WHAT A DIFFERENCE!
Understanding, teaching, and empowering students with language-based learning differences such as dyslexia
Kendra McCuine, M.Ed, teacher and interim director of the Hope Graham Program (HGP) at Bancroft School, writes about the beautiful and amazing dyslexic brain. Read on and discover further proof of what Hope Graham students already know: Dyslexia is a difference, not a disability!
As parents and teachers, we often notice that our students are able to speak about a subject with detail and ease yet fall apart when asked to write about that same theme. It is immensely important that our children develop strong writing skills that enable them to communicate their great ideas. Yet writing is arguably the most difficult academic task that we can ask of our children.
Why is writing so hard? The answer lies in the sheer number of component skills that are required for successful writing. A brief list these subskills includes:
- Sentence Structure
- Language Comprehension
- Expressive Language
- Flexible Vocabulary
- Planning and Organization
- Flexibility (willingness to delete previous work during the revision process)
For any of us to do a good job carrying out a task with a lot of component parts, like writing, we must master each of the component parts to the point that we can perform them without much thought. Our brains each have a limit on the amount of energy and attention that we can devote to any activity at any given time. The more automatic we are with one task, the more of our precious cognitive energy and attention we can devote to another.
In writing, this means that if a student struggles significantly with handwriting, she will have very little energy and attention to devote beyond forming individual letters. Another student may be able to spell with relative ease, but if he lacks a strong knowledge of sentence structure, he will not have enough cognitive capacity to focus on organizing his composition in a way that makes sense. The skill with which the child has the most difficulty gets the most energy and attention, at the expense of all of the other skills required for strong writing.
One way to get around such difficulties is through accommodations. Accommodating a student means opening up an access point to the curriculum without changing the teaching approach or the actual assignment. For example, students who struggle significantly with handwriting or spelling can utilize speech-to-text technology, voice recordings, or scribes in order to bypass these difficulties. For a student who finds it hard to plan or organize her writing, the teacher might break down the assignment and provide specific templates for her to fill in before drafting her composition.
We accommodate students so that they can successfully complete the assignments in front of them. However, the ultimate goal is to provide instruction that decreases the need for these accommodations in the first place. In the Hope Graham Program, our teachers and tutors work with students on all of writing’s component skills, and students practice each of them until they are automatic. They work intensively on spelling during their language classes and tutorials, build on their understanding of sentence structure from Grade 2 all the way up through Grade 8, and practice planning and organizing their writing across all of the academic disciplines. This year, our HGP teachers are excited to be partnering with an occupational therapist so that they can help their students to develop stronger handwriting skills in the classroom.
I invite and encourage you to share this information with your child the next time he or she experiences frustration with writing. Reflecting on which part of the process is breaking down can help students to feel empowered and advocate for themselves effectively.
Writing is really hard, but by understanding which part of it is causing difficulty for a child, we can make it easier.
Without a doubt, the daily instruction provided in the Hope Graham Program provides students with the skills that they need to decode and understand text. We help them to develop the neurological pathways necessary for accurate and efficient reading through the highly effective Orton-Gillingham approach. We provide modeling, guided practice, and opportunities for independent application of the best research-based comprehension strategies. And we engage our students in frequent fluency drills in order to build their reading speed, accuracy, and expression.
While these underlying reading skills are absolutely necessary for our students to succeed, they are insufficient in their own right. Fitting with Bancroft’s mission to develop lifelong learners, the Hope Graham Program aims to empower students not only to know how to read well, but to become readers for life.
While we can and do measure the indicators that a child is progressing in his or her reading ability, the broader goal of empowering lifelong readers is far more difficult to directly assess. We can get a sense that a child is on the right track when they:
- Have access to books that match their interests and passions
- Spark and engage in conversations outside of school about what they are reading
- Keep track of books that they would like to read in the future
- Are developing the stamina to read independently for increasingly lengthy periods
- Can identify the books that have most impacted or resonated with them
- Connect information and life events to what they have read in books
Hope Graham Program teachers facilitate this progression by exposing students to all kinds of books at their “just right” level, encouraging students to ear-read (listen to) more difficult but engaging texts while reading along in a hard-copy text, helping students to make lists of books they would like to read, and providing opportunities for students to build reading stamina, both in school and for homework. In addition, as students enter the upper middle grades, they begin to track their “textual lineage,” documenting the books that have resonated with them and have therefore contributed to their growing sense of who they are as individuals.
We know that children who read stay readers. A term that is often used in the field of reading instruction is the “Matthew Effect,” meaning that the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. Students who read a lot experience substantial growth in their reading skills, while those who do not read for pleasure outside of school lose pace significantly with their peers who do. The number of words that students are exposed to when they read, or do not read, is staggering (Image credit: Kyleen Beers):
Incredibly, students who read less than a minute each day are exposed to 8,000 words in a year, while students who read for 20 minutes per day are exposed to 1.8 million words in the same period of time! All of those words translate to an expanded bank of word knowledge and familiarity that helps students to decode more accurately, read more quickly, and understand more deeply.
If these figures make you worry that your child has missed out or is behind, don’t. Lifelong learners do not develop overnight, and it’s never too late for students to build a robust reading life. This is the work of a child’s entire academic career. Rather, we as parents, teachers, and students ought to feel empowered. The work we do each day helps to grow readers who love to learn through text, and who can speak with enthusiasm at the dinner table about the latest great thing they’ve read.
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