“The Cue to Reading” Series (Article 10): Creating Effective Lessons for a LD Student

When my son was a few months old and I was a new mom, I had no idea how or when to introduce him to solid foods. I fell asleep one night in the midst of reading an article about the topic. The article explained that solid foods should be introduced in very small bites, over the course of several days. “Let the baby test a bite or two at each meal. Don’t expect him to get nutrition from the food, at first. Just let him get used to the texture and slowly figure out what to do with it.” The last thing I read before drifting off to sleep was a warning not to overstuff the child. “If you push too much, the baby will just spit it all back up!”

The next morning, I went to a reading conference and sat with several teachers from a different school district. They told me about an exciting new reading program they had organized to build fluency scores. It was a systematic, five-minute routine built into the first few minutes of the day. As the students entered the classroom, they met with a pre-assigned partner. Each student read for one minute from specific reading passages, while the partner kept time with a timer. Then, the partners switched. After reading, each student counted the number of words he/she read and recorded the total on a graph. The objective was to beat their best pace. They were competing against themselves and they loved it!

My colleagues said the benefits of this daily routine far exceeded their expectations! Students were eager to chart their progress every day and fluency scores skyrocketed well beyond the goal. Surprisingly, they also found that truancy rates dropped. Students were so excited for this daily challenge that they begged their parents to get them to school. It was a win-win-win for everyone!

What Does This Have to Do With Baby Food?

Listening to this story, I was struck by the amazing power that came from just five minutes a day! It made perfect sense and was in line with the article about baby food: Take small steps. Pace it carefully. Don’t overstuff the baby (or the learner). Otherwise, the food (or information) will be regurgitated!

The real power of the reading program was not one, five-minute setting, but several five-minute settings. Just like the baby food, “Try one or two bites at a time…over several days.”

Short Sessions, Repeated Over Time.

This fits with the science of the brain. The brain was originally built for the caveman who endured stress in short sessions; “fight or flight.” When the caveman was stressed, it was usually because he was in danger. Hopefully he managed to escape the danger and when the threat was gone, the stress was gone. It did not linger for hours on end, day after day.

While many parts of the brain have evolved over time, the part of the brain that experiences stress (such as the stress of learning something new), has not changed much. It is the “limbic system,” but often called the “lizard brain” since it is still relatively primitive. The lizard brain works best in short bursts. This may be the most important key to developing effective lessons for ANY learner, but especially a student taxed with a learning disability.

The lessons I learned from the baby food helped me once again this summer, as I planned an intervention program for my son.

Elements Of Effective (Interventions) Lessons

The more I learn about helping students with learning disabilities, the more I realize that what works best for “LD” students is really most efficient for every learner. (Which makes me wonder if they are really “learning disabilities” or “teaching deficiencies.” But, I digress…)

Important elements in managing effective intervention lessons include:

  • Short, frequent sessions. Take a cue from the caveman and keep it quick.

My son had a lot of “catching up” to do this summer, so there could easily be a temptation to use every available hour. His school provided two options; summer school that met for three hours a day, five days a week , or two 1-1 tutoring sessions each week with a teacher. His principal felt he would do better with the shorter, more focused sessions. I completely agreed!

However, I also hired our babysitter to facilitate three more tutoring sessions each week. I felt that one hour a day, five days a week, would be optimal; Mark would get a lot of practice, but still have plenty of time to play, create, and do all of the things that make his brain explode with excitement!

  • Alternate activities. Change it up to keep the brain engaged.

The primary goal for the summer is to help Mark stretch his working memory, so I chose three programs that will provide a good “working memory workout:” All About Spelling (the Orton-Gillingham reading program I wrote about last week), Handwriting Without Tears (a phenomenal program for all students, especially LD), and Math Fact Fluency (a computer program for drilling basic math facts). Mark spends 20 minutes working with each of these programs during every tutoring session.

Each program requires different “output” from Mark. As you might guess, the handwriting session is a paper-and-pencil drill. However, All About Spelling is more “hands-on” with letter tiles and the math program gives Mark a chance to work on the computer. Consequently, each 20-minute session “feels” different for Mark, which helps keep him engaged.

  • Keep the pace moving. Mark is a slow starter and is easily distracted. Like many LD students, he has ADHD. The pace has to be fast or Mark is sure to wander, get bored, and lose motivation quick. To address this concern, we let the timer lead. “Set the timer for 20 minutes and begin,” I advised Katie, our babysitter. “When the timer is done, stop and go on to the next thing.”

The timer is also key to dealing with bad days. Mark is a “roller coaster:” he can be “on fire” some days and a wet rag on others. Katie is a very nurturing soul and, like most mothers and educators, is likely to get sucked in to Mark’s downward spiral on the bad days. She could easily spend a whole hour just coaxing and prodding him. Instead, I told her, “Expect the bad days. Don’t worry about them and remain calm. Let the timer lead. If he chooses to lie on the ground for 20 minutes, that will be his choice. Don’t get into a power struggle. The timer will ensure that the torture does not last more than 20 minutes…for either of you.”

As a word of caution, however, you don’t always want to push the pace. If a student is in a “zone,” happily making progress, and doesn’t want to stop, let him go. During these periods, emotions are positive and the brain is ripe for learning! Take advantage whenever you can.

  • Sit. Stand. Lie on the floor. Whatever it takes. Over the years, I have had many parents and teachers ask me to tell their child (or students) that they should be sitting at a table or desk to learn best.

Sorry. I can’t do that.

There are times when a specific “posture” is important. For example, working on a flat surface when writing or tracking text for reading allows the hands to relax and work most efficiently with the eyes. However, in both of these situations, the child could be standing. Or kneeling at a low table. Or using a lap desk. The body should be free to do what the body needs to do.

Mark went through a battery of tests this past spring, over the course of several visits. Each time, the evaluators noticed that he preferred to stand and recorded data showing that he performed better while standing.

Cultivate motivation.

The best motivation comes from within the student. “Intrinsic motivation,” as it is called. Intrinsic motivation comes when a child believes in himself and sees the value in what he is doing.

One way to stoke motivation is to help students monitor their progress so they can SEE growth. Graphs, charts, and scores are a good way for them to “compete” against themselves and challenge themselves to keep growing. The impact that the reading graphs had on my colleagues’ students illustrates the power of intrinsic motivation.

Another way to stoke motivation is to provide choices. Choices give students a healthy sense of control, which is important to keep them motivated.

Recently, Mark decided he was tired of working in the dining room and wanted to move tutoring to his bedroom that day. His bedroom is full of distractions and would be a very cramped space for both him and Katie, so I did not think it was a good idea. However, I knew Marked needed to feel some sense of control in this situation. So, I offered this choice: “If you are willing to work in the dining room for the first two segments and are cooperative with Katie, you can take the computer to your room to do math.” It was a good deal, a “win-win” for both of us.

I have another way of working “choice” into tutoring. Some would call it bribery, but I see it is a healthy way for Mark to exercise his freedom of choice and also learn that hard work provides rewards. For every 20-minute segment that Mark is on-task and cooperative, Katie records a “+1” on his tutoring chart, which is worth $1. Mark can earn up to $3 per session, which is a happy investment for me and good money for him.

When Mark is having a “bad” day, Katie reminds him that he is in the driver’s seat. She tells him, “You can do the work and earn a dollar, or you can keep rolling around on the floor. The choice is yours.” She does not have to engage in a power struggle and Mark is free to make his choice.

Early in the summer, Mark suddenly decided he wanted a specific toy, so we checked his chart to see if had earned enough money. He was $2 short! It was a Friday and he had to wait for Monday to earn that extra money. It was a tough lesson, but he got the message. (Especially since he had goofed off that Friday and only earned $1 out the three tutoring segments.)

In Conclusion

As with most things in life, “more” is not always better. It is easier for all of us to digest learning in smaller segments, but it is essential for students with learning disabilities. Trust the power of small segments and watch students thrive!

What’s Next For The Cue to Reading?

Sadly, the summer is coming to a close. Fortunately, I have covered everything I laid out in June. These ten issues have included a thorough and comprehensive review of reading, including the essential elements of the reading process and tips for working through reading challenges.

However, I have not scratched the surface of ADHD and the implications it can have on learning. ADHD is often a partner of learning disabilities, and for good reason; both are derived from biological deficiencies in the brain. In my ongoing quest to help my son, I learned more than I ever imagined about ADHD this summer! In fact, I was diagnosed with ADHD myself just a couple of weeks ago. On one hand, this was a total shock. On the other hand, it explains a lot. This has been a very interesting journey and I’m planning to share more about it in the near future. Once the school year is off and running (my kids do not start school until next week), I will be back to tackle this topic and will keep you posted.

-Susan Kruger


EB 082217

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