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Improving Reading, Writing and Math Skills for Children with Learning Differences

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Students with learning differences can overcome a range of difficulties. These challenges include attempting to learn academic subjects, follow instructions, carry out multipart or multistep visual or verbal directions, or comprehend, express or retain information.

In my article “Improving Reading Skills” in the March 2021 issue of Baltimore’s Child, I recommended that parents observe their children and notice whether they reverse some letters or numbers, transpose letters within words, skip lines when reading, look at the first letter in a word and guess what the word says or respond to a question with a blank stare. While I assist a child who displays these struggles—which tend to be characteristics of dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyscalculia—to overcome them, parents provide the essential global support their child also requires.

Facilitate reading and writing

If your child has a learning difference, ensure your child receives phonics-based reading and spelling instruction if he or she generally learns best from these methods and that any instruction provided is on the child’s ability level. The average adult acquires a vocabulary of at least 20,000 words. Using spelling lists and sight words to gain mastery of spelling and reading fluency is generally more challenging than learning the 26 letters of the alphabet to do so.

I have observed that a child with a learning difference tends to struggle to process visual data when presented in low-contrast colors and in motion, such as reading from left to right. In contrast, the child may process data well when visual data is presented in high-contrast colors in still images, one word at a time, then combined in a sentence.

A child struggling to read a sentence written with a gray-colored lead pencil on white paper (a low-contrast color combination) may be unable to do so. He or she may read the identical sentence more fluently when the text appears in bright colors on the same white paper at the outset of remediation and advance to reading equally well in all colors. Similarly, a child who struggles to print accurately with gray pencil on white paper will generally benefit from printing in color, then advance to writing in blue or black ink.

Note your child’s preferred color and use it to instruct in reading and writing at the outset of remediation. I’ve observed that this approach seems to contribute to strengthening learning pathways sufficiently for a child to read and write equally well in color, gray pencil or blue or black ink on white paper.

For the child who reverses letters such as b’s and d’s, try color coding them in high-contrast colors as a first step in a series of steps to overcome the manifestations of dyslexia and its subsets.

When using colored index cards, words written with red marker on a pink card—a low-contrast color combination—will likely be less clear to a child with visual processing struggles than words written with bright green marker on a yellow card. Ask your child which color or color combination is easiest to read when you present several choices of color written on white paper. You may also ask your child to write his or her name in different colors on white paper. Determine which color lets your child write his or name most accurately. Use this color when first assigning reading or writing exercises.

Facilitate math studies for children with learning differences

If your child is still counting on fingers at higher grade levels, you can review whole number computation tables three ways. First, provide three-dimensional, high-contrast color models to count. Avoid objects such as pennies, which are all the same color.

  1. Review numerical versions of the four operations tables horizontally and vertically.
  2. Practice examples of carrying and borrowing as required.
  3. Advance to higher-interest word problems: “Bobby won four video games, and Suzie won seven, how many did they win altogether?”
  4. Review telling time by the analog clock and counting money using physical objects as needed. This type of learning tends to require repetition.

Music, art and other strategies strengthen learning and memory

Music therapists in the Music Therapy Center of California report, “Music can aid in the development of receptive and expressive language skills for individuals with learning differences.” I have observed that providing music and art interventions tends to increase a child’s awareness, responsiveness and the ability to recall studies when requested at a later date.

Additionally, if your child is struggling to remember what he or she learned during the previous week, it seems unrealistic to expect that he or she does so at the outset of remedial studies. Feedback such as “you already had that” or “you knew it last week” can discourage your child, as can adding on new information. Instead, recognize that your child’s ability to absorb information most solidly to recall at a later time requires repetition at the outset of remediation.

Resolving homework issues

If your child struggles to work on homework assignments, allow some extra time for completion. However, if your child runs out of the room at the sight of new work, he or she may be intimidated and need the work divided into smaller segments. If you find homework crumpled and hidden in a dresser drawer, your child is likely using an avoidance strategy to get out of accepting responsibility.

Many students who forget to bring homework home, or who fail to remember to turn in completed assignments, benefit from having color-coded and appropriately labeled folders, and frequent parent-teacher communication.

Preventing sensory overload

Dr. Randy Bruckner of Harvard University says, “When the brain overworks, the attention network within the brain becomes frayed and no longer synchronizes with the visual network.” I have noticed that children with learning differences reach sensory overload more quickly at the outset of remediation. An effective way to prevent this overload is to alternate visual, auditory and combined instruction. Don’t forget to schedule frequent breaks.

Communicating effectively with a child who has a learning difference

  • Reduce surrounding noise levels.
  • Secure your child’s attention before beginning instruction.
  • Communicate pleasantly and approach your child gently. Use a light touch on the shoulder; say his or her name. Use a term of endearment when it seems appropriate. Avoid rapid or loud speech.
  • Monitor the flow of ideas. Do not give too much information at once. Ask for feedback to check comprehension; repeat information as needed. For example, if you say, “Don’t do the work this way. Do it that way,” a child who struggles to process auditory information may recall only the first half of what you said. State only what you expect.

When your child receives the appropriate, customized interventions, he or she may advance beyond the label of the variant forms of learning differences, mainstream out of special education classes and lead a productive and fulfilling life.

Hilda Coyne is a learning specialist with A-1 Evaluation and Tutoring, the past chair for Learning Disabilities with the National Association for Developmental Education and a former services provider for Baltimore City Public Schools, grades K-12. Email her at [email protected]

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