Loading Add to favorites

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

Image of a student in a chemistry class


According to Scruggs and Mastropieri (2013), teaching science to high school students with learning disabilities (LDs) must take into account five conditions for making learning more effective:

  1. Clear learning goals;
  2. High-level cognitive activities;
  3. Concrete and meaningful learning;
  4. An active, reflective process, and
  5. Explicit instruction of learning and comprehension strategies.

A study by Scruggs, Mastropieri, Bakken, and Brigham (1993) reveals that instructional practices based on a constructivist approach are most appropriate for students with LDs, because they make it possible to learn by drawing on the students’ strengths without calling attention to their weaknesses.

This theoretical observation led Scruggs and Mastropieri (2013) to identify a number of effective practices for working with high school students with LDs; the practices they suggest are particularly relevant for teaching science.

1. Summarization

The strategy that consists of summarizing a text is known to help students with LDs for recall important information (Malone & Mastropieri, 1992). This strategy is even more effective when the summary is supported by specific key phrases, words, and information from the text (Bakken, Mastropieri, & Scruggs, 1997).

For example, when reading a paragraph, students are asked to identify the main idea by locating it in the text (e.g. by underlining it); then they write one sentence that summarizes the main idea of the paragraph; finally, a few keywords in support of the main idea are recorded.

2. Keyword Strategy

The keyword method, a type of mnemonic strategy, is suggested when students are learning new words (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2010; Mastropieri, Scruggs, Levin, Gaffney, & McLoone, 1985). The keyword method utilizes acoustically similar words as meaningful substitutes or alternatives for unfamiliar words (e.g., vocabulary words, terminology, people, places) that must be learned for understanding important elements of the curriculum (see, Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1990a; Scruggs et al., 2010). For example:

  • The teacher introduces a new word by first identifying a keyword that sounds similar to the word being taught and is easily represented by a picture or drawing, then;
  • The teacher creates a picture connecting words to be learned with its definition (Access Center, 2007).

When using this strategy, the educator must teach the students to analyse the image acoustically and visually so that, later on, they are able to retrieve the information associated with this mental image.

This approach has also been used in history courses to teach unfamiliar facts and to memorize spatial information, such as geographical maps (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1989b; Scruggs, Mastropieri, Brigham, & Sullivan, 1992; Brigham, Scruggs, & Mastropieri, 1995). Place names are associated with images that have the same sound; actions and people can also be associated with and represented by images.

3. Guided Reflection

Following specific lesson or reading on a given topic, the educator asks the student questions in order to help them to reflect on the topic of the lesson (Scruggs, Mastropieri, & Sullivan, 1994; Scruggs, Mastropieri, Sullivan, & Hesser, 1993; Sullivan, Mastropieri, & Scruggs, 1995). This approach enables the student to construct their own learning and their own explanations of the scientific concepts covered in class.

With this strategy, the educator provides basic information and then allows the students to build or construct the concept for themselves. It is recommended that the educator use scaffolding to support the student to stretch their higher-order thinking on the topic.

For example, in order to teach students the purpose of claws on anteaters' front feet, the educator provides them with a series of clues that steer them toward the right answer.

Educator: Anteaters have long claws on their front feet. Why does it make sense for anteaters to have claws on their front feet?

Student: I don’t know.

Educator: Well, think about it. What do we know about anteaters? For example, what do they eat?

Student: Anteaters eat ants.

Educator: Right! And where do anteaters live?

Student: In holes they dig in the ground.

Educator: So, why does it make sense for anteaters to have claws on their front feet?

Student: So that they can dig and find ants.

Educator: Right, so that they can dig and find ants.

4. Student Discussion

In small groups, students take turns reading a paragraph from a text. After each reading, the other students ask questions of the student who was responsible for reading the given paragraph. The questions are designed to facilitate comprehension and to clarify the content. The educator then asks the students questions that were discussed by the group (Mastropieri, Scruggs, Spencer, & Fontana, 2003):

  • What is the most important part of this text?
  • What did we learn from this paragraph?
  • What is the key sentence of this paragraph?

5. Adapting Materials and Instruction

In order to encourage participation by students who are struggling the most, it may be a good idea to adapt the basic material to varying levels of difficulty. For example, for each activity suggested, there are three possible types of responses:

  • choosing the correct answer, from a multiple choice list;
  • providing the correct answer with the help of clues; and
  • providing the correct answer without any prompting (Mastropieri et al., 2006).

All activities are planned with varying levels of difficulty, and students are given choice of the level they would like to try, based on their needs (Scruggs, Mastropieri, & Marshak, 2011).

In this approach, it is suggested that students work in small groups and that they are guided to achieve each level of the activity. Clear learning objectives for each level of difficulty must be explained, and the students’ progress must be documented after each activity. During activities, peer tutoring and peer mediation are used to maximize the engagement of students with LDs in the required tasks (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Kazdan, 1999; Mathes & Fuchs, 1994).


Studies on teaching science to students with LDs show that some practices are conducive to academic achievement in this area. In a learning context based on constructivism, practices that support high-level cognitive activities such as summarizing, reflection, and discussion, also support better comprehension of texts used for reading. Supporting secondary students with LDs to verbalize what they understand of a text; select the important information, and articulate their thoughts sets an intention for reading that improves comprehension.

Relevant Resources on the LD@school Website

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 Learning Disabilities.

Click here to access the article Direct Instruction of Reading for Elementary-aged Students.


Bakken, J. P., Mastropieri, M. A., & Scruggs, T. E. (1997). Reading comprehension of expository science material and students with learning disabilities: A comparison of strategies. The Journal of Special Education 31(3), 300-324.

Brigham, F. J., Scruggs, T. E., & Mastropieri, M. A. (1995). Elaborative maps for enhanced learning of historical information: Uniting spatial, verbal, and imaginal information. The Journal of Special Education28(4), 440-460.

Fuchs, L. S., Fuchs, D., & Kazdan, S. (1999). Effects of peer-assisted learning strategies on high school students with serious reading problems. Remedial and Special Education20(5), 309-318.

Malone, L. D., & Mastropieri, M. A. (1992). Reading comprehension instruction: summarization and self-monitoring training for students with learning disabilities.Exceptional children. 58, 270-279.

Mastropieri, M. A., & Scruggs, T. E. (2010). The inclusive classroom: Strategies for effective instruction (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Mastropieri, M. A., & Scruggs, T. E. (1997). Best practices in promoting reading comprehension in students with learning disabilities 1976 to 1996. Remedial and Special Education, 18(4), 198-213.

Mastropieri, M. A., Scruggs, T. E., Levin, J. R., Gaffney, J., & McLoone, B. (1985). Mnemonic vocabulary instruction for learning disabled students.Learning Disability Quarterly8(1), 57-63.

Mastropieri, M. A., Scruggs, T. E., Norland, J. J., Berkeley, S., McDuffie, K., Tornquist, E. H., & Connors, N. (2006). Differentiated Curriculum Enhancement in Inclusive Middle School Science Effects on Classroom and High-Stakes Tests. The Journal of Special Education40(3), 130-137.

Mastropieri, M. A., Scruggs, T. E., Spencer, V., & Fontana, J. (2003). Promoting success in high school world history: Peer tutoring versus guided notes. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice18(1), 52-65.

Mathes, P. G., & Fuchs, L. S. (1994). The efficacy of peer tutoring in reading for students with mild disabilities: A best-evidence synthesis. School Psychology Review, 23, 59-80.

Scruggs, T. E. et Mastropieri, M. A. (2013): Science and Social Studies Education 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.

Scruggs, T. E., & Mastropieri, M. A. (1989). Reconstructive elaborations: A model for content area learning. American Educational Research Journal26(2), 311-327.

Scruggs, T. E., Mastropieri, M. A., Bakken, J. P., & Brigham, F. J. (1993). Reading versus doing: The relative effects of textbook-based and inquiry-oriented approaches to science learning in special education classrooms. The Journal of Special Education27(1), 1-15.

Scruggs, T. E., Mastropieri, M. A., Brigham, F. J., & Sullivan, G. S. (1992). Effects of mnemonic reconstructions on the spatial learning of adolescents with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly15(3), 154-162.

Scruggs, T. E. et Mastropieri, M. A.,  & Marshak, L. (2011). Science and Social Studies. In J. Kauffman, D. P. Hallahan, &  J. Lloyd (Eds.), Handbook of special education (pp445-455). New York: Routledge.

Scruggs, T. E., Mastropieri, M. A., & Sullivan, G. S. (1994). Promoting relational thinking skills: Elaborative interrogation for mildly handicapped students. Exceptional Children60, 450-457.

Scruggs, T. E., Mastropieri, M. A., Sullivan, G. S., & Hesser, L. S. (1993). Improving reasoning and recall: The differential effects of elaborative interrogation and mnemonic elaboration. Learning Disability Quarterly16(3), 233-240.

Sullivan, G. S., Mastropieri, M. A., & Scruggs, T. E. (1995). Reasoning and remembering coaching students with learning disabilities to think. The Journal of Special Education29(3), 310-322.

horizontal line tealJulie Myre-Bisaillon is a full professor at the Département des études sur l’adaptation scolaire et sociale (Department of Academic and Social Accommodation Studies) in the Faculty of Education at the University of Sherbrooke. She is in charge of the Collectif de recherche sur la continuité des apprentissages en lecture et en écriture (CLÉ) (Research Group on the Continuity of Learning to Read and Write), a research team with roughly twenty members. Her research interests focus on teaching accommodation for special education students, using by-project approaches based on children’s literature from a multidisciplinary perspective, and on reading and writing awareness in disadvantaged areas. She has also taught at the high school level and performed remedial work.  

Carole Boudreau teaches at the Département d’études sur l’adaptation scolaire et sociale (Department of Academic and Social Accommodation Studies) at the University of Sherbrooke. Before accepting this position, she worked as a remedial teacher in the school environment, as a guidance teacher specialized in hearing impairment and as a project officer for the Quebec Ministry of Education’s Direction de l’adaptation scolaire (Academic Accommodation Branch). Her research interests focus on reading and writing difficulties as well as remedial instruction. She is a member of the Collectif de recherche sur la continuité des apprentissages en lecture et en écriture (CLÉ) (Research Group on the Continuity of Learning to Read and Write).

Véronique Parent is a psychologist and professor at the Département de psychologie (Department of Psychology) at the University of Sherbrooke. Her research interests focus on cognitive disorders related to learning disabilities and accommodation. She is also interested in using novel intervention approaches in school environments, such as the use of cognitive training programs, to promote the development of special education students’ learning potential. She is a member of the Collectif de recherche sur la continuité des apprentissages en lecture et en écriture (CLÉ) (Research Group on the Continuity of Learning to Read and Write).

Anne Rodrigue is a PhD student in the Département des études sur l’adaptation scolaire et sociale (Department of Academic and Social Accommodation Studies) at the University of Sherbrooke. She was trained as a remedial teacher and for over 10 years has been dividing her time between research at the University and practice in schools.

Annick Tremblay-Bouchard is a Masters student in Education Science focusing on academic accommodation at the University of Sherbrooke. Trained as a primary school teacher, she specializes in students with hearing disabilities.