Specially Designed Instruction: The Importance of Specific Strategy Instruction

Students with disabilities and other struggling learners often experience intense anxiety and frustration when asked to perform new tasks or master new content. Such frustration results from uncertainty about their learning process. Students who don’t have a systematic method for approaching learning tasks tend to struggle when required to acquire new knowledge or apply prior learning to new tasks. This ongoing struggle leads to cumulative skill gaps and can result in a pattern of learned helplessness (Reid, Hagaman & Lienemann, 2013, p. 9).

Educators who support students with disabilities and other struggling learners can break this unproductive cycle by providing explicit instruction in academic and self-regulation strategies (The IRIS Center for Training Enhancements, 2008a). This powerful combination of strategies gives learners a tool kit they can access when drawing on prior knowledge, absorbing new concepts, and applying skills and knowledge in new situations (Reid et al., 2013, p. 31).

Academic strategies refer to specific procedures or methods for engaging in content-related tasks (e.g., sentence writing strategies, problem-solving steps, mnemonics). Unfortunately, students are sometimes able to successfully apply academic strategies in isolation without possessing a deep conceptual understanding of why a strategy works or when its use is appropriate (Reid et al., 2013, p. 10). The development of metacognitive skills and self-regulation strategy instruction increases the likelihood that students with disabilities and other struggling learners will master specific learning strategies, develop an awareness of how to organize those strategies, access them when needed, and apply them appropriately.

Weinstein, Husman, and Dieking (2000) propose that there are three components of learning that must be addressed in order for students to completely grasp the what, how, and when of learning strategies. These three components – skill, will, and self-regulation – are defined in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Elements of skill, will, and self-regulation.

elements (Adapted from Hewitt, 2008, pp. 23-24).

After years of academic frustration, many students develop behaviors and thought processes that amplify their deficits and impede any efforts to close skill gaps. Self-regulation strategies counter these negative tendencies and help students develop more positive thoughts and habits in the following areas:


  • Self-monitoring
    • Students track their own behavior and consider the impact on their academic performance
  • Self-instruction
    • Students engage in self-talk that supports their learning process
  • Goal setting
    • Students set goals and develop a plan for achieving them
  • Self-reinforcement
    • Students learn how to celebrate their successes and reward themselves for progress
      (The IRIS Center for Training Enhancements, 2008a; Reid et al., 2013)


    The Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) Model developed by Harris and Graham (1996) has proven effective in helping students coordinate academic and self-regulation strategies. The model is flexible, providing a series of instructional stages that can be reordered or retaught when appropriate to ensure the strategy instruction is effective. The method for teaching the instructional strategy to students is as critical as the selection of specific strategies for instruction (The IRIS Center for Training Enhancements, 2008b). The six stages of the SRSD Model are detailed in Figure 2.

    Figure 2. Self-regulated strategy development model stages.

    self-reg(Adapted from Reid et al., 2013, pp. 32-42)

    Students with disabilities often struggle with knowing how to learn as much as they struggle with grasping specific content. Special education teachers can work with their general education colleagues to implement specific and systematic strategy instruction for all struggling learners. It may be appropriate to include Individualized Educational Program (IEP) goals and provide specially designed instruction focused on specific strategy development and implementation, in addition to goals focused on content standards. Strategy standards are not directly assessed on state and district-wide assessments; however, teaching students to become fluent with and effectively use strategies strongly supports their success with the standards that are assessed. In turn, this closes skill gaps and creates independent self-directed learners.

    Please consider visiting The IRIS Center for Training Enhancements website to complete learning modules:



    Additional information about specific learning strategies may be accessed at:


    Harris, K. R., & Graham, S. (1996). Making the writing process work: Strategies for composition and self-regulation. Cambridge, MA: Brookline.

    Hewitt, D. (2008). Understanding effective learning: Strategies for the classroom. Maidenhead, UK: McGraw-Hill Education.

    The IRIS Center for Training Enhancements. (2008a). SOS: Helping students become independent learners. Retrieved from http://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/sr/

    The IRIS Center for Training Enhancements. (2008b). SRSD: Using learning strategies to enhance student learning. Retrieved from http://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/srs/

    Reid, R., Hagaman, J. L., & Lienemann, T. O. (2013). Strategy instruction for students with learning disabilities. New York, NY: Guilford Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books.

    Weinstein, C. E., Husman, J., & Dierking, D. R. (2000). Self-regulation interventions with a focus on learning strategies. In M. Boekaerts, P. R. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 727–747). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.