In a given school day, students learn content that is related to a variety of subjects, from math to writing, science and social studies, and even art and music. Students as young as preschool and kindergarten have their days structured by content related activities like story time and art. When students are younger, they usually receive all of their academic instruction from one primary classroom teacher. This person may present a variety of subject-area content, but usually uses the same style, language, routines, and organizational systems throughout the course of the day. As students start switching classrooms for academic instruction, they are faced not only with increasingly difficult content, but also different teacher expectations, styles, language, routines, and organizational systems. If they only have 2 different teachers, these two teachers may ask them to take notes, organize their materials, and follow class routines in drastically different ways. It is extremely important for students to be exposed to different teaching methods and styles, and many students easily adapt to different teachers and achieve success while juggling differences in-class expectations. For a student with language-based learning disabilities, or “LBLD,” who struggles to process, produce, and organize language, the challenge of switching easily between classroom expectations that are too different can hinder their success.
So why do students with LBLD struggle in different classes?
Many experience difficulty in school because of the impact of their personal strengths & weaknesses. Remember that LBLD refers to a spectrum of difficulties, and each person with LBLD will struggle in different areas. Therefore, it’s most important to understand the individual profile of each student with LBLD. If you’re aware of a student’s strengths, you can sometimes use them to help offset their weaknesses. For example, a student who has difficulty organizing her ideas for a paragraph might possess very strong verbal abilities. If you talk through this student’s ideas as you brainstorm, then guide her to choose the best ones to include in an outline, her paragraph may be more focused and clear than if she sat quietly and wrote on her own.
Some students also struggle when they encounter different class requirements. Whether the discrepancy exists between classes or between academic years, a student with LBLD will struggle even more when faced with too many instructional variances. Mastering the demands of classroom language takes significant energy for the student with LBLD, making it nearly impossible for some to also attend to differing teacher requirements and expectations. They may get frustrated, behave poorly in class, or simply shut down and accept failure when they don’t receive the guidance they need to maneuver a variety of teaching styles.
Similarly, a lack of consistent language without clear transitions will further complicate the academic day for students with LBLD. As previously noted, it’s important for students to associate academic terms with consistent teacher expectations. If a paragraph in English class should be 5 sentences long, but the science teacher expects 10, the student with LBLD who writes a 5-sentence paragraph in response to a science question will not receive full credit. This doesn’t mean that the student wasn’t able to write 10 sentences; it was the inconsistency in expectations for a “paragraph” that caused this confusion. Also, if the English teacher provided a template or outline structure for that paragraph, but the science teacher did not, the student’s science paragraph may be disorganized and unclear. With a clear, common academic language and set of processes within a school, all students have an equal chance to succeed.
How does cross-curricular application benefit LBLD students?
There are several clear benefits for students with LBLD:
First, cross-curricular application assists working memory. Remember – working memory allows us to hold different bits of information in our minds in order to do something with them. Working memory capacity is the number of separate pieces of information individuals can hold in mind. The capability of working memory depends entirely on capacity and attention. Therefore, if students have difficulty holding in their working memory their ideas for a paragraph or the main ideas in a passage they just read, the independent use of an outline or 2-column notes can help them get those thoughts on paper before they vanish. Automatically knowing which strategy will help you succeed at a given task is the byproduct of cross-curricular application, since students will practice the same strategies in different academic settings.
In this manner, cross-curricular application promotes automatization. Once students know which strategy to use, it becomes second nature. They know that when their science teacher tells them to take notes, they should create a 2-column note page. They also know that if they have to write a paragraph for English class, they will need to brainstorm and outline before they write. These processes become automatic within the subject areas thanks to constant application.
Greater automatization more readily leads to independent application. Independent application is a step above automatization because it means that students take what they learned in one class and apply it independently to a different situation. For example, a senior in high school who is applying to college will most likely have to write an essay. This is not a class requirement, nor is it always a task that is completed in school. If this student has been taught the 5-step writing process in English and asked to use it consistently over the course of time in a variety of subjects, then applying that strategy to a new task takes it a level beyond automatization. This student is not just automatically using a strategy in school, but also for independent work.
With independent application come greater opportunities for success without direct teacher assistance. The goal of language-based instruction is to teach students strategies that will help them manage the language demands of school and life. If students see consistency of skill application across the curriculum, learn to apply those skills in all of their classes, and turn their skills into independently employed strategies, they will experience more consistent success.