Moving Students With Disabilities Forward to Graduation

Mary Murray Stowe, M.Ed.

May/June 2011 Link Lines


A nation-wide effort is underway to improve the graduation rate of students with disabilities.  Four areas of focus have been found to help move students with disabilities forward to graduation:  Standards-based Individualized Education Programs, comprehension strategies embedded within the Virginia English Standards of Learning, metacognitive competencies, and effective instruction in comprehension and metacognitive strategies.

Standards-based Individualized Education Programs

Use of Standards-based Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) is considered best practice in Virginia.  Standards-based IEPs focus the work of teachers to help more students with disabilities to graduate on time with advanced or standard diplomas. As goals within the Standards-based IEPs are based upon grade-level standards, both general and special educators must be more knowledgeable of:

  1. A continuum of grade-level standards,
  2.  The instructional strategies that will successfully assist struggling students toward mastery of their goals, and
  3.  Accommodations to address accessibility to grade-level content.

The more closely student goals address grade-level content and strategy mastery, the better positioned students with disabilities are to graduate with advanced and standard diplomas.  The following sections address what students with disabilities need to master grade-level content, as well as acquire comprehension strategies and monitor their own learning.

Comprehension Strategies Across Grade Levels

Instruction for students with disabilities within general education English classrooms must focus on the Virginia English Standards of Learning (SOL) higher-order thinking skills and metacognition (thinking about one’s thinking) to move them forward.  Instruction within classrooms must also build on the skills acquired in the prior grade and the background knowledge created within the previous school year. Successful acquisition and integration of higher-order thinking and comprehension strategies such as comparing and contrasting, inferring meaning, synthesizing, and analyzing are critical to moving students toward graduation, as well as economic and social well-being (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], 2010).   What higher-order thinking and comprehension strategies must students take with them from grade to grade? 

Examination of a vertical articulation of the Virginia English SOL indicates a continuum of such strategies.  The SOL comprehension strategies include comparing and contrasting (introduced at Grade 5 and carried through the standards to Grade 12), inferencing (introduced at Grade 4 and carried through the standards to Grade 10), and analyzing, critiquing, synthesizing, and interpreting (introduced at Grade 4 and carried through the standards to Grade 12).

Teaching these strategies, in combination with creating an understanding of metacognition, will lead students to successful generalization and application from grade to grade and from simple to more complex activities.


Students must know themselves as learners, know what various tasks demand, and have a working knowledge of applicable strategies (Ehren, 2008). When constructing meaning from text, students must have knowledge of the type of text being read, the strategies that are recommended for a given type of text, and which of the recommended strategies works best for them.  Metacognition relates to students’ ability to monitor their learning, which involves:

  1. Evaluating whether they are learning,
  2. Implementing strategies when needed,
  3. Knowing whether a strategy is successful, and
  4. Making changes when needed.  (Allsopp, Kyger, & Lovin, 2007).

Teachers’ understanding of metacognition is critical to their ability to effectively teach comprehension strategies to struggling students. Specifically, both general and special educators must have working knowledge of metacognition and strategy use to help struggling readers successfully comprehend text.  Strategy use requires the development of metacognition and assists in creating more in-depth learning for struggling readers (Ehren, 2008). The PISA Report (OECD, 2010) clearly notes that metacognitive competencies or abilities are critical to the growth of students’ knowledge and future academic success.

Instructional Strategies

Struggling students need to be explicitly taught comprehension strategies and the use of metacognitive competencies. Modeling, oneg step of explicit instruction, with the use of think-alouds is a fundamental and effective method for teaching these skills.  Modeling involves demonstrating the use of a strategy by thinking aloud and gradually involving students in the demonstration (Schumaker, 1989).

Students who struggle with reading often do not understand the thinking processes involved with reading and must be explicitly taught. Modeling through think-alouds allows students to create a picture of what they are to be doing while reading in order to anchor their learning.

Through a combination of direction provided by Standards-based IEPs and Virginia English SOL, explicit comprehension strategy instruction, and use of metacognitive competencies, students who struggle will progress toward on-time graduation with a standard or advanced diploma, a critical step toward lifelong success.


Think-Aloud Resources

Teaching sequence for teachers’ use of think-alouds to guide students:
Reading Rockets article:
AdLit.Org article:
Teachervision article:

Students are encouraged to verbalize their own thoughts while reading to ensure comprehension of text:

Teacher Tube - Teacher modeling for her students how to use a think-aloud:

 Standards-based Individualized Education Program information:

Technical Assistance Document for Reading in Grades 2 through 8:


Allsopp, D. H., Kyger, M. M., & Lovin, L. H. (2007).  Teaching mathematics meaningfully: Solutions for reaching struggling learners.  Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Ehren, B. J. (2008). STRUCTURE your reading: A strateroutine for promoting strategic reading.  Winter Springs, FL:  Student Success Initiatives.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2010). PISA 2009 Results:

What Students know and can do – Student performance in reading, mathematics and science (Volume I).,3746,en_32252351_46584327_46567613_1_1_1_1,00.html

Schumaker, J. (1989). The heart of strategy instruction. Strategram: Strategies Instruction Model, 1(4), 1 -5.