Last week we told you about Kate, a 6th grade student with some learning challenges. Kate is earning good grades, but she really has to work hard for everything – seemingly much harder than her peers. She struggles to retain new vocabulary words, recall information from reading passages, follow multi-step directions, and master math facts.
So what’s really going on with Kate? We got some terrific responses to last week’s post, with thoughtful analyses of Kate’s challenges as well as creative strategies for using her strengths and affinities to help her. Here’s what we think:
The Good News
Kate has strengths in expressive language and writing. She is also very creative, a function of higher order cognition. She enjoys graphic design and computers, indicators that spatial ordering could be a strength for her. She also loves animals, especially cats. We’d want to continue to encourage her in these areas, and take advantage of these strengths and affinities when coming up with strategies to help Kate. (See the comments on last week’s blog for some great ideas on how to do this!)
Getting at the Root of the Problem
As many of our readers suggested in their comments, memory seems to be an underlying theme behind Kate’s learning issues. While retrieving information from long-term memory is okay, getting the information into long-term memory is a challenge that is showing up when she studies new spelling and vocabulary words and tries to master her math facts. Summarizing what she reads also relies on functions of memory, including active working memory. Weak active working memory could also be making it difficult for Kate to follow multi-step directions.
Talking to Kate
The first step we’d take is to discuss with her the reasons behind some of her difficulties in reading and the resulting academic struggles. It’s important to highlight Kate’s strengths as well as the areas in need of improvement. As one of last week’s readers alluded to, we’d also want to foster her confidence that she can succeed in these areas.
We’d talk with Kate about the different types of memory, and tell her that she has difficulty “getting things into” her memory. We might make this idea more concrete by using an analogy such as putting clothes in a dresser or papers in a file so she can easily find them later. We’d share with her that subjects like social studies and science have a lot of factual information and more memory demands than other subjects, which is why she struggles more in these areas.
Working toward Success
As we mentioned earlier, we’d want to capitalize on her strengths and interests when thinking about strategies to use with Kate. Here’s a few examples:
- Support Kate’s interest in animals by having her read about a species or particular animal and practice summarization skills and memory strategies by role-playing as a zoologist.
- In addition to supporting Kate’s art activities, give her the opportunity to work with experts in set-design and construction, so that she will see multi-step processes and instructions at work.
Other strategies you might try with Kate include …
- Help with reading – Provide her with some basic accommodations in reading assignments to help her experience some success in class and to improve her learning of the content. For example, give her outlines – possibly partially-completed – from text book chapters to guide her to important information. As one reader mentioned, graphic organizers, charts, and drawings might also work well for Kate. Have her save these “tools” to study for tests. These tools might vary based on the subject. For example, in history, she may benefit from making timelines or creating cause-effect flow charts. In math, she may benefit from making reference cards with the technical vocabulary words of an upcoming lesson. One reader also recommended using visuals to help Kate remember math facts (e.g. the program “Nine Lines”).
- Help with tests – Give Kate specific guidance in what is expected of her on tests and assignments. For example, instead of just asking Kate about the author’s intent in a story, provide instruction to her: “The next few questions will ask you about the author’s intentions in writing the story. Use what we learned about the author’s feelings about the subject to help you understand her intentions. Use facts in the story to back up your conclusions.”
- Help with vocabulary – Limit the number of new vocabulary words she’s asked to learn at one time. Too many vocab words can be overwhelming for her, especially if other rules are introduced at the same time. For example, the word endings for action, suspicion, and suspension all sound the same, but are spelled differently. Some students find it easier to practice these rules one at a time. One of last week’s readers also suggested having Kate “visualize” her vocab words.
See the comments on last week’s blog entry for more great strategies for working with kids like Kate. What strategies would you use? What are some other ways we could leverage her strengths and affinities? If you haven’t done so already, share your ideas with us by leaving a comment below!