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Facilitating Success for Students with Language-Based Learning Disabilities

For students with learning disabilities (LD), a sense of competence and ability (also known as self-efficacy) plays a vital role in their social and emotional development as well as academic achievement. Discover how educators can adapt their teaching style to support social and emotional development (including self-efficacy) in students with language-based LD.

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Children between the ages of 6 and 18 spend close to half their waking lives in school. During those years, parents, teachers, and peers deeply influence their lives. Students are at a profound disadvantage if they do not receive early and appropriate instruction to build the skill areas essential for success in school. It is equally important for adults to recognize students’ academic potential and nurture their strengths. Research indicates that success for students with learning differences and disabilities depends not only on designing an effective program for academic success but equally on developing positive social and emotional environments both at home and in school.

Facilitating academic success

The Landmark School Outreach Program’s(opens in a new window) mission is to empower students with language-based learning disabilities by offering their teachers an exemplary program of applied research and professional development.

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Many highly-successful people experienced difficulty in school. An Internet search turns up scores of familiar names, including Nelson Rockefeller, Charles Schwab, Jay Leno, Danny Glover, Avi, and John Irving. Each of these people gained success in their adult lives.

Most success stories are less well known. Many thousands of people with learning disabilities finish school and build fulfilling careers, create families, and contribute to society in innumerable ways. Often, people with learning disabilities are particularly creative thinkers and visionary leaders. Some studies have found that individuals with language difficulty develop superior skills in other areas, such as art, music, dance, mechanics, cooking, and athletics. Additionally, much research has demonstrated that students whose difficulties are identified early and addressed with appropriate teaching can achieve academic levels equal or superior to peers without learning disabilities.

As classroom teachers, we can provide students with the feeling of self-efficacy that is essential for academic success in two key ways: by teaching them strategies to approach difficult academic tasks and by believing in their capacity to learn. Parker J. Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach (2007), offers this reminder:

Students who learn are the finest fruit of teachers who teach … I am also clear that in lecture halls, seminar rooms, field settings, labs, and even electronic classrooms — the places where most people receive most of their formal education — teachers possess the power to create conditions that can help students learn a great deal — or keep them from learning much at all. Teaching is the intentional act of creating those conditions, and good teaching requires that we understand the inner sources of both the intent and the act. (p. 6)

Landmark's Six Teaching Principles™

Landmark’s Six Teaching Principles™ create the conditions for learning that students with learning disabilities need to succeed. Students with language-based learning disabilities(opens in a new window)(LBLD) make stunning progress with targeted, intensive, skills-based instruction under these conditions. Essentially, these principles are:

  • Provide opportunities for success to foster a sense of self-efficacy.
  • Use multisensory approaches so that all content is conveyed in visual, auditory, and tactile modes (see it, hear it, say it, do something with it).
  • Micro-unit and structure tasks to form step-by-step processes, which facilitate learning and provide incremental opportunities for success that help students persist in the face of longer, more complex tasks.
  • Ensure automatization through practice and review, as consistency and repetition develop skill.
  • Provide models to give students samples of successful work and set clear standards, which helps students begin assignments and self-assess as they work.
  • Include students in the learning process, because increasing students’ self-awareness as learners helps them engage and invest in the classroom.

The full text of Landmark’s Six Teaching Principles™ is available at the Landmark School Outreach Program website(opens in a new window).

Facilitating social and emotional strengths

Successful people have high self-esteem because they accept their strengths and weaknesses as elements of who they are. They acknowledge what they are good at and have learned or developed a repertoire of effective strategies to cope with difficulty.

Unfortunately, too many students lack a strong support network that nurtures their strengths, facilitates self-awareness and self-advocacy skills, and teaches them strategies for coping with difficulty. They may be misunderstood and criticized for their weaknesses at home and experience frustration, anxiety, and failure at school. These are the students who may fail courses or drop out of school, get in trouble with the law, or engage in risky behavior because they lack a practical understanding of their competence and potential. Alternatively, these are the students who can be empowered by appropriate instruction and strengthened by others’ belief in their ability to succeed.

A 20-year longitudinal study of people with learning disabilities who attended the Frostig Center (a school for students with learning disabilities in Pasadena, California) found that those who were most successful had developed an array of emotional and social attributes that predicted their success as adults better than tests of intelligence or academic achievement. These attributes are listed below (Goldberg, Higgins, Raskind, & Herman, 2003; Raskind, Goldberg, Higgins, & Herman, 2002).

Social and emotional attributes for success

  • Self-awareness
  • Proactive responsiveness to challenges
  • Ability to persevere
  • Ability to set goals
  • Repertoire of strategies for coping with difficulty
  • Useful academic support systems
  • Positive family and social relationships

Howard Gardner’s research and writing laid the groundwork for many children with LBLD to understand that having a learning disability does not mean they are stupid. In Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983), Gardner critiqued the notion that there is one human intelligence that can be measured by psychometric tests. Positing the existence of multiple intelligences (intelligences beyond those traditionally required for academic achievement, such as linguistic and mathematical intelligences), Gardner broadened our general understanding of what it means to be smart.

In Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons (2006), Gardner extends his earlier work in relation to new developments in the field. When educators acknowledge and respond to the strengths and talents of students — particularly students who struggle with schoolwork — they empower them to accept their learning difficulties as challenges that are simply part of the unique and valuable individuals they are. Gardner is currently the senior director of Harvard University’s Project Zero, whose research initiatives, in collaboration with schools, universities, and museums, “place the learner at the center of the educational process, respecting the different ways in which an individual learns at various stages of life, as well as differences among individuals in the ways they perceive the world and express their ideas” (Project Zero, 2010, para. 3). Gardner’s posited intelligences are listed below.

Gardner’s posited intelligences

  • Verbal/Linguistic
  • Bodily/Kinesthetic
  • Logical/Mathematical
  • Interpersonal
  • Spatial
  • Intrapersonal
  • Musical
  • Naturalistic/Environmental

Robert Brooks also reminds us of the importance of attending to more than academics. A member of Harvard University’s School of Medicine faculty and former director of McLean’s Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, Brooks is a writer and lecturer of national prominence. His work centers on developing resilience in young people. He is most often recognized for his mandate that adults carry the responsibility for helping children develop “islands of competence” — areas in which a child can excel and so develop a sense of being a capable, important human being. This metaphor developed in response to years of clinical practice in which he heard children, adolescents, and adults who seemed to be drowning in their self-perceived inadequacies. Brooks writes:

“This metaphor influenced the questions I posed and the strategies I initiated in my clinical practice. For example, whenever I meet with parents, teachers, or other professionals to discuss children who are burdened with problems, I ask them to describe the child’s islands of competence. Next, I ask how we might strengthen these islands and display them for others to see. I have witnessed the ways in which these questions can alter the mindset of adults as they shift their energy from “fixing deficits” to “identifying and reinforcing strengths.”(2005, Para. 8)

The profound difference in this change in perspective — from fixing deficits to reinforcing strengths — has contributed to amazing success in the lives of many students who struggled in school.

Thinking about how to facilitate success

Students have unique learning profiles that reflect their educational experience, their learning, thinking, and personality styles, and their particular areas of need for language acquisition and use. All students who struggle in school — particularly those with LBLD — benefit from structured, multisensory, skills-based instruction. Each requires individualized instruction targeted at his or her specific needs. The student profiles in Language-Based Learning Disabilities are included to encourage teachers’ thinking about students in their own classes.

As you learn about interventions for each student, keep in mind the following questions:

  • What factors have contributed to the success of each student?
  • What can be done to build on the current successes of each?

Patricia W. Newhall is Associate Director of Landmark School Outreach Program. The Outreach Program offers language-based consulting, program design, seminars, publications, and free e-resources that aim to empower students with learning differences through their teachers. For more information about language-based learning disabilities and language-based teaching, please visit the Landmark School Outreach Program website(opens in a new window).

Excerpted with permission from Landmark School Outreach Program from Newhall, P. W. (2012). Language-based learning disabilities. In P. W. Newhall (Ed.), Language-based teaching series. Prides Crossing, MA: Landmark School Outreach Program.
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