When children are struggling to learn, it is not always easy to determine the cause of their difficulties. In some cases parents will question their own teaching capabilities, but that is not the most likely cause or problem. A proven successful choice for many children is loving one-on-one attention. In some cases, the problem may lie within the child — there may be undiagnosed learning problems, or lack of confidence, or even lack of motivation. There is, however, a third possibility. Frequently a child’s problems are due to a poor fit between the child and the textbooks from which he or she is working. For parents of special-needs children, textbook problems are critical, because such children are less able than other children to compensate for difficulties in the curriculum itself.
Whether or not children have diagnosed special needs or are simply special, it is important to provide optimal learning opportunities for them. A well-designed educational curriculum or textbook should help any student perform better. For a challenged student, however, even small problems in curriculum design can create very serious difficulties.
Parents should look for several important characteristics when choosing material for the special needs student. A textbook should have a well-written Scope and Sequence. It should also be written at the correct instructional reading level for the learner. It should employ a clean, uncluttered layout. It should be compatible with the child’s learning style when possible. Finally, it should include lots of “helps” for comprehension, practice, and application exercises. We will now explain each of these characteristics more closely to help you understand what to look for.
Scope and Sequence
The Scope and Sequence, usually found in a Teacher’s Manual, is a section that includes both the range of skills (or topics) to be covered, and the sequence and timeline within which the content is to be covered (ideally within a single school year). The Scope and Sequence section enables the parent-educator to see the big picture — the range of material and the order of presentation.
Special needs children who require frequent review or relearning may not be able, however, to complete a full course of study within a year. Then it is necessary to pare down the range or quantity of material. Parents need to realistically assess how much of a given scope in a given curriculum can be covered in a year. The scope of the material as described in a Scope and Sequence is the place to start making choices about what to include and what to omit.
Parents should then look at the sequence (order) in which new skills are introduced. For most reading or math books, a typical Scope and Sequence shows that the book begins with a review of the easiest basic skills for that grade level, and steadily progresses to more advanced levels of difficulty. When a student has special-needs, the sequence in which skills are introduced can be a critical factor that will influence how well the child may learn. For example, one particularly troublesome area in beginning reading texts is the common practice of introducing vowels in “ABC” order, which requires that the two very similar sounds of /e/ and /i/ are taught one right after another. This has caused long-lasting difficulties for many students with poor auditory discrimination or dyslexia. The sequence in which other subjects are introduced can also have significant impact on learning outcomes.
Ideally, a well-chosen textbook will progress from easier foundational skills to the more complex skills and include more challenging problems requiring the student to apply what has been taught. Most textbooks in a given subject organize material in a fairly similar order — in a way that has been found successful in the past, or in a way based upon time-tested principles of the subject, or one that reflects individual state guidelines. In history texts, the organization follows a chronological order, while in science texts material is arranged with fundamental topics first, and more complex, multi-component topics later. Home educators are not bound to follow these sequences, but there should be sound educational reasons for making changes. When contemplating a change in sequence, remember that new material is presented with the assumption that the child has already covered earlier units. When certain units are omitted during sequence revisions, it could become confusing. Parents need to refer to the Scope and Sequence before changing the order in which units are taught to find out which units require content from earlier ones.
Appropriate Level of Difficulty
Parents who are inexperienced in evaluating textbooks need to keep in mind that the content of early chapters in math and reading books are always considered review. Therefore, early chapters may at first glance seem too easy for the grade level at which their child is working. Parents should evaluate the difficulty level of a book by choosing selections at several places throughout the book, from beginning to end. Parents should always check that the child has mastered the basic skills presented in early chapters, because the textbook manufacturer expects these early chapters will be covered quickly.
The reading level for most science and social studies books is closely aligned with the grade level for the subject content. For a special needs student, the reading level may differ significantly from the subject level, and thus a text’s reading level could be above the student’s reading level, even if the text’s subject level is suitable for the student. The child’s reading comprehension will be challenged when questions become more inferential and require higher order thinking skills and application exercises. This is a critical consideration for children with learning problems. If the child’s reading comprehension seems limited to mostly literal facts and rote recall, the more advanced level text material will be overwhelming.
Checking the appropriateness of the text’s reading level involves knowing the student’s instructional reading level. The instructional level is the level where the child can read the text aloud with at least 95% accuracy in word recognition and approximately 75% comprehension. When that is true, the child can read with some help, will not become too frustrated, and will understand much of the content. Few students with language processing deficits, learning disabilities, or severe dyslexia can read content at their subject grade level, even though they may possess strong oral comprehension skills.
For students with severe reading difficulties who are reading several years below their grade or age level, the parents should decide whether the text under consideration could be read aloud to the student and be understood. It must be written in a clear and straightforward manner so that the child can understand well enough to successfully interact with the parent in oral discussion and testing. Parents should also examine whether the text makes assumptions about pre-existing skills or vocabulary in presenting new material.
Helps for Comprehension
Special needs students have an ongoing struggle when asked to generalize and apply new information. They also have trouble connecting new learning material to what they have already learned. Successful fluent readers carry on a continuous subconscious dialogue between the text material and their present knowledge of a topic. This “dialogue” typically does not happen for special needs students, who need help in making connections between new material and old, and in generalizing and applying new information. Parents must determine whether the book makes explicit connections between what the reader is reading and what the reader is expected to know while reading.
There are also features of presentation in a text that can help special needs students. Does the text include features that make the organization explicit, such as clear headings, bold print, and colored or highlighted vocabulary words? Are key ideas presented at the start of reading sections? Does the teacher’s manual offer suggestions for alternative presentations or evaluations?
Many publishers have begun to respond to the needs of special needs students, following the emphasis in state and federal legislation, which requires schools to address the needs of children with “handicaps.” Suggestions may be included for teaching in alternative styles or multi-sensory formats. These teaching helps can be very helpful for the teaching parent. Parents should search Teacher Manuals for these helpful suggestions.
Practice and Application
A well-designed curriculum and/or textbook must have plenty of opportunities for, and application of, previously learned content before presenting new information. Special-needs learners frequently require significantly more practice than an “average” learner. Parents should check whether the textbook they are evaluating provides enough practice for their child’s needs. If it does not, parents should locate additional resources that match the difficulty level as well as the style, approach and content of that text — a task which can be a great challenge.
Matching Textbooks to Learning Style
Once the sequence, difficulty level and amount of extra practice in a text have been considered, the next concern is whether the material reflects the individual student’s learning style. It is good practice to seek a match between the student’s learning style and the style in the text. Keep in mind, however, that even though a textbook’s style of presentation and philosophy provides a good match with the student’s learning style, critical features of well-designed curriculum may be missing. Style considerations should never override good sequencing, difficulty level, and practice material. Some problems in style may be acceptable when insignificant elements are missing and if parents decide to compensate via alternative presentations or assessments better suited to the child’s learning style.
Page layout and appearance are important elements that are frequently overlooked in evaluating whether a text is appropriate for special needs students. Parents should consider whether pages are cluttered with excess pictures, distracting elements, or too much stimulating material that will distract the child. Textbooks should have a neat and open layout that focuses the student’s attention on the content and new material. The font should be consistently applied without too many “cute” styles or overly bright pictures or splashy colors. Young readers and visually handicapped children need type fonts that are clear and large. Students with fine-motor difficulties and visual handicaps need to work in workbooks with plenty of room for write-in answers. Students struggling with math may require additional simplicity in the texts they use. It is suggested that parents add horizontal or vertical lines, highlighted spaces, or other visual prompts to direct the learner’s attention to the correct computational steps.
Parents choosing learning material should show a book that is under consideration to the child, and they should ask the child to read short selections aloud from it. This will help the parent to learn whether the child can read it independently. If the child needs too much help, parents should consider choosing an alternative text.
If a text meets most of the criteria presented here, but there are some remaining concerns, what should you do? Talk to parents who used the text to see whether it worked for their children, while keeping in mind that one student’s requirements may be very different from another’s. Speak with special education teachers and ask for their help. Seek an educational consultant to test the child to determine the child’s instructional reading level, so appropriate reading choices can be made. A consultant may counsel by phone or even go to a store with you. Visit a store where home schooling materials are sold and ask personnel to share what they know about how different books have worked for various special needs students. They are a rich source of information and insight. Finally, ask God’s confirmation and leading to direct your decision.