With the start of a new school year this month, principals and teachers are facing novel and increased challenges. Educators are well aware that the U.S. classroom is becoming more diverse and that this diversity compounds the added pressure teachers and administrators feel to meet Common Core standards and local community standards for educational performance.
The increased diversity in the U.S. classroom can be attributed to several factors:
- The recent census indicates that over 20% of our students speak a primary language other than English. In many areas of the country the numbers are much higher than that.
- The rates of students diagnosed with attentional problems (ADD and ADHD) have increased by 40% in the past decade. The extent to which that increase reflects a true change in prevalence is open to debate. But, for the classroom teacher the challenges these students pose complicate classroom organization and format of content presentation.
- Despite initiatives like Response to Intervention and the Common Core, reading proficiency remains a problem for many schools districts. Nationwide, 33% of fourth graders still do not read proficiently.
- Most school districts are opting for “push-in” as an alternative to “pull out” for students with special needs. This mainstream inclusion poses specific challenges to classroom teachers who are not specifically trained to work with special populations like children with language-learning disabilities.
- The number of students in homes below the poverty line is increasing and, with it, continued learning challenges that are not easily met by changes or adaptations in curriculum.
All of these factors are contributing to an educational environment where teachers and administrators feel increased pressure to meet state guidelines and community expectations yet they are at a loss for approaches that actually increase classroom achievement for these groups. However, there are some commonalities among these diverse groups that make them more amenable to some specific types of interventions than others.
English language learners, struggling readers, special education students, and students from homes below the poverty line share specific kinds of cognitive limitations that have been shown to affect school achievement. A major limitation shared by all of those diverse groups is the reduction in oral language skills. Research published by Hart and Risley in 1995 showed that children living in homes below the poverty line were exposed on average to 32 million fewer words by the time they entered school than children from homes where the parents were professionals. And research published by Hirsch in 1996 indicated that when students enter schools with low oral language the relative difference in oral language skills actually worsens as they course through elementary and middle school. Academic interventions that improve oral language skills are one key to closing the achievement gap.
Some other diverse groups, like those students diagnosed with ADHD or special needs, show problems with attention and working memory skills. As classroom teachers are aware, attention and memory problems are difficult to “teach around” and pose a challenge for classroom management as well. Teachers may feel they spend 95% of their time trying to accommodate the 5% of learners who struggle to attend or cannot easily retain information presented in class. Interventions that focus specifically on enhancing attention and memory skills have been proven to result in increased academic achievement.
It is logical that increased diversity in our nation’s classrooms necessitates a new look at educational interventions that are designed to target the underlying deficits rather than concentrating on curriculum alone. Children with poor oral language skills or reduced attentional or memory capacities are not likely to benefit from even the best instruction until those deficits are addressed. Fortunately, there are powerful, breakthrough interventions like the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant programs that focus on those specific capacities and they have proven results with this new diverse group of students we are charged with educating.
Communication Champion. (2011). Oral language and poverty. Gross, J. Retrieved from http://www.thecommunicationtrust.org.uk/commissioners/reports.aspx
Hart, B., & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Hirsch (1996) The Effects of Weaknesses in Oral Language on Reading Comprehension Growth cited in Torgesen, J. (2004). Current issues in assessment and intervention for younger and older students.Paper presented at the NASP Workshop.
Morris, R.D., Stuebing, K.K., Fletcher, J.M., Shaywitz, S.E., Lyon, G.R., Shankweiler, D.P., Katz, L., Francis, D.J., Shaywitz, B.A. (1998). Subtypes of reading disability: variability around a phonological core. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(3), 347-373.