Searching for the Best Model for Instructing Students with Learning Disabilities

NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 35 describes the following:

Title | Searching for the Best Model for Instructing Students with Learning Disabilities

Author | Swanson, H.L.

Source Focus on Exceptional Children, 34, 1-15.

Year Published | 2001

This paper reports on a meta-analysis of the research literature on effective teaching models for students with learning disabilities. It concludes that: (a) the most effective models combined components of direct and strategy instruction; (b) 8 major instructional factors captured most intervention programs; and (c) the explicit strategy instruction factor best predicted magnitude of treatment outcomes.

Students with learning disabilities (LD) differ in terms of their individual strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles* so no general instructional model can be recommended for all. Nonetheless, one can assume that certain general principles for teaching students with LD exist and that effective interventions include components that capitalize on these general principles. These principles can be adapted for different students, in different content areas, and in different settings, and they can be used in designing effective programs for students with LD.

Over the years some researchers and educators have supported the use of the “top-down” approach of strategy instruction for students with learning disabilities, while others have promoted the use of the “bottom-up” approach of direct instruction. This meta-analysis uses a three-tiered approach that addresses this debate and attempts to determine exactly what factors are present in the most effective educational interventions for students with LD.

The first tier examined the impact of four different instructional models:

  1. Direct instruction alone
  2. Strategy instruction alone
  3. A combination of direct instruction and strategy instruction
  4. Neither strategy instruction nor direct instruction

During a second tier of analysis an inventory was taken of various teaching components (e.g., peer modeling, one-to-one instruction) that appeared in each of the instructional models. If certain components were found to occur together in a given instructional model they were combined into a common factor (e.g., sequencing, reducing task demands, advanced organization, & skill modeling were found to cluster together and were combined into a factor called “explicit   direct instruction”).

Finally a third tier examined the impact of these factors upon learning outcomes.

Research Questions
What instructional components or activities characterize highly effective intervention programs for students with LD?

Research Design

  • Number of Studies Included | 180
  • Number of Subjects | 4,860
  • Years Spanned | 1963-1997

Research Subjects
Children and adolescents with learning disabilities.

Age/Grade of Subjects
Average age = 11 years

Specified Disability
Learning Disabilities (LD)

Subjects participated in a variety of interventions, in diverse classroom settings, and in different subject areas (e.g., reading, math, writing).

Duration of Intervention
An average intervention study included 23 minutes of daily instruction, 3 times a week, over 36 days.


First Tier: Academic behavior was found to improve regardless of instructional model used, but those models combining strategy instruction with direct instruction exhibited the greatest impact.

Second Tier: Various teaching components clustered into the following 8 overarching factors:

  1. Explicit direct instruction (sequencing and segmentation)
  2. Explicit strategy training
  3. Monitoring
  4. Individualized remedial training
  5. Small interactive group instruction
  6. Teacher-indirect instruction
  7. Verbal questioning/attribution instruction
  8. Technology-mediated instruction

Third Tier: Of these 8 factors, all of which were found to have positive effects on the academic behavior of children with LD, explicit strategy instruction provided the greatest impact.

Combined Effects Size
The overall mean effect size for the 4 instructional models was 0.65.

Significantly different effect sizes were found for the 4 models studied – the average effect sizes and the total number of studies (N) were:

  1. For the combined direct instruction and strategy instruction model: 0.84 (N = 55).
  2. For direct instruction alone: 0.68 (N = 47)
  3. For strategy instruction alone: 0.72 (N = 28)
  4. 0.62 (N = 43) for nondirect instruction and nonstrategy instruction models

Several conclusions can be drawn from this work:

  1. Though there are compelling research-based reasons for using either a bottom-up or a top-down approach when instructing students with disabilities, the most effective approach according to this extensive systematic review of the literature appears to be an approach that combines aspects of each.
  2. Most intervention programs are characterized by 8 clusters of associated instructional components. However, not all of these factors contributed equally, if at all, to improved student outcomes.
  3. Explicit strategy instruction was the one set of clustered components that had the most significant impact on student learning outcomes and includes the following components:Explicit practice – encompasses many activities related to review and practice (e.g. distributed review and practice, repeated practice, sequenced review, weekly reviews, and/or daily feedback).Strategy cues – includes think aloud models, the teacher verbalizing steps or procedures during a lesson, and other reminders to use specific strategies or steps.Elaboration – includes explanations about concepts, repetition of information or text, or additional information provided by the teacher.


* Meta-Analysis | A widely-used research method in which (1) a systematic and reproducible search strategy is used to find as many studies as possible that address a given topic; (2) clear criterion are presented for inclusion/exclusion of individual studies into a larger analysis; and (3) results of included studies are statistically combined to determine an overall effect (effect size) of one variable on another.

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