Specially Designed Instruction for Learning Disorders

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What is the definition of specially designed instruction (SDI) and which children benefit from it? Get the facts about SDI and why it's required by law in schools.

What Is Specially Designed Instruction in Special Education?

SDI is also known as specialized instruction, individualized instruction, or differentiated instruction. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law governing special education programs, every student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) must include several elements about how these students will achieve academic goals. Among these elements is a description of specially designed instruction.

SDI refers to the teaching strategies and methods used by teachers to instruct students with learning disabilities and other types of learning disorders. To develop specially designed instruction for each student with a learning disability, educators and parents work together to analyze student work, evaluation information, and any other available data to determine the student's strengths and weaknesses.

Based on the student's unique learning needs, strategies are developed. Teachers continue to measure the student's progress and make changes in instruction as needed.

SDI Example

A student with a learning disability may be assigned school work that teaches the same academic standard as their typical peers, but the teacher may adjust the way the special needs student is taught the standard or completes the assignment to accommodate the child's unique needs.

Say the teacher is giving a lesson on comparing and contrasting to a classroom of fifth-graders. The teacher might tell the typical students in the class to list all the ways the two characters in a story are similar or different from each other. But the teacher may give the child with a​ learning disability a graphic, or visual, organizer to help the student better grasp the concept.

The teacher may give the student a Venn diagram, for example, so they can visualize how the characters have some personality traits that overlap and others that don't. The teacher might also allow the child to listen to an audio recording of the story, so they can hear the words as they read along, if they have a learning disability in reading.

Because of the specially designed instruction this student receives, the child may also be given a longer period of time to complete the assignment.

SDIs Aren't One Size Fits All

Depending on the learning disability a child has, the specially designed instruction may differ on a case-by-case basis. In other words, SDI isn't a one-size-fits-all mandate. One child may have a disability in reading, while another may have a learning disability in math. Others may have writing learning disabilities.

Specially designed instruction must meet the needs of all of these individual children, as outlined in their IEP.

Changing Specially Designed Instruction

Individualized Education Plans are reviewed once a school year (or more), and parents and teachers can make adjustments to the SDI a child receives annually as a result. After reviewing the IEP, parents, teachers, counselors and other members of the IEP team may decide that the child should receive new forms of individualized instruction or needs less SDI than they did the previous year.

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  1. U.S. Department of Education. Individuals with Disabilities Act. Sec. 300.39 Special education. Updated May 2, 2017.

  2. Wood SG, Moxley JH, Tighe EL, Wagner RK. Does Use of Text-to-Speech and Related Read-Aloud Tools Improve Reading Comprehension for Students With Reading Disabilities? A Meta-Analysis. J Learn Disabil. 2018;51(1):73-84. doi:10.1177/0022219416688170

  3. U.S. Department of Education. A Guide to the Individualized Education Program. Updated August 30, 2019.