education classrooms alongside their typical peers.

The program, Implementing an Emergent Literacy Curriculum for Students with Intellectual Disabilities in General Education Classrooms, will partner with five school districts in Kansas and five in California’s Bay area. Forty students from each state will take part, and the researchers will work directly with teachers to use the curriculum, teach courses and analyze results.

“We’ll take an initial method that has been proven effective in teaching literacy for students with significant needs and work with five districts here in Kansas and five in California to implement those methods in their general education classrooms. The first year we’ll focus on preparing the teachers who will implement the programs in their own classrooms,” Kozleski said.

Kozleski and Hunt, who both have extensive career experience working with students with extensive support needs, will spend the program’s second year assisting teachers and schools as they put into place the new method of teaching literacy to classrooms of both special education and general education students simultaneously. In the third year, they will analyze results, measure the program’s effectiveness and publish results. The hope is to eventually take the method to schools nationwide.

Learning varies from student to student; some student need more explicit and mediated instruction than others, Kozleski said. Research from KU’s nationally top-ranked special education department has led over the years to teaching methods for individuals with disabilities that address independent living, employment, complex academic skill sets and more.

As literacy education for a wide range of students with disabilities has become researched and understood, the time is right to explore the ways in which typical classroom contexts can enhance academic skill building for students with significant needs. However, simply enacting a new teaching method is not something that can be accomplished immediately; therefore, it is vital to provide the personalized, professional development support teachers need, Kozleski said.

“You have to give students a way to engage in the learning process, and, at the same time, have a single teacher who also has to handle all of the intricacies of managing a classroom,” Kozleski said. “Helping teachers learn to do that can be complicated, but we are fully committed to doing so and look forward to spending our first year finding the best ways to make it work.”

In addition to building knowledge about how schools can effectively teach literacy to students who require intensive supports, the research will also offer an example of effectively translating research into practice and supporting educators in the field.

“Teachers want to do the very best they can for their students, but the context in which they practice often requires standardization and uniformity,” Kozleski said. “We know now how to organize systems to accommodate the variance present in all learners and support educators in implementing new methods.”

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