Engaging Students with Learning Disabilities in Instructional Discourse: A Commentary on the REACH Papers

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  • Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 17(3), 201203Copyright C 2002, The Division for Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children

    Engaging Students with Learning Disabilities in Instructional Discourse:A Commentary on the REACH Papers

    C. Addison StoneUniversity of Michigan

    The four articles on instructional discourse contributed by the members of the REACH projectoffer rich examples of the learning opportunities for students with learning disabilities (LD)in upper-elementary and middle-school content classrooms. In this commentary, I highlightpossible reasons for variations in instructional engagement within and across the studies, discussthe challenges to engaging students with LD in discipline-based instruction, and stress the valuefor the LD field of greater attention to instructional discourse.

    When John Woodward approached me about the possibilityof a special issue of Learning Disabilities Research & Prac-tice devoted to instructional discourse, I jumped at the chance.As I suspected would be the case, the articles John solicitedfrom the four research teams comprising the REACH projectmake a significant contribution to our thinking about the is-sues involved in effective teaching for students with learningdisabilities (LD). These articles add to current discussions(e.g., Speece & Keogh, 1996) in at least three ways. First, theyexamine critically the successes and challenges for studentswith LD in content-rich, discipline-specific learning activi-ties. Second, they examine closely not just the content but alsothe knowledge-building and knowledge-evaluation processeswithin each discipline. Third, they consider the engagementof low achievers and students with LD in these processes,not just in terms of on-task behavior, but also in terms ofsubstantive and procedural contributions to group-learningactivities, particularly what Tharp and Gallimore (1988) havecalled instructional conversations. As such, these articleshighlight the social nature of learning in classroom settings.Finally, these articles exemplify best practices for preparingteachers to succeed with children with LD in mainstreamcontent classes. In the following paragraphs, I would like tocomment on each of these themes briefly, and to highlightfuture issues for the field that are sparked by these articles.


    As a group, the REACH authors place primary emphasis onthe potential for meaningful learning afforded students withLD in upper-elementary or middle-school inclusion class-rooms. They look at what is possible for at-risk and specialeducation students under conditions of thoughtful curricu-lum structure and careful instructional planning. Moroccoand Hindin (this issue), for example, highlight the active,directive role played by at-risk students and by students

    Requests for reprints should be sent to Addison Stone, School of Educa-tion, University of Michigan, 610 East University Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI48109. Email: addisons@umich.edu.

    identified as LD during discussions of character motives inmiddle-school language arts classrooms. Cutter, Palincsar,and Magnusson (this issue) highlight the substantive contri-butions to group discussions of physical phenomena providedby upper-elementary students identified as LD. MacArthur,Ferretti, and Okolo (this issue) point to the equivalent con-tent learning and engagement in class debates on the part ofstudents with LD and their mainstream peers.

    Although the major focus of these articles is on what ispossible, the authors do not shy away from discussing thechallenges they observed for students with LD. Cutter et al.(this issue) note, for example, that although experienced,highly motivated, and successful, the science instructorsin their project needed intensive professional developmentbetween years 1 and 2 of the project in order to recognizethe challenges confronted by students with LD in their class-rooms, and to identify effective strategies for supportingthe engagement and learning of these students. Similarly,Morocco et al. (this issue) state that the success of the targetteacher in their analysis was the result of many hours ofcollaborative thinking and planning. Baxter, Woodward,Wong, and Voorhies (this issue) also point to challenges.They contrast the discussion-enhancing contributionsof the typical students with those of students with LD,which, although appropriate to the on-going discussionof problem-solution strategies, often failed to move thediscussion forward. In addition, the findings of Baxter et al.,like those from the first year of Cutter et al.s project, speakto the need for greater attention to professional development.The challenges identified by these research teams wereencountered in classrooms containing project-supportedaides whose efforts were directed at supporting the needs ofthe target children. It appears, therefore, that avoiding suchchallenges involves even richer professional support.



    It is impossible to make direct comparisons across the fourREACH projects with respect to the successful participation


    of students with LD in the target instructional activities. How-ever, the data and interpretations presented in these four ar-ticles suggest that the success of students with LD may wellhave varied across the projects. Although such variation wasnot the direct focus of this special series, it is an important is-sue for the LD field to consider. In looking across the articles,it is possible to identify a number of variations in the instruc-tional contexts of potential importance to explanations ofdifferential engagement. In thinking about this issue, the the-oretical framework guiding these studies might suggest thatone look closely at the fact that the instruction takes place indifferent disciplinary domains. It may be no accident, for ex-ample, that students with LD appear to have been more easilyand successfully engaged in the discourses of history and lit-erature than in the discourses of math or science. It may notbe coincidental that the latter disciplines often presupposeready access to a body of foundational concepts and prac-tices. In addition, the type of discourse differs, with a greaterplace for opinion and persuasion in history and literature,and a greater emphasis on evidence-based reasoning in mathand science. It is important to note, however, that MacArthuret al. (this issue) emphasize the importance (as well as thedifficulty) of helping students move from everyday to histori-cal argumentation (which involves a component of evidence-based reasoning). Conversely, the approach to science andmath instruction developed by Cutter et al. (this issue) andBaxter et al. (this issue) included the encouragement of mul-tiple strategies for approaching problems. Thus, the disci-plinary contrast suggested here is one of degree, not kind.However, the contrast points to a potentially interesting issueof relevance to the engagement and learning of students withLD in higher-level instructional contexts.

    Other possible explanations for variations in student en-gagement across the four studies are less related to the spe-cific discipline involved but no less important in thinkingabout effective instruction for students with LD. Althoughall four projects involved a combination of small-group ac-tivities and whole-class reporting out and discussion, thetarget analyses in the individual articles focused variously ondifferent phases of instructional activities (e.g., small-groupinteractions versus whole-class discussion). Also, the stud-ies themselves varied in terms of the instructional supportprovided to the teachers, either in the form of professionaldevelopment or in the form of in-class instructional support.These variations in instructional grouping or teacher supportare of clear relevance to the successes of complex learningactivities. Finally, I cant help but wonder how the studentsthemselves varied in terms of the nature of their learningneeds. It is possible, for example, that a significant portion ofthe variation in the success of the target children both withinand across studies relates to language limitations evident inthe students profiles (see Stone (2002) for discussion of theimportance of this issue for instruction in discourse-rich en-vironments). This last issue is not addressed in the currentset of articles.

    Any or all of the above factors may be crucial in makingsense of variations in instructional engagement and learning.The four research teams have a rich database to explore intheir future work and I hope that they will be able to addressthese possibilities.


    Although all four of the research teams represented in theREACH project share a common sociocultural perspective(Morocco, 2001; Woodward & Morocco, this issue), the arti-cles in this issue differ in terms of approach to discourse anal-ysis. MacArthur et al. (this issue) focus on students adher-ence to the argumentation structure of their target discipline.Baxter et al. (this issue) focus on the impact of individualdiscourse contributions on the contributors peers. Moroccoand Hindin (this issue) emphasize the teachers critical role inscaffolding and revoicing student contributions. Cutter et al.(this issue) emphasize the contribution of intertextuality togroup dynamics. Rather than being a problem, this variationprovides a rich example of the potential of discourse analysisfor the study of teaching and learning. Discourse functionson numerous levels, and it is therefore crucial to explore itfrom complementary perspectives.

    One important dimension of variation in discourse analy-sis exists both within and across the art