Learners and Apple Pie

By: Priscilla Vail

Most students enter school eager to learn and to succeed. Unfortunately, some intelligent students have difficulties in reading, writing, spelling, and pencil-and-paper arithmetic. Students who struggle in school often experience self-esteem and motivation problems.

How can we help kids who struggle in school? Students need to have their thoughts and feelings in apple pie order, and they need a complete pie in order to do their work. Every time a kid takes a slice out of the pie, that much less remains.

What are the main ingredients of the apple pie that students must possess to be successful?


In order to absorb new information or concepts, kids need to channel and focus their attention. Many kids who try hard are distractible. Noises, other people's conversation, or even a stimulating bulletin board can jiggle or break concentration. Distractions from inside, such as worry or sadness, are even more troublesome. Each time attention wanders, a slice comes out of the pie.


Everyone knows that organization is a vital part of written work, but many don't realize that it is equally important for reading, listening, and thinking. Students who build a mental framework have hooks on which to hang incoming information and ideas. Students who store concepts by category can retrieve them later and use them handily for further thought. Without organization, this wedge of the pie is liquid instead of solid.


People use language to understand what they hear and read and to express themselves. When language functions well, human beings can receive and give out ideas, information, and emotions. In reading, they join single words together in phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books. Without such knowledge, they can't absorb and digest concepts delivered in words. Nor can they share their thoughts, inspirations, and discoveries. Strong language skills form a big section of the pie.

General information

In learning, people attach what is new to that which is already familiar. Thus, a major part of catching on to a new idea is to connect it to something already established in the learner's mind. For this reason, the larger the learner's supply of general information, the more new information they will be able to take in, sort, file, and use. Without general information, the pie is incomplete.


Students need enough time to read and study and to demonstrate mastery through writing an exam, a paper, a book report, or by creating a project. In addition, they need to understand the concept of time, knowing what the passage of time feels like, such as to write for ten minutes or hand in a paper due in three days. They need to understand the linear nature of time which is the basis for planning their work or charting history. Without a strongly developed sense of time, their pie lacks definition and thus is hard to slice.

Basic skills

Students need automatic basic skills. Each time a student stops to wonder how to form a letter, how to spell a word, or what 7 x 6 equals, a slice comes out of the pie.


Some people may ask why we need to think about emotion when we're talking about thinking and learning. Yet we know from our own experiences, as well as from medical research and common sense, that emotion has the power to open or to close pathways, windows, and doorways to learning. The experience of humiliation, frustration, or frequent failure builds negative emotional habits. Fear can make kids show off or play the class clown. Fear can shut down minds, so they aren't able to learn. Fear of embarrassment in front of other kids is a powerful enough force to turn kids away from taking a chance on trying to learn something new. Memories of shame or humiliation are strong enough to keep kids from taking a chance on a new idea. Many kids are scared of certain subjects, such as math, science, reading, or creative writing. Such negative emotions cut off access to reason, certain kinds of memory, and original thinking. Such negative feelings may grow out of bad experiences with teachers, parents, or classmates or be a reaction to academic expectations and requirements. Every time a kid turns away from learning, an opportunity is lost. When the emotional piece of a learner's pie is crumbled, smashed, or missing, the student loses a vital segment.

What can parents and teachers do to ensure that kids have a complete apple pie? First and foremost, the adults in the student's life need to provide a positive, safe, and supportive environment. They need to understand the nature of the student's learning difficulties and which pieces of the pie are missing or fragmented in order to provide appropriate instruction and classroom accommodations. The goal is to have students' learning, our teaching, and parents' contributions in apple pie order. It is the responsibility of the adults in their world to ensure that students have the necessary ingredients and then are shown how to put them together to produce a complete pie to guarantee student success. Success enhances motivation to continue to learn and leads to increased competency and self-esteem.

About the author: Priscilla L. Vail's work centers on the identification of different learning styles and their accommodation in the regular classroom, small groups and individual work. She gives teacher-training and parenting workshops in this country and abroad and was a full-time teacher for twenty-five years. The author of fourteen books and many articles, she is a wife, mother, mother-in-law, and proud granny.

Priscilla Vail Courtesy of the Schwab Learning