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Celebrating Strengths and Talents of Children with Dyslexia: An Educational Model

Though children with dyslexia experience difficulties in processing the written language, they are often bright, creative, and talented individuals. Strengths may include mechanical aptitude, artistic ability, musical gifts, and athletic prowess. The dyslexic student may also evidence advanced social skills as well as talents in computer/technology, science, and math.

Though children with dyslexia experience difficulties in processing the written language, they are often bright, creative, and talented individuals. Strengths may include mechanical aptitude, artistic ability, musical gifts, and athletic prowess. The dyslexic student may also evidence advanced social skills as well as talents in computer/technology, science, and math.

Generally, programs for this group of students focus on remediation using multisensory structured language approaches such as Orton-Gillingham or Slingerland. The emphasis, however, is on the student’s weaknesses, which continues to adversely impact their self-esteem. As such, there is a need to balance remediation with a rich and stimulating curriculum that identifies and nurtures their strengths and talents. This type of holistic educational programming for dyslexic children is somewhat analogous to the process of discovering and polishing gems. One begins by digging through the layers of self-doubt, confusion, and feelings of incompetence using specialized tools that enhance success. Upon finding the “rough” stones, other instruments are employed to cut, slice, size and polish them to showcase their beauty, uniqueness, and quality.

It is this latter process of discovering and enhancing the talents of dyslexics that is the emphasis here. A multi-modal model developed at ASSETS School, a private school for dyslexics, gifted dyslexics and gifted children in Honolulu, Hawaii, will be described. Based on the belief that all children should be taught as though they were gifted, the program consists of three essential components: 1) a differentiated-integrated curriculum; 2) enrichment courses; and, 3) a mentoring program. It should be noted that these three modules are integrated with each other along with counseling, diagnostic testing, and remedial instruction.


ASSETS School utilizes a number of methods for identifying the talents or strengths of children. Formal diagnostic testing not only assesses weakness but also strengths in the learning profile of students. Subsequently, students are also administered the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking which assesses a range of abilities associated with creativity, such as fluency of ideas, elaborateness, originality, internal visualization, abstractness, and resistance to premature closure. Selected students are also rated by their teachers on the Scales for Rating the Behavioral oral Characteristics of Superior Students relative to four areas: learning characteristics, motivational characteristics, leadership characteristics, and creativity characteristics.

Besides these formal measures, informal methods are utilized to discover the talents of the students. Interest inventories are administered to the students at the beginning of the year to identify potential areas of strengths. Individual and group counseling, which is provided to all students on a daily and weekly basis by the teachers, is another avenue to explore their strengths and interests. Additionally, the enrichment teachers as well as resource specialists in music, performing arts, visual arts, computer, and athletics continually observe and informally assess the students and provide systematic feedback to the teachers. Lastly, parents provide valuable information on the abilities and interests of their children. All of this information is then placed on a Student Profile (similar to an IEP) at the end of the year along with diagnostic test results.

The thematic curriculum

The Differentiated-Integrated Curriculum Grid Model developed by Sandra Kaplan for gifted students was adapted for all K-8 students at ASSETS School. In this approach, teachers select, based on teacher enthusiasm and the interests/motivation of the students, broad-based themes such as change, structures and functions, discovery, evolution, conflicts, systems, and interrelationships. The theme serves as a vehicle for teaching the basic skills and higher level thinking skills. As the framework for curriculum development, integration is the cornerstone and hands-on as well as discovery-oriented experiences are the modes for learning. Hence, if a teacher uses structures and functions as the theme for the class, then her social studies unit on American history focuses on the political structures of the United States, and she integrates art, music, science, reading, writing, and career awareness into the lessons. The science unit on biology includes dissection of specimens to discover the structures or anatomy of different classes of animals. The students integrate math via measurement of specimens and population counts, art through drawings and sculptures, and writing skills through composition of cinquains, acrostic poems or haikus related to the specimens studied in the class.

The differentiated curriculum or interdisciplinary instruction provide exposure to a wide range of hands-on experiences. With the emphasis on products for portfolios such as a poem, artwork, solar-powered oven, or a hypercard program, the curriculum enriches the learning of students and stimulates new and perhaps lifelong interests that children may pursue relative to career selections. Motivation is also enhanced and selfesteem is improved as students experience enjoyment and success in those activities that tap or nourish their talents or strengths.

The theme and differentiated learning is also integrated with multisensory structured language approaches such as 0rton-Gillingham. Words for reading and spelling as well as oral and silent reading assignments are related to the areas of study such as inventions or conflicts in U.S. history. The readings also may be linked to hands-on experiences related to math, art, science, social studies, and computer technology. Students also enjoy studying Latin roots and Greek combining forms, which can be readily integrated with content subjects such as history, psychology, or earth science.

Enrichment program

ASSETS School also offers an enrichment program that is adapted from Renzulli’s Enrichment Triad Model (1977). This program approach identifies three types of enrichment: 1) Type I Enrichment general exploratory activities designed to expose children to different areas of potential interest; 2) Type II Enrichment-group learning experiences that emphasize the development of thinking and feeling processes such as reflective thinking and problem solving; 3) Type III Enrichment-opportunities for students to pursue their interests (Type I) and apply their skills (Type II) to the investigation of a real world problem and identification of solutions that impact a targeted group. These three types of enrichment also identify and develop the talents of students with dyslexia.

The K-8 students at ASSETS School select enrichment courses that take place daily (except on Wednesdays). Each course lasts for three weeks and students generally participate in more than ten of these enrichment electives during the course of the year. Prior to the second semester, students are given an opportunity to provide input regarding other enrichment courses they would like the school to offer.

The enrichment offerings can be grouped into the following areas:

  1. Arts: stained glass, raku, ceramics, pottery, painting, junk art, mask making, puppetry, jewelry-making, basket weaving, air brushing, silkscreening, photography, drama, street dancing, line dancing, folk dancing, hula, creative movement, video/filmmaking, card making, tile mosaics
  2. Science/Math: Dissection, kitchen physics, kitchen chemistry, marine biology, rocketry, robotics, K-nex, string art, math games and puzzles, science and toys, boatmaking, Hawaiian ethnobotany, and laser/ holography
  3. Computer: computer graphics, internet, computer simulations, computer multimedia, and computer Lego logo
  4. Athletics: basketball, baseball, volleyball, soccer, juggling, unicycling, golf, and football
  5. Others: cooking, magic, clowning around, French culture, Spanish culture, Japanese culture, board games

The enrichment teachers expose students to an array of experiences that may create interest in different areas as well as provide avenues for children to demonstrate their talents and strengths. The enrichment teachers also provide systematic feedback to the regular teachers enabling them to develop a curriculum that is responsive not only to the students’ areas of their weaknesses but also to their talents. Additionally, the regular teachers are taught many of these enrichment courses so that they are able to integrate them throughout the curriculum.

Mentoring component

A mentoring program allows students opportunities to pursue special projects as well as undergo experiences with mentors in the community with similar interests or talents. It extends the boundaries of the school to the community, expands the concept of “teachers” to include other professionals who serve as positive role models, and provides students with learning activities whereby they may apply academic skills and strengths in real world settings. It may also stimulate the development of new interests or career aspirations and create enthusiasm for classroom learning via student recognition of the relevance of academic skills to everyday life.

All high school students and selected intermediate students are provided mentoring experiences in the community and school. There is careful matching of the students’ interests and strengths with mentors via interviews. Once placement is determined, students leave once a week for the day to “work” with the mentors. Mentors have included artists, engineers, businessmen, architects, marine biologists, scientists, and computer programmers. At the end of the year, students evaluate their experiences and develop products and presentations for a mentorship fair.

Another element of the mentoring program involves artists mentoring both elementary and intermediate students and teachers at the school. Dancers, choreographers, actors, and a wide variety of artists (raku, airbrushing, silkscreening, etc.) mentor the students over a period of several months. During this time, teachers are also taught by the mentors so that they will be able to integrate these newly learned skills or art forms into the general curriculum. This exciting collaboration between the mentors and school results in professional development of teachers, enhancement of the talents of both educators and students, and the evolution of a curriculum that focuses on the strengths of students.

Peer mentoring is a logical extension that focuses on the talents of dyslexic students. At ASSETS, students are provided opportunities to mentor younger students in science and the arts. In this program, intermediate students plan and implement lessons in art with third grade students from other schools. The students also have mentored children and parents in the arts in an annual Art Links program held on a Saturday. Because of this success, a similar program was established in the sciences whereby the students created lessons in science and implemented them with younger students. Such experiences have positive impact on the self- esteem of the children. In addition, they also discover other talents, skills and interests.


This is one model for balancing remediation with a curriculum or educational program that enriches children’s learning as well as nurtures their strengths or gifts. Identification and development of talents should be the framework of the school’s attempt to meet the needs of dyslexic children and must be infused in all aspects of education from assessment to curriculum innovations.

Perspectives, Spring 2000 - Vol. 26, No. 2. - The International Dyslexia Association
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