Importance of Effective Utilization of Adequate Instructional Materials for Learners with Mental Retardation in Special Schools


The mythical birth of special education and systematic services for individuals with disabilities in general occurred in Europe in early 1800s (Smith 1998). A number of laws have been passed particularly in the United States to help protect the rights of exceptional learners and hence provision of services. The passage for example of the PL 94-142 in 1975 and Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 1997 both in the United States brought dramatic changes to traditional programmes for the educable mentally retarded (mild) and the trainable mentally retarded (severe). Formally programmes for the educable mentally retarded learners took place in a self-contained special class and all children in the class took the same programme with common objectives, resources, teaching strategies and evaluation criteria. Today, programmes are designed to meet the needs of individual children (Macmillan, 1982). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all individuals irrespective of sex, race and economic status have a right to education. Education is thus a human right with power to transform an individual and it is the cornerstone of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development (UNICEF, 2001).

Learners with mental retardation pose a unique problem to education, one not presented by any other exceptionality (Macmillan, 1982). While the visually impaired, hearing impaired or learning disabled require modification in the way they are taught, the mentally retarded require educators to decide what they should be taught and how. Mental retardation is not a unilateral concept. Persons who are mentally retarded can exhibit quite different kinds of behaviour and adaptivity (Meece, 2001). Three criteria that must be met before a person should be classified as mentally retarded include sub average intellectual ability, problems in adaptive functioning and these should be manifested before age eighteen (Meece, 2001). In view of the cited criteria, the various limitations these learners have could only be addressed through modification of both social and educational environment.

While attitudes towards the treatment of persons with mental retardation trace back to ancient civilization (including Egypt, Sparta, Rome, China, and Early Christian World) a documented history relating to mentally retarded persons is rather brief spanning only the last 200 years (Smith, 1998). Before 18th century, the concept of mental retardation regardless of the term used to describe it was enigmatic to a world that did not have a sophisticated knowledge base with which to understand it. These individuals were given names all of which were derogatory.

Education of persons with mental retardation has never been of great concern to many in the world (Smith, 1998; Harman and Drew, 1990). In Kenya, it was not until 1948 when the first step was made towards providing these individuals with some form of education with the establishment St. Nicholas Special School (presently Jacaranda Special School) (Task Force, 2003).

Other schools that were started after Jacaranda included: Meru Special School, Embu Special School, Munyu Special School, St Catherine’s Butula, Lutheran, Maranda, Kisii and Equator Round Table, among others (Task Force, 2003). These schools were expected to offer programmes that would help deliver services to individuals with mental retardation and aimed at addressing the difficulties they encounter in academic, social or behavioral requirements of general education. It was hoped that with the formal education, learners with mental retardation would be prepared to deal successfully with the demands of adulthood and to live as independently as possible (Kirk and Gallagher, 1997). Fundamentally, programmes were expected to develop the learners‟ competence in the following areas: employment or further education, community involvement, physical and emotional health, personal responsibility and interpersonal relationship (Macmillan, 1982).

This, however, has not been fully achieved to date. Majority of the learners with mental retardation are not employed, which would provide them with for instance opportunity for social interactions with non-handicapped people in the society. In Kenya persons with mental retardation are estimated at 2.7 million, (Kenya society for the mentally handicapped, 2006). Out of the 2.7 million persons with mental retardation, less than 19,000 have access to education. There are 734 special schools and units for persons with mental retardation in the country which currently host only 18,000 pupils while 34 small homes and private schools currently care for only 438 persons (Kenya Society for the Mentally Handicapped, 2006).

According to the Kenya Education Sector Support Programme 2005-2010 the government is currently implementing measures aimed at improving the participation of children with special education needs including those with mental retardation. Despite the current initiative by the government access and quality in education for those with mental retardation remain limited. In order to increase access and improve quality availability, adequacy and utilization of teaching and learning resources is a critical consideration. The Ministry of Education Report on the Sector Review and Development, September 2003, points out that according to the survey carried out in public primary schools in Kenya in 1999 the shortage of textbooks and other learning materials were the most constraining resources as far as attaining quality education was concerned. Similar survey had not been carried out to establish the state of affairs in special schools and in particular schools for learners with mental retardation.

Since success in learning is linked to appropriate and effective use of teaching and learning resources no learning can be effective without the use of the resources. Whatever the reasons learners with mental retardation’s success and failure in school, like all other learners, are linked to the adequacy and utilization of resources. Instructional resources are used as an integral part of – learning activity in order to achieve the highest level of subject matter relationship (Patel and Mokua, 1993). Inadequacy of instructional resources hampers learner’s interest and progress and therefore it is imperative for teachers to arrange the environment to facilitate children’s active exploration and interaction. Lack of instructional resources in the classroom has a cumulative negative impact on learners with mental retardation’s ability to fit and function effectively in the community. Lack of instructional resources and their ineffective use in teaching learners with mental retardation could probably be one area that has contributed to low enrolment of these learners in schools.

Curriculum for Learners with Mental Retardation

The important questions to be answered in the development of curriculum for learners with mental retardation are: “What are our goals? What are our immediate objectives to reach the goals?” For students who have moderate or severe retardation reasonable goals are to learn to read at least to the survival world’s level; to do basic arithmetic, to understand various denominations of money, to have some leisure time skills and to be able to communicate with peers (Kirk and Gallagher, 1997). It would be interesting to see the instructional resources that could be used to teach functional academic to learners with mental retardation. Patton (1986) and supported by Gallagher (1997) asserts that the more difficult curriculum decision involves children with mild mental retardation who can be expected to reach a medium to high elementary school level of skills knowledge, equivalence of between classes 5, 6 or 7.

According to Patton (1986) it is possible to infuse relevant career education topics into regularly assigned lessons. More attention is given to community adjustment and work skills as this group of learners are introduced to vocational training programmes.

Kirk and Gallagher (1997: 208) argue that in most programmes for children with mild and moderate retardation, particularly for those grouped with other students with limited abilities or performance differential instructions take place in four major areas.

  • Readiness and academic skills. With pre-schoolers and elementary school children, basic reading and arithmetic skills are stressed. Later the skills are applied to practical work and community settings.
  • Communication and language development. The student gets practice in using language to communicate needs and ideas. Specific efforts are directed towards improving memory skills and problems solving skills at the level of the student’s ability.
  • Specific instruction is provided in self-care and family living skills, beginning at the preschool level with sharing and manners, then gradually developing at higher levels into subjects like grooming, dancing, sex-education and avoiding drug abuse.
  • Pre-vocational and vocational skills – The basis for vocational adjustment through good work habits (promptness following through on instructions, working cooperatively on group projects) is established.

In view of the above it is important that the teachers use community resources to help facilitate acquisition of prevocational and vocational skills for learners with mental retardation. Identifying functional curriculum goals for students with mental retardation has become a major priority for special education (Herward et al, 2000). Learning activities in a functional curriculum should chosen on the basis of the potential to maximize a student’s independence, self-direction, and enjoyment in everyday school, home, community and work environments. Browder and Snell (2000:497) agree with Herward as they define functional academic as the most useful parts of the three R‟s – reading, writing and arithmetic. The scholars further argue that careful assessment of each student‟s current routines must be conducted to find those skills that are required and or could be used often including skills that are likely to be required by future environments.

Teachers of learners with mental retardation need to be aware of what procedures of intervention, action and assessing special education provisions are put in place. Management of a child’s education becomes special when his needs are particularly different from his peers. A range of instructional resources used should therefore reflect the needs and positive images of disability. Snell (1987) asserts that when teaching reading for instance to learners with moderate retardation the focus is on functional reading. Although these individuals are unlikely to ever read for comprehension or recreation, they need to be able to identify key words in simple recipes to develop a protective vocabulary. Traditionally whole word method is used to teach learners who are moderately or mildly retarded (Fisher, 2002). Mentally retarded learners, he further explains, can quantitatively learn concepts in mathematics such as more and less, big and little and the elementary vocabulary of quantitative thinking. How teachers of learners with mental retardation accommodate these curriculum requirements in the selection, adequacy and use of instructional resources was of interest to the researcher.

Fisher (2001) reiterates that language exercises for children with mental retardation aim to foster the development of speech and the understanding and use of verbal concepts. Communication skills such as the ability to listen to stories, discuss pictures and tell about recent experiences are stressed. Children learn about holidays, transportation, the months of the year and days of the week and contributions to home life. This practical approach to learning requires the teacher therefore to select available materials and develop an individual education programmes according to the age and ability of the learners.

Social skills are critical components of the primary schools curriculum for children who are mentally retarded. As part of their daily activities they can learn to take turns, share and work cooperatively (Snell, 1987). The lunch table is an excellent location for teaching social skills as many children with mental retardation lack these social skills and need direct instruction in them if they are to establish a useful community adjustment. Some types of counselling and role-playing of relationships or situations with the opposite sex are often apart of the curriculum for students with mild or moderate retardation. Garguillo (2006) emphasizes that the instruction provided to learners with mental retardation must be comprehensive and functional, equipping them, to the maximum extent possible with the experiences they need to live and work in their respective communities. This view is supported by Kolstoe (1976) who emphasizes the development of work skills as the child reaches middle school or the vocational training programmes. The researcher contended that since learners with mental retardation, particularly mild and moderate will in most cases live in the community as parents, neighbours and citizens, it is important that their education should aim at developing the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will enable them to be active members of the adult community. And for this to be achieved learning activities should be enhanced by the relevant and effective use of instructional resources, including community resources to maximize their potential in all areas of development.

Importance of Instructional Resources

Drew (1984) has established that learners with mental retardation are known to be less able to grasp abstract concepts as opposed to concrete concepts when compared with individuals of normal intelligence. Therefore the more meaningful and concrete the material the more apt the retarded child is to learn. Penny (2003) supports Drew’s view by stating that instructional resources enable children to gain a sense of pride in their own choices and differences. Giving children objects to handle helps them to listen and attend and enables them to remain alert as this acts as another sensory boost. Learners with mental retardation have short attention span and memory problems and therefore, the use of instructional resources is of critical importance in their learning.

According to Edgington (1998) children find the familiar resources they need for security and self-esteem. Many children are reassured if they find equipment in school and in the classroom. Various types of instructional resources can be useful and developmentally appropriate tools for presenting activities that are engaging, interesting and appropriate for the wide range of abilities for learners with mental retardation (Herward 2000; Macmillan 1982). Learners with mental retardation require numerous verbal, physical and visual prompts to redirect their attention and encourage their participation in familiar activities and minimize distractive activities such as wiggling in their seats, engaging in inappropriate behaviour, attempting to escape or just gazing around the room (Herward 2000). He emphasizes that introducing new concepts and skills, while reinforcing previously learnt materials, requires upbeat, appropriately paced and highly interactive instructional strategies.

One way to incorporate these strategies and add dimensions and excitement to learning is by embedding the instructional resources into the learning activities. Learners who are mentally retarded frequently have difficulty expressing their emotions and interpreting the feelings of others. Using some instructional resources like puppets may help them to model appropriate emotion, enable them match their own experiences with language, teach them to be an attentive audience, as well as help them develop more elaborate socio-dramatic and symbolic play (Meece, 2001).

Research has shown that instructional resources and scheduled activities should provide a framework for maximizing learners with mental retardation opportunities to develop new skills and practice what they have learned while remaining manageable and flexible. Harris and Handleman (2000) argue that well scheduled and organized activities have considerable effect on the frequency and type of interaction that occurs between children with and without disabilities and the extent to which children with disabilities benefit from instructional activities. Bowder and Snell (2000) assert that students with mental retardation learn more efficiently and retain more if skill instruction occurs in a natural setting. Figuratively it is said “nothing should be taught indoors if we can teach that something outdoors.” The retarded learner grasps concepts more readily if the real object is present rather than for instance a picture of the object.

The importance of instructional resources for learners with mental retardation is also highlighted by Cartwright (1995) and Garguillo (2006) who argue that to help student with mild retardation generalize and apply what they are learning teachers may need to construct opportunities for real world problems solving. The teacher should choose instructional materials that help promote active learning of targeted skills, add interest to the lesson, are age appropriate, closely match the students‟ ability level and that lead directly to skill acquisition. The integration of the school and the community learning resources can contribute richly to the process of learning for all learners including those with mental retardation. Therefore the parents with children in the school can be requested to contribute their specialized knowledge to the teaching and learning process. In addition students can be taken out to the community through field trips.

Despite the importance that is attached to the instructional resources for learners with mental retardation there has never been a serious attempt by scholars in Kenya to establish their availability adequacy and use. Most educators that have conducted research on instructional resources have concentrated on resources for teaching and learning in regular education settings. As has been mentioned earlier, for instance Digolo (1997) carried out a study on instructional resources for teaching music in secondary schools in Nairobi, Mwangi (2000) had his study based on instruction resources for the teaching of music in teachers training colleges in Kenya. Both scholars established that teaching and learning of music is hampered by inadequate resources or total lack of them and underutilization of available ones. Kinyanjui (1997), Kimuli (1988) and Heinnich et al (1985) expressed similar sentiments in their studies on resources in other subject areas. It therefore become necessary for the researcher to establish whether similar problems exist in schools for learners with mental retardation.

Adequacy of Resources for Instruction of Learners with Mental Retardation

Adequate and the use of resources for the maximum effect can make a big difference to a school and the learner (Fisher, 1995:150). Teachers of learners with mental retardation should not just settle for good enough but seek to do better by ensuring adequate and effective use of instructional resources. The teacher’s first responsibility is to ensure that his class is adequately resourced (Edgington 1998). The scholar argues that resources should be available as much of the time as possible and they should be sufficient to encourage imaginative use. Availability and adequacy of a wide variety of instructional resources and from many sources can stimulate the interest and active engagement of learners with mental retardation (Herward, 2000).

According to Edgington (1998) making as a wide range of equipment as possible available for children to choose from every day is the best way of encouraging sharing and turn taking. The scholar argues that in classes where staff limit the activities on offer or the time available to use equipment, there is often an air of desperation about the children who know that if they do not get a turn now, they may not get one at all before the equipment is put away. But if they know that what is available today will still be available tomorrow they are certain to be more relaxed about their involvement. Providing children with various kinds of instructional resources has positive impact on their learning and enable them to perform activities on their own (Solity, 1992). Opportunities for learning are enhanced if the relevant resources are clearly organized and accessible to children (Levis, 1991). The scholar emphasizes that children should have access to a wide range of resources in learning an area so that they do not have to keep using the same resources with which they have already failed to learn. Adequacy of resources enables learners to take active involvement in the learning activities and offers a greater variety of channels for dissemination of ideas and knowledge.

Acquisition and use of Instructional Resources

The acquisition, selection and use of instructional resources is an important component of the teaching and learning process. It is the selection of a particular media that determines the outcome of the whole process of learning that is either it succeeds or fails to achieve its immediate objective. Ayot (1986:73) observes that a wide selection of instructional resources by teachers can help children to present their work in a variety of ways and in an attractive manner.

Serun and Patton (1989) indicate that the computer can be used for drill and practice in reading and arithmetic tutorials, similarities and problem solving. Paretta (1991) points out that some state of the art hypermedia – an information storage and usage design that enables text graphics, animation and sound to be combined to suit individual needs – can be adapted for use with children with mental retardation. The scholar concurs with Serun and Patton on the use of computer emphasizing that speech and language professionals can use computers as therapeutic tools and that computer programmes are designed for a variety of specific purposes for example phonological evaluation and teaching children sentence structure.

Cartwright (1995) asserts that teaching methods that are effective for students in special education programme include direct instruction with extensive guided practice. Instructional methodologies and accommodations that are often used with pupils who are mentally retarded are the same ones that make learning successful for all students (Friend and Bursuck, 2002). The two scholars believe that general educators are capable of reasonably accommodating in their classrooms most students with special needs, including pupils with mental retardation through appropriate choice and use of instructional resources.

Students with mental retardation learn best when instruction is explicit and systematic and instructional methods are derived from empirical research (Herward 2003). According to the educator, practices that would make learning successful include assessing each student present levels of performance to help identify and prioritize the most important instructional targets; define and task analyze the new knowledge or skills to be learned; design instructional resources and activities so that the student has frequent opportunities for active student response in the form of guided and independent practice.

Effective Teaching and Learners with Mental Retardation

Individuals with mental retardation benefit from the same teaching strategies used to teach individuals with learning disabilities, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, and autism (Lindsley, 2006). Learners with mental retardation require specialized method of teaching as they lack the necessary skills and knowledge due to their sub-average intellectual functioning. They need as much sensory stimulation as possible for their intellectual growth (Fisher, 2001). A teacher for the mentally retarded learners therefore should be the mediator who transforms, reorders, organizes groups and frames the stimulus in the direction of some specifically intended goal or purpose. Durkins (1983) states that appropriate selection and use of instructional resources is instrumental in assisting the teacher to reach as yet unachieved goals that are educationally significant to learners with mental retardation. The role of the teacher in facilitating learning is vividly captured by one of the Jesuits fathers, “—-„give me a child until he is seven and he is mine for life.”

Morris (1992) states that in the system of personal relationships within which children learn the teacher is probably the most important factor. The teacher’s ability to create a well-organized classroom with areas of the classroom well marked and daily schedules consistently followed is critical in the instruction of learners with mental retardation (Durkins, 1983). This view is supported by Clark (1992) who noted that effective teachers plan enough time so that students can achieve content mastery before moving to a new content. It is helpful the scholar argues for teachers handling learners with mental retardation to slow down the pace of activities in the classroom. This can involve both the rate of speaking and moving-how fast the teacher talks or performs a task or activity-as well, as how long the teacher waits for the child to respond or complete a task. Appropriate yet brisk pacing keeps students alert and interested and reduces student error.

Lindsley (2006) posits that for a teacher to accommodate learners with mental retardation in learning activities he/she should demonstrate the ability to break tasks down into small steps and introduce the tasks one step at a time to avoid overwhelming the individual. The scholar reiterates that the next step can only be introduced once the preceding step has been mastered, and this can best be achieved through the use of enriched learning environment where visual aids such as charts, pictures and graphs, etc. are used as much as possible. Effective teachers assume an active role in directing the learning of all students. They orient students to lesson goals and objectives, present key skills and concepts clearly and concisely, use questions to check student understanding, and focus attention on important elements of the lesson (Brophy & Good, 1986; Stallings, 1985).

According to Cartwright (1995) indicators of effective instructions are particularly applicable when teaching academic skills to students with mild disabilities. Stevens and Rosenshine (1981) maintain that for learners with academic deficit, effective instruction takes place in teacher directed groups that are academically focused. The scholars further argue that effective instruction is also individualized for members within each group. The students are given many opportunities to respond correctly to questions posed by their teachers during interactive teaching sessions. Verbal directions and lectures are not the most effective teaching approaches for any group of learners and in particular learners with mental retardation (Useful Methods for Teaching Mentally Retarded Students 2006).


Education of learners with mental retardation is always faced with numerous challenges and particularly due to the fact that the impairment presents itself in varied degrees. The general problems associated with such learners are their limitations to live independently and participate freely in the activities of the mainstream society. The manner of teaching these learners and more specifically the acquisition and use of instructional resources may be one of the major problems facing their education. It must be remembered that when selecting educational resources for learners with mental retardation the developmental level of individual learners is an important consideration. The following are some important considerations to be taken seriously and selecting and utilizing instructional materials for learners with mental retardation:

  • Graphic instructional materials play a very important role in the teaching and learning for people with mental retardation. So it is important for the teacher to select or create good graphic resources that are proportional, colourful and clearly labeled.
  • Instructional materials for learners with mental retardation can be grouped in four namely; visual material, graphic materials, audio-visual materials and equipment or facilities. Learners should be given opportunity to sufficiently explore the resources and subsequently guided in actively responding to them. Learners with mental retardation for instance should be given opportunity to benefit maximally by grouping them appropriately according to the task.
  • Learners who are retarded need constant monitoring, and some need considerable instruction in developmental areas such as moral, social, cognitive and basic skills of concentration, attention, listening, identification, turn taking, taking instructions and general perceptual skills among others.


To ensure effective learning for learners with mental retardation, the following recommendations should be implemented:

  • The ministry of education should support seminars, workshops, or in-service courses geared towards updating teacher’s competence in skills related to proper utilization of instructional resources. Most teachers generally lack training in the use of especially Audio- visual resources.
  • Lack of finances is a major setback in the acquisition of educational resources particularly Audio- visual /high technology resources such as computers, tape recorders, projectors etc. There should be collaborative effort between the government through the Ministry of Education and organizations whose goals are to provide education such as UNICEF, UNESCO, CARE, etc in providing funds for the purchase of high technology resources for schools serving learners with mental retardation.
  • Social cultural bias/negative attitudes which impedes free access to community resources by learners with mental retardation should be addressed through awareness raising campaigns using print and electronic media as well as in other social gatherings.
  • Teacher education curriculum should emphasize the elements of educational resources as key area to be covered by teacher trainees. Instructional resources should be made part of the lesson content.
  • Well-equipped resource centers should be established in every district in the country to serve as teacher’s resource centers. Teachers for learners with mental retardation and other categories of special needs could use such centers to update their skills in the appropriate application and use of instructional resources.
  • Educational resources may be worthless unless they are well displayed. Many classrooms for learners with mental retardation are not adequately furnished with facilities for display, but it is important that they should have at least some displays. It is therefore recommended that attention be paid to this requirement when constructing classrooms for such learners.


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