Learning Support (FD) and Language /Comprehension Difficulties
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Implications for lecturers and tutors
Lecturers and tutors can attempt to engage with the more common learning styles and patterns normally associated with students with language and comprehension difficulties in a number of ways, including the following:
The key task is to extend the range of educational method substantially beyond the traditional word-based means which tend to include e.g. lectures, seminars, guided reading, preparation of assignments, exams, etc. To some degree education began to extend beyond such means some time ago, increasingly using e.g. role-play, simulation, video-based skills workshops and a range of individual and small group activities which focus on elaboration, discussion and debate designed to enable students to help each other explore ideas and their applicability to real-life situations.
However, among other approaches, the development of information and communication technology extends the possibilities still further, in a number of ways. For example it is possible to develop high quality multi-media packages (available on CD-ROM or through local networks) which help students individually or in groups to explore creatively and in their own way a range of dimensions of given problem situations, and to access back-up learning materials which are specifically linked to the issues in the given situation. This helps to ensure that learning is problem-based and focused, but in addition it gives the opportunity for students to use more than one of their senses in pursuing learning. For example, the use of video clips in such a presentation allows the student to see and hear roles in the situation being acted out. If the student is required to understand a similar series of issues by reading a written case study, the effectiveness of their learning is likely to be far more limited than is possible either with role-play or with such a technology-based package.
Generally, such interactive approaches are more effective for most students because they bring the use of different mental processes to bear simultaneously on the learning being addressed. However, they are particularly effective for students with language and comprehension difficulties because they tend to place greater emphasis on “right-brain” learning processes, e.g. visual-spatial learning and a holistic approach. They allow the student to pursue learning by clarifying and addressing her/his own questions, rather than being required to follow the perhaps differently structured mental processes of others. They are also less dependent on the use of the written word.
Approaches such as those indicated above allow the student to come at specific learning from a range of different angles, and in addition to the advantages already outlined these approaches allow the student more than one, and perhaps numerous, attempts at the learning in question. Generally the main point about over-learning is that repetition is helpful, and the implications of this for campus-based teaching include the following:
- Instructions should be given more that once.
- Presentations (e.g. lectures) should be begun with an explanation of the ground to be covered, and concluded with a summary of the main points.
- Main points should be displayed on a chalk-board, white-board or OHP.
- Summary notes should be made available.
- Areas and points of learning should be revisited at intervals to reinforce and consolidate the learning achieved.
Students with language and comprehension difficulties may make more sense of an argument that is presented to her/him if the way in which the argument is built up is clear and explicit. Lecturers can be guilty of leading a class through a complex line of reasoning by means of a fairly circuitous route, and whereas some students may be able to discern the thread for themselves and build up the whole picture without too much trouble, a student with language and comprehension difficulties is likely to find this more difficult. Lecturers can incorporate a number of approaches into their work that may help to provide invaluable assistance for such students, e.g:
- Ensure that the points to be covered in a lecture are ordered into a logical sequence, and clarify at the start of the lecture both the structure of the presentation and the progression of the argument.
- As each point is made it should be related explicitly to the last.
- Relate the developing argument to practice - this helps to clarify its relevance, which is important for learners in general but for students who have language and comprehension difficulties in particular.
- Summarise the main points at the end of a presentation, both verbally and on a chalk-board, white-board or OHP slide.
- Ensure that any potentially unfamiliar terminology is clarified, both verbally and in writing (e.g. on the board or in a hand-out).
- In more general work be prepared to give additional help with planning and structuring.
Progression in learning
Lecturers and tutors can help students by engaging with her/him in the planning of learning so that it becomes a clearly and explicitly staged process. Thus the lecturer or tutor can help the student to work towards the integration of values, skills and knowledge as an end point that can be reached by a series of steps which follow in a planned sequence, each building on the previous one. To achieve this, the lecturer can:
- Clarify progression in the learning to be achieved by breaking down the processes into a series of identifiable steps.
- Help the student to focus on taking each step at a time, and to try to avoid tackling too much at once.
This approach, as well as assisting the student to develop a map for her/his own development, is also more likely to provide an experience of understanding and success which can serve as a basis for confidence-building and further learning. The confidence that this can provide is of particular importance for such students if their confidence has been damaged by previous experiences. Building self-assurance in this way contributes towards the development of increasing self-direction in learning, and this is a key factor in any student’s development as a learner.
Using shortcuts and aids to learning
In this regard, an important form of support that academic staff can give to students with language and comprehension difficulties is to actively encourage them to identify and use shortcuts and aids that work for them. There are a number of possible aids (including mnemonics and mind-maps), but it is the way in which these and other such devices are used will inevitably be individual to the student and therefore they cannot easily be provided by a lecturer. What a lecturer or tutor can do, however, is to acknowledge the validity (indeed the importance) of such tools for learning, and to value them as a means of achieving the results that are sought. The message to the students must be "if it works for you, use it", rather than for the lecturer to succumb to any temptation to cling to more traditional learning methods, either because they have somehow come to be regarded as academically more respectable, or simply because they have worked for others, perhaps including the lecturer her/himself.
Such encouragement and recognition of individualised tools is very important, but there are also more direct forms of help which lecturers/tutors can provide or at least facilitate. These could include the following:
- Opportunities to see the work (including the written work) of others, as a means of helping the student develop a clear sense of possible methods of approach to a given task. Care needs to be taken to avoid any inappropriate suggestion that an identified task can only be tackled in one way, and that this one way can be demonstrated by the provision of a single example of someone else’s attempt at the same or a similar task. Rather, a number of examples should be offered, as a means of helping the student achieve a clear sense of the whole-ness of the completed task, as a basis for developing her/his own approach. This is clearly different from simply giving the student a model to copy which, far from advancing her/his learning, might in fact inhibit it.
- Provision of materials in diagrammatic or pictorial forms, rather than in text. The value of diagrams in social work and in education has long been acknowledged, but there is still a tendency for much handout material to consist of text rather than other forms of representation. Greater use of a range of diagrammatic forms such as flow-charts, mind-maps, tree diagrams, tables, etc. would be of considerable benefit to students. In addition however, many find it helpful to devise their own pictorial representations of situations and concepts, or to use for example a colour code to organise ideas in their minds. For the lecturer, the most important thing is to acknowledge and engage with what works for the student.
- More generally, handouts need to be clear, well structured, well presented and easily readable, whether they are in text or some other form.
The most successful learners are those who can actively harness their own self-knowledge, and their knowledge of available learning resources and how they work, to pursue their educational objectives in a purposeful and largely self-directed way. Therefore, the success of educators can be measured by how far they are able to help learners to develop their capacity to exercise responsibility for their own learning effectively. For students who have language and comprehension difficulties, no less than for others, this means enabling them progressively to take on this responsibility and to exercise it with awareness. One of the main differences however is that the student with such difficulties is much more likely to have been undermined by earlier educational experiences, and so their readiness to operate in this way may have been inhibited by negative feedback and the effect on their developing self-concept and self-esteem. There are a number of ways in which educators can facilitate the development of the effectiveness of students as self-aware and self-directed learners, and these include the following:
- Encourage, facilitate and support the student’s efforts to engage in aware and purposeful self-assessment.
- Encourage, facilitate and support the student’s efforts to plan the approach/process to be used in relation to her/his own learning, both at a general level and in relation to specific educational tasks.
- Encourage the student to make connections that are meaningful for her/him, and be prepared to engage with these connections in discussion.
- Be open and explicit about the rationale for undertaking particular educational tasks, and for tackling these in any given way.
- Offer different approaches to teaching/learning, from which the student can determine the one(s) which s/he finds most effective, and which the student can use to reinforce learning (for instance by working from specific examples to general concepts, as well as in the reverse direction).
Implications for practice teachers and mentors
One of the greatest difficulties facing people with language and comprehension difficulties is the extent to which as a culture we are dependent on the written word in everyday life. Some people with difficulties will go to great lengths to find ways to cope with this, and many develop over the course of their lives very sophisticated strategies, some of which may be designed to hide rather than manage the problem. This is perhaps inevitable, given the value placed on writing throughout our education system at all levels, and given the common misconception that those who cannot read and write well are lacking in intelligence. Some people can often feel subject to the very negative perceptions of others concerning their educational and intellectual worth, and this leaves many with a legacy of poor self esteem which can frustrate further educational effort.
It should be acknowledged that students with language and comprehension difficulties more than likely possess the same range of overall potential as the general student population except in respect of use of the written word, therefore they will have a contribution to make in education. As a practice teacher/mentor operating within the culture of the written word, it may be tempting to start from a position that says that if a student cannot deal with the written word, then s/he cannot demonstrate the full range of competences and so cannot operate as a fully functioning early years or learning support worker. However such a position denies all the other qualities and skills that such students may bring, and anyway which of us, with or without difficulties, is a fully rounded worker in all respects? We all have areas of our practice that we have to (or should) grapple with. Is it just that an ability to use the written word is more visible than some others that may be equally or more important?
As soon as it is accepted that students with language and comprehension difficulties have as valid a contribution to make as other students, the questions then become:
- How can we work to maximise that contribution?
- How can we provide a good learning environment for students who have language and comprehension difficulties?
- How can we support them in their learning and enable them to become good practitioners?
Whatever initial thoughts a practice teacher/mentor may have in beginning to plan for a student’s arrival on placement, s/he will be concerned to ensure that all the questions that are particularly relevant for a student with language and comprehension difficulties have been considered. Practice teachers/mentors generally try hard to get things right, but in order to support the student they require to listen carefully and to approach their planning with a mind that is open to different ways of working. Usually the first step is to try to gain an initial sense of how the student learns. Pre-placement information from the teaching institution and/or the student, and discussion at a pre-placement meeting, can contribute a great deal to this developing understanding.
Many students who have language and comprehension difficulties will come to the placement with a clear awareness of their needs and with well developed strategies that have worked for them in previous learning situations. Clearly such students may have lived with and coped with their difficulties since childhood, and will have worked constructively to deal with the problems they have always required to face. In such instances a little extra support and encouragement, often concerning practical issues, may be all that is necessary from the practice teacher. Bearing in mind that the practice teacher’s overall aim is to facilitate self-directedness in the student, then such self-directedness should not be interfered with where it already exists - "if it ain’t broke - don’t fix it". Certainly any approach that does not have the nurturing of such self-directedness at its heart will not help to develop the student’s competence as a learner, and is therefore likely to undermine rather than support the student’s development.
As in all good learning and teaching processes, practice teachers and tutors in higher education are required to check some important matters prior to beginning to work with the student. The following is a suggested check list for practice teachers prior to embarking on work with students who have language and comprehension difficulties. Of course each student will have individual learning needs and patterns and so the following is a guide rather than a blueprint for action.
What do practice teachers/mentors need to think about before the placement starts?
- Has the student been assessed as having dyslexia, and if so when (e.g. in childhood, on return to higher education or perhaps never) and by whom?
- How does s/he learn in general?
- Does s/he have or require information technology support or other special equipment and if so what form does/should this take?
- Has s/he or do you require to make contact with the Special Needs Advisor or Learning Support Unit at the educational establishment?
- Does the student require to make (or has s/he already made) application for funding through the British Dyslexia Association or from another agency to obtain financial assistance for non medical help e.g. a scribe?
- As a practice teacher in an agency, what discussions do you require to have with your manager, colleagues or training team e.g. concerning special requirements, the loan of equipment, or extra time to be made available to process written work for the student?
- Does the student have or require contact with other students or colleagues who have similar difficulties?
- What tools have been helpful for others in the past e.g. use of maps, colour codes, hieroglyphics, role play, audio visual interactive videos or CD ROMs?
- How will you record supervision notes, and give extra space, time and encouragement to the student?
Exploration of these questions, and action where necessary, will begin to help the student settle into the placement and will increase her/his confidence in you as the practice teacher. This is not to suggest that such students will expect you to have all the solutions to their difficulties, but more importantly they will gain confidence from a reassurance that you are “tuned into” the important issues for them. Clearly, it is important that such plans are reflected in the working agreement for the placement, since this helps to ensure that they are correctly understood and are implemented as agreed.
Students who have language and comprehension difficulties may need to work harder than others to organise and structure their work. For the practice teacher, awareness of this need is often highlighted when the student is preparing written work based on their placement for use on their course. Such tasks make many demands on the short-term memory span, especially when recalling or reflecting on specific information which is to be used for assessment purposes.
To help reduce the anxiety and stress which can be associated with such complex and comprehensive pieces of work, the student should be encouraged and helped to develop a structured approach, which not only involves organising systems, but also might include observing and assessing (and timing) how they work on an assignment or an assessable task. For example one practice teacher noticed that her student, who found it helpful to use a colour code instead of written headings to classify and categorise salient information, highlighted feedback from direct observations of practice by using thick bright felt markers, which immediately allowed him to link all the pink, yellow or blue areas in a sequence. Although this made little sense for the practice teacher, the student was clear that certain colours signified specific areas of reflection or learning and as a result used these areas again effectively when writing up.
Another student used a form of mapping and graphs which allowed her to easily record a groupwork process used to support children in looking with them at unacceptable behaviours.
Although the examples above represent good practice in that they allow the student the freedom to be creative and in control of their own learning patterns, there can be occasions when the student can try to tackle too much at once and therefore become confused and anxious about recording or writing accounts of situations. In such circumstances, helping the student to maintain a clear focus on the essence of the task is of critical importance.
For some students, using a laptop or Dictaphone during a work situation may still prove inhibiting, both for the children or carers and for the student. Issues of confidentiality need to be borne in mind and sometimes the resulting complexity can become confusing for the student. Thinking and planning together about such matters in advance is necessary to reduce the risk to both the student and the children and carers.
As indicated earlier, over-learning is a strategy which offers a constructive and highly effective means of enhancing the learning of a student with language and comprehension difficulties. However problems can arise if the student has difficulty in focusing on what has been useful in this learning.
These problems can occur if the student tries too hard to get things correct, perhaps spending hours reading, re-learning, and recapping on the available information, serving only to cause word muddle. As a result s/he may misunderstand a situation or get it out of proportion, ultimately becoming confused about which parts of the assessment or situation are important or relevant for the purpose or task.
On such occasions it is important that the practice teacher, during supervision, provides a safe, secure and helpful environment for the student. The practice teacher must help reduce anxieties by empathising, listening and restoring confidence in the student. Sometimes it is important to spend less time looking at the specific issues than one might with some other students, and more time supporting the student’s morale and empowering her/him to take control of her/his own learning.
In some instances the involvement of the university’s Special Needs Advisor in supervision sessions can be invaluable, and this may be a continuing support to the student in her/his academic learning, as well as in the practice placement. The Special Needs Adviser’s role in supporting the student requires, like the practice teacher’s, clear boundaries in terms of role and function. Sometimes Advisers obtain confidential materials which they are at liberty to share only with the student, e.g. psychological assessments on reading and writing abilities and on the student’s ability to cope with academic work. It is not always necessary or even desirable for this information to be shared with the practice teacher, as it is often the case that discussion in supervision will need to be focused around resource materials which may assist the learning process, rather than on raw information about the student’s chronological reading and writing age. Such information may indeed be more of a hindrance than a help, and if disclosed, must be treated in a highly sensitive and confidential way.
Progression in Learning
Self aware learning and a general progression in learning tend to go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other.
Firstly, the progression may be small e.g. the student becoming more able to write accurately about the needs of achild, or setting out some factual information in the correct chronological order within a report. The student may be able to present this verbally in a comprehensive way, but perhaps only if, to begin with, there is some structure to her/his recall of the situation. Role play may be useful in facilitating the student’s recall. With the practice teacher taking the role of the student and the student that of the child, barriers can be broken down by encouraging the student to re-enact the interview and thus allow a glimpse inside the situation from the student’s perspective.
This procedure can trigger the retrieval of unspoken exchanges or non-verbal communication between the student and the child or carer as, during a direct observation session, students sometimes have excellent powers of recall. On one occasion, a student explained that when people talk she sometimes tries to spell the words in her head, to allow her to access the meaning. From time to time this would lead her to forget what had been said, but she was nevertheless able to observe a number of aspects of the non-verbal communication and interactions between others. During the subsequent role play, which was regarded as an important stage in the progression of her learning, she was able to feed back the essence of the situation which she observed, and most surprisingly managed then to recall the verbal contributions, which she seemed to re-hear in her head.
As students who have language and comprehension difficulties progress they may gain an awareness of themselves at a distance and may seem quickly to make links between one situation and another. The use of the reflective diary, graphs, mapping of words and themes and verbal recordings by use of a Dictaphone, all provide good forms of support in revising or recalling past events.
Using short-cuts and aids to learning
As mentioned earlier, students with language and comprehension difficulties often benefit from tools to help them find suitable short-cuts. For example many students with use information technology, and some can make excellent use of speech synthesisers and other equipment obtained or suggested by the university’s Special Needs Advisor.
Placement agencies may need to obtain software which is compatible with those used by students and potential workers. Some bodies can give funding for non-medical help e.g. a scribe or reader of materials for the student. Practice teachers do not always have easy access to information about such resources, but it is likely that the university tutor and/or Special Needs Adviser can offer some guidance.
Other aids which help may include maps, colour codes, hieroglyphics (e.g. Dingbat software packages), Dictaphones and recording machines which automatically erase after the student has played back and written down the information. Special Needs Advisors are invaluable and should be consulted, as should practice teachers who have some experience in working with students who have language and comprehension difficulties.
As already indicated, it must be emphasised that the aim of all these measures to help the student to become equipped with a range of resources and strategies which will enable her/him to produce written material compatible with her/his current stage of education and training.
The following are examples which can help us appreciate the numerous problems which face students with language and comprehension difficulties who are on practice placements, and hopefully give the reader some ideas and potentially helpful working tools for both the practice teacher and the student.
As already indicated, many students with language and comprehension difficulties are talented individuals who may excel in art, music or other creative activities which allow them to express themselves and their feelings without having to rely solely on the written word. Although in practical work, the student is required to demonstrate the integration of values as well as skills in verbal and written communications, some students may require more practical help in order for them to feel comfortable and achieve these requirements.
In working with a particularly gifted student who demonstrated great verbal skill in role play and an ability to use symbols as a short hand for written communication, one practice teacher was able to discuss the preparation of an assessment by using role play as a report-back of the student’s observations. As the student’s short term memory span seemed to be limited as a result of their difficulties, it was especially useful to have shorter supervision sessions on a more frequent basis than tends to be the norm, and to schedule these as soon as possible following the assessment. On role playing the scenario with the practice teacher and using a tape recording of the session, the student was better able to devise useful headings to enable him to complete the written assessment. An appropriate computer software which featured a series of pictorial symbols was of great benefit in this instance, and agreed symbols were used during supervision to decode process recordings or reports.
The more artistic student can use a colour code in the same way - so that for example the colour red could trigger off statements relating to crisis or blue for tasks to be undertaken.
Students who find this form of communication shorthand helpful should be encouraged to use it, as it utilises their talents and helps them focus more positively within their learning, rather than having to concentrate on the difficulties they experience in some differently structured form of learning.
These may seem unusual examples and for practice teachers the sense of risk may seem high, especially where the student does not appear to have a clear framework to guide her/him. However we should not see such students as having insurmountable difficulties, but rather we should gain as much knowledge as possible about the student, about their difficulty and about what s/he finds helpful in the learning process.
We frequently encourage students to use mapping and diagrams to relate theory to practice. Symbols such as those referred to above are also a form of mapping and one which is often used by students with language and comprehension difficulties.
The notion that such ideas are too unusual or non-traditional for the proper teaching of practice needs to be resisted. Indeed practice teachers should be encouraged to be creative and innovative in the methods they adopt for the facilitation and assessment of development and competence in students with language and comprehension difficulties. The sharing of information among practice teachers is an essential component in helping them to maximise their own learning about their difficulty, and in helping them to counter the effects of misunderstanding and a widespread lack of awareness of the effects it.
Information taken from Campbell, J.W.S. and Cowe, T. (1998) Working with DipSW Students with Dyslexia: A Guide for Practice Teachers. University of Strathclyde. To access the full report click the following link http://www.wofscon.com/publications/word_docs/Dyslexia_Guide.doc.