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Abstract. Research on students with disabilities has only recently begun to investigate the challenges that teachers face when they include these students in standards-based curricula and instruction focused on goals of understanding in complex domains. This article presents the mission and conceptual framework of the REACH Institute, which is engaged in a five-year program of research on teaching for understanding with students with disabilities. The institute is investigating the premise that students with disabilities will improve their understanding when they engage in instruction that reflects a rigorous application of four research-based principles of teaching for understanding: instruction designed around authentic tasks, opportunities to develop cognitive strategies, learning that is socially mediated, and engagement in constructive conversations. In addition to discussing these principles, this overview describes several common features of the institute research strands in social studies, language arts, science, and mathematics, together with emerging themes in the research findings. This overview frames the four articles that follow, each of which describes research on teaching for understanding in a major content area.


The call for research on teaching for understanding in classrooms that include students with disabilities reflects a convergence of the inclusion movement with the national movement to support all students in achieving higher standards. Increasing numbers of students with mild disabilities primarily receive their education, with necessary special education support, in general education classrooms alongside students without special education designations (McLeskey, Henry, & Axelrod, 1999). This movement reflects a long history of legislative support for a national commitment to educating students with disabilities in the "least restrictive environment" in the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 and, most recently, to providing these students with access to the general education curriculum in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997.

At the same time, national reforms have created a shift in the kind of content learning that is taking place in general education classrooms. Curricula that previously focused heavily on basic skills and information now also encompass important concepts and investigative skills in each content area. In history, for example, students are required to understand how to construct a timeline of significant historical developments and to understand patterns of change and continuity in those events. Mathematics curricula include goals such as understanding that scale drawings can be used to proportionally represent much larger shapes, and understanding the relationship between the number of sides of a polygon and the measure of the interior angles. In language arts, curricula focus students on understanding how the structures of a story and an argument differ and how to support an interpretation with evidence and reasoning based on text. In science, students engage in understanding how displacement causes objects to sink or float and how to conduct a series of observations. One key aspect of the reform curricula is a shift from broad coverage of content to understanding selected concepts and ways of investigating that are particular to a given discipline (Kendall & Marzano, 1996).

Students with disabilities need to access these rigorous curricula so that they can participate fully in learning, work, and life in our society. Yet teaching for understanding in classrooms that include students with disabilities creates a double challenge for teachers. One is that teaching for understanding is in itself demanding. Many teachers grew up on rote learning of facts from textbooks. As a result, they too often engage students in reproducing information rather than in generating solutions from their interactions with ideas, materials, and each other. A second challenge is that students with disabilities bring a wide range of learning difficulties to learning opportunities focused on understanding goals. Indeed, recent results for students with disabilities who are included in the general education classroom are mixed, although the classrooms studied were not necessarily engaged in instruction centered on understanding goals (Klinger, Vaughn, Hughes, Schumm, & Elbaum, 1998; Zigmond, Jenkins, Fuchs, Deno, Fuchs, Baker, Jenkins, & Couthino, 1995).(1)

Research on students with disabilities has only recently begun to investigate the kinds of instruction that can provide students with high-incidence disabilities access and support to achieve understanding outcomes in the general education classroom. The REACH Institute is responding to this need through a five-year program of research on fostering understanding in students with disabilities.(2)

The institute is building on existing research in special education to investigate with teachers in classrooms how to support students with disabilities, grades four through eight, in building content understanding in mathematics, science, social studies, and language arts. Four strands of research explore the following premise: Students with disabilities will improve their understanding in complex domains when they engage in instruction that reflects research-based principles of teaching for understanding. These principles include instruction designed around authentic tasks, opportunities to build cognitive strategies, learning that is socially mediated, and engagement in constructive conversations. As students with disabilities engage in instruction based on these principles, their additional learning needs will become visible and teachers can respond through further domain-specific instructional support practices.

One way to test this premise is to follow the outcomes of students with disabilities in classrooms that truly reflect principles of good instruction focused on understanding within specific content domains. The four REACH research strands explore this premise around different understanding outcomes, in different parts of the country, and with students with disabilities in a variety of general education and tutorial settings. We work in close collaboration with teachers to bring their knowledge and experience into the instructional design and assessment process and to ensure that instruction rigorously focuses on understanding goals.

In this set of articles, the REACH investigators share our work in progress, with the intention of stimulating dialogue among our colleagues in the special education research community. This overview discusses the conceptual framework that guides our work, common features of our studies, and cross-cutting themes in the articles that follow.


What Does It Mean to Understand?

The institute is guided by several premises about what it means to understand and a set of research-based principles for teaching for understanding with students with disabilities. What does it means to understand something? How do students develop understanding? These two questions have been the focus of extensive research in disabilities, cognitive science, and curriculum (Bransford, Sherwood, Hasselbring, Kinzer, & Williams, 1990; Bruner, 1986; Carnine, 1991; Gardner, 1991; Perkins, 1999).

These inquiries into human learning formulate several premises about understanding. First, domains of knowledge have different organizing properties; as a result, we acquire understanding differently in each content domain. Domain-specific understanding can be represented in terms of several kinds of goals: understanding the substance of a content area (systems of ideas and concepts), understanding the ways of knowing that are specific to a discipline (investigative methods), and understanding purposes of knowledge (Boix-Mansilla, 1995). In the area of substantive knowledge, some ideas are presumed to be more important than others.

Second, understanding is highly integrated with essential skills, information, and "habits of mind" that together support students who collaborate in learning rigorous content (Cuoco, Goldenberg, & Mark, 1996). This snapshot of a REACH science classroom shows this interdependence of skills, knowledge, and understanding:
 In a seventh-grade science lesson, students are working in small groups on
 understanding the idea of displacement. Each group has a 12-inch-high
 cylinder of water that holds a diver enclosed in a capsule. In their
 notebooks, students are charting what happens to the diver as they allow
 different quantities of air into the cylinder. Students draw the position
 of the diver at different points, discuss their results with each other,
 and talk about their findings to the class as a whole as they work to
 understand why objects sink and float.

Students are using and developing skills of observing, note taking, charting, graphing, and comparing sets of data to build their understanding of the relative densities of air and water and the idea of displacement.

Third, concepts are by nature complex and cannot be understood through one learning experience. As Perkins puts it in Blythe (1998), "While certainly there are breakthroughs and epiphanies as we develop understanding, virtually no one reaches a point where he or she understands everything that there is to understand about a particular topic ... there are always more and more applications and connections to be explored" (p. 13). One implication is that students require opportunities to cycle back to concepts many times to build and extend their understanding.

Finally, deep understanding is the ability to use one's knowledge beyond the context in which it was acquired (Blythe, 1998). Knowledge acquires this quality of transferability when tasks are situated in learning opportunities that require that knowledge in action (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1990). The students in the science class are most likely to apply their understanding of displacement in new ways if they have acquired the concept through doing the science investigation rather than simply reading about an investigation.

How Do We Develop Understanding?

Social and cognitive research on learning and research in the content areas converge toward several principles of instruction that support the development of deep understanding in learners. Recent research in special education investigates interventions designed around one or more of these principles and yields positive results. The full spectrum of general and special education studies together suggests that instructional opportunities that rigorously integrate these four principles will result in better understanding on the part of students with disabilities.

Authentic tasks. "Authenticity" includes three characteristics that support content understanding. First, learning experiences engage students in constructing knowledge. Understanding builds as students integrate prior knowledge with new information through intellectually generative activities such as questioning, information gathering, organizing, interpreting, and synthesizing that information. Next, tasks explore ideas and ways of knowing that have been identified as important in a content area. Because practitioners in the major content areas use many sources of information in addition to print--maps, charts, graphs, timelines, films, photographs, interviews, oral histories, and visual, kinesthetic, and auditory observations--authentic tasks bring alternative modalities into the learning process. Finally, learning experiences help explain problems and issues that have relevance and value beyond school. By the middle grades, students with disabilities have usually experienced debilitating failure in school and need tasks that are meaningful to their lives beyond school (Newmann & Wehlage, 1995).

The "anchored" instructional environments that Bransford and colleagues have developed reflect these three qualities of authenticity (Bransford et al., 1990). Their Jasper series uses a videotape narrative of real-world problems (i.e., finding the best way to save a wounded eagle) as well as graphic organizers to help students access and organize the information they need in order to solve mathematical and reasoning problems. Other studies of students with mild disabilities in mathematics verify the value of providing alternative representations of complex mathematical ideas (Woodward, Baxter, & Robinson, 1999). Content knowledge, attitudes, and discourse about controversial issues in social studies were greater for students with learning disabilities who participated in project-based inquiry than for students learning in traditional curriculum contexts (Ferretti & Okolo, 1996).

Cognitive strategies. Domain-specific learning strategies provide students cognitive tools for building an understanding of important ideas and ways of knowing in that content area (Palincsar & Collins, in press; Voss, Wiley, & Carretero, 1995). These strategies direct the cognitive processing of information in ways that are specific to particular domains. Reciprocal teaching is a classic example of a domain-specific cognitive strategy that develops understanding. Palincsar and Brown's (1984) study demonstrated that diverse groups of students, including those with disabilities, could build an understanding of texts through internalizing questioning strategies that directly relate to the cognitive processes involved in interpreting a literary text. Students in the middle grades can develop the autonomy they need to be able to direct their own learning as they acquire strategies for accessing the conceptual demands of a task and for monitoring and regulating their own learning (Rosebery, Warren, & Conant, 1992). When understanding is the goal of instruction, middle school students need strategies to help them not only with lower-order tasks, such as correcting spelling and punctuation, but also with higher-order tasks such as rereading a science report to check for specificity and coherence, developing a historical timeline, organizing a persuasive essay, or identifying the elements of a word problem.

Cognitive strategies for understanding can be acquired through direct or explicit instruction, or be embedded within instruction and taught as part of a broader focus on "ways of knowing" within a particular discipline. The REACH Institute is guided by the view that it is important to achieve a balance between instruction that explicitly teaches strategies and instruction that enculturates students into particular ways of thinking and knowing that are discipline-specific and draw on domain-specific knowledge and information to guide the reasoning process. Confusions between theories of knowing and theories of pedagogy have led to the misconception that proponents of understanding as a constructive process think that explicit instruction in .cognitive strategies has no place in teaching for understanding. To the contrary, explicit instruction plays a strong role in the development of cognitive tools that enable students to work toward understanding (Pressley et al., 1992). Building on general cognitive research, special education research has identified both strategies to help students with disabilities be more successful learners and explicit approaches to teach strategies that support writing (MacArthur, Schwartz, Graham, Molloy, & Harris, 1996; Wong, 1997), mathematics, (Montague, 1997), and reading (Malone & Mastropieri, 1992).

At the same time, cognitive strategy instruction can constrain domain-specific reasoning in unintentional ways. For example, teaching strategies as a precursor to engaging in content learning may detract students from building upon their intuitive understandings or from mapping their own initial understanding of the nature of a problem. Strategy-based operations in mathematics, such as means-ends analysis, may place an additional load on working memory and provide little opportunity for schema acquisition, that is, learning to categorize problems and then apply particular rules (Sweller, 1988).

Social mediation. Social interaction plays an essential role in construction and invention of knowledge (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996; Palincsar & Rupert-Herrenkohl, 1999; Rogoff, 1997). A range of "others" can be involved in social mediation, although typically educational researchers have focused mainly on teachers and peers. In socially mediated instruction, a goal of teacher planning is to identify and/or structure ways in which students can serve as intellectual partners to one another. Such a partnership has a different overall goal than does peer tutoring work, which is designed to provide an opportunity for modeling or imitation and to assist a student in completing a task (Fuchs, Fuchs, Norris, Hamlett, & Karns, 1995).

REACH studies take into account several implications for the design, implementation, and evaluation of instruction that situates peers as intellectual partners. First, there needs to be shared ownership of the activity. Second, learners are encouraged to make their thinking visible to one another through talk, visual representations, materials, or (particularly in literacy) dramatic enactments. In addition, students need structured occasions in which they collaboratively build knowledge by searching for connections among diverse pieces of information and by negotiating the meaning of their results. Third, students need to work on problems that are rich enough to invite a variety of perspectives.

In the REACH social studies classroom, students work together in a variety of groupings to analyze historically significant events that can be understood from humanistic, social, and economic perspectives. In science, students examine data collected across groups to determine the relationships among the data and how the data advance or fail to advance particular explanations for the phenomena they seek to explain. Students bring historical, social, and personal perspectives to negotiating interpretations of literature in the language arts classroom. The final authority for coming to consensus (or not) regarding the meaning of a literary or historical text or the solution to a problem rests with the group, and not solely with the adult member in the classroom.

Finally, and this relates to the fourth principle that follows, in order for socially mediated teaching and learning to be effective, the participants must experience a form of enculturation into new ways of engaging in discourse in the classroom.

Constructive conversation. Conversations build understanding as students participate in talk that makes their thinking visible and encourages them to connect, compare, contrast, and negotiate different understandings. This happens best when students are in situations where they express their questions and ideas and can assimilate others' perspectives into their thinking. Through their own conversations with students and the ones they encourage among students, teachers help students practice and internalize ways of thinking that support understanding. An extensive line of research has identified the characteristics of instructional conversations that build understanding, including opportunities for students to initiate the conversation and pose their own questions, the responsivity of the teacher to the content of students' comments, the opportunity for extended discourse on one topic, and the consistent focus on a theme (Goldenberg, 1992-1993).

Some studies in special education have focused on the effect of constructive conversation on the learning of students with disabilities. For example, Woodward and Baxter (1996) identify questioning strategies in teachers' conversations with young adolescent students with disabilities as a way to build students' conceptual understanding in mathematics. Echevarria (1995) successfully embedded dialogue within strategy instruction within a curriculum focused on conceptual understanding of concepts for Hispanic students with disabilities. Palincsar, Magnusson, Marano, Ford, and Brown (1998) described the role that conversation can play in enabling students to synthesize evidence from science experiments.

Integrating the Principles

Intervention studies that have integrated one or more of these four principles in instruction focused on understanding goals show promising results for young adolescent students with disabilities (Englert et al., 1995; Woodward, Baxter, & Sheel, 1997). Yet, on the whole, little research has asked how students with disabilities fare when all four principles are integrated into the design of instructional materials and the instructional process. Further, many existing studies are conducted in separate classrooms for students with disabilities or resource rooms rather than inclusive general education settings, or they are conducted in short-term instructional contexts created for the purpose of research and are not sustained in the participating schools. Another classroom snapshot, this time from a REACH mathematics tutoring session, highlights instruction that intentionally integrates the four principles of "good teaching for understanding" previously outlined.
 In a tutorial session, three fifth-grade students, including one with
 learning disabilities and one with mild emotional problems, are working
 with a tutor on a word problem that has caused them difficulty in their
 regular mathematics classroom. The problem is about the relationship
 between Sarah's age and her father's age. They sit around a small table
 that is nearly covered by a large white board that lists down the side a
 set of commonly used domain-specific strategies (e.g., guess and check,
 make a table, make a simpler problem first). This list cues them to
 strategies they have been using in the classroom and with their tutor. The
 pad gives them a big space as "scratch paper" for collaboratively working
 through the problem. The tutor facilitates the conversation by asking the
 students how they will go about solving the problem. Students discuss each
 idea, checking and sketching on the pad when it helps them visualize or
 describe their thinking. They compare different ideas about how to get to
 the solution. Later the tutor and the students' classroom teacher will use
 this documentation to reflect on the effectiveness of the students'
 strategies and their understanding of the concepts of ratio and proportion.

Through this window into the tutoring process in REACH classrooms, we see students working on authentic tasks that examine important concepts and ways of thinking in mathematics that are relevant to mathematical thinking beyond this exercise. They are using cognitive strategies that assist ways of thinking in mathematics that are fragile but growing parts of their repertoire. They are working as a small learning community to construct solutions together, using discourse about their ideas and solutions as a medium for that negotiation.

In summary, several decades of research from different lines of inquiry support the premise that instruction that encompasses authentic tasks, cognitive strategies, social mediation, and constructive conversation forms the basis of teaching for understanding with students with disabilities. In adopting and designing instruction for classrooms with students with disabilities, we are taking these principles into account together with what we know about the difficulties students with disabilities will encounter as they engage in authentic tasks, strategic learning, socially mediated learning, and constructive conversations in each domain. Additional support practices will build on these designs and this foundation, as we learn with teachers how students with disabilities perform in this instructional milieu. The resulting knowledge will include how students with disabilities perform within such instructional environments and what additional needs arise for them. The knowledge will also include which teacher practices further support good instruction for building understanding in students with disabilities in this instructional context, and finally, what support teachers themselves need in order to embed these principles and practices in instruction for students with disabilities.


The four content area research strands share several features. First, we work in close collaboration with classroom teachers and special education teachers. These partnerships ensure that the resulting instructional approaches reflect teachers' insights and perspectives and are rigorous with regard to appropriate ways to teach for understanding. Second, all of us are working with regular classrooms that include students with mild disabilities. Students with disabilities in our research sites are school identified within districts and states having widely varied identification policies. As a result, the specific characteristics of the students with disabilities in our studies vary.

Third, we use an iterative research approach. The drawbacks of conducting classic experiments in real school settings, particularly in the study of complex interventions, have been well discussed and documented (Gersten, Baker, & Lloyd, 2000; Morocco & Clark-Chiarelli, 1998). Where complex interventions are under investigation, knowledge of how different parts of the intervention interact with one another and with other features of the setting becomes central. Researchers need to understand in detail how a complex instructional approach is implemented in the classroom and whether and how it engages students with disabilities in achieving understanding outcomes (Morocco & Zorfass, 1996).

These goals are not easily attained through classical experiments. REACH research is designed in phases or cycles to enable researchers to use the results of one cycle to improve the instructional design and professional support in the next cycle. This approach has been characterized as formative experiments (Newmann, 1990). All the REACH studies use intensive observation and multiple-student outcome measures to follow student outcomes and identify enhancement practices that can accelerate students' learning. REACH studies integrate a wide variety of quantitative and qualitative methodologies for documenting and assessing implementation, professional development support, and student learning outcomes. Some of our studies reflect additional specific features of design experiments (Brown, 1992). For example, Palincsar and Magnusson (this issue) have developed case studies of individual students with disabilities within a well-implemented science unit in order to identify unmet needs of students with disabilities in one unit that could be systematically met through specific teacher practices in the next unit.

Differing methodologies across research strands serve the same purpose: to capture in detail what is actually happening in the classroom and identify specific aspects of the context and instruction that support or impede students with disabilities in achieving understanding goals. To document the classroom implementation and teaching/learning process, the mathematics and science groups use videotape as well as direct observation, the social studies group uses extensive direct observation of teacher-student interactions, and the literacy group uses a content analysis of student journals as well as direct observation.

Fourth, we use a shared instructional unit as the "research site." Research teams study teaching for understanding within instructional units that all participating teachers carry out concurrently. Units are designed with consideration given to district standards, curriculum topics, and even recommended texts in order to align our research programs with district goals and maximize the sustainability of the work past the life of the institute. The research team designs or adapts the unit with varying levels of collaboration with teachers to reflect the strongest possible integration of authentic tasks, domain-specific cognitive strategies, socially mediated learning, and constructive conversations about texts and student work. A unit cycle, including the design/planning, teaching, documentation, and evaluation of the unit, generally takes place over a semester, with design work on new units beginning during the summers.

Figure 1 portrays the common structure underlying REACH instructional units. The structure includes overarching understanding goals, a unit topic, unit goals (information, skills, concepts), instructional activities and individual support practices, ongoing assessment, and culminating assessments. All parts of the unit reflect the principle. The units are designed around understanding goals related to the substance of the content area and the ways of knowing appropriate to that domain. In addition, both the social studies and science strands focus on goals of understanding the purpose of the content area through interviews with students about their perceptions of what historians or scientists do. This unit-by-unit design supports the iterative research approach and is also an "authentic" approach for middle schools, which tend to organize instruction around units and are likely to sustain new instructional approaches that can fit within a unit structure.



Several themes resonate across the descriptions of interim results in the articles that follow. One is that students with disabilities deepen their understanding when they participate in well-implemented instruction based on the principles of good teaching for understanding. The studies show gains for students with disabilities that are comparable to the gains of normally achieving peers. Each of the studies identifies challenging conceptual areas where students with disabilities, along with their normally achieving peers, elaborate their understanding after an instructional unit.

A second theme is that students may benefit from more explicit instruction about ways of investigating in a domain. In both social studies and language arts, where ways of engaging in historical and literary analysis are embedded in learning activities, the researchers find that students with disabilities need a more explicit understanding of the interpretative processes they are using. The implication is that more explicit instruction follows and builds on learning experiences that embed domain-specific interpretative processes.

Third, implementing rigorous teaching for understanding requires energetic and ongoing professional development support for teachers. Even teachers experienced with reform curricula find that, separate from any special challenges associated with students with disabilities, ongoing support is critical. Embedding the research within cycles of designing, teaching, and evaluating shared instructional units appears to be a highly promising context for engaging teachers themselves in "constructive conversations" about teaching students with disabilities.

Lastly, one of the most promising teacher practices for achieving the goals of understanding in students with disabilities is the use of assessments that reveal the quality and details of students' understanding. Interviewing students, engaging them in tutorial problem solving, and providing journal prompts are all instructionally sound practices that enable students with disabilities to rehearse thinking processes needed for successful classroom work. Those practices also reveal students' thinking to teachers and guide teachers in fine-tuning their instructional support. While interviewing, journals, and assessment tutorials can all potentially be applied in any content area, effective use of these tools for assessment requires the teacher to have strong domain-specific content knowledge. Teachers cannot "hear" or "read" students' level of understanding in interviews or journal responses without a detailed understanding of the system of ideas and concepts under study. These themes frame the articles that follow.


(1) An introductory article can refer to only a small number of the many research and theoretical writings that contribute to the work of the REACH Institute. Readers are invited to write to the author for a more extensive bibliography of relevant work, at Education Development Center, Inc., 55 Chapel Street, Newton, MA 02458.

(2) The REACH Institute is funded for a five-year period by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). Institute partners include the University of Michigan, the University of Puget Sound, the University of Delaware, and Education Development Center. Grace Zamora Duran serves as the OSEP program officer.


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CATHERINE COBB MOROCCO, Ed.D., is a senior scientist, Education Development Center, Inc., Newton, MA.
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Author:Morocco, Catherine Cobb
Publication:Learning Disability Quarterly
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Date:Jan 1, 2001

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