Alternative Curriculum for SpEd Students: English & Language Arts

When students are not able to access the core general education curriculum without significant modifications, the IEP team can work together to design a more focused alternative curriculum to target their specific needs. To learn more about what’s out there, we asked Dr. Caitlin Solone, education advocate, teacher educator, and faculty at UCLA, to gather some resources to support our kids in developing their English and Language Arts skills. 

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These days, there is no one ideal system that provides a comprehensive alternative curriculum aligned with Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to students in special education. If it existed, such a curriculum would not only give students access to the general education curriculum, but it would also remove one of the biggest barriers to inclusion.
While some general education teachers use the boxed curriculum that is used in Special Day Classrooms, such as the Unique Learning System and the Edmark Reading Program, it doesn’t align well with the general education curriculum. (Unfortunately, the Unique Learning System is still the most comprehensive option there is.) Some general education curriculum — such as Writers and Readers Workshop — is structured in a way that lends itself nicely to differentiation, but others simply do not. To get around this problem, many general education teachers now create their own Common Core–aligned lessons and curriculum, or pull resources aligned with Gen Ed or CCSS from the crowd-sourced, teacher-made Teachers Pay Teachers website. As a result, standardization becomes extremely difficult, and special education teachers and IEP teams are often left to develop their own curriculum.
How did we get here? For years, teachers pushed back against using boxed curriculum because they found it stifling and boring, and most importantly, that it didn’t meet the needs of all students. Teachers wanted creative freedom and flexibility, which has been both beautiful and problematic, and adapting Common Core curriculum is now a labor-intensive, ever-evolving, and completely inefficient process that impacts too many students. 
So while there are limited grade-level curricula available for students on alternate curriculum, it’s important to know that Core Content Connectors (CCCs) and Essential Understandings (EUs) can be used to help the IEP team determine the necessary skills to teach students. For example, if 7th-grade Common Core State Standards say that general education students should be learning to “cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text” (7.RL.1), the CCC states that students should ”use two or more pieces of textual evidence to support inferences, conclusions, or summaries of text.” The Essential Understanding (EU) then identifies the essential component that a student should learn as the following: ”make an inference from a literary text.” As such, teachers, parents, and IEP teams can use the standards, CCCs, and EUs to modify the general education curriculum to meet the needs of students taking the alternate state assessment. (Remember that the use of alternative curriculum can affect whether a student is on track to receive a diploma or certificate of completion upon graduation.) 
So what is available to general education teachers to support them in providing all students with meaningful access to the curriculum with multiple modes of access, modifications/accommodations, and extensions? We’ve rounded up a list of recommended programs. 

Unique Learning System 
Unique Learning System is an online standards-based program that provides students with complex learning needs individualized access to the general education curriculum. The curriculum is organized into three different developmental tracks and has age-appropriate curriculum available for the following grade level bands: Pre-K, Elementary (K­–2), Intermediate (3­–5), Middle School (6­–8), High School (9­–12), and Transition. Unique is appropriate for students in Pre-K through age 22 and is intended to meet the developmental needs of all learners through their three-level system. This program is aligned with general education standards and can be implemented in a general education classroom. To learn more about the advantages of this online learning program, you can watch a short informational video that provides samples of daily instruction or see their in-depth brochure.

  • Grade Level: Pre-K–12 and Transition
  • Curriculum Type: Common Core Aligned/Alternate
  • Use Model: Alternate curriculum to be used instead of general education curriculum (in special education classroom or general education classroom)
  • Areas of instruction: English/Language Arts/Reading, Math, Science and Social Studies
  • Cost: $582.24 per year 

Early Literacy Skills Builder (ELSB)
Early Literacy Skills Builder (ELSB) is built for students “who need to develop the foundations of literacy (conventions of print, phonemic awareness, letter-sound correspondence, and some sight word vocabulary.)” ELSB is aligned with Common Core standards and is based on the principles of systematic and direct instruction. It includes scripted lessons, least-prompt strategies, teachable objectives, built-in lesson repetition, and ongoing assessments. ELSB is a multi-year curriculum for students with a variety of communication methods and can be adapted to support AAC.

  • Grade Level: Adaptable for individual or small group settings and for grades K–5
  • Curriculum Type: Common Core Aligned
  • Use Model: Supplementary or Alternate Curriculum 
  • Cost: $695–$895

Edmark Reading Program
The Edmark Reading Program is an incremental sight-based reading program that provides a supplement or alternative to phonics instruction. Edmark encourages student motivation and mastery by breaking learning into steps that ensure struggling readers achieve over 90 percent correct answers. This approach leads students to feel confident that they are, in fact, successful readers. It is intended for use with students who have not yet mastered learning phonemic awareness and phonics. Edmark teaches vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency skills with frequently used words, and it uses a highly repetitive word recognition method combined with errorless learning. This positive reinforcement instills confidence in the reader. Methods of instruction include use of manipulatives, oral and sight word vocabulary, controlled vocabulary stories, social skills enrichment, and continuous progress monitoring.

Edmark has an online version of its curriculum that can be easily used with their physical version. 

Lexia Core5
(800) 580-4275 

Lexia is designed to support educators in teaching literacy skills. The program offers six areas of reading instruction, targets skill gaps, and gives educators the data and resources they will need for each individual student. Students are able to work independently on an individualized path and are “motivated by their own success.” The assessments are done without testing, and the educator will have access to resources for direct instruction. Prior to purchasing, students may demo the program. Visit the Lexia Core5 webpage for additional information, pricing, and frequently asked questions. 

  • Grade Level: Pre-K–5  
  • Curriculum Type: Common Core Aligned
  • Use Model: Supplementary or can be used as the general education curriculum 
  • Cost: $175 for a one-year subscription
  • Platform: iPad, Chromebook, and web-based

MEville to WEville
MEville to WEville is a literacy and communication supplemental curriculum specifically developed for students with disabilities who have difficulty learning to read and write through traditional methods. It is “designed to build a classroom community that promotes a sense of belonging,” and “each unit offers students a new and different perspective on themselves, their families, and their school” with literacy lessons that relate to real life. The curriculum allows for adaptation to assistive technology devices. MEville to WEville includes 75 lessons and 60 extension activities with the following topics: reading activities, vocabulary and word wall activities, writing activities, creating books, art projects, games, brainstorming, and relationship building.

  • Grade Level: K–12
  • Curriculum Type: Common Core Aligned & Alternate Standards Aligned
  • Use Model: To be used in special education classrooms or as intervention 
  • Cost: Request quote from vendor


Often thought of as the gold standard for teaching reading to children with dyslexia, the Orton-Gillingham multisensory approach utilizes sight, hearing, touch, and movement to help students connect language with letters and words. Multisensory curriculum helps give kids more than one way to learn and make connections between letter shapes and their sounds. The Orton-Gillingham step-by-step approach has worked well in populations with disabilities and is scientifically based on how children learn language.

  • Grade Level: All ages (Pre-K through adult)
  • Curriculum Type: Common Core Aligned
  • Use Model: Supplementary/Intervention
  • Cost: Teachers must be trained in the approach 

The following are programs that utilize the Orton-Gillingham approach:

  • Barton System
    (408) 559-3652

    Barton is a tutoring system for students of all ages who have difficulty with spelling, reading, and writing due to dyslexia or another learning disability. Parents can hire a Barton tutor or become a certified tutor themselves. Fill out this form to request a tutor list (there is an option to select a remote tutor to have sessions virtually). If parents choose to use the Barton System to tutor their children themselves, Barton will offer free unlimited support. Barton has 10 levels; levels one and two go fairly quickly, and once students reach level three it takes about three to five months to complete each level. Order online or call them directly for a breakdown of each learning level package with pricing. 
    • Grade Level: All ages 
    • Curriculum Type: Common Core Aligned
    • Use Model: Can be used as the general education curriculum or as intervention/supplementary
    • Cost: Tutor rates vary depending on area or remote tutoring; there are 10 learning levels, each one ranging in cost from $300 to $350 
    • Platform: DVD or digital (Windows or Macintosh computer or iPad or Android tablet) 


  • Explode the Code
    (800) 225-5750 

    This program helps kids build the literacy skills “needed for reading success: phonological awareness, decoding, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, and spelling” utilizing the Orton-Gillingham approach. They offer an online program where parents can sign up for a 12-month subscription, which includes access to eight books of learning content and ongoing program support (both implementation and technical). They also offer a workbook program in print. View a breakdown of the items offered and pricing here
    • Grade Level: K–4
    • Curriculum Type: Common Core Aligned
    • Use Model: Can be used as the general education curriculum or as intervention/supplementary
    • Cost: Online subscription for one “seat” (student) is $65; print materials range from $6 to $18


  • Wilson Reading System
    (800) 899-8454

    Wilson Reading System uses the Orton-Gillingham approach as well, providing a curriculum for teaching reading and spelling. The system teaches the structure of words to help students learn a coding system for reading and spelling. The program is sequential and provides interactive lesson plans. According to their website, it is “structured to progress from phoneme segmentation to more challenging tasks, and seeks to improve sight word knowledge, fluency, vocabulary, oral expressive language development, and reading comprehension.” This system is used in SMMUSD and CCUSD.
    • Grade Level: 2nd grade to adults who may require more intensive instruction due to a language-based learning disability or dyslexia
    • Curriculum Type: Common Core Aligned 
    • Use Model: Can be used as the general education curriculum or as intervention/supplementary
    • Cost: Teachers must be trained in the system to implement in school


Reading Mastery
McGraw Hill

Reading Mastery is a reading program that uses the Direct Instruction method to help students master basic decoding and comprehension skills, placing emphasis on teaching thinking skills and helping students acquire background knowledge. Lessons include seven to nine short activities that include phonemic awareness, letter-sound correspondence, sounding out of words, word recognition, vocabulary, oral reading fluency, and comprehension. Students are grouped by similar reading level, based on program placement tests. Every error is corrected, and children learn to use both phonics and context in constructing understanding.

  • Grade Level: Available in two versions, Reading Mastery Classic levels I and II (grades K–3) and Reading Mastery Signature Edition, an integrated reading-language program for grades K–6 
  • Curriculum Type: Common Core Aligned
  • Use Model: Supplementary/Intervention
  • Cost: Varies based on which components are purchased, with prices ranging from $10 to $450

Teaching to Standards: English Language Arts
Teaching to Standards: English Language Arts is a “research and standards-based curriculum for secondary students to learn language arts with age-appropriate novels like Holes and Number the Stars.” The curriculum is a multi-year system that aligns with Common Core standards and focuses on persuasive writing, grammar, vocabulary, literacy comprehension, listening skills, and research. Teaching to Standards adapts 15 popular literary works into simplified text with repeated storylines and symbol supports in genres that include fiction, nonfiction, plays, and poetry. The curriculum integrates traditional formats including books and manipulatives with computer software and an iPad app.

  • Grade Level: 6–12
  • Curriculum Type: Common Core Aligned
  • Use Model: Can be used for students on alternate curriculum in special education classrooms or general education classrooms if the class is working on the same novels/content
  • Cost: $349–$699

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