Tag Archives: Learning Differences

I can’t do it alone…Hold my hand, my hand, my hand…

Alt-rock group, The Fray, sing:

Hold my hand, I can hear ghosts calling
Help me stand, even if the sky is falling
And I want you to know, I can’t do it alone
Hold my hand, my hand, my hand

One of the concerns some teachers at my school shared when I first introduced my Executive Functioning Skills program was that I would “hold students’ hands” rather than hold them accountable for doing what “they should be doing.” This concern evidenced a lack of understanding that a student could have a learning issue or executive functioning issues and yet still be gifted intellectually. The teachers thought that an intellectually gifted student should be able to read like the other students in the class, take tests in the same amount of time as all other students in the class, remember and follow through on every assignment just as every other student, even if directions were only given orally during the last 10 minutes of class. Initially, I was surprised at some teachers’ lack of understanding about the nature and impact of learning issues; then I recalled my own credential coursework and how little time is given to the teaching of students with learning issues. I cannot fault those who don’t understand. I also learned quickly that I can’t hammer teachers with articles and resources to read so that they will understand. I must simply show my students how to demonstrate their competence, their intellectual strengths, so that their teachers see what they can do more than what they can’t/don’t do. Developing the attribute of Pro-activity in my students has been crucial to my program’s credibility, to showing teachers that some students are what we call “twice-gifted,” and of course, to moving the students themselves toward becoming independent learners, which is the goal of the program.

One of the primary ways I help students become pro-active learners is by requiring that they take notes in classes or find a way to get notes. Some of my students’ accommodation needs suggest that their teachers provide copies of class notes. Some teachers are more than willing to do this; others see this as an “extra” that they really do not have time to do. So, the answer is to show students that they should pro-actively take responsibility for any needs they have related to note-taking.  We brainstorm options together, which gives me the opportunity to explain why taking this pro-active approach shows the teacher that the student cares about learning the material. I may say to the student, “You know, if the teacher hands you copies of his lecture notes, that’s great for you but what impression might it give the teacher about your interest in the class?” The students, usually after some additional questions from me, realize that if they pro-actively seek out a peer with whom to compare notes, or even ask the teacher if they can “fill in gaps” in their notes by reviewing with the teacher, then they show the teacher that they aren’t looking for a “way out” of doing work, but as we understand it, they are looking for a “way into” the learning. Robert Langston shares in The Power of Dyslexic Thinking the story of how he couldn’t listen to lectures and take notes at the same time so in a class, he would watch and notice “whose pencil was flying across the paper the most” and then check to see if the person had neat handwriting, and if they did, he would “go up to them after class and say, ‘I have dyslexia. I was wondering, could I xerox your notes?’” and then he would pay them for the privilege” (Langston, 2014). What a fantastic pro-active solution!

I also help students determine when they need to meet with teachers; this is critical to my students’ success in the immediate and to their future interactions with teachers. When a student has struggled in school, sometimes the teacher is not seen as an ally, but as a “judge.” They may not even know how to approach a teacher for help. I have role-played conversations with my students, helping them see how a teacher might respond to various types of questions. If the very thought of talking face-to-face instills fear in the student, I will help him word an email requesting a meeting with the teacher. While we work on the email, I’m able to share with the student how his request will show the teacher that he recognizes his need for help (that self-awareness, discussed in last week’s post) and that he recognizes that his teacher can and wants to help him. Whether he truly believes that last point or not, it’s crucial to plant that seed of expectation in the student’s mind. After sending the email, I follow up with the student, asking how the meeting went, and asking the student to share with me one or two things he learned during the meeting. The follow-up is what will nurture the student’s belief that meeting with a teacher for help is beneficial and the confidence to pro-actively request help from teachers in the future.

Holding a student’s hand is not the same thing as teaching a student a strategy by modeling, helping the child apply the strategy, prompting the student as to when to use the strategy, and then gradually fading the cues as the student learns independently and pro-actively. And the latter is so satisfying to both the student and the teacher.


This post is Part 2 in a series begun last week, based on Robert Langston’s “6 Success Attributes” described in his book The Power of Dyslexia.  The first attribute, discussed in last week’s post, is “Self-Awareness.”


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“Find out what it is in life that you don’t do well; and then, don’t do that thing”

One of the best hugs I received at this year’s high school graduation was from a student named Brett who literally exuded both pride and relief as we lined up for the ceremony; he’d made it! I’d worked with Brett when he was a sophomore, helping him develop independent learning strategies and executive functioning skills. I hadn’t seen him much since his sophomore year until the end of 3rd quarter, this year, his senior year, when he walked into my room and simply said, “I need help.” With those three words, Brett exhibited several characteristics that led to his successfully completing his senior year. According to Dr. Marshall Raskind, (2004), “there is a ‘spirit’ of optimism…based on knowing that, despite an early ‘poor prognosis’ or having to face great adversity, some individuals with LD ‘beat the odds’ and go on to lead productive, satisfying, and rewarding lives” because they have “certain factors like self-awareness, internal locus of control, proactivity, realistic goal setting, and strong support systems promote positive life outcomes” (King-Sears, Boudah, Goodwin, Raskind, & Swanson). Brett, self-aware, recognized he was in trouble, pro-actively determined on his own to seek help, knew where to find support in setting goals for repairing the academic damage done during that 3rd quarter, and took action steps with the first one being coming to my room that day.

Brett knew where to come for help because when we first worked together, two years prior, we had worked on several of the 6 Success Attributes listed in Robert Langston’s book The Power of Dyslexic Thinking. I didn’t realize that we were doing so, but I’m glad that I had made developing students’ self-awareness, pro-activity, perseverance, goal-setting, use of support systems and coping strategies part of my Academic Success Program. In fact, this knowledge of the 6 Attributes fits with the name of my program. When I first created the program and introduced it, I called it the Academic Support Program; after a few months and working with the kids, I realized that the name didn’t inspire. Some kids felt it meant they “needed special help” and checked out of the program, either physically or mentally. So I suggested to my administrator that we change the name to the Academic Success Program because the program’s purpose is to help students develop the executive functioning skills needed to “do school” successfully. We knew that the students were intellectually capable, but they needed to develop the strategies for success that other students seemed to inherently know or be able to do. The name stuck and for the past 10 years, without realizing it, my kids have been working on learning independence and developing attributes for success.

I will admit that imparting the value of the attributes to my students is more challenging than engaging my students in activities that develop the attributes. Perhaps this is because they are high school students who do not want to be talked “at” when they meet with me. If we get involved in doing something immediately, I can talk about the values, but an activity’s relevance to the student’s success often speaks louder than my words can. With that said, I plan to share in a series of posts how I approach sharing with my students and helping them develop these 6 Success Attributes, beginning this week with “Self-Awareness.” I’ll also mention now that I highly recommend reading The Power of Dyslexic Thinking – every teacher should dare to read this book — guaranteed paradigm shift!


Langston notes that “self-aware people with learning disabilities know the types of problems they have and how they impact their lives, as well as their strengths and talents. While they recognize their limitations, they’re not defined by them.” Sometimes when a student first starts meeting with me, he does see himself as “lazy,” or “unmotivated,” or “dumb” – a label, either directly or indirectly attached to the student, has become how he defines himself. I’ve seen those kids who sit across from me and expect me to point out their bad grades and say “this is why you need me.” I’ve had to deal with tense moments when the parent comes with the student and points out bad grades and says, “This is why you need her!” I find that often in order to help a student develop self-awareness and ‘redefine’ himself, I need to do all I can to “learn” that kid. I use questionnaires to guide conversations with the student. I like the suggestion from Ficksman and Adelizzi (2010) about using “questionnaires regarding likes and dislikes, executive functioning skills, writing samples, how well the game of school is played, and the like” (p.36). I also like questionnaires because they keep the conversation somewhat focused – I have ADHD, I am often meeting with a student who has ADHD, and I wish I could have recorded some of the meetings I’ve had when this is the case because our conversations do not follow any type of a linear path at all and I find it completely ironic that I am in this role of leading the way.

The learning issues that I typically see in my students are ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, central auditory processing disorder, Asperger’s, Autism, and related issues. When I have a sense of who the student is, how he feels about himself, his temperament, and what he understands about his own strengths and weaknesses, I can move forward in building on my own sense and helping my student develop a clear sense of his strengths. This may involve first demystifying his learning issue. For example, when I take out my picture of the brain and show a kid where his “pre-frontal lobe” is and then share that that part of the brain doesn’t mature until the early 20’s, I have his attention. I can then say something like, “You know what, Jon, your pre-frontal lobe works differently, and not only that, it’s still maturing. So you’re not “Irresponsible” when you forget about an assignment; your brain just didn’t file that input as expected. Let’s figure out a way to sort out your brain’s filing system.” When Jon realizes how his brain functions, and that he does not need to define himself as “ADHD” as if it’s a synonym for “irresponsible”, he begins to see what he CAN do because he emotionally is ready to do so.  Langston explains this in the chapter about Paul Orfalea when he reasons that when society says you should be able to do something and you can’t do it, “then in your mind—whether anybody’s saying it or not (and a lot of times they are)—you think you’re stupid. What we need to get out there is that dyslexia is about how the brain is ‘wired,’ not about being stupid” (Langston, 2014).

The kid, who believes the labels, can’t build on his strengths – too much emotional energy is being used up with the negative thoughts. When Jon says, “Oh, okay, I guess if I keep a planner, I can help myself remember,” he exhibits a positive self-awareness that then allows him to move forward so that he can later say, “I am really good at thinking up ideas for group projects” and offer that strength to others, letting someone else in the group keep track of monitoring progress on the project completion. I plan to emphasize some of the stories in our text with my students that relate to this self-awareness and building on strengths. I loved the comments from Paul Smith, who avoided his office because it was filled with paperwork that he couldn’t do and who noted, “I never did those kinds of things. And fortunately, being president, I really didn’t have to, and I think it made me a better president; ” Langston follows up Smith’s words with the insight that relates to this self-awareness I just discussed: “Paul knew what he wasn’t good at, so he focused on what he could do well” (Langston, 2014). This reminds me of a commercial that I find funny and yet true – the “Most Interesting Man in the World” philosophizes, “Find out what it is in life that you don’t do well; and then, don’t do that thing.”


Ficksman, M., & Adelizzi, J. U. (2010). The clinical practice of educational therapy: A teaching model. New York: Routledge.

King-Sears, Margaret E. et al., “Timely and Compelling Research for the Field of Learning Disabilities: Implications for the Future,” Learning Disability Quarterly 27, no. 2 (2004), http://www.questia.com/read/1G1-121279906 .

Robert Langston (2012-04-26). The Power of Dyslexic Thinking AuthorHouse. Kindle Edition.

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The Myth of Sisyphus, or Why Sammy Can’t Write

Image   Hypothetical discussion between two teachers:


Teacher: Mel Levine shares the myth of Sisyphus as an introduction to his book, The Myth of Laziness. Sisyphus not only had to push a massive boulder up a mountain, but he was doomed to repeat this effort for eternity because the boulder kept rolling back down. Sisyphus could push and push, but he would never succeed, no matter how many times he tried. In Chapter 1, “Getting the Mind to Work,” Levine then introduces the term “output failure” to describe what some children experience in school. How is a child’s experience of output failure analogous to Sisyphus’ fate?

Colleague: Like Sisyphus, the child with hidden disabilities exerts extreme effort only to have that effort miss the goal or the “success point.” Often, like Sisyphus, the child must start over, and in fact, for the child whose hidden disability is not recognized, the school years must seem like an eternity of pushing boulders, with no success. For example, perhaps the child is presented with an assignment to write a summary of story he read. The child begins pushing by reading the story, and as Levine points out, may read quite well so the reading proves easily completed by the child. The child finishes the story, and like Sisyphus, has his boulder just about to the top of the mountain, but then when he sits down to write the summary, it’s as if he never read a word…and the proverbial boulder rolls back down the mountain. Thus, the child experiences “output failure” –he was able to receive the input of the language, but unable to demonstrate his understanding through a well-written summary.

Teacher: If the student reads well and understands the text, why is he unable to write a summary? It seems that a summary is a relatively simple writing assignment requiring only the time it takes to decide three to five main points and to then write them out in a paragraph. If the child focuses and he does indeed understand the story, why can’t he write the assigned summary?

Colleague: Levine presents several possible reasons for this child’s “output failure” and in fact, Levine states that “difficulty with writing is far and away the most telling sign of output failure during the childhood and teenage years.” Levine lists the number of processing activities that must take place, almost simultaneously, within the child’s brain in order to write. If there is even slightest “miswiring,” the child will not be able to wrangle all of the muscles and brain’s regions into one cohesive working unit — “output failure” will occur as the child is unable to gather the materials he needs (pencils, reference books, or computer equipment), as well as his time, generate good ideas, organize his thoughts, encode his ideas into clear language, remember many things at once (such as spelling, rules of punctuation, facts, and instructions), coordinate his fingers so they can keyboard or form letters, plan and monitor the quality of his work, and complete the assignment with a neat, well-written product — again, the proverbial boulder rolls back down the hill with each effort to write. Levine asserts that “Writing is the largest orchestra a kid’s mind has to conduct.” If like Sisyphus, the child repeatedly experiences this type of failure to complete the task well, he will most likely come to hate writing. Later in the book, Levine explains this, saying, “When you commit an error in reading, your miscue evaporates into the atmosphere, but when you mess up in writing, you leave behind a permanent document of your inadequacy.” Some children will come to simply refuse to write, producing the bare minimum on paper, and as a result, their teachers will consider them lazy. Other children will continue to try and try and try, but the process is so labor-intensive, they literally will experience physical pain — much like Sisyphus must have felt pushing that boulder up the mountain time and time and time again.

Teacher: Okay, so if the child’s inability to complete the summary isn’t due to laziness, which would be the assumed cause, why is the inability to write caused by this “output failure?”

Colleague: First, we want to distinguish between cause and effect here. True, if a child were lazy, that would cause him to neglect or put off or ignore the writing assignment. In the case of “output failure,” however, failure to complete the assignment, this “output failure,” is the effect, not the cause. We are seeing the effect of one or more hidden disabilities. For example, these disabilities may affect the child’s ability to physically grasp a pencil correctly (graphomotor control), or impede his ability to store information in long-term memory for later retrieval when needed, or impact his mental stamina rendering him unable to focus long enough to meet the cognitive demands of writing. These hidden issues are actually called neurodevelopmental dysfunctions. Some children are born with these dysfunctions, others acquire them. Some dysfunctions are genetically caused and others occur due to environmental factors. Because we often don’t know the exact cause, we sometimes make assumptions about a child’s motives and abilities rather than considering what may be happening neurologically. This is especially true when the child takes in information without difficulty, such as through reading. For this reason, the dysfunction is not a processing issue, but a production issue. To make a long answer short: “output failure” is misidentified as laziness, but unlike laziness, it is not a cause of weak writing; it is an effect of neurological dysfunctions which impact writing ability.

Teacher: Well, clearly this means a paradigm shift for me as a teacher. I may never have told a child that I believe he’s lazy, but I’m sure that I’ve thought it and communicated it indirectly. In my defense, however, if these dysfunctions are neurological and do not manifest themselves as visibly as say, a reading disorder where the child clearly cannot sound out words for example, how am I supposed to know whether or not the child who doesn’t write well struggles with “output failure” or with a lack of motivation?

Colleague: That’s an understandable concern. But the very fact that you’re asking the question will lead to the answer. These children need teachers who recognize the need for that paradigm shift; they need teachers who will care enough to seek answers to why the child can take in and process information well but cannot produce; why the child continues guaranteeing and expecting to do things, yet can’t seem to deliver on the promises; why the child can read much better than he can compose; and why he can translate information, yet can’t put what they figure out to use in written format. We look for clues such as does the child hold the pencil awkwardly or seem to experience pain after writing. During in-class writing activities, we note how the child begins – does he have a system for brainstorming ideas or does he just sit because he doesn’t know how to gather the ideas in his brain and collect them onto paper. Does he start writing and then suddenly wad up the paper and start over, repeatedly (like Sisyphus and the boulder)? And of course, assessments can reveal clues; does the child express insights and understanding during class discussion, but fail to write such lucid and meaningful responses on written tests. When we look for these clues, we will see the signs, and though we may not know the exact neurological cause, we will certainly be able to avoid making negative judgments. Levine says it best when he admonishes us that “when we call someone lazy, we condemn a human being.” This first chapter “Getting the Mind to Work” enables us to make that paradigm shift allowing us to look for clues with Levine as we read the case studies, and to see his application of the understanding of the difference between laziness and “output failure.”

Teacher: When we recognize “output failure,” do we excuse the child from writing so that we don’t continue the Sisyphus-effect of repeated failure?

Colleague: Writing provides so many benefits beyond simply meeting the needs of a specific assignment, so we do want the child to write. Writing aids in developing and maintaining the brain circuitries that connect various functions such as language, memory, and motor control. We do not want to hinder this development by excusing the child from writing. Instead, we want to help the child by providing instruction in specific skills so that the child can better deal with the neurological miswiring – that’s why Levine’s book is so important. He hasn’t just “demystified” the problem of perceived laziness for us, he also provides specific guidance for working with children affected by output failure. For example, if the issue seems to be related to motor control, Levine shares specific interventions that can be used to assist the child with pencil grip and the physical act of writing; or if the problem lies in the area of language, Levine offers strategies for working with the child in the area of spelling. The book actually contains 7 case studies, each of which demonstrates Levine’s work with a child to determine the nature of the production failure, the possible interventions, and results. The final chapters present specific strategies for working specifically on writing output, breaking the task of writing into manageable tasks that the child can learn to do independently after practicing with his teacher. As a result, we can work with our children so that they can enjoy positive experiences with writing and move that boulder up the mountain with confidence.

If you’re looking for a quick, yet impactful book to add to your summer reading list, I highly recommend Mel Levine’s The Myth of Laziness

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Dyslexia and Implications for the Classroom


A Discussion of the Research on Dyslexia and Implications for the Classroom

Laurie Hagberg

Research has determined that observable differences in brain structure and function exist in the brains of those with dyslexia. Though I found some of the explanations complex, generally speaking, I understand that in the dyslexic brain, the magnocellular system, or pathway, functions differently. It is made up of large cells which carry out fast visual processes and appears disorganized with groups of smaller cell bodies than the magnocellular system in non-dyslexic brains. These disorganized bunches of cells and nerve fibers are called ectopias (“ectopic” meaning abnormal position). Scientists believe that ectopias occur in the developing brain of the fetus before its sixth month, and this belief coupled with the observation that dyslexia often runs in families, leads to the belief that genetic differences affecting early brain development cause ectopias. The differences in the magnocellular system may cause interference with the rapid processing required for changing visual signals such as those involved in reading changes in the cortex. Interestingly, the system that performs slower visual processes, the parvocellular system, is similar in both types of brains.

In addition, researchers have discovered a cortex difference. The planum temporale, an auditory region that is part of the language network, is typically larger on the left side of the brain, and it is believed that the asymmetric brain design provides for efficient processing of sequential information and for learning certain language skills, including reading, writing, and spelling. Studies show that the planum temporale is the same size in both sides of dyslexic brains. In other words, dyslexic brains are more symmetrical. Symmetry of this area may interfere with learning to read and write.

The primary similarity between the brain of the dyslexic and the non-dyslexic is that in both the brain of the dyslexic and of the non dyslexic, processing activity occurs in Broca’s area, though to varying degrees; a key difference is that activity is also occurring in the Parieto-temporal and Occipito-temporal regions of the non dyslexic brain. Even when subjects used the same brain regions that non-impaired readers typically use, the time it took for different areas to become activated, as well as the order in which they became active, was still noted to be different.

The purpose of most research on dyslexia is to establish the entire chain of causal links between certain genes, certain parts of the brain, certain cognitive functions, and the ability to read and write; Gordan Sherman emphasizes that no two brains are alike, with variations of variations among brains (Sherman & Cowen, 2003).

Sherman defines cerebrodiversity as “the collective neural heterogeneity of humans as well as individual neurocognitive profiles of strengths and weaknesses,” and then continues the explanation with this fantastic sentence: “the underlying neural design may embody wonderful even pivotal possibilities” (Sherman & Cowen, 2003). The idea behind cerebrodiversity, and that I completely agree with, is that we want to view dyslexia in a larger context and understand the implications beyond its negative impacts. I enjoyed reading about this idea in other publications and found Sherman’s and Cowen’s (2010) discussion of Geschwind and his work really interesting. They write that Geschwind “often spoke and wrote about – what he called ‘the advantages of the predisposition to dyslexia’ or ‘the pathology of superiority” (Sherman & Cowen, 2010, p. 14). Sherman explains this as the brain developing in a subtly different way, but not in a deficient way, and that the negative impacts of this difference play out in the context of learning to read. He believes that in other contexts, this negative consequence might almost be considered negligible, but the fact is that we operate in a society that not only values literacy, but demands it. Sherman states that this conflict between what society demands and how the dyslexic brain processes is due to how reading is taught — or more accurately, how it is not taught. Sherman says that “for the most part we do not teach reading in ways that play to the strengths of people with dyslexia” (Sherman & Cowen, 2003).

So what are these strengths? I wanted to learn more so I kept reading. I learned that a British neurologist named Macdonald Critchley, who personally examined more than 1,300 patients with dyslexia, found that “a great many” of these patients had shown exceptional abilities in spatial, mechanical, artistic, and manual activities, and that they often pursued occupations in these areas of strength (Eide, 2011, p56). In his book Thinking Like Einstein, author Thomas G. West shares a conversation with dyslexic computer graphic artist Valerie Delahaye, who specializes in creating computer graphic simulations for movies. She told him that at least half the graphic artists she’s worked with on major projects like Titanic and The Fifth Element were also dyslexic. I actually laughed out loud when I read that West also quotes MIT Media Lab founder and dyslexic Nicholas Negroponte as stating that “dyslexia is so common at MIT that it’s known locally as the ‘MIT disease’” (Eide, 2011, p55). I had fun sharing these findings with a student today – he told me that indeed his ability to mentally visualize 3 dimensional spaces, objects, angles, and trajectories gives him a definite advantage on the hockey rink.

As Sherman points out, it’s all about context and I agree that this view helps us move beyond the disability mindset. We need to view dyslexia as “a dynamic gene-brain-environment interplay” that “yields tiny neural differences (anatomical, cellular, and connectional) that, depending on environmental demand, can translate into socially defined talents and disabilities” (Sherman & Cowen, 2003). For example, one may have “strength in the big-picture reasoning needed to combine multiple perspectives into a complex, global, interconnected, 3-D model of a virtual house” while struggling with memory and processing of fine details: this shows “the pattern of trade-offs” (Eide, 2011, p52). Geschwind (2010) put it succinctly: “Context determines advantage versus disadvantage.”

With this in mind, teaching matters, and clearly we need a paradigm shift among classroom teachers regarding delivery methods, assessment procedures, and reasons for what is being taught. As Sherman asserts, “We must understand the complex interplay between unique brain designs, environmental variables, and resulting learning differences” (Sherman & Cowen, 2003).  We have overlooked the significance of environment and thus missed recognizing the elements of effective reading instruction and the part played by ineffective reading instruction in general education classrooms. What have resulted are misdiagnosis or missed diagnoses, inadequate interventions, and frustrated students, parents, and teachers. I thought it interesting that it’s been noted that the IDA took this into consideration when revising the definition of dyslexia as (underlining mine for emphasis):

“characterized by difficulties with accurate and / or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.” (IDA, 2007)

Implied here is that if there is not effective classroom instruction then these difficulties are expected in the classroom.

When Sherman discussed this, he used the word “contaminated” to describe the impact on research into the prevalence of learning disabilities and in particular, estimates of developmental dyslexia; that is a loaded word, carrying much more connotative significance than other words he might have used such as “skewed” or “influenced” or even “distorted”!  As a result of Sherman’s work and the work of others, it is clear that children with the following weaknesses or deficits are not adequately identified, understood, or helped:

  • executive/metacognitive skills such as setting goals, initiating, monitoring behavior, organizing, planning, anticipating, and adapting
  • social communication skills
  • adaptive functioning in predictably challenging environments, such as adopted status and socioeconomic disadvantage (Dickman, 2008)

We need to have a better understanding of the complexities and the inter-relationships of genetic factors, brain differences, and environmental influences because “things are as they are because of their relationships with everything else. You can’t just look at anything in isolation.” (Eide, 2011, p79).

For this reason, teaching matters; more accurately: appropriate, purposeful, research-based teaching matters.

All this leads to the belief that we must weigh the risk of altering programs now in place to provide help to students with dyslexia vs. the risk of doing nothing at all in terms of change. As Sherman cautions, this does not mean throwing out the “disability model” — it is valid in some contexts, and we recognize that literacy is and will continue to be integral to the lives of individuals (Sherman & Cowen, 2003).  The fact that we all value literacy and want the best for our students’ lives in and beyond the classroom is the binding similarity that keeps many striving for change and improvement through organizations such as IDA. What we need to do is ensure evidence-based instruction in every classroom.

As I thought about this, I contemplated what this would look like in the general classroom here in southern California, in both public and private institutions. Here’s what I see:

  • assistive technology the norm in the general education classroom as a means of enhancing instruction and learning for all students (not yet in our local public schools)
  • all content delivered in multiple ways using multiple modalities (increasing in our public schools)
  • emphasis on quality of instruction over coverage of content (depends on the school’s overall test scores)
  • emphasis on training teachers to recognize signs of dyslexia and how to effectively teach phonological awareness in the general education classroom (still a weakness in credentialing programs, in my opinion, and limited in scope in public schools due to funding issues)

I know I should conclude with my own words, but the following quote sums up the topic so much better than I can:

“The unexpected consequence of attempts to standardize educational practices has been to handcuff our educators, stifle creativity, create conflict and competition between general education and special education, and deny our children access to meaningful early intervention. If the system is indeed ‘broken,’ as seems to be the political consensus, then the injury is self inflicted. In this case top down problems need bottom up solutions. We must reject that which is ineffective and immoral and we must demand the knowledge, training, and freedom to be effective. The “we” of whom I speak is parent, advocate, teacher, principal, and everyone who is in the position to see, touch, and influence the life of a child” (Dickman, 2008).


Dickman, G. Emerson. “Roads Less Traveled,” Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Fall 2008, 5, http://www.questia.com/read/1P3-1639897981

Eide M.D. M.A., Brock L.; M.D., Fernette F. Eide (2011-08-18).   The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain. Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Geschwind, Norman. “Pathology of Superiority: A Predisposition to Dyslexia May Have Advantages,” Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Winter 2010, http://www.questia.com/read/1P3-1995238211

IDA web site: http://www.interdys.org/FAQWhatIs.htm

Sherman, Gordon F. and Cowen, Carolyn D. “Neuroanatomy of Dyslexia Through the Lens of Cerebrodiversity,” Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Spring 2003,

Sherman, Gordon F. and Cowen, Carolyn D. “Norman Geschwind: A Man out of Time,” Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Winter 2010, 14, http://www.questia.com/read/1P3-1995238201



Filed under Reflective Practice

Gifted With Learning Issues

Many of the students with whom I work could be considered gifted by most scales, and definitely score in the gifted range on the ISEE Entrance exams used by our school. Most people praise, admire, or wonder about gifted students, those students who eagerly interject thoughtful and thought-provoking comments during class discussions; those students who not only write the assigned essays with clear syntax and correct grammar, but also engage in insightful analysis; those students who offer to help their peers and often take leadership roles during group work. A gifted student is defined as having “demonstrated potential high-performance capability in intellectual, creative, specific academic and leadership areas or the performing and visual arts” (Friend & Bursuck, 2009, p. 289). In general, gifted students display wonderful curiosity, engaging personalities, strong problem-solving skills, and “an advanced ability to comprehend information using accelerated and flexible thought processes;” thus the challenge in the classroom for the teacher is sometimes to keep up with these students, to develop absorbing learning activities that tap into those intellectual and social qualities.

As odd as it may sound, though, those are not the students I want to discuss. I want to discuss those students who enter the classroom with a backpack spilling out its contents; those students whose hands never rise before their mouths open, and whose mouths open before their brains pause to think; those students who gaze out the window halfway through class or doodle constantly in what appears absolute mindless activity. These students may be known as lazy and/or not working to potential; in fact, some researchers suggest that “this group of students is often rated by teachers as most disruptive at school” (Baum, 1990, p. 1). These students are often “failing miserably in school” and they get “noticed because of what they cannot do, rather than because of the talent they are demonstrating” (Baum, 1990, p. 1). Then, on the other hand, some of these students may not be noticed at all because their “superior intellectual ability is working overtime to help compensate for weaknesses caused by an undiagnosed learning disability” and they just seem to be an average learner (Baum, 1990, p. 1).

There are essentially three categories of Gifted and Talented/Learning Disabled students:
(1) identified gifted students who have subtle learning disabilities,
(2) unidentified students whose gifts and disabilities may be masked by average achievement, and
(3) identified learning disabled students who are also gifted (Baum, 1990, p. 1).
It is important to note that because a student may be working at grade level or are considered gifted, she is “likely to be overlooked for screening procedures necessary to identify a subtle learning disability” (Baum, 1990, p. 1).

Baum (1990) notes that if teachers “view below-grade-level achievement as a prerequisite to a diagnosis of a learning disability…an extremely bright student who is struggling to stay on grade level may slip through the cracks of available services because he or she is not failing” (p. 1). Others note that the Gifted & Talented/Learning Disabled student often is failing because he does not complete assignments (or loses them before turning them in), has difficulty with writing — with the motor skills required for hand-writing as well as with producing a clear, cohesive development of a topic; yet, at the same time, this student’s comments during class may show insight and understanding and in fact, an ability to think beyond the level of his peers (Lovecky, 2004, p. 150). Either way, whether failing or not failing, noticed or unnoticed, the Gifted & Talented/Learning Disabled student often faces issues with self-esteem, generalizing “their feelings of academic failure to an overall sense of inadequacy” and misunderstanding that will only increase if not recognized (Baum, 1990, p. 1).

We may be tempted to lower our expectations for students who struggle in our classrooms, but for these students, that would work against them and us; instead, teachers are encouraged to maintain a classroom environment characterized by “interactive participation, flexibility, high standards, student participation in cooperative groups, individualized programming, active listening, and practice in conflict-resolution strategies” (Weinfeld, Barnes-Robinson, Jeweler & Shevitz, 2002, p. 226).

It is also sometimes tempting to encourage our brighter students to study more, give more effort. This will prove counter-productive, however, with the Gifted & Talented/Learning Disabled students because often these students really do not know how to study more, or try harder, or why they can’t seem to do what they should be able to do according to their parents and teachers. These “learning disabled students who are also gifted and talented or ‘twice exceptional’ require opportunities to promote their own individual strengths and talents to achieve the accelerated academic proficiency expected of nondisabled gifted students,” and we need to provide them with “the gifted instruction and the special instruction, adaptations, and accommodations provided to other students with special needs” (Weinfeld, Barnes-Robinson, Jeweler & Shevitz, 2002, p. 226).

I could share so much more — the reading I’ve done just to write this much fascinates me! I know there is much more to consider regarding the specific needs in the classroom of these learners. I will sum up by saying excellent pedagogy applies to helping these students — using graphic organizers, providing clearly structured assignments, developing challenging learning activities in the students’ areas of interest, modeling, and using think-aloud strategies — which actually provides sound pedagogy for all students. In addition, Friend and Bursuck advise curriculum compacting, which involves assessing the students’ “achievement of instructional goals” and then allowing those students who have met those goals to engage in alternate activities such as individual research, working with a mentor, or some other more advanced study (p. 292). As I have noticed before, “when a student’s gifts are identified and nurtured, there is an increased willingness on the part of the student to put forth greater effort to complete tasks,” and I would add that I believe that is true for all students regardless of learning styles, disabilities, or preferences (Weinfeld, Barnes-Robinson, Jeweler & Shevitz, 2002, p. 226).


Baum, Susan, (1990). Gifted but learning disabled: A puzzling paradox. The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC). Retrieved March 9, 2009 from http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/eric/e479.html

Friend, M. & Bursuck, W. (2009). Including students with special needs: A practical guide for classroom teachers (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Lovecky, D. V. (2004). Different minds: Gifted children with ad/hd, asperger syndrome, and other learning deficits. [Electronic version]. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Weinfeld, R., Barnes-Robinson, L., Jeweler, S., & Shevitz, B. (2002). Academic programs for gifted and talented/learning disabled students. [Electronic version]. Roeper Review, 24(4), 226+.

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Filed under Passion and Purpose