Supporting Students with Reading Barriers in General Education Classrooms

By Julianna Wright, posted on

Topics in Inclusive Education Series

A general education classroom full of elementary students. Two students reading on a tablet, while a teacher helps other students in the background.

With the right supports, students with disabilities can learn and thrive in general education and honors classes alongside their peers. US students receiving special education services have the legal right to be educated in the least restrictive environment possible. This means that students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) should be included in general education classes to the greatest extent that is appropriate for the student. In-class supports, such as a special education co-teacher, assistive technology, additional time for assignment and tests, or other accommodations can enable students to contribute in class and learn alongside their peers.

Why Inclusive Classrooms Are Important

Studies have shown that students with disabilities who are educated in inclusive classrooms outperform their peers who are educated in segregated classrooms. They are also more likely to participate in extracurricular activities, graduate on time, and participate in post-secondary education or employment. More so, when students with disabilities are educated in segregated classrooms, they may not be held to the same educational standards that they would be in a general education setting, and they are not able to benefit from the specialized subject-area knowledge of general education teachers.

The benefits of inclusive classrooms, which have representative percentages of students with and without disabilities, are numerous for all students. Non-disabled students in inclusive classrooms perform just as well or better on standardized tests compared to their peers educated in non-inclusive classrooms, and they show greater empathy, positive self-esteem, and collaboration skills.

Accessible Books Enable Learning

Textbooks and worksheets in accessible formats are a crucial accommodation that allow students with dyslexia, low vision, cerebral palsy, and other reading barriers to learn and participate more fully in a general education classroom. Benetech’s Bookshare initiative helps teachers meet the needs of these students, with millions of digital books in accessible formats like braille, audio, audio + highlighted text, large font, and more.

A student with dyslexia might spend silent reading time reading an ebook on a tablet, with audio and text highlighting to help her track and decode the words. A student with low vision can more readily participate in class discussions, with access to a large font version of his textbook using his class issued chrome-book. Because of the growing use of technology in and out of the classroom for all, students using technology for accommodations may not stand out so much from their peers, which reduces stigma, and improves self-esteem.

Bookshare Empowers Students with Reading Barriers to Thrive in General Education Classes

The Bookshare team hears from students and teachers how access to educational materials through Bookshare helps students focus on learning and engaging with their peers. Here is one example from Boston Public Schools Assistive Technology Specialist, Scott Richards:

“A few years ago I did an AT consultation with a special education teacher for a fourth-grade student who had just arrived from Jamaica. Her IEP indicated that she had a learning disability in reading. She spoke English, but her reading level was first grade. Her resource room teacher began working on improving her reading skills, but realized that she needed a different way of accessing reading material if she was to become a part of her regular class. Knowing she had no gaps in her comprehension, it was crucial to give her an access point for reading on grade level. The student tried some digital reading and writing tools, including Bookshare, which she adopted immediately. Using a Chromebook with headphones, she enthusiastically began reading, and within a few weeks she was participating in discussions, small group activities, and homework as an equal with her peers.”

When students with reading barriers have their educational materials in the accessible formats that they need, they can focus on learning and understanding the content. US schools and students can use Bookshare for free to provide their students with reading barriers access to the reading materials that they need for class.

Read more student stories: Decoding Dyslexia with an Ivy Leaguer

Inclusive Classrooms Are a Social Justice Issue

The benefits of educating students with disabilities in general education classrooms with appropriate supports are clear. However, studies show that low-income students diagnosed with a disability were more likely to be placed in a substantially separated classroom than students with similar diagnoses in affluent districts. In the next installment of this blog series, we will take a closer look at barriers to equitable access to reading instruction and appropriate special education services for low-income students and students of color.

Launch into Learning with Bookshare! FREE Guide for Reopening Classrooms for Students with Special Needs