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Helping teachers support students with learning differences worldwide

Learning Differences Programme / Partner story

Photo: © Learning Ally

As a new fifth-grade teacher, Mary Ann Wolf had a young boy named Riley in her classroom. Despite being bright, Riley could not read. He was unable to piece letter sounds together to make a word in reading class.

“When a student struggles, the question is not what’s wrong with the student or what’s wrong with the teacher. The question is what’s wrong with the system?”

– Learning Ally

In addition, Riley was starting to lose faith in himself, and Mary Ann found that repeating traditional teaching approaches was proving fruitless. Concerned, she committed herself to finding a way to help him. “Riley had a phenomenal memory, so I thought maybe he could just memorise whole words visually, instead of struggling with trying to sound out new words,” she said. Mary Ann made a pact with Riley – she would give him ten new words a day on small cards that he could attach to a binder ring and he would practice memorising these words. With this approach, he soon added 800 new words to his reading vocabulary. Later that year, Mary Ann was thrilled to hear Riley’s classmates complain that he was not letting others read aloud because he wanted to keep doing so!

By reaching out to Riley, Mary Ann realised that not all children learn in the same way, and that teachers can use varied instructional approaches to reach all learners. Indeed, Riley’s story gives a clear example of how people learn to read using different capacities and can improve the ways they learn by harnessing their strengths. “Each person has a different combination of learning strengths and challenges, interests, knowledge and skills,” explained Dana Brinson from Oak’s Learning Differences Programme. “Some children find it easier to match sounds with symbols than others, and for them it may be easy to learn to read, regardless of the instructional approach used. Others, such as children identified as having dyslexia, may benefit from specific instructional approaches that unfortunately are not always taught to the teachers themselves.”

There is a growing awareness that conventional classroom teaching methods do not generally take into account the different ways children learn. Children with learning differences such as dyslexia can reach the same standards as their peers, but teachers need the skills to understand their students and use approaches that work for a wider variety of learners. If teachers are not prepared to help children achieve to their fullest potential, the result is a colossal waste of unrecognised human potential. In addition, when children with learning differences do not receive effective instruction and encouragement, it can have significant negative impacts on their learning and life outcomes.

Often, children recognise when they are struggling and their peers are not. As in Riley’s case above, this can have a deep impact on self-esteem, confidence and children’s engagement with learning. It can also lead young people with learning differences to develop feelings of frustration, disengage from school, and engage in negative behaviour patterns that lead to lower rates of graduation, higher unemployment, and as young adults, a disproportionate level of involvement with the justice system.

Oak believes that typical classrooms, as they have been designed, do not serve children well in terms of helping them to reach their full potential. Only when teachers are supported in understanding individual learners and trained to match instructional methods to the learners in their classrooms can education systems serve all children more effectively, avoiding the negative life outcomes that results when children’s potential is wasted.

Training teachers

Second only to parents, teachers are the most influential agents of change in children’s lives. However, teacher preparation programmes provide limited training on how to teach students with learning differences such as dyslexia, and students with learning differences who have been identified for special education in the US still spend more than 80 per cent of their days in general classrooms. Typically, school systems do not provide the orientation and coaching necessary to help teachers work confidently with diverse learners – classrooms and curricula are not designed to be accessible to a wider range of learners.

Teachers constantly report that they face the same challenge that Mary Ann did – they do not have the skills they need to teach students with learning differences. “Riley was only one student in my class,” Mary Ann said. “As a teacher alone in my classroom, I couldn’t figure out how to do that for every student.”

Oak believes it is crucial to support teachers’ professional development in order to improve the academic and life outcomes of children with learning differences. Ongoing, in-classroom coaching is the only approach found to help teachers change their day-to-day practice in classrooms. Coaching provides opportunities for teachers to: try new approaches; receive supportive feedback on how to strengthen their work; and see the impact on their own students. Oak therefore supports teachers in reaching diverse types of students through grants, including the following: New Teacher Center, Teach For All, the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation and the Fana Association for Individuals with Learning & Communication Difficulties.

Source: Oak Foundation Annual Report 2014