Addressing learning problems
As a teacher, once the LASS tests have been used, you will want to know how to use your student’s strengths to develop the identified areas of weakness. Many students tend to have a greater strength in visual, auditory or tactile cognitive areas and this influences their preferred way of learning. The student who has dyslexic problems will tend to have a very uneven profile, with some cognitive areas in the low centiles and others high. Looking at the whole profile will provide you with evidence of the areas that need attention and at the same time indicate where the strengths are, so that you can use those strengths to mitigate or remediate the problem learning areas. Analysis of the problem areas may provide you with insight into the nature of the problem.
When specific areas of learning difficulty have been identified by LASS, there are a wide range of teaching strategies that can be used to build on the student’s strengths to mitigate or remediate the weaknesses. Most schools will already have a range of reading and spelling activities, worksheets, prompt cards, teaching schemes and devices, which can now be selected and used in a more focused way. Suggestions are made in this chapter on how such materials can be put to most effective use. To supplement and extend existing support materials, there are equally — or, sometimes, more — effective ICT solutions that can be introduced to extend the range of strategies at a teacher’s disposal.
In some cases you may have some awareness of a student’s difficulties before you use LASS. Concern about a student’s progress will often be the stimulus to carry out an assessment. A student with dyslexic and/or dyspraxic tendencies will typically present with problems in all or most of these characteristic areas:
- short-term memory (auditory-verbal or visual)
- phonological processing skills
- phonic decoding skills
- poor presentation due to motor skills and/or constantly correcting errors
- arrogance and/or low self-esteem
- disorganised work and life.
Such characteristics are almost bound to create problems for teachers and are likely to become a stimulus for conflict.
It is very likely that a student with dyslexia will have a mismatch between high level oral skills in class discussions and the quantity and quality of any written work that is produced. Possibly, reading skills may be underdeveloped, with lack of fluency, frequent decoding errors and poor comprehension of text. Spelling may be minimal, phonetic or bizarre and only simple words written, when much more complex words are used orally. Especially where there is some element of dyspraxia, the student’s handwriting may be erratic, spidery, very small, very large or deeply indented into the page. These are all indicators that a great deal of physical effort is required to write by hand, which puts increased stress on a brain that is struggling to cope with sequencing and orientation difficulties. Great difficulty or inability to organise the content of written work or set a priority on tasks can manifest itself as work not completed in class in the set time, or homework not handed in. There may also be problems of staying on-task due to memory problems, where the dyslexic student loses track of the content of a long sentence and keeps asking the teacher or other students for prompts
Some students will have developed advanced strategies for avoiding stressful work, which may be manifested as:
- lost writing equipment/books
- regular and prolonged visits to the toilet
- acting the class clown
- distracting other students
- provoking dismissal from the room
- school phobia.
None of these behaviours are likely to produce a good learning environment and if they become conduct problems, it is unlikely that the student will get the sympathetic support from the class teacher that is needed to address the learning difficulties.
Support versus remediation?
In general, strategies for addressing the learning problems of students in this age range will focus more on support than on remediation. The latter, particularly if it involves withdrawal from ordinary classes can often be embarrassing and stigmatising for an older student. The most important thing for students with dyslexia and related problems at the secondary education stage is to be enabled to access the curriculum, despite their difficulties. This can be achieved by various strategies, including use of assistive technology and support assistants. However, some students may still need to improve their basic skills, particularly in phonic decoding, word recognition and spelling. In such cases, suitable computer software designed to provide stimulating practice in the appropriate areas, can often be the most acceptable and effective solution.
Throughout this chapter, teachers will find recommendations regarding ICT solutions (hardware and software) and other resources. These materials were available at the time of printing, and addresses of suppliers are given in the Appendix (section 9.2). In the course of time these materials may become unavailable, while new materials are likely to come on to the market. Teachers should consult the Lucid website (www.lucid-research.com) for up-to-date information about current software and resources. Teaching strategies and suggested software for students with dyslexia and other literacy difficulties have been reviewed by Crivelli (2001) and Keates (2000). Teachers will find many additional suggestions in these highly recommended books. For further suggestions on suitable software see the British Dyslexia Association website (www.bdadyslexia.org.uk) which is updated on a regular basis.
Here we are much more concerned with a student’s areas of strength rather than their weaknesses. Areas of cognitive strength tend to lead to the student preferring certain approaches to learning over others. As time goes by, practice in using those strengths tends to create a firm basis for definite learning styles. For example, the student with strengths in visual memory will usually find that they recall pictorial information better than textual or verbal information. In time, this often tends to result in a preference for more ‘visual’ subjects (such as design and technology, geography, art and design) and in using visual ways to represent information that has to be leaned for examinations (e.g. mind mapping). At the point where the student (intuitively or deliberately) approaches learning in a qualitatively different way to some other students, we can say that they have a ‘learning style’. Learning styles (sometimes called ‘cognitive styles’) have been defined as an individual’s personal, consistent or characteristic approach to organizing, processing and representing information (Tennant, 1988; Riding and Rayner, 1998). Research suggests that learning styles can develop quite early in life and although they tend to be relatively stable, some changes can occur over time (Pinto and Geiger, 1991; Riding and Agrell, 1997).
There are many different models of learning style and there is insufficient space to consider all of these here, although a useful review has been provided by Riding and Cheema (1991). Early models of learning style which identified several different dimensions of style (e.g. Kolb, 1977, and Dunn and Dunn, 1978) have been criticised on theoretical and practical grounds, and in research studies have often produced inconsistent results (e.g. Murray-Harvey, 1994). More recent approaches (e.g. Riding and Rayner, 1998) have tended to focus on two principle dimensions: a wholist – analytic dimension, and verbal – visual dimension.
LASS can be useful in estimating where a student is likely to be on the visual–verbal learning styles dimension. If a student’s scores on Cave are better than those on Mobile then the student is likely to lie more towards the visual end of the continuum, whereas if the opposite result is found (i.e. scores on Mobile better than those on Cave) then the student is more likely to lie more towards the verbal end of the continuum. Visualisers will tend to find pictorial information easier to understand and remember — they prefer to think in pictures and use diagrams to explain themselves, while verbalisers will tend to find verbal information easier to understand and remember — they prefer to think in words and to use verbal descriptions to explain themselves. Clearly, when teaching in a group situation provision need to be made for both learning styles, but when an individual is learning by themselves, it is often beneficial for them to adopt their preferred learning style and to have materials that fit well with this learning style. On the other hand, in the interests of helping all students to be well-rounded, independent, efficient and flexible learners, it is useful to encourage them to enlarge their repertory of learning styles — e.g. to introduce the visualiser to ways in which they can develop their verbal learning skills and to help the verbaliser to think more visually when this is required. For ideas on how this can be achieved in the classroom, see Banner and Rayner (1997); Given and Reid (1999); Riding (2002); Riding and Rayner (1998); Riding and Sadler-Smith (1992).