What Works: Effective Teaching Strategies for Students with Disabilities

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by Elaine Mulligan 
Project Director, National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)

September 2011 

Teacher reading with two students

Teaching is not an exact science, where one approach fits all. A carefully planned lesson might inspire one student to craft an amazing story, commit to improving her grades, and go on to college to become a journalist. That same lesson might leave another child confused and discouraged.

Effective teaching requires flexibility and creativity. As special educators or as general educators, we must constantly ‘monitor and adjust’ our teaching techniques. What we don’t have to do is reinvent the wheel for every lesson. Good teachers draw upon their collection of strategies in order to meet the needs of diverse learners. They also use evidence-based practices shown through research to improve student learning.

The learning of students with disabilities is, naturally, a high-priority topic for the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY). We regularly distill the findings of research so that general and special educators can connect with the best “evidence-based practices” for teaching students with disabilities.

One recent study has really caught our attention: a 2010 analysis of the effectiveness of various teaching strategies on student learning. The results of 70 studies of interventions in different content areas are synthesized in Do Special Education Interventions Improve Learning of Secondary Content? A Meta-Analysis by Thomas E. Scruggs, Margo A. Mastropieri, Sheri Berkeley, and Janet E. Graetz. This meta-analysis answers its own question: Yes, there are special education interventions that improve the learning of secondary school content.

What are the interventions that show evidence of effectiveness—and how much effectiveness do they show? Here’s a quick summary.

  • Mnemonic strategies |  Highly effective
  • Spatial Organizers | Effective
  • Classroom Learning Strategies (e.g., study skills instruction, note-taking strategies) | Very effective
  • Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI) | Moderately effective
  • Peer Mediation | Effective
  • Study Aids (e.g., study guides, text outlines) | Promising, but needs more study
  • Hands-On or Activity-Oriented Learning | Appears effective, but needs more study
  • Explicit instruction | Most effective of any strategy studied

Now, this condensed list from a synthesized report isn’t enough information to act on, is it? You need more! Here’s where to find it.

Consult the meta-analysis itself. It appears in Remedial and Special Education, Volume 31, No. 6.
If you’re a subscriber, you can read the full article online at: 

Read our summary. If you don’t have access to the journal, we’re pleased to offer a Research Summary of the meta-analysis, written by our Research Analyst, Kyrie Dragoo and available online at: 

Consult our Using “What Works” page. To connect you quick with detailed info on the interventions discussed in the meta-analysis, we created Using “What Works.”  The webpage will take you to practical tips and how-to information for all 8 of the interventions.

Use these resources and strategies, and share them with educators and families. Good teaching techniques aren’t a mystery, and they shouldn’t be a secret. The more you know . . . the more your students will learn!


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NOTICE: NICHCY is going away, but its resources are not. Find hundreds of legacy NICHCY publications, as well as our training curriculum on IDEA 2004, in the Center for Parent Information and Resources' Library at http://www.parentcenterhub.org/resources. This website will remain available until September 30, 2014. After that date, web visitors will be automatically redirected to http://www.parentcenterhub.org.