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March 2023

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Articles featured this month:

  • Removing the mystery of SDI
  • The Virginia Literacy Act and resources to support literacy
  • Begin with the end in mind

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Removing the mystery of SDI

Specially designed instruction (SDI) is defined in IDEA (2004) as adapting “the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction” to “address the unique needs” of a child to ensure their access to the general curriculum so that the child can meet the standards of the district where they attend school. The law defines SDI broadly so that it can be applied to the instructional needs of a wide range of students. Since it is a broad definition, there have been varied interpretations that sometimes contradict each other. In addition, SDI is often confused with similar terms like differentiation or accommodations. With these differences and overlapping definitions, SDI can be hard to pinpoint. A study, in which researchers observed co-taught English classes, revealed that students with disabilities received the same instruction as everyone else during whole-group instruction 86.5% of the time (Wexler et al., 2018, as cited in Rodgers et al., 2021). In another series of studies (Weiss, 2020, Rodgers, 2017, as cited in Rodgers et al., 2021), general and special education teachers, who were providing services in co-taught classes, were unable to articulate what the SDI was for their students, even though co-teaching was included as a way to provide SDI in students’ Individualized Educational Programs.

Since SDI often occurs within the context of the general classroom, it can be difficult to distinguish it from regular instruction. The purpose and form of SDI can vary widely from student to student, making it difficult to identify and observe consistent patterns or practices. An unplanned observation may not pick up the subtle impacts of SDI on student learning. Because it is designed to serve the unique needs of each student, it will change based on student needs. For example, a student with a processing disorder may need to do a quick write-in response to a prompt before sharing, while another student may need to talk out his response before writing. The key is that instruction is directly tied to the student’s needs determined through prior assessment, review of previous teaching methodologies, and input from the family and student. SDI should be closely monitored to ensure that it is serving its intended purpose. 

To support teachers in providing effective SDI, T/TAC at VCU Program Specialists created the SDI Observation Tool. This tool helps administrators hold meaningful conversations with teachers about how and why they are implementing SDI (T/TAC, 2022). It makes the intentions transparent and observable, allowing teachers to clearly articulate their instructional decisions for their students. The document includes questions for coaches or administrators to select and ask during pre- and post-observation interviews. A checklist of observable behaviors that could indicate the use of SDI is included also. The third section of the tool suggests some recommendations to guide next steps. The tool is intended to encourage the use of practical strategies that match students’ unique learning needs. To download a copy of the SDI Observation Tool use this link:


VDOE’s T/TAC at VCU (2022, October 19). Specially designed instruction observation tool. Council for Exceptional Children. 

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004).

Rodgers, W. J., Weiss, M. P., & Ismail, H. A. (2021). Defining specially designed instruction: A systematic literature review. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 36(2), 96–109. 

For more information, contact Jennifer Askue-Collins, ([email protected]), Program Specialist T/TAC at VCU.

The Virginia Literacy Act and resources to support literacy

This is a definitive time for the Commonwealth of Virginia with the passing of the Virginia Literacy Act (VLA). The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) maintains a webpage offering updates and information pertaining to the 2024-25 full implementation of the law. Through the VLA, the VDOE will support school divisions through a multi-year effort with tools, resources, technical assistance, and funding. Teachers and school leaders are encouraged to visit the site to obtain a one-pager outlining the VLA, updates on instructional program reviews, and Superintendent memorandums regarding applications and resources available currently. This site will be updated as information evolves. The Virginia Literacy Partnerships, formerly known as the PALS (Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening) office at the University of Virginia, is developing professional learning modules and instructional resources and materials to support educators and families as Virginia moves towards full implementation during the 2024-25 school year. 

The Training and Technical Assistance Center (T/TAC) at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has recently updated and added valuable literacy resources to our website and library regarding evidence-based practices for teaching reading. The Science of Reading is commonly used on social media, news broadcasts, websites, and readings. The Science of Reading is evidence-based practices and the data that inform us on how the brain learns to read. The T/TAC @ VCU library has a plethora of tools and resources that educators can check out at no cost to begin or continue their learning around literacy instruction with confidence that these sources are based on research that is evidence-based. 

Do you work with students who are acquiring English as a second language? E. Cardenas Hagan’s (2020) book, Literacy Foundations for English Learners: A Comprehensive Guide to Evidence-Based Instruction, is available in our library. This resource aligns with the International Dyslexia Association’s Knowledge and Practice Standards. It prepares educators to teach English learners the key language and literacy components.

Do you work with students struggling with word recognition and orthographic mapping of sounds to symbols? K. Grace’s (2022), Phonics and Spelling Through Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping is an excellent resource for this critical skill that aids in building sight recognition for decoding, spelling, and reading.

Are you working with students with dyslexia? L. Moats’ (2008) Basic Facts About Dyslexia & Other Reading Problems and her Speech to Print (2020) are available and offer the definition of dyslexia and its characteristics along with information to develop a deep understanding of spoken and written English.

Are you interested in learning more about explicit instruction and assessment of all of the essential elements of reading: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension? Honig (2013) provides us with a Teaching Reading Sourcebook, which includes a research-informed knowledge base and practical lessons and assessment tools.

Visit the T/TAC @ VCU’s website and library catalog for our volume of materials available to educators and families as we prepare for the Virginia Literacy Act implementation and, more importantly, our students’ and childrens’ needs for developing proficient reading skills.


Training and Technical Assistance Center @ VCU Library

Virginia Department of Education’s Virginia Literacy Act

Virginia Literacy Partnerships - Educators Page (formerly PALS)


Cardenas-Hagan, E. (2020). Literacy foundations for English language learners: A comprehensive guide to evidence-based instruction. Brookes Publishing.

Grace, K. (2022). Phonics and spelling through phoneme-grapheme mapping. Really Great Reading.

Honig, B. (2013). Teaching reading sourcebook. Arena Press.

Moats, L. (2008). Basic facts about dyslexia & other reading problems. International Dyslexia Association.

Moats, L. (2020). Speech to print: Language essentials for teachers. Brookes Publishing.

For more information, contact Diane Lewis, ([email protected]), Program Specialist T/TAC at VCU.

Begin with the end in mind

Students with behavior difficulties can sometimes challenge even the most seasoned teacher. Meaningful Work: Changing Student Behavior with School Jobs (Wise et al., 2011) offers educators a guide to help change student behaviors with school jobs. The text merges two topics: positive behavior supports and transition. When considering transition services, our minds often think of teenagers around age 14. Three pivotal questions come to mind: where will my child attend college, where will they work, and where will they live? Things can become even more complicated when the student has a disability or behavior issues. Will my child be able to accomplish basic life skills? We must begin thinking about student outcomes before age 14. We have to begin with the end in mind. 

Wise et al. (2011) book, Meaningful Work: Changing Student Behavior with School Jobs, is a resource that shares a school-based job program geared to provide students with self-advocacy, a sense of belonging, and purpose for students in grades K-6. This book uses school-based job experiences as positive behavior support for students with a history of challenging behaviors through stories, strategies, and resources. 

Wise et al. (2011) guide educators through a school-based job program. The authors share how to engage students, parents, and staff to support the initiative. Meaningful Work: Changing Student Behavior with School Jobs encourages students to replace less desirable behaviors with positive behaviors, such as reporting to work on time and interacting positively with others. Data collection is a pivotal component of school-based work, and teachers can measure student performance and behavior.

When looking to start a program, the authors suggest starting with a small number of students and eventually expanding to a school-wide job force. Ensuring that the supervising staff is educated on the purpose and expectations of the program will set the foundation for implementation. Choosing the right team to supervise, lead, and guide students is just as important as consistency to the program's success.  

Reproducible grade-level job postings to extend job readiness skills are offered. Teachers can use the job postings as help wanted advertisements, thus, allowing students to begin to generalize skills by applying and interviewing for a job.

Meaningful Work: Changing Student Behavior with School Jobs is available in the T/TAC at VCU library


Wise, B., Marcum K., Haykin, M., Sprick, R., & Sprick, M. (2011). Meaningful work: Changing student behavior with school jobs. Ancora. 

For more information, contact LaTonja Wright, ([email protected]), Program Specialist T/TAC at VCU.

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