Helping LD Students Access Primary Source Texts

Teaching middle and high school students how to tackle primary historical texts and write position papers based on their research are essential parts of secondary social studies/history curriculum. Because of their complex nature, they are also two skills that can be difficult to teach, particularly to our students with learning disabilities.

In their article "Source Interpretation: Teaching Students With and Without LD to Read and Write Historically, " Susan De La Paz, Petra Morales and Philip M. Winston outline the methods that history teacher Morales and special ed teacher Winston worked together to develop well-scaffolded strategies to teaching how to read primary texts and write position papers using these texts as source materials.

Morales approached the task of reading historical texts in three steps: sourcing, comparing details, and taking notes on reliable information that would be relevant to their essay. These notes then became the students' historical essays.

Modifications that benefited both general education and LD students were included throughout the unit, with one of the most important elements being well-scaffolded reading and writing processes. For the reading processes, students were given specific questions to answer for the first two steps of the process. (For example, during the "sourcing" step, students needed to answer these three questions: What was the author's purpose? Do the supporting reasons and explanations make sense? Do you find evidence of bias?) For the note-taking step, students first used a note-taking form that helped them hone in on information that would be important to their writing assignment; after undergoing the process several times, they were able to complete this step without the note-taking form.)

For the writing process, Winston worked closely with LD students (as well as general education students who needed extra help) to create a well-scaffolded writing process. One way that he helped his struggling writers was by providing "master" student examples for them to analyze and mimic. Another way that he assisted some students was by giving them checklists to help them manage the steps of the writing, revising, and editing processes. He provided his students with handwriting difficulties with laptops that included "framed paragraphs," i.e., paragraphs that included the introductory phrases of sentences within them. Lastly, he provided students with organizational issues with "who, what, when, where, and how" sticky notes so that they could better organize their facts by writing them on the correctly correlative note.

The authors make a clear point that, although LD students employed these various strategies over the course of the unit, they were adept enough at the process by the time they took the post-test that they were able to successfully complete it without the use of scaffolds.

Why this matters to us

With most public school teachers in DC teaching as part of an inclusion model, it is imperative that effective scaffolding methods be explicitly taught in the general education classroom, and that special education teachers have the opportunity to collaborate on the development and instruction of these scaffolds. That this article addresses concrete ways to scaffold the processes of critically reading and writing about primary sources makes it even more germane. It is essential that reading and writing skills are being enforced in every aspect of our students' learning in order to ensure that they cultivate the critical thinking skills necessary to navigate texts and cultivate effective writing habits.

-contributed by J. Tabak

Source Text:
De La Paz, S., P. Morales & P.M. Winston. (2007). Source interpretation: Teaching students with and without LD to read and write historically. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40 (2), 134-144.