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One of the most common concerns of tutors is that their student has a learning disability. At the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia we use the term learning difference, because we are not equipped to diagnose nor take financial responsibility for testing that would be required under federal law with the term learning disability. LCNV accepts students regardless of any kind of disability they may choose to disclose, and tries to meet the needs of all beginning readers and writers. Yet, LCNV does not provide any screening or diagnoses; tutors are not in the position to diagnose or suggest any labels. Still, if you suspect that your student may be struggling beyond what you would consider typical growing pains, please consider some of these struggles and solutions.
Learning disabilities are multi-dimensional and occur on a continuum, so you may notice varying degrees of certain behaviors in different people – maybe even yourself. Over the next few weeks, check back in this space for brief descriptions of some typical learning problems and ways to help learners succeed in spite of them. Attention is necessary for all learning – if we do not attend to something, we send a signal to our brain that it is not important so it does not get stored fully in long-term memory, making it unavailable for future use. For example, if a student is texting while you are explaining the difference between long and short vowels, this material may sound vaguely familiar to him/ her later on, but it will not be stored sufficiently for him/her to apply the information later.
Students who struggle to attend their tutoring sessions may do the following: make frequent and careless mistakes on schoolwork and on the job; fail to attend to details; appear not to listen when spoken to; have trouble sustaining focus for a long period of time; struggle to follow through on things; approach tasks in a disorganized manner; fall short of organizing their materials; and lose things frequently.
If this sounds like your student, first remember that many factors can interfere with attention including life stressors such as loss of a job or fear of this loss, lack of sleep, inadequate nutrition, etc.; your student does not necessarily have a diagnose-able condition. However, attention is essential to learning, so if your student struggles with any of the behaviors listed above, you might want to try some of the tips below.
- Minimize distractions as much as possible – reserve a room in the library rather than work in the open part where there is high traffic; turn off cell phones; clear the table of unnecessary papers; don’t interrupt your student with questions and conversation while they are learning – stay focused yourself!
- Notice how long a student is able to attend to one task and break instruction into separate, discrete segments – i.e. 15 minutes of phonics practice, 10 minutes of word reading, 15 minutes of passage reading etc. If possible, schedule tutoring for shorter periods and meet more frequently for regular review. Review often.
- Pace yourself and your student – do not be tempted to move too quickly as every learner needs time to digest and master material before they can absorb new materials. If the material is at the appropriate instructional level, all learning should build in a logical way so that one skill flows into the next.