Toward Meeting the Needs of All Learners:
An Action Research Report
PROF 191V
January 2000
This report was prepared by a teacher candidate in the B.Ed. program at Queen’s University in 1999-2000.  This action research project was conducted during a nine-week placement in an Ontario secondary school during October, November, and December 1999.  This anonymous report appears here with the consent of the author.

            “Inclusion involves all kinds of practices that are ultimately practices of good teaching. What good teachers do is to think thoughtfully about children and develop ways to reach all children.” 
Dr. Chris Kliewer, Associate Professor of Special Education, University of Northern Iowa (http://www.uni.edu/coe/inclusion/)

INTRODUCTION

            Good teachers consider the individual needs of their students, make the necessary modifications, and meet those needs.  This is a high standard to achieve, and I quickly learned during my practicum that meeting a diverse range of needs within a classroom sounds far easier than it actually is.

With a broad range of ability levels, the students in the first class I taught during my practicum challenged me to meet that high standard.  The class was Grade 11 General/Basic English.  My associate teacher and I had agreed that I should make the most of my practicum and work with a challenging group of students.  She thought that the Grade 11 General/Basic class was ideal because many of the students in the class were difficult from a classroom management point-of-view.  Teaching this class was definitely a rigorous training.  There were disciplinary issues, as there are in most classes; however, for me the greatest challenge was in making the classroom inclusive to the broad range of academic ability levels of the students. 

INQUIRY FOCUS

When I began teaching I thought that, if I made my lessons interesting, relevant, and clear, everyone in the class would learn what they needed to know.  These objectives are important and challenging to achieve on a daily basis, but they do not go far enough.  I had wrongly assumed that if I achieved these goals, I would be fulfilling my responsibility as a teacher.  I quickly realized that for my group of 28 students I was going to have to put more thought into their individual as well as collective needs.  In that group, there were at least three students functioning at an advanced level, another three who were functioning at a low-basic level, and the other 22 students were somewhere in the middle academically.  One student in particular, who has Down syndrome, needed extensive modifications to lessons, assignments, quizzes, and tests.  D. has an Educational Assistant who works with him, and I initially thought that she would make any necessary changes to his assignments.  Of course, it is not the Educational Assistant’s responsibility to make these accommodations; it is the teacher’s.  I quickly learned this, and I felt ashamed of my initial assumption.  I realized that not only did I have to worry about simply planning and getting through my lessons every day, but also I had to consider how best to convey the information in my lessons to reach all of my students.  This concern led me to my Action Research question: How can I make my classroom inclusive to include learners of all ability levels? 

Creating an inclusive classroom is especially difficult for a new teacher just learning how to deal with the day-to-day challenges of a demanding profession.  I found that I was working very hard just to prepare my lessons and keep up with marking.  And, in conducting my Action Research, I realized that I could not become a fully inclusive teacher overnight.  Instead of trying to become something I could not in a few short months, my goal was to become more aware of the subject and to become a more effective teacher through that heightened awareness.  I strongly believe, as do proponents of inclusive education, that focusing on this aspect of teaching has benefits for all learners in the classroom, not just those with disabilities.  For example, students who may not be identified with learning disabilities but who are experiencing difficulties will benefit from instructional adaptations and modifications (Salend, 1998, p. 25).  Golomb and Hammeken, as cited on the Renaissance Group’s Inclusion website, agree:  

A bonus associated with learning to make modifications is that you can then use these to help all learners. Not only will this help you reinforce the idea that all people learn differently, but it will also help you teach that everyone needs extra help once in awhile.  (http://www.uni.edu/coe/inclusion/)

COLLECTING AND ANALYZING DATA

  This was the philosophy underlying my research; therefore, I looked to the entire class for feedback on my teaching, not just those who seemed to be struggling.  This feedback indicated some improvement in my teaching between the first week in November when I asked the students for comments on my teaching and the first week in December when I asked them for another set of feedback.

The question I posed to students was open-ended: How can Ms. L. improve her teaching?  In November I received a relatively broad range of answers, but two very serious issues were common in the answers of several students.  The first issue came up in four of the students’ responses: They didn’t understand some of the material because I was not explaining it effectively.  They told me:

·         “One thing you could do is to explain our work more.” 

            When I saw this comment consistently, I realized it was a problem with my teaching.  And, if the students who were not struggling were having problems understanding me, I was appalled to think about how I must have been failing in my responsibilities to students like D. who needed extra support. 

The other issue that arose in that early set of comments from three students was that I wasn’t speaking loudly or clearly enough.  The students said:

·         “Something I think Ms. L. could improve on is maybe saying words a little clearer.”

This was an issue that I had not considered and I was very fortunate that the students made me aware of it.  Since getting that feedback, I have worked diligently at improving my enunciation and projecting my voice.  Something that seemed so simple was a serious hindrance to the effectiveness of my teaching. 

I saw after this first set of comments that students’ feedback is an invaluable tool for teachers.  I see its potential for dramatically improving my teaching.  By collecting these comments, I became more aware of how I was teaching and I became more conscious of those two very serious issues that were raised.  I believe that the second set of feedback indicated some improvement in those two areas.  Obviously, some of that improvement could have been attributed to the fact that students were becoming more accustomed to my teaching style and the sound of my voice.  However, because I was more conscious of my weaknesses in these areas, I am confident that I made some improvements.  In the second set of feedback, I asked the students to respond to the same question: How can Ms. L. improve her teaching?  In this second set of feedback, there were only a few commonalties among the responses.  One student did indicate some difficulty in understanding me.  This student said: “…Maybe go over things twice… That is what I think because sometimes it takes me a bit to catch on.”  Another student suggested something similar: “Go over things more and have more class discussions.”

The last set of feedback was based specifically on two lessons that I taught the students.  The first was on resume writing and the second was on writing covering letters.  In the first lesson, we brainstormed and discussed as a class the elements of an effective resume, I gave the students an example of an effective resume, and then students began the process of compiling their own personal data and putting that information in the form of a resume.  During this lesson, I tried to keep my instructions simple, our discussion lively and informative, and the steps for creating an effective resume clear.

For the note-taking portion of the exercise, D. had a sheet of fill-in-the-blanks.  I created sheets like this for him when there were going to be extensive notes for the students to take. Because D. already had some resume writing experience, I felt he would be capable of handing in a polished resume, as the assignment required.  He already had a resume from a year earlier, so we worked on updating it and having him re-type it.  For D., the exercise of re-typing his resume would have been valuable in itself, reinforcing skills such as spelling and accurate typing.  D.’s Educational Assistant helped him with the assignment by giving him suggestions and helping him make necessary additions to his resume.  As with all of his assignments, D. was given extra time to complete his work.  I also worked individually with other students who had difficulties and proof read resumes before they prepared polished copies.  The difficulty I had was in giving D. the help that he needed without neglecting the needs of the other students.  According to research cited by Salend (1998, p. 27), this is a concern common to many teachers in inclusive classrooms. D.’s Educational Assistant was very helpful when she was present, but she worked in another classroom as well and couldn’t be with us all of the time.  If I were in the same situation again, I would implement more peer assistance for all learners in the class.  I frequently had students working individually; however, I believe that partnering and group work are important elements in an inclusive classroom and I did not use these methods enough.

Many of the students saw the value in learning how to write resumes.  For the second set of feedback, I had asked the students to rank the two lessons out of ten according to how well they understood the lesson.  Unfortunately, since some students were away for one of the two lessons and some of the students only gave me one mark instead of separate marks for each lesson, it was difficult to determine any conclusive results.  For those who did rank both lessons, I received an average mark of 85 percent.  Because these results can be interpreted in a variety of ways and they are based upon such a small sample, I do not believe that they reflect the effectiveness of my lesson conclusively.  However, I think that by having students rate quantitatively and comment qualitatively on the effectiveness of my lessons, I do gain some insight into where I must make improvements and into strategies that are effective.

The second lesson that students ranked was on writing covering letters.  In this lesson, we discussed the purposes of the covering letter.  The students’ assignment was to find a help-wanted advertisement and write a covering letter in response.  Instead of simply giving the students an example of an effective letter, I found an advertisement, showed them how I would brainstorm to write my own letter, asking the students for their ideas as well, and then I showed them the letter I had written.  We discussed my letter, and then I asked them to go through the same process, responding to their own advertisements. 

I had pre-selected an advertisement for D. and we worked on brainstorming together while the other students were finding advertisements.  I wrote parts of the letter and he filled in blanks that described the qualities he would bring to the job.  This lesson was problematic because D.’s Educational Assistant was absent for most of the period, and I had to spend more time helping D. than I had anticipated.  While we were working, other students brought their letters to me for suggestions and editing.  These students were patient and so was D.  I worked quickly and tried not to make anyone wait very long.  I found that the students in the class understood that D. in particular needed extra assistance sometimes, and not only were they patient when I helped him, but many of them were also willing to help him themselves.  Although I had tried to prepare modifications for D., such as pre-selecting an advertisement, and helping him brainstorm skills he should have for the job, I found that he still needed help writing the letter.  If I were to teach this lesson again, I would have had the main structure of the letter written ahead of time, and had him fill in parts of it himself.  I then would have had him type the letter. 

The students who ranked this lesson gave me an average mark of 87 percent.  I think the key difference in this lesson was my going through the process in front of the students, and then providing them with an exemplar that I had written.  Again, I know that the students’ numeric rating of the lesson is problematic, but I do think that the overall average was accurate in its indication that this lesson was more effective. 

SUMMARIZING ANALYSIS OF DATA

Many of the modifications that I have made in my teaching style to meet the needs of all of the learners were subtle everyday techniques.  As a beginning teacher, I have, to date, mainly focused on fixing small problems in my teaching style.  For example, I speak more slowly and deliberately than I did at first.  I repeat instructions and convey them both orally and in writing.  I make modifications to assignments, quizzes, and tests for those who require them.  I try to vary teaching strategies in order to bring out the individual strengths of the students.  For example, I use dramatization, I try to incorporate technology, and I am constantly trying to think of different ways to present new material.  Finally, whereas when I began teaching, I considered almost exclusively the collective needs of the class, I am now also aware of the individual needs of the students.        

            This Action Research is just the beginning of my attempt to become a more effective teacher.  I believe very strongly in my professional responsibility to provide every student in my class with the best possible education.  This will mean varying my strategies to better suit certain needs.  Having a student like D. in my first class provided me with a wonderful opportunity to become more aware of the special needs of students.  During my practicum and in the course of conducting my Action Research, I became more aware of how I was teaching.  I learned that the more instructional strategies I used in the classroom, the more effective my teaching would be.  I also came to the conclusion that the strategies I use to reach to students with learning difficulties would likely benefit all of the learners in the class.

DISCUSSION OF RELATED LITERATURE

            Clearly, I have a long way to go in reaching the individual needs of all students.  This is just the beginning of my professional development.  When I begin teaching full-time I plan to implement a few simple practices in my teaching that will help me in this area of my growth.  For example, the principle of multi-level teaching is one that I was not aware of during my practicum, but will bear in mind in the future.  This process exposes all learners to the same lessons as their peers, but at various levels of difficulty (Salend, 1998, p. 298).  Collicott’s four-step process for the design of multi-level instructional lessons is cited in Salend:

Step 1: Identification of underlying concepts.

Teachers identify and examine the objectives and materials of the lesson and determine potential content and skill level differences.

Step 2: Consider the method of teacher presentation.

Teachers consider the different learning styles, and cognitive and participation levels of students as well as the various presentation modes that can be used to present the lesson.

Step 3: Consider methods of student practice and performance.

Teachers consider the different ways students can practice and show mastery of skills and concepts.  Teachers also employ methods for teaching students to accept the differing response modes for demonstrating skill mastery and understanding of concepts.

Step 4: Consider methods of evaluation.

Teachers consider a variety of ways to assess students’ mastery (Salend, 1998, pp. 298-299).

            Of course, I used various strategies outlined in these steps.  For example, I always considered different learning styles and tried to incorporate different instructional strategies.  However, I need to consider different ways for students to demonstrate understanding of concepts.  I always modified tests and quizzes for D. but not for other students.  In addition, I could have tried other methods of testing besides written tests.  Perhaps oral testing would have been more appropriate for some learners.  Although I did use some multilevel teaching strategies, I never deliberately nor methodically followed Collicott’s model.  As I become a more experienced teacher, I believe the steps in this model will become natural guiding principles in my teaching. 

Another important aspect of inclusive teaching involves creating an effective learning environment.  Some common characteristics of these environments according to a study by Bain include:

1.        High expectations for students’ learning.

2.       Clear and focused instruction.

3.       Close monitoring of students’ learning.

4.       Reteaching using alternative strategies when children do not learn.

5.       Using incentives and rewards to promote learning.

6.       Efficient use of classroom routines.

7.       Enforced high standards for classroom behaviour.

8.       Excellent personal interactions with students (Bauer and Shea 1999: 177).

These practices will be an important part of my classroom.  I know that if I can create a learning environment that incorporates these principles, all of my students will have a greater chance of success.  

Another component of an effective learning and teaching environment is teacher enthusiasm.  By creating a very positive atmosphere, teachers can greatly increase chances for student success (Mercer & Mercer, 1998, p. 39).   Because I enjoy working with students and want all of them to succeed, I believe that creating that positive and effective learning environment will be a very worthwhile and rewarding undertaking.

CONCLUSION

Becoming a good teacher, one who meets the needs of all learners, is not an easy task.  However, I have learned that the first step in that process is consciousness of the challenge.  I now am more aware of my teaching and am developing the ability to gauge whether or not students understand my lessons.  I realize that my responsibility is to all of the students in my class and that I must make adaptations when necessary to meet a diverse range of needs.  Most importantly, I understand that if I can make those adaptations and improvements effectively, I will be realizing the goal of all good teachers: I will be reaching all learners in my class.

Bibliography

Bauer, A. M. & Shea, T. M.  (1999).  Inclusion 101 – How to Teach All Learners.  Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Mercer, C. D. & Mercer, A. R.  (1998).  Teaching Students with Learning Problems.  5th Edition.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Renaissance Group. (1999). Inclusion website: http://www.uni.edu/coe/inclusion/ 

Salend, S. J.  (1998).  Effective Mainstreaming – Creating Inclusive Classrooms (3rd ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Posted March 2000 by Tom Russell