Loading Add to favorites

By Carole Boudreau, Anne Rodrigue, Véronique Parent, Julie Myre-Bisaillon, and Annick Tremblay-Bouchard

Image of a clock and an old book

According to Okolo and Ferretti (2013), teaching history to high school students with learning disabilities (LDs) can be challenging.

Reflect on the many skills that are required to understand content:

  • a significant capacity for memorizing and recalling information,
  • the use of a specific and extensive vocabulary,
  • the use of concepts and underlying conceptual structures,
  • the ability to read multiple texts in order to learn and construct new knowledge,
  • the fact that a lecture format is often used to teach history and that, in lectures, information is delivered at a faster pace than in other teaching formats, and
  • the use of more complex and specific comprehension strategies.

Okolo and Ferretti (2013) identified a number of practices to be implemented in the history classroom to support students with LDs. Their results showed that the most important factors to consider in the acquisition of historical knowledge by students with learning disabilities were: mnemonic instruction, explicit instruction, graphic organizers, peer learning, clear conceptual frameworks, and conceptually-coherent texts.

Click here to access the article Mnemonics.

Click here to access the article Explicit Instruction: A Teaching Strategy in Reading Writing and Mathematics for Students with LDs.

Click here to access the article Graphic Organizers.

Click here to access the article Peer-Mediated Learning Approaches.

The following section presents four pedagogical situations - teaching concepts, project-based learning, questioning the author, and historical reasoning - that are specific to teaching history and that are capable of supporting increased knowledge and comprehension in students with LDs. These pedagogical situations have proven to be relevant because they use a step-by-step, structured approach that supports comprehension in students experiencing difficulties.

Approaches to Teaching History Concepts

According to Okolo and Ferretti (2013), it is possible to increase students’ comprehension of concepts by integrating:

  • The identification of clear learning objectives;
  • A systematic review of content;
  • Questions throughout the teaching process; and
  • A guide for note-taking.

It is also possible to increase the conceptual coherence of the teaching of history by organizing the information to be taught into general themes and by emphasizing the conceptual links between themes.

In conjunction with this reorganization of the content of texts to be read by the students, Okolo and Ferretti (2013) suggest that students learn more from a text if:

  • there is an emphasis on the meaning of key concepts,
  • causal relationships are clarified,
  • the teacher explicitly draws attention to the ways in which these concepts are interconnected, and
  • the teacher offers explanations to address any limitations resulting from the students’ lack of prior knowledge (Beck, McKeown, Sinatra & Loxterman, 1991; Graves et al., 1988; Voss & Silfies, 1996).

According to Carnine, Crawford, Harniss, and Hollenbeck (1996), texts can be restructured by:

  • Organizing information around themes that offer conceptual models and that transcend general subjects,
  • Using a cause-and-effect structure and graphic organizers to link concepts and to guide students’ writing, and
  • Inserting review questions and activities into the text to guide discussions led by the teacher, to focus on key concepts and principles, and to integrate information and ideas from section to section.

Project-Based Learning

Ferretti, MacArthur and Okolo, 2001, 2005, 2007; MacArthur, Ferretti and Okolo, 2002; Okolo, Ferretti and MacArthur, 2007

Ferretti et al. (2001, 2005, 2007; 2002; 2007) recommend presenting different themes within a narrative framework. For example, with the theme of American migration, they recommend using a narrative approach that will help students to understand how the culture and motivations of various groups affected their reasons for migration.

Click here to access the article Narrative Story Writing.

Ferretti et al. also state that it is important to teach students how to use evidence in support of historical interpretation. Students can be instructed to look for evidence in small groups in which strong readers are paired with readers with LDs. Students can work together in these heterogeneous groups to read, view, and interpret the evidence and to complete group projects. They can be taught a strategy for comparing the similarities and differences of groups of migrants that supports their comprehension of the subject. The information that they collect during their research can be debated in class when they present the results of their investigative process.

Again, using the example of American migration, students can be divided into groups representing the groups of migrants they are researching. They can read documents from a variety of sources and write essays that compare and contrast aspects of these groups. With all of the information they have collected, they can compare the lifestyles of different groups in order to develop an understanding of the sources and the consequences of the conflicts that arose during westward migration.

Students can be taught cognitive strategies to support their investigations. Units can be organized into “key concepts”; for example, the concept of “Lifestyles” will be used to learn about the economy, technology, daily life, religion, and political beliefs, whereas the concept of “Migration and Conflict” will be used to interpret and write about the reasons for migration and the conflicts that arose from interactions between groups with different lifestyles.

Questioning the Author

Beck and McKeown, 2006; Beck, McKeown, Worthy, Sandora and Kucan, 1996

The questions that are raised by the students as they read historical texts can result in more active information processing, self-management of comprehension, and better retention of information (Rosenshine, Meister, & Chapman, 1996).

By employing a strategy called “questioning the author”, students can learn to engage in an inner dialogue with the author of a text, asking questions about his or her concepts and about the quality and clarity of his or her statements and conclusions.

According to a study by Bulgren, Marquis, Lenz, Deshler, and Schumaker (2011), the process of developing questions and ways in which to answer them during reading must be taught explicitly. This involves having students ask one key question that enables them to identify the main idea and the details that support it and to explore the relationships between ideas.

Graphic organizers can be used to illustrate key concepts. Additional comprehension strategies can be taught to answer questions for which the students did not find answers.

Historical Reasoning

De La Paz (2005)

Learning to use an explicit three-step strategy (Wineburg, 1991a, 1991b), students with LDs can develop the ability to understand authentic historical documents, to take notes on these texts, and to use these notes in order to prepare to write a persuasive essay.

Following this three-step strategy, the students:

  1. Consider the source of the text and, based on this information, analyze it to identify any potential errors in the presentation of the events;
  2. Learn to identify and then set aside incorrect or unreliable information and to focus on facts that are consistent in multiple sources; and
  3. Write up notes on the most relevant information from the most reliable sources.


Teaching history to students with LDs is based on pedagogical practices that involve explicit instruction, clear concepts, guided reflections, and high-level questions. Elements such as the active engagement of students, the use of graphics and note-taking, interaction among students, and metacognitive strategies also support comprehension of historical concepts.

Reflection Questions

  1. What strategies for teaching history to students with learning disabilities were you already familiar with?
  2. The authors identify several obstacles to teaching history to students with learning disabilities. Did any of these obstacles surprise you? Had you observed any of the obstacles in your professional practice?
  3. Of the four pedagogical situations presented (teaching concepts, surveys based on a project, questioning the author, and historical reasoning), which would be most appropriate for your professional practice setting? Why?
  4. Think about one of the four pedagogical situations presented (teaching concepts, surveys based on a project, questioning the author, and historical reasoning); what additional information would you need in order to implement it in your professional practice setting?

Related Resources on the LD@school Website

Click here to access the article QRAC the Code: A Strategy for Monitoring Reading Comprehension in High School Students.

Click here to access the article Effective Vocabulary Strategies for Students with LDs.

Click here to access the article Mnemonics.

Click here to access the article Explicit Instruction: A Teaching Strategy in Reading Writing and Mathematics for Students with LDs.

Click here to access the article Graphic Organizers.

Click here to access the article Peer-Mediated Learning Approaches.

Click here to access the article Narrative Story Writing.


Beck, I. L. et McKeown, M. G. (2006). Improving reading comprehension with Questioning the Author. New York: Scholastic.

Beck, I., McKeown, M. G., Worthy, J., Sandora, C. et Kucan, L. (1996) Questioning the author: A yearlong classroom implementation to engage students with text. Elementary School Journal96, 385-414.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., Sinatra, G. M., & Loxterman, J. A. (1991). Revising social studies text from a text-processing perspective: Evidence of improved comprehensibility. Reading Research Quarterly, 251-276.

Bulgren, J. A., Marquis, J. G., Lenz, B. K., Deshler, D. D., & Schumaker, J. B. (2011). The effectiveness of a question-exploration routine for enhancing the content learning of secondary students. Journal of Educational Psychology,103(3), 578.

Carnine, D., Crawford, D., Harniss, M. et Hollenbeck, K. (1996). Understanding U.S. history : Vol.1Through 1914. Available at www.jacketflap.com/considerate-pub-publisher-1202.

De La Paz, S. (2005). Effects of Historical Reasoning Instruction and Writing Strategy Mastery in Culturally and Academically Diverse Middle School Classrooms. Journal of Educational Psychology97(2), 139.

Ferretti, R. P., MacArthur, C. D., & Okolo, C. M. (2001). Teaching for historical understanding in inclusive classrooms.Learning Disability Quarterly24(1), 59-71.

Ferretti, R. P., MacArthur, C. D., & Okolo, C. M. (2005). Misconceptions about History: Reflections on Teaching for Historical Understanding in an Inclusive Fifth-grade Classroom. Advances in learning and behavioral disabilities18, 261-299.

Ferretti, R. P., MacArthur, C. A., & Okolo, C. M. (2007). Students' misconceptions about US westward migration.Journal of learning disabilities40(2), 145-153.

Graves, M. F. (1988). Some Characteristics of Memorable Expository Writing: Effects of Revisions by Writers with Different Backgrounds. Research in the Teaching of English22(3), 242-65.

MacArthur, C. A., Ferretti, R. P., & Okolo, C. M. (2002). On Defending Controversial Viewpoints: Debates of Sixth Graders About the Desirability of Early 20th‐Century American Immigration. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice17(3), 160-172.

Okolo, C. M., Ferretti, R. P. : History instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities in Handbook of learning disabilities, second edition In Swanson H. L., Harris K. R. and Graham S. (Eds.), The Guilford Press.

Okolo, C. M., Ferretti, R. P., & MacArthur, C. A. (2007). Talking About History Discussions in a Middle School Inclusive Classroom. Journal of learning disabilities40(2), 154-165.

Rosenshine, B., Meister, C., & Chapman, S. (1996). Teaching students to generate questions: A review of the intervention studies. Review of educational research66(2), 181-221.

Voss, J. F., & Silfies, L. N. (1996). Learning from history text: The interaction of knowledge and comprehension skill with text structure. Cognition and Instruction14(1), 45-68.

Wineburg, S. S. (1991). Historical problem solving: A study of the cognitive processes used in the evaluation of documentary and pictorial evidence. Journal of Educational Psychology83(1), 73-87.

Wineburg, S. S. (1991). On the reading of historical texts: Notes on the breach between school and academy.American Educational Research Journal28(3), 495-519.