The Academic Achievers

How do Learners With Disabilities Achieve Academically?

Dyslexics who succeed academically are most likely doing so because they have developed strategies to cope with the disability. Below are some of the factors that influence their learning process. There must be:

  1. appropriate learning tools
  2. a relaxed classroom environment
  3. a stable living environment
  4. achievement of results

1. Appropriate Learning Tools

All learners have learning tools most suited to them. There are two categories of tools: the learner's owns tools and the tools provided by the teacher. To maximise learning, both sets of tools should interact and be utilised to the fullest.

a) The Learner's Own Tools

The most powerful tool a dyslexic has is their ability to think and develop their own knowledge and ideas from processing and analyzing information. In particular, many learn through experience and have good reasoning skills, which needs to be utilized. Where necessary support and guidance should be sought from professionals and teachers. Realise of course that the learning approach and tools needs to be adapted to the subject area  – sciences, history, languages, mathematics etc.

The following are some suggested tips to support learning.

  • Develop self-motivation: The motivation and interest to learn something is low if there is always a struggle to understand. So having or creating an interest in something can be irrelevant if one's ability to learn is limited. Despite this, one should always strive to seek an understanding of the importance and relevance of the topic to be learnt. Having an appreciation of why something is learnt strengthens the interest. Still, the motivation to learn is a major battle. For this reason, the individual must seek two other forms of motivation: Firstly, the motivation to begin the learning process, which comes from having targets and setting realistic goals; secondly, motivation to continue the learning process, which comes from getting results and achieving.
  • Strengthen the foundation of one's existing knowledge: Many with a disability have a weak platform for new knowledge to build on. Strengthening this platform should be achieved by researching background information on the topic to be studied and revising any previously learnt work.
  • Search for understanding: Since many who find learning difficult are sensitive to the way ideas are explained, one needs to search for understanding. Search means utilising a variety of communication channels such as reading, listening, visuals and writing, which can be found from books, computer programs, the internet etc. It is important that there is easy access to these resources. An explanation should be re-read, analysed and tested until understanding is achieved. Often a single explanation is not enough, so combining  information from many different sources maybe necessary.
  • Highlight and organise explanations that are simple to understand: This follows initial understanding and is absolutely necessary to assist in remembering particularly when it comes to revising. If this is not done, then when it comes to exam time one may need to re-start the learning process. Both reading and writing skills should be utilised here. When reading, important information can be highlighted using a highlighter pen. Such a practice encourages one to develop an ability to extract important information. Through writing, the simplest explanation of an idea comes from one's own thoughts. Once there is initial understanding, it is strongly advised to write down in one's own words the meaning of the idea or concept. The emphasis is on writing in one's own words because what is written is important, not how. In other words, the meaning is important, not the grammar or expressive quality. How something is written is only relevant when someone else has to read it. So from this perspective many dyslexics can write freely and quickly if it is written for personal use: the only requirement is to write well enough to ensure that the meaning is unambiguous. Furthermore any new found knowledge or ideas can disappear because of the poor retaining and recalling skills of many dyslexics. So instead of storing it in one's mind the idea should be immediately stored in writing so it can be accessed at any time.
  • Be patient, persistent and pedantic: Learning can be a very slow process. For dyslexics to achieve the same results as others, the energy input required can be many times greater.
  • Learn from mistakes: This is very important as it encourages the individual to learn through experience, discover and helps them to develop reasoning skills.
  • Ask for help if all fails: It is vital not to be afraid to ask questions. This is not a sign of failure but instead one is succeeding in trying to learn.
  • Utilise time wisely: Being patient, persistent and pedantic can also harm the learning process if limited or no understanding will be achieved anyway. Time is precious and there must be good sense of one's own ability. This means there is no point spending time on a concept where limited or no understanding will be achieved. When studying a topic, it might be advisable to concentrate on part or most of the topic and know it thoroughly rather than all the topic and acquire only moderate to poor understanding.
  • Understanding and being honest about one's own ability: If understanding is poor, then one doesn't know how much work and time is needed to succeed. A typical example of a person having little understanding of their ability is when he/she expects to succeed and do very well in an exam but actually fails and performs poorly in it.
  • Check for understanding and use knowledge consistently: Once understanding is achieved this should be an ongoing process to reinforce understanding and aid memory. This can be achieved by finding and answering challenging questions that are appropriate to one's level. Answers need to be available so one can check their solution. Any errors need to be identified and corrected.

b) The Tools Provided By The Teacher

The classroom can be one of the most difficult and challenging environments for dyslexics to adapt to. The learning experience is a constant struggle for survival just like trying to keep one's head above water. This difficulty is compounded because the learning tools and methods used by teachers and educators are suited more to traditional learners. There are three factors that contribute to this:

  • Firstly, the majority of the students in most classes learn traditionally, so the teaching caters for this majority and not for individuals.
  • Secondly, teachers have an obligation to cover the syllabus in a given time set by the education authorities and schools. As a result it is very difficult for a teacher to adjust their teaching style and pace to a minority of the class. This creates a disadvantage to the slower learners.
  • Thirdly, many of the learning materials provided – i.e. textbooks, novels etc. – are written and produced for traditional learners.

The learning style of dyslexics is more distinctive and requires extra personal guidance from a professional or teacher. The emphasis is on guidance rather than teaching. Guidance means the teacher provides the catalyst which encourages an individual to use their own knowledge and skills to think, discover and develop new knowledge, while with teaching, learning occurs from information fed more directly. I believe many dyslexics have a natural learning instinct, which means they have a good sense of their own learning methods, a potential that needs to be utilised. Learning from teaching suppresses this potential because the learning method is dominated by the teacher. Furthermore, with information more directly fed, understanding and remembering needs to occur immediately for further learning. This method does not suit dyslexics because they need more time to absorb and process the language. Being guided, one feels more in control of their own learning, not only because they feel more comfortable utilising their own tools, but they know when and what questions to ask to obtain any information needed from the support available. Guiding dyslexics gives them much-needed confidence and motivation for further learning.

So much has been documented, with specifics, on how to improve learning that I will not get into details. Furthermore, how a person learns is very much a personal thing. However, I will suggest a two general approaches. Firstly, to help maximise the absorbing of information the four skills of reading, listening, writing and speaking should be used thus utilising both sight and sound senses. Secondly, using the information to reinforce and deepen the knowledge, in other words further learning through experience and doing.

2. A Relaxed Classroom Environment

It goes without saying that the feel of the classroom environment has a major impact on the learning process. Students create the classroom environment, while teachers influence it. One can become a target for others to mock and criticise because of their weaknesses, so to slower learners a relaxed classroom environment is simply one which is non-intimidating. The impact of the intimidation may come from three sources: the individual, other classmates and the teacher.

  • The individual: The extent to which one  feels intimidated depends on the maturity, experiences, strength and confidence of the individual.
  • Other classmates: Often the intimidation mainly comes from other classmates; it can be direct and/or indirect. Direct intimidation comes from what others say and do whereas indirect intimidation comes from circumstances where one knows what others are thinking without the need for them to say it. If a slower learner consistently gets lower grades than others then one is susceptible to the worst form of intimidation and that is being labelled as 'the class dummy'.
  • The teacher: A teacher can minimise the intimidation within the classroom. For this to happen he/she must know who in the class learns slower. Seating placement is important: one should be surrounded by classmates they feel comfortable with and who do not disturb the individual from learning. A certain teaching style can enhance intimidation. Asking and/or forcing the slower learners to answer questions on the spot or requesting them to present something spontaneously can have damaging consequences if they cannot perform the task. Being unable to answer a question that others can and being exposed to this fact in front of classmates can be the most humiliating experience a slower student suffers. If a person does not raise their hand then it means they do not want to answer the question; they should not be forced to do so in front of the class or be penalised for not being active in class. One becomes afraid of such lessons, which can have severe consequences to the learning process. Teachers must never ever adopt this style of teaching unless they are absolutely sure the student will give a sensible response. A positive response of course can have the effect of giving the  learner a massive lift in front of their peers.

3. A Stable Living Environment

A major factor that affects the ability to learn is the stability of one's living environment. This applies not only to dyslexics but to all. Personal problems in their daily lives – such as relationship issues with parents, partners or colleagues, social and health problems, or financial and domestic responsibilities – are the reason why many students do not reach their learning potential. Dyslexics however, are more likely to be susceptible to these problems because of their struggles and inabilities in adapting to the daily environment. It is vital that the individual and those closest to him/her realise this fact and work together to establish and maintain a comfortable living environment.

4. Achievement of Results

The previous factors maximise the opportunity for the learning process to take place. Achieving results during the learning process is probably the single most important factor that motivates one to continue learning. It is therefore important that dyslexics learn at an appropriate level to their ability. Questions and exercises should not be too difficult or too easy but at the same time be challenging.