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Individual Needs

Learner Variables to Consider in Meeting Individual Needs

The factors that teachers should consider in meeting the individual needs of students include prior knowledge, language and cultural background, rate of learning/ amount of instructional time, and interests and attitudes. These factors should be considered for all students, including students experiencing difficulty, students acquiring English, gifted and talented students, and students of diverse cultural backgrounds.

Prior Knowledge

All students come to the classroom with a prior knowledge base. Researchers have clearly shown that this prior knowledge is important in how students develop literacy and learn to construct meaning (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). All instruction should build on the students’ prior knowledge and not penalize them for what they bring to the classroom (Rigg & Allen, 1989).

Language and Cultural Background

Classrooms are composed of students from an increasingly wide range of language backgrounds (Rigg & Allen, 1989; Weber, 1991). Students who are non-English speakers benefit from beginning to read in their first language (Barrera, 1983). However, research also indicates that they benefit from beginning to read and write in English before they have completely mastered the English language.

The instruction and experiences that non-English speakers receive should draw upon the literacy skills developed in their first language. In learning to read and write, non-native English speakers benefit from the same types of instruction as native English speakers (Boyle & Peregoy, 1990).

Considering the cultural background of students is also important because the way in which students are expected to learn, interact, and use language in school may not match the way children learn at home (Allen, 1991).

Rate of Learning/Instructional Time

Children vary according to the rates at which they acquire reading and writing ability. Therefore, the amount of time available for literacy learning is important (Denham & Lieberman, 1980).

Schools need to organize instruction so that children needing more time to learn are provided access to larger amounts of high-quality literacy instruction (Allington, 1991). The small-group, pullout design used frequently in schools rarely increases the amount of instructional time required to provide students the support they need (Denham & Lieberman, 1980; Kiesling, 1978). Interest and Interest and attitudes also affect success in learning to read and write.


Students comprehend materials that interest them much better than they do materials that do not. They also seem able to read above their frustration level when they find materials highly interesting (Belloni & Jongsma, 1978). Students’ own expectations and attitudes about their reading and perceptions of themselves also influence how they learn to read and write (Butkowsky & Willows, 1980).

Instructional Variables in Meeting Individual Needs

The instructional factors that teachers should consider in meeting individual needs are much the same for various groups of students. These factors are discussed in the following sections.

Meaningful Reading and Writing Tasks

In recent years the criteria for effective instruction have undergone a dramatic shift from emphasis on drill and practice to emphasis on meaningful tasks of reading and writing. The focus of instruction should be on ways to help students integrate new knowledge with existing knowledge to construct meaning (Roehler & Duffy, 1991). Good readers spend the majority of their time engaged in meaning-making activities such as silent reading and peer discussions (Allington, 1983). It is important for the tasks that students do to require thinking (Marx & Walsh, 1988). For example, choosing the correct response to a literal detail question requires significantly less thinking than summarizing the important events in a story.

Expectation Level

Research indicates that children in remedial and compensatory programs spend the majority of their time completing low-level tasks (Anderson & Pellicer, 1990; Allington & McGill-Franzen, 1989). Not only does this pattern reflect lower expectations, but students do not develop the higher levels of academic functioning necessary to achieve success in later years (Clifford, 1990).

While gifted students are academically advanced, they also need special provisions to meet their individual needs. Like all learners, their potential is affected by the quality of instruction and the learning experiences provided (Tuttle, 1991).

Students’ Strengths

Successfully meeting individual needs is dependent upon knowing what an individual is already able to do and linking what is already known with what remains to be learned (Chall & Curtis, 1991; Eisenhart & Cutts-Dougherty, 1991). By helping students bridge the gap between their current abilities and the intended goal, teachers are providing scaffolds of support for learning (Rosenshine & Meister, 1992).

Varying Levels of Support

Scaffolded instruction may include direct explanation, modeling or showing students how to perform a task or operation, and think-alouds of the reasoning behind a particular procedure (Roehler & Duffy, 1991).

The organizational plan for the classroom can also provide scaffolding. For example, students acquiring English might be introduced to a concept with the whole class, work with peers in some form of collaborative learning, and then work individually to apply the concept independently.

Active Involvement

Another characteristic of effective instruction and learning is the degree to which students are active participants in the learning process. When students use each other as learning resources by working in cooperative or team learning arrangements, student engagement increases (Knapp, Turnbull, & Shields, 1990). The lowest amount of student engagement usually occurs during seat-work types of activities (Evertson & Harris, 1992).

Match Between Classroom and Support Programs

The degree to which the classroom program and special support programs (such as Chapter 1 or Resource Room) philosophically match is referred to as congruence. When students receive philosophically compatible literacy instruction and all teachers emphasize the same strategies and skills, learning increases (Winfield, 1987). Typically, however, the opposite happens. A consistent lack of coordination between the core curriculum and the curriculum of special teachers has been documented (Allington & Shake, 1986; Johnston, Allington, & Afflerbach, 1985; LeTendre, 1991). The amount of congruence between instructional programs seems to be greatly influenced by the amount of communication that takes place between the classroom teacher and the special teacher (Allington & Shake, 1986).

Cultural Appropriateness

Cultural appropriateness of instruction includes consideration of the materials and types of activities used. All students, but especially students of different cultures – African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Native-American – need multicultural literature. Its inclusion in the reading curriculum can affirm and empower students about their cultures. It confirms that members of many groups have contributed, and continue to contribute, to human life (Harris, 1990).

Organizational Patterns in Meeting Individual Needs

Research reveals no one best organizational scheme for meeting individual needs (Hiebert, 1991; Slavin, 1986).

Whole Class/Flexible Groups

For many years, teachers utilized some form of ability grouping to meet individual needs for reading instruction. At the elementary levels, teachers typically had three groups. Research has shown that ability grouping has not been successful in meeting individual needs during literacy instruction (Gamoran, 1992; Slavin, 1986). Instead of organizing students into ability groups that produce social and cultural differentiation in schoolwork, teachers should be encouraged to use whole-class and flexible-group patterns for instruction. For example, whole-class and flexible-group activities can be used to accommodate such things as different ways to read selections, story and author discussion circles, different ways to respond, different interests, or various strategy and skill needs.

Cooperative Learning

Another way to organize to effectively meet individual needs is to use cooperative learning (Slavin, 1987). Researchers have found that this is a very flexible technique that can be used to accommodate students of diverse needs and cultural backgrounds (Kagan, 1986) – students experiencing difficulty, students acquiring English, gifted and talented students, and students of diverse cultural backgrounds.

Value of Literature-Based Instruction for All Students

There is growing evidence favoring literature-based programs for students experiencing difficulty. Literature offers a rich background from which to learn vocabulary, to accumulate knowledge about written language, and to develop literacy skills (Morrow, O’Connor, & Smith, 1990). Literature-based programs provide a meaningful basis from which to learn skills and strategies (Tunnell & Jacobs, 1989). Literature-based programs can lead to increased use of literature for independent reading and improved attitudes toward reading for students experiencing difficulty in learning (Morrow, 1992). Literature-based programs can also result in higher test scores for those students (Roser, Hoffman, & Farest, 1990).

Gifted and Talented Students

Gifted students benefit from an environment that encourages risk taking, learning by trial and error, and finding solutions to real problems.

Teachers can meet the needs of gifted students by equipping them with strategies for locating resources, by observing and facilitating students’ independent work, and by finding ways for them to contribute to the larger community of the classroom and school (Cohen, 1987). Within the context of literature-based programs, there are many such opportunities.

Students Acquiring English

Students acquiring English need a strong and supportive context for learning, one in which they can experiment with language without fear of failure, one in which the acquisition of literacy in a second language is seen as an exciting and meaningful endeavor (Rueda, 1991).

Teachers can encourage students to enhance their oral and written communication with activities such as dramatization and art. In conversations, they can focus on the message students are conveying rather than elements of form, grammar, and pronunciation (Allen, 1991).

Literature and literature-based instruction provide a rich source of language, vocabulary, and syntax in a way that oral language alone cannot. A thematic organization of literature offers ways to extend linguistic support and to offer a variety of reasons to read, write, and talk (Allen, 1991).

Students of Diverse Cultural Backgrounds

Students learn best and are more highly motivated when the school curriculum reflects their cultures, experiences, and perspectives (Banks, 1989). Studies demonstrate that the school performance of students of diverse cultures can be increased when steps are taken to create for them culturally familiar and comfortable classroom situations (Heath, 1983). Perhaps the best documented example of this is the Kamehameha Elementary Education Program (KEEP), with native Hawaiian students (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988). One of the features of traditional Hawaiian culture is that storytelling is a group rather than an individual activity. When classroom practices were restructured to include this type of cultural interaction pattern, dramatic gains in student literacy were seen.

In addition to the academic gains that can be achieved by motivated students with healthy self-concepts, addressing diverse cultural backgrounds in literature also helps students to develop social sensitivity to the needs of others and to understand the similarities as well as differences among people (Norton, 1990). This, in turn, helps students better understand themselves.