Learning Difficulties

These articles all relate to learning difficulties.

Dyslexia: Learning Difference Not Disability

This is an interview with Karey Hope and Howie DeGraaf of Dyslexia Victoria Online.
September 2012

Some Characteristics of Dyslexics

Karey: There is a tendency for dyslexics to be very intelligent. We look at dyslexia as a learning difference – a right-brained processing style. Depending on the research you’re looking at, 10-25% of the population has some level of dyslexia.

While some dyslexics struggle with reading, spelling and writing, for some dyslexics, their challenge shows up in math and processing, or in an inability to understand instructions as they are given.
Most dyslexics think using many images – their mouth tripping over itself trying to keep up. They know what they want to say but can’t find the words. They can see the ideas in their minds but can’t express the ideas well in written or spoken form. They’re thinking so many things at once that other people have a hard time following and understanding what they’re trying to say.

We can often recognize a dyslexic student through their writing: they may start a thought at the beginning, and then finish the thought later in the middle of the paper. That’s because they are trying to say everything that’s in their mind all at once and it just comes out.

As well, dyslexic students are generally extremely spatial and this begins to impact them in terms of understanding instructions. They tend to sense all around themselves at once. So, if a teacher asks them to point to the back of the chair, they need to get very specific: the student will ask if it’s the front or back of the chair back that they should point to.

They have a need for complete instruction. For example if a boss puts a package on the desk and asks them to mail it, they won’t do it if they don’t understand the full instructions (or are afraid to ask). They don’t know whether to send it UPS or Canada Post; take it to the post office or get someone to pick it up; send it to arrive tomorrow or next week, etc.

So, these students are the ones asking a million questions (even if the questions were already answered the week before). They are very literal and need to know if each situation is the same or different. They never assume and always want to double-check.

Howie: They’ll start asking questions after instructions are given. Many times what they’re asking for is the information to be presented in a different way.

Interestingly, when writing out steps and equations, they don’t trust that step one leads to step ten. They don’t want to hear step one but to hear the whole concept first.

Dyslexics also tend to go off on tangents and go off-track a lot. They know they’re smart, but they are very impacted by their learning difference. Sadly, they’re often told they’re not working hard enough or that they’re lazy, but this isn’t really the case.

How Dyslexic and Right-Brained Students Think

Karey: It’s not that dyslexics can’t understand abstracts; dyslexic individuals are actually excellent at understanding abstract ideas. Some of the most famous inventors and scientists in history have been dyslexic.

Dyslexics have difficulty understanding the abstract ideas of decoding words, sentences, phonics and numbers the way they are usually taught in the regular classroom. So we need to understand that this issue with abstracts is part of right-brained processing. Roughly 40% of people process with the right-brain. This doesn’t mean that they are necessarily dyslexic but they can have issues with abstracts as well.

Non-dyslexics think primarily in words while dyslexics process information primarily in images. This is one of the reasons dyslexics tend to go off on tangents: they just have so many images and ideas that come to mind when working on a problem or working out a process. NASA did a study and found that non-dyslexics can process or think about 252 words per minute, whereas dyslexics can process about 10,000 images per minute.

This is also one of the strengths of the dyslexic: they make great problem solvers because they naturally can think outside-the-box. In fact, about 50% of CEO’s of the top Fortune 500 companies in England are dyslexic. There are similar statistics for companies in North America as well.

The ability to read and write is not genetically encoded. We have been taught how to use many abstract concepts in order to read and write and do mathematic calculations. It is because these abstracts are difficult to understand for the right-brained or dyslexic that they are at a distinct disadvantage in regular schools as compared to the left-brained or non-dyslexic.

Left-brained people, looking at words and numbers, use the left brain to process them, accessing the language part of the brain which has systems for decoding. Right-brained people don’t use their left brain to look at words and numbers; they may be using the part of the brain that processes faces. This works with symbols efficiently, but these symbols need to be directly connected with something real.

For example, pre-historic man looking at a dinosaur footprint (a symbol), recognized it as representing something real (food or something to fear). Right-brained people are trying to use this same logic to relate to words. The sounds of the letters C-A-T, however, don’t have any real-world meaning unless connected to the image or experience of an actual cat. These sounds, or phonemes, don’t have any correlation with something that is real. So, it’s possible for kids to read phonetically but with no understanding of what is being read.

When we go with an approach that uses whole-word recognition, students’ ability to recognize words goes up. In this approach, we are using ‘concretes’ and an image that links to what it’s meant to be representing.

Howie: Dyslexics are experiential in their learning. If you can’t ground them in something they can experience or sense, then they will most likely not understand the abstract on paper.

Techniques for Working with Dyslexics

Howie: Dyslexics process information in a different way: it’s a learning difference. Once that is understood, then information can be presented in a way that works. It can be accommodated easily – not necessarily with totally new lesson plans, just different techniques for presenting the same information.

If material is being presented in terms that the dyslexic can’t understand, they have a hard time doing the work. It may seem like they’re day-dreaming; often they are afraid to ask. We need to change their learning environment to suit their learning styles as much as possible – to stack the deck so that learning will be easier for them.

Karey: Time, measurement, and spelling are all things that need to be explained in a way that make sense to them. Then they open up and have a tendency to run with it because they’re very intelligent. Dyslexics are most often very inquisitive; once they learn a topic they tend to want to learn more.

Howie: There is a way to teach to dyslexics that involves “whole word” recognition. This is how we teach spelling and reading, and it increases comprehension. Most dyslexics have great, nearly photographic memories.

Karey: Teachers often introduce a topic sequentially, step -by-step, rather than with an overview. Dyslexic students, then, get lost – not sure what was being taught without the whole picture to compare it to. Dyslexics need to understand the bigger picture.

Mind maps, clustering, and bubbles are so effective for these students for many subjects. Make it into a picture first then break it into steps. What they need to be able to do is to start with the key ideas then break it down into the components, and then write from that. If they don’t do this, they can’t write well.

When dyslexic students have difficulty writing essays, for example, it’s because they do not know how to take big the picture perspective (the forest) then describe the smaller details (the trees). So that’s where they have to be lead: to see the forest before the trees. Students need to be taught how to put their thoughts down on paper and then organize them.

Howie: One teen we worked with didn’t understand geometry. I took a piece of paper and folded it into a triangle. A triangle drawn on a flat sheet made absolutely no sense to her. Once she saw that a triangle was a real thing she could experience and interact with, then everything else fell into place, like the formulas and working out the angles. It’s not that she couldn’t understand the steps in solving the equations, but she had to know what a triangle meant: what it looked and felt like.

Draw everything or do it physically, if you can. Help the student to understand it as a real thing, then they can understand it on paper. They need a reason to do it.

They need to see the end result. They need to see a complete example first then go back and learn the steps. Let them see the movie then read the book. Let them read the last chapter first. Show the end result first then go through the steps – they have to see the big picture. Let students see a book review before asking them to write one. Show examples of formatting; don’t just tell them about formatting. Show them a completed science project, a completed book report, a completed essay, etc.

Karey: When checking spelling, grammar and writing, make comments on how to improve specifically. Demonstrate and correct the changes that need to be made. Don’t just mark on a concept or give a grade, let students rewrite after explanations. They quickly improve with practice and a little extra guidance.

Paying Attention to Homework: Suggestions for Parents of Students with Attention Difficulties

by Dahlia Miller
May 2007

“The wildest colts make the best horses.”
Themistocles 514-449 BC

Doing homework isn’t an easy task for any student. For students with “attention difficulties” it can be much more challenging.

These students may have difficulty sitting down to do homework. They may feel overwhelmed by how much work there is, and so do nothing. They may get frustrated, not understanding what is expected or why an assignment is important. They may be distracted and so spend hours “doing” homework but with little result.

Parents can help their child who has attention difficulties feel more comfortable doing homework, and experience more successes, by working creatively with their child’s strengths. Below are some tips for parents – the list is by no means exhaustive and definitely needs to be tailored to each student’s needs.

Study Space

  • Reduce extraneous or distracting information from study environment.
  • Check in to see if there are any “hidden” attention distracters in study areas – feel/size/look of pencil or paper, uncomfortable chair, etc.
  • Post a calendar to mark in upcoming assignments and projects (as well as completion dates for rough work).
  • Make posters about information being learned and post them around study area (ex. spelling words or information that needs to be remembered) – this can allow the student to learn passively through exposure, if it isn’t too distracting.
  • Provide computerized learning materials when possible and appropriate.
  • Provide school supplies that meet your child’s interests and talents – white boards, tape recorders, poster paper.
  • Consider setting up two study spaces so the student can move between them – this allows movement as well as self-regulation.

Working with Homework

  • Encourage list-making and setting of priorities.
  • Set specific goals for each homework sitting to provide success.
  • Help student get started on projects or assignments.
  • Pre-task preview – outline the purpose of each task clearly with clear sequence of steps, and have the child repeat instructions.
  • Highlight key information in questions.
  • Use a watch alarm to show a time limit.
  • Cover worksheets up to focus on only a few questions at a time.
  • Check in with mid-task reinforcement – focus on short intervals.
  • Avoid character assassinations when homework is difficult.
  • Offer rewards.
  • Colour code notebooks so they’re simpler to keep organized.
  • Set up a homework notebook to keep work that is “to do” and “to hand in” obvious.
  • Consider/Test how your student thinks – in words, numbers, pictures, music, physical sensations. Use strategies to tap natural cognitive aspects. Some examples:
    • Visualization or guided imagery – imagine a trip through the circulatory system or visualize the spelling of a word or a scene from history, draw pictures to illustrate math problems or visualize the steps to a math problem.
    • Biofeedback or kinaesthetic approaches – spell words with the body or jump for consonants and sit for vowels, have a reading rocking chair, act continental drift by walking around room, dance a conga line for multiplication with kicks at correct multiples, pantomime.
    • Music – read aloud with music in background and have student just relax and listen to music, develop rhymes to help memorization, write a song to help memorize information, do work to metronome or steady background beat.
    • Self talk or talk aloud to focus or organize thoughts – teach someone the material, describe the steps before doing the work, conduct interviews on tape.
    • Videos, computer sites, etc.
  • Support regular and frequent breaks – especially physically active breaks.
  • Show the student evidence of improvement.
  • Help child verbalize frustrations – take a break to regain control and brainstorm alternatives.
  • Assess if additional academic support is needed at home or school.
  • Set specific times for specific tasks – when does your child focus best? Perhaps arrange homework to be done then.
  • Teach organization and study skills.
  • Build memorizing skills with memory techniques (see the April 2004 Smart Connection for examples of mnemonics) or use study tools like flashcards.
  • Use drama and have fun when explaining information – encourage creativity and improvisation.

Working with Teachers

  • Educate yourself about the school system, philosophies, policies, supports.
  • Work directly and respectfully with teachers and counsellors – express appreciation to them for their dedication to your child’s education.
  • Provide teachers with brief materials on ADD, ADHD or other learning difficulties, as appropriate.
  • Set a homework plan with the teacher.
  • Suggest the least distractible seating in the class (at the front or the back usually).
  • Ask that assignments be modified, if needed (submitting a recording or photo journal instead of a report, for example; or shortening an assignment – teacher, parent and student agreeing on a minimum time effort to be put into the work).
  • Request your child be allowed alternatives to in-class activities (allowing student to do homework during free reading time, for example).
  • Encourage your child to ask for help at school – role-play how to advocate.
  • Involve students in decision-making with school-related issues.

Home: General Suggestions

  • As a family discuss topics being studied.
  • Set clearly structured daily routines – be predictable.
  • Tell what is coming next and what the situation will look like.
  • Offer frequent healthy snacks.
  • Let the student dictate the necessary boundaries and limits – allow him/her to assume accountability for effects of behaviour.
  • Ask child how many reminders s/he wants.
  • Pre-determine consequences – be clear and consistent.
  • Give immediate feedback.
  • Catch your child being good.
  • Brainstorm and post your child’s positive traits – hold a positive image of your child as a student.
  • Discuss what your child is feeling inside – about self, school, friends, and parents.
  • Encourage creative expression at home – clay, paints, building materials or in classes for music, dance, painting, pottery, etc.
  • Remember that free unstructured play contributes to a child’s intellectual, social and emotional welfare – allow opportunities to make good choices.
  • Offer positive role models.

Selected Bibliography

ADD/ADHD Alternatives in the Classroom. Armstrong, Thomas. 1999: ASCD, Virginia.
From Chaos to Calm. Heininger, Janet E. 2001: Berkeley Publishing, NY.
Teaching the Restless: One School’s Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed. Mercogliano, Chris. 2004: Beacon Press.
Teenagers with ADD & ADHD. Zeigler Dendy, Chris. 2000: Woodbine House.
T.O.L.D. Checklist & Strategy Guide. Allison, Barbara & Mary-Jane Hardie. 1997.

Re-Training the Brain

March 2007

This month’s article is an interview with Craig Shaw, owner of Springboard Cognitive Training in Victoria. Craig is a former teacher and counsellor. He now works with children with learning difficulties to address and correct their learning issues at the cognitive level.

STR: What is “cognitive processing,” and how is it linked to learning and learning difficulties?

Craig: Cognitive processing is how your brain works to process information and remember things, which is absolutely essential to the learning process in general. Quite often, however, the root causes of learning difficulties can be rooted even deeper than the cognitive level.

A good way to look at the basics of learning is to think of the ABC’s:
A– Attention
B – Balance
C – Co-ordination

We know that kids who have difficulty paying attention in class are not going to do well. A high percentage of kids who struggle in school have balance difficulties and problems with their inner ear, and they often have subtle and not so subtle co-ordination problems – like issues with gross and fine motor skills which can affect written output, sitting still in class as well as a broad range of underlying skills that are required to succeed in school. For kids with more pronounced learning difficulties, these skills are absolutely critical because they underlie higher cognitive difficulties.

The neuro-developmental aspects of the brain are deep down in the brain stem which is developed early on, usually in a child’s first year, and very often kids with learning difficulties will not have gone through the early stages of their development fully – they may have skipped or omitted stages in their early development – and this affects their attention, balance and co-ordination. I believe that these deeply rooted weaknesses often need to be dealt before we can expect broad academic success. If these are deeper issues that aren’t dealt with, it can be like building another floor on a house without a good foundation.

STR: What are some symptoms of neuro-developmental delays?

Craig: There is a broad range of difficulties that may occur – they are hints of lags or delays:

  • Trouble sitting still
  • Difficulty sensing where the body is in space (lack of body awareness)
  • Difficulties forming letters when writing (here, the higher part of the brain is compensating for what is automatic for most people. These kids don’t get to a place where writing is automatic, so structuring sentences and punctuation become nearly impossible to perform; they are struggling so much with performing the basics of writing.)
  • Signs of social immaturity
  • Difficulties in areas like bed-wetting
  • Difficulties learning to dress themselves
  • Slow learning to ride a bicycle
  • Slow learning to read from an analog clock
  • Letter reversals
  • Skipping lines when reading

STR: Can neuro-cognitive training address these learning issues?

Craig: Yes. There has been a revolution in research – we’ve got a much better handle on how people learn than even 10 years ago. Now, more practitioners are able to take this research and design programs that target the areas of the brain or sensory system that are holding the student back.

I often see significant improvements for kids with mild learning difficulties within 6 months by doing an intensive cognitive training program. Students with more pronounced difficulties take longer, but they can also be trained to learn more easily.

STR: What is the background of neuro-cognitive training?

Craig: The INPP, The Institute of Neuro-Physiological Psychology, where I did my training, was founded in 1975 in England. They’ve been working with kids all over Europe since 1975, fine-tuning and improving their program as they’ve learned more and more. They have institutions, which are training facilities, run by doctors, occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists, educators, and neuro-psychologists. People from all over the world go to the main institute in England to receive training. In jurisdictions in Europe, INPP is considered on rank with occupational therapy (OT).

There is an interesting story behind the INPP program’s popularity in the U.K. There, they track kids every three years with standardized tests – in Northern U.K. they were using the INPP program in schools without informing the government. Kids in the lower percentiles in northern U.K. were making significant progress within three years, so the national government looked into what they were doing in the schools. Now, the Ministry of Education in the U.K. is hoping to make the INPP program available to as many schools as they can.

It’s a user-friendly way to help with a child’s neurological maturity that can have major impacts on their learning, behaviour, and general co-ordination.

STR: What kinds of improvements do you see with neuro-cognitive training?

Craig: Of course the results vary, but in general, students make significant gains in their attention, memory, self-esteem, reasoning, and general processing which lead to easier, faster learning. They usually become more proficient at reading, writing, spelling and math.

STR: What kinds of neuro-cognitive training programs do you offer?

Craig: I have a number of different programs to address students’ individual needs, including: the INPP, which is a home program, where parents work with their kids 5-10 minutes/day for about one year; LIFT – Listening Fitness, which improves auditory processing; Interactive Metronome – used by pro sports teams and in schools in the U.S. like the Julliard School for Music – it enhances the connections between movement, listening and learning; PACE – which focuses on memory, concentration, auditory and visual processing, reasoning and processing speed – PACE is the largest cognitive training program of its type in the world with over fifteen hundred trainers in North America, but only two in Victoria.

STR: Are there some things that parents can do at home to support the cognitive development of their kids?

Craig: We’ve known for a long time that there is a connection between movement and learning. One of the best things parents can do is be sure that kids are physically active – exercise is crucial to optimum brain performance.

As well, be sure to support kids with:

  • Regular sleep patterns
  • Healthy diet – especially fruits and vegetables
  • Omega oils
  • Music and dance (these are fantastic training for the brain: connecting sounds with movement, which is essentially what writing is – connecting sound, through language, and movement)
  • Exercise programs which bring an awareness of the link between mind and body like yoga, pilates, tai chi, taekwondo, and qi gong are also very good.

You’ll find more information at http://www.inpp.org.uk/, or read The Well Balanced Child by Sally Goddard Blythe.