Unraveling the Acronyms: Meanings Behind Special Education Terminology

Updated on February 21, 2017

Special education has a "special" language all its own. Those outside the field will hear a plethora of acronyms and jargon that are very unique to the profession. Even those within the special education sphere may become confused by the ever-growing list of terms associated with it.

Below is a list of acronyms and terms often associated with special education. Some have been used for decades while others such as RTI have come into use in the last few years. Still, this compiled list is only a fraction of the types of language used among special educators. A full list may fill several volumes of books, and the type of disabilities associated with special education may fill even more volumes (which is why they are not included in this list).

The list has been divided into two parts: the first is for common special education terms (most likely used in an IEP). The second refers to lesson planning terms used for this field.

Common Special Education Terms

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LRE (Least Restrictive environment): The placement of a student in a classroom environment that will not put restrictions on his learning ability or access to the curriculum.

Mainstreaming: The practice of having students with special needs placed in a general education setting instead of a special day classroom in all or in a selected course of study.

Inclusion: refers to the degree in which a student with special needs is mainstreamed.

FAPE: Free and Appropriate Education. Usually the goal of special education services.

IEP (Individual Education Plan): specialized education plan written for students with learning disabilities. As well as setting a yearly plan for the student, the legal document is designed to:

  • Identify the student’s disability;
  • Design goals and objectives in academics, pre-vocational skills and/or behaviors;
  • Establish the appropriate accommodations, related services, and educational designation (i.e. SDC, RSP); and
  • Prepare them for transition from one environment to another (whether it’s going into pre-school, switching from pre-school to elementary school, or going from high school to post-secondary school or job training). It is also known as an Annual since it is done every year

IDEA: Individual with Disability Education Act. The law that helped establish special education law throughout the United States. It is a civil rights law that addresses students with learning, emotional, and intellectual disorders. It also sets the rule for eligibility for special education and the designation of the IEP. It is often reviewed and revised every seven years by U.S. congress. Essentially, it is designed to assure students with disabilities get the same and appropriate education as their non-disabled peers. Usually, U.S Department of Education offers funding and guidelines to the states.

ADA: American with Disabilities Act. Another federal civil rights law for individuals with disabilities, -- as well as students with special needs -- that pertains to accommodations and/or modification of buildings, communication, and employment.

Section 504: Also another civil rights law pertaining to students with disabilities. This time it covers those not part of a special education program (physical disabilities). Also, it gives rights to those inflicted by ADHD/ADD and with chronic or serious illnesses such as AIDS or cancer.

The act of accommodating - but not changing - a lesson plan to help a student access the same lesson that his non-disabled peers are learning.

BSP (Behavioral Support Plan): this is used only when there's a need to address the student's behavior (sometimes, the student will be given cues or choices to correct their behavior or will be required to take counseling from a psychologist of DIS counselor). Students with emotional disorders are often given these.


Accommodation: The act of accommodating - but not changing - a lesson plan to help a student access the same lesson that his non-disabled peers are learning. Accommodations are often based on the student's strength and needs due to their disabilities. It may involve extra time on tests, repetition of directions or note-taking support.

Modification: A change in what is taught. Often, this happens when the student is reading, writing or doing math at extremely low levels. Often, students taking SDC or Life skill courses will not be taught the same curriculum as their non-disabled peers.

Triennial: A specialized IEP in which the student is assessed every three years to see where their academic levels are. The Triennial will involve an assessment by the psychologist or special educator, interviews with the student, parents and general education teachers. The findings are placed in a psychological report. The report is then used to write goals, objectives, transitions, accommodations and/or modifications.

RSP: (Resource special program): students with this designation are either fully mainstreamed in general education courses or spend 50 percent or more time in the general education classes. Often, these students have mild/moderate disabilities.

SDC (Special Day Class): a student with this designation spends more than half the day in special education classes. Usually, SDC courses are given in basic areas such as English, Math, Science or Social Studies. Here, they may have their courses modified to reflect their levels of ability in the subject area.

Life Skills: Usually, these students have moderate/severe disabilities and are sheltered in a day long course. The students may have disabilities such as low-functioning autism or mental retardation.

RTI (Response to Intervention): the intervention taken by the general education teachers before a student is recommended for assessment for a learning disability. As to note, districts throughout the country use RTI in different ways and will use RTI specialists who will utilize various tactics to determine if a student needs to be included or excluded from special education services.

Non-Responders: These are students who don't respond to RTI tactics.

Common Lesson Planning Terms Used in Special Education

Adaptation: to accommodate or modify text to fit a student's learning needs or reading ability.

Cognitive Strategy Instruction : forms of instructions that use steps, modeling, self-regulation, verbalization and reflective thinking.

Flexible grouping: A system in which reading groups are not static and students may belong to a varied or diverse reading group within the classroom.

Scaffolding: referred as "systematic sequencing" of a lesson. The philosophy behind this practice is to teach and master critical portions of a lesson then applying to the whole lesson. An example is learning to write a particular type of paragraph - such as a thesis statement or supporting paragraph - in order to eventually write an entire essay.

Semantic map: It is a graphic organizer to help students see the relationship between a word and concept with other words or concepts.

Schema Theory: When teachers use models or graphic organizers as teaching tool. It is based on using the sensory of the student to learn a concept. Other factors: sensing, attention, perception, short-term memories, executive functioning (meta-cognition) and teaching implication.

Phonemic awareness involves the unit of sound of a word

Meta-cognition: "Thinking about thinking"; it is when one is aware of the thought process.

Wait-time: Time needed for student to process the information given orally or through reading (this is important for students with learning disabilities such as auditory or visual processing disorders).


Phonological/Phonemic Awareness : It is knowing and demonstrating that a spoken language can be broken down into smaller units and can be manipulated within a grapheme (letters) system.

  • Phonemic awareness involves the unit of sound of a word.
  • Syntax - It is the way words, punctuation and other rules are used to form a sentence within a language (example: structure of English sentences - subject, verb, object)
  • Sight word - Commonly used words that should be recognizable on sight by a student (varies with grades).


PreP (Pre-reading Plan); a lesson (or sub-lesson) that is designed to prepare students for a unit of lesson. Usually, it is designed to trigger or strengthen a student's prior knowledge to the upcoming lesson.

KWL : A pre-lesson activity that incorporates three sections for students to write or discuss. K stands for what the students Know about a concept; W stands for what one wants to know or needs to know. The last, L, stands for what will the students Learn.

Story mapping: A graphic organizer is used to show or illustrate a story's plot or to demonstrate the lesson of cause-and-effect in a story.

Reciprocal teaching: It is an instructional strategy that incorporates four strategies to comprehend text: predicting, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing.

DR-TA (Directed reading Think Activity): its goal is to have student predict the outcome of an event in a story while they are reading it.

Advance organizers: pre-reading activities, maps and other devices used to enhance a students understanding of a text. Some examples: Venn-Diagram, K-W-L.

CBM (curriculum-based measurement): used to measure student's academic performance and the effectiveness of a lesson.

Explicit Code Instruction: Concentrating on reading and phonics, Multisensory structured language instruction; it is a linguistic instruction focusing on the decoding graphemes. Also, it involves vocabulary building, word sensory.

Error analysis: It is often used in running reading log assessments. Running reading logs record the errors a student makes while reading.

Cooperative learning: small groups formed to have students work together to maximize their own and each other's learning. Usually, students will be given roles to do in the group. Often, they are three to four per group.

Plain language: clear, modern language used to make text understandable; it is often used by some teachers and texts to explain difficult forms of literature such as Shakespeare. It is a form of modified text.

More to Come...

Most of the terms listed came from the dawn of the new decade and further back to the 2000s and the 1990s. Since then, new terms have emerged. For instance here are four:

SAI: Special academic Instruction. This is a catch-all for special education. Often this involves a combination of several former designations of RSP, SDC and ED. Due to budgetary concerns in some school districts, this course was added to replace all three types.

CBI: Community Based Instruction. Merely a new name for basic or life skills courses. It caters to students with moderate to severe disabilities (i.e. intellectual disorders or low-functioning autism).

DI: Direct Instruction. A type of educational approach used in both general and special education courses. It tends to use modeling, lecture and guided questions often associated with the Socratic Method.

Co-Taught: Courses in which a general and special education teachers team up to teach one class - often reserved for general and RSP students and counts in most districts as a general education class.

As time goes on, more jargon will emerge. This field of education is constantly changing. In fact, much that was presented here is only an example (and shall be noted to be exclusive to the United State's school system). Also to change will be the language that's used by the special educators. That means more acronyms will be created.

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