The most important lesson I learned from my learning-disabled (LD) students was the value in believing that they could do anything that I prepared well to teach them, using direct instruction, paired with strategies (or tricks, as I told them) to assure that they would easily remember. I knew inherently that the most important influence in improving learning for students was a good teacher—one who did her homework. There were no magic potions or fancy strategies that made teaching students with learning disabilities all that different than teaching other students, except that they needed the mnemonics and strategies to acquire and retain information. Learning-disabled students often put a lot of pressure on themselves—knowing that they are as bright as the next student, but unable to do some of the same tasks as their same-aged peers.
Motivating the reluctant learner is as simple as assuring multiple routes of access to materials, and planning for possible pitfalls as often as you can—plus putting a value on setting students up to succeed. It is only natural that failure to learn in the way that others do sets up a natural cycle of failure for our LD students. Planning to inspire genius with a new tool or strategy is the way to motivate all of your LD students. They key is to assure that you provide direct instruction in the strategy and model its use until you are confident that students are effective in their independent use of the strategy. If one approach doesn’t work we must assure our students that it is NOT them, but instead, it is the need to find the right fix for them—the right strategy that will help them to learn—too often, as educators, we are wed to what we know worked for us, or what worked with other students. We must let go of this idea, and work to assure that we keep on hunting until we find the right strategy for each student.
One of my most successful strategy stories is the consistent use of the SQ3R strategy for studying. It was developed in the 1970’s as a study skill for reading textbooks at the college level, but throughout the decades has evolved to be a tool that can easily be adapted to any reading materials you are using with students. SQ3R stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite (Retell or Write), and Review. When assigned a reading activity my students were taught to use this strategy, that became a part of all content area reading, and even helped them in reading their novels, or shorter articles assigned. Survey means to look over the reading material, view pictures, and get a sense (predict) as to what the reading will be about. Question then has the student turn any headings into questions (and I also suggested that they look at any questions at the end to provide a focus for reading). Read then means to read to find the answers to your questions. Recite was the fourth step and required students to answer the questions after reading. My students would write the answers, or record them (some preferred listening to the tape as review). Finally they would Review and assure they were confident with their understanding of the material. Setting the stage for their own reading with this strategy (that we literally used for all readings) went a long way to building confidence and a ‘can do’ attitude with the students.
Three other strategies that inspired my students to improve writing were the use of graphic organizers, record first/ write later, and encouraging students to write or create books for younger learners on topics they were studying. The graphic organizer strategy was a simple one—if I wanted a one-paragraph response we began with one circle, three had three circles, and five had five circles. From the circles they would brainstorm words or phrases that would remind them of sentences they could write based on the topic that they place in the middle of the circle. Once they brainstormed the sentences they would number them as to the best order to place them in within their paragraph, and then come up with a wrap up or final sentence. We started small and built on successes. Today, these graphic organizers are easy to find on the internet and are a great way to set students up to succeed at writing.
By the time they entered middle school, some of the more reluctant writers actually believed that they simply could not write! The idea that they didn’t have a story to tell for creative writing prompted me to work to get them first to tell me a story. In our classroom strategy of record first/write later, I would type while the student told the story. When they saw the final product in print they were very proud of their stories. Eventually they taped the stories into a tape recorder, and my aide (or I) would transcribe. Once convinced that they could in fact write a story they began to do their own—demonstrating the importance of setting students up for success as often as you can.
Writing or creating picture books for younger learners was an idea that grew out of the sheer panic in some of my students, that other middle school students would see their immature writing, so they resisted writing and shut down all together. When given the option to write stories for younger readers, the most reluctant of my writers began to shine. As educators we know that reading improves by reading more, and writing improves by writing more. Providing options that permit students to gain skills, without being embarrassed, is yet another way to motivate students and engage them in building the genius within!
Robinson, Francis Pleasant. (1970) Effective study (4th ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
Lois R. Favre, Ed. D. is Assistant Superintendent for the Lakeland Central School District in Westchester County, New York. She is a national and international presenter and writer on leadership, differentiation, inclusion, co-teaching, and special education topics. She serves on the Executive Board of Directors of the International Learning Styles Network, and as an Associate Editor for Insights on Learning Disabilities.