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Don't Wait: Six Simple Ways to Support Your Struggling Learners Tomorrow

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I co-wrote this piece with a virtual colleague of mine (we connected on Twitter and have never met in person). Jamie Martin has become my mentor on all matters dealing with Assistive Technology. As an assistive technology consultant and education writer, he identifies life-changing tools for individuals with dyslexia. He can be found on twitter @ATDyslexia.

You know the students: the glitchy, uneven ones? They lead class discussions with their ability to make abstract connections and recall information, and yet, write unimpressive responses to questions and often flounder during quizzes and tests? Or maybe you have the student who seems particularly engaged and hardworking in school, but is mysteriously inconsistent, minimalist or unproductive with independent work. Do you teach a student who spells the same word three different ways in one paper but nails the content? How about the student who distinguishes herself with her intellectual curiosity during class activities and discussions, but claims she hates to read?!  

Students with perplexing profiles do not always benefit from an official learning diagnosis, an IEP or a 504 plan. This can leave teachers confused about how to support them. As teachers, we know that there are many reasons students who struggle with learning disabilities go undiagnosed (a Herculean work ethic or above average intelligence that obscures obvious telltale signs, a school's lack of screening resources, a discomfort with labels, etc...). But teachers don't need to wait for a diagnosis. Most of the adjustments that we can make in the classroom are not dependent on an official test or name. There are many simple, yet potentially transformative, academic supports we can put in place without engaging any school policies or permissions. These students cannot afford to wait, nor should they have to.

 Six Simple Supports

  1. Offer Extended Time to Finish Tests: Ever wonder how a certain students would do if they had more time to read the material carefully and reread their responses before turning in their tests? Aside from a math facts automaticity quiz, it is hard to justify timed assessments. Since we know that speed of expression offers a false metric when it comes to measuring understanding, it makes little sense to penalize slow students for taking more time to finish assessments. Considering how many poor readers (often unidentified dyslexics) we all have in our classrooms, who require a longer time to read material, it makes sense not to cut students off before they have had ample time to express their understanding.
  2. Offer An Opportunity to Orally Show What They Know: You know the student who elevates the class discussion but writes a few incomplete sentences to answer an important test question? Instead of letting the minimalist written response stand as the measure of their understanding, ask that student to orally explain their answer to you. Investigate whether the gap between their oral and written responses is a mechanical one. If you need a permanent record of their answers, allow them to use a simple voice recording app on their smartphones.  Since the objective of the test is to measure what the student knows, find a way to give credit for understanding, regardless of how it is communicated.
  3. Provide Copies of Class Notes for Students Who Cannot Write and Listen at The Same Time: For many students, the process of taking notes during lessons helps to consolidate the information by processing it through another modality. However, for other students, trying to write while listening impedes their ability to take in information. Not allowing notesharing implies that practicing the process of note-taking is more important than communicating the content. Teachers can liberate their struggling notetakers' attention so that they can concentrate on the lesson. Suggest that those students read the readymade notes aloud, discuss them, or rewrite them on their own time in order to reinforce their learning through another form of processing. If they have difficulty reading them with their eyes, suggest that they use a text-to-speech tool to listen to them as many times as needed (more on ear reading next).
  4. Substitute or Supplement Eye Reading With Ear Reading: Text-to-speech is one of the most commonly found assistive technologies across all computing platforms. Whether your students use Chromebooks, iPads, or desktop computers, you can steer them in the direction of free or low-cost tools that can read text aloud for them. Simple text-to-speech that is built into all Apple devices or basic downloadable apps will be a big help, but reading technology that syncs a computer voice with highlighted text will be even better. If your students can read with their eyes and ears at the same time, it will be a multisensory experience that can be more immersive and improve comprehension. Also, don't forget about audiobooks. Listening to human-narrated books can be extremely beneficial for kids who have difficulty with decoding and understanding what they read. Probably the most transformative impact of audiobooks is the potential for an otherwise reluctant or disinterested reader to discover a love of story. Disfluent readers often become passionate readers when they are finally allowed to read books at their intellectual level.
  5. Offer Keyboarding As An Alternative to Handwriting Answers/ Assignments: The act of writing by hand can be a significant academic obstacle for many students. Each year, teachers have multiple students who struggle with the physical act of writing and/or cannot write legibly enough for you (or sometimes even them) to figure out what thoughts they have put to paper. Why not offer them the option of using a keyboard? It can be a traditional tactile keyboard found on a computer or an onscreen keyboard on a mobile device. Put aside the debate over which is a better experience; allow your students to use whichever is most comfortable for them. The important thing is that their written content will be legible to everyone's eyes and accessible with text-to-speech technology for anyone who needs to read with their ears.
  6. Offer Speech-to-text for A Writing Assignment: One of the worst things for struggling writers is getting bogged down with trying to spell every word correctly -- to the point where they lose focus on the content of their composition. Often, students who have difficulty writing by hand or with a keyboard can verbalize their ideas quite readily. For those students, suggest that they dictate their writing assignments using a speech-to-text tool. It does not need to be a full-featured desktop program, either. Today, dictation technology is built into all Apple devices and can be found in a variety of free or low-cost apps and browser extensions. There is even a new "voice typing" tool built right into Google Docs (as long as your students use the Chrome web browser). You might find that dictating is a liberating experience for your struggling writers and that the volume of their output and the quality of their written assignments dramatically improves. In addition, by using speech-to-text, they will be writing independently and not relying on someone else to transcribe for them. That can do wonders for building students' confidence and autonomy.

Ultimately, these modifications all embrace the principles of UDL (Universal Design for Learning) which caution against teaching to the imaginary average student. The truth is, our classrooms are full of students who are difficult to categorize because they present quirky learning profiles, featuring distinguishing academic strengths alongside disabling challenges. Offering a range of options for action and expression is essential, particularly knowing that our students with learning disabilities do not always benefit from an actual diagnosis or mandated supports. These six flexible adaptations are simple to put in place, but usually provide impressive payoffs.

Do you have any supports that you would add to this list? Please share.

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