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Going Beyond Instructional Level for Students with Disabilities

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

By Robin Pegg

What does it mean to be relevant?

Relevancy is defined at as the condition of being relevant, bearing upon or being connected with the matter at hand, being pertinent. Think about your life right now, sitting wherever you might be. Do you feel relevant to this environment, this conversation, this social group?

Does everyone have an equal opportunity to BE relevant? They say that what you don’t know won’t hurt you.

But I’m not so sure they are right. For individuals with learning differences, what they don’t know has a huge impact on their ability to understand the world around them, and, consequently, their ability to engage in relevant social conversations and experiences with their peers.

For instance, in about 3rd to 4th grade… everyone else in class is reading “Sarah, Plain & Tall”. They are learning about Sarah’s letters to family members back home and to future family members she doesn’t yet know. They are learning about her trip across the country on a train, her sense of fear and loneliness, and her sense of wonder and adventure. Everyone in the class is relating to her emotions and experiences. They are creating a mental movie of what’s happening and they are learning to put themselves in her shoes. They are drawing conclusions and making predictions about what happens next. If a child with learning differences is included in this classroom and reading the same book they are able to actively engage in these same conversations and experiences. They are also able to engage in the extended learning and discussion that happens on the playground, at the lunch table, and during think, pair, share time in the classroom.

Teaching only at the instructional level is denying students with disabilities the same frame of reference.

The problem I see is that children with disabilities are generally taught at their instructional level. That might make sense in terms of their ability to develop skills; but it often makes no sense in terms of relevance. Over the years, educators have gotten together and decided what every child ought to know at the various grades in school. If children with disabilities aren’t taught at grade level, they are denied access to that same set of knowledge, and essentially rendered irrelevant with their peers because they don’t have the same frame of reference.

If a child with learning differences is included in the grade level classroom where they are reading Sarah Plain & Tall and provided a different book at their instructional level, they are immediately at a disadvantage with their peers. They might have the opportunity to listen to what is happening while they are in the room, but without access to the whole curriculum, they are cheated out of that rich experience the other children are having they don’t have the opportunity to create the same mental movie and share in Sarah’s experiences. So when the rest of the class is talking about the story at recess or lunch, the child with challenges has no way to engage in that conversation. Lack of access has denied them the ability, not just to participate in the conversation, but also to engage in the same sense of wonder. Worst of all, they are perceived as incompetent or “just not cool” by their peers because of this lack of knowledge… and this makes them irrelevant to their social group.

Perception (relevancy) drives EVERYTHING.

Remember the definition of relevancy is bearing upon or being connected to the matter at hand, being pertinent. Think about a time when someone you know with a disability did or said something extraordinary. For that split second, five minutes, or whatever moment in time; how did you perceive them? Were you thinking about what they couldn’t do? OR were you thinking about what they could do? AND… From that moment forward, did your perception of them as a whole change?

I’m not saying we should NEVER teach a child at their instructional level. As I said earlier, this is very important for building skillsets. But, when educators deny access to a broader curriculum because of their perception of a child’s ability, they create a curriculum casualty. Pretend that your instructional level in reading is grade two, and will, in all likelihood always be at grade 2. If you were only ever provided books at that level; you will have never experienced Lord of the Flies, Charlotte’s Web, or Willie Wonka’s Amazing Chocolate Factory. Just to name a few… Based on your reading level, it may also have been assumed that you were not able to participate in science and social studies classes past the 2nd grade because you just wouldn’t “get it”.

Therefore, you would have missed out on discussions about American history, civil rights (very important for someone with a disability), anatomy, volcanoes, weather patterns, cells, etc, etc. This being the case, what prior knowledge would you actually have to draw from in order to solve problems and make decisions in your life? How would you participate in day-to-day conversation in a relevant fashion? When you add the knowledge gaps in reading, science, and social studies together; the gaps become a chasm.

Rather than seeking out an individual’s strengths and using them to help a student access age appropriate curriculum and experiences, educators may be recognizing their weaknesses and allowing those weaknesses to dictate a student’s experience. Individuals with disabilities then might lack the experiences and prior knowledge they need to communicate appropriately with their peers, fulfill their role as a student, and participate in their world.

To be relevant is to be a part of what’s happening in the world around you.

People with disabilities live in the same world as people without disabilities, so they NEED to be relevant. They go to the same stores, they eat at the same restaurants, but if they are not engaged in the same conversations; they don’t have the ability to truly be citizens of their world.

You may have seen a recent Dateline program that discussed what happens when people with autism “age-out” of the system and how they might be ill equipped for the world in which they are now living. These are the mechanics that underlie the concept of being relevant. It’s nice that they are recognizing this for folks with autism…It is true for nearly all students with all types of challenges.

As educators of individuals with learning differences must understand that it is important to completely equip our children to live in their world. We need to expose children to as much knowledge and as many experiences as possible NO MATTER their disability or IQ. We must give them knowledge that goes beyond their instructional level. We must insist that our students are challenged to think, problem solve, guess, draw conclusions, correlations and analyze situations. These skills, together with a broad range of knowledge, will better equip our students to be relevant, and that will make them true “Citizens of the World”.


Hargis, C. H. (2003). Grades and grading practices; Obstacles to improving education and to helping at-risk students (2nd ed.). Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.

Hargis, C. H. (2013). Curriculum based assessment: A primer (4th ed.). Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.

Rosenfeld, S., & Berninger, V. (Eds.). (2009). Implementing evidence-based academic interventions in school setting. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wheelock, A. (1998). Safe to be smart: Building a culture of standards-based reform in the middle grades. Westerville: National Middle School Association.


Robin Pegg, M.Ed., COTA/L, ATP, is a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant and Assistive Technology Specialist, working in the public schools for the last 13 years. Robin has extensive experience using all types of technology (low tech to high tech) to support learning and literacy development in children of all ages and ability levels. She also consults with various educational institutions to promote the implementation of Universal Design for Learning. Robin is the WSA’s education consultant and director of whispering trails camps.


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