By Susan Grover and Anne Hendricks
We’re working on the upcoming paper in my critical writing class. About ten minutes late, Albert runs into the computer lab seemingly dazed. He's holding two library books in his hands like someone holds a food tray. He halts almost directly in front of me. I'm trying not to draw attention to him, so I continue my instructions and avert my gaze. My attempts are useless, since he's right in front of me and since the entire class turned to look at him the moment he threw open the door. He stares at the books for a minute, turns to face the class, and announces, as if he had just awakened: "I just dropped my textbooks in the library return chute." He turns and runs back out again to few muffled titters from the class.
This was not the only disruption with Albert that semester. Many times I inwardly groaned in frustration at Albert’s apparently irrelevant questions, late assignments, and misunderstanding of papers/activities. But the real frustration came when I was grading research papers. One paper clearly stood out from the others: it was clear and artfully written, filled with specific support for a provocative idea. It was the type of research paper I love to read. It was Albert's.
When measuring ideas, Albert was a genius, or at least he had the potential to excel. When measuring his academic abilities - the abilities to interpret assignments or negotiate the mechanics of college - Albert was incompetent. And that is why I was frustrated. I think he had the potential to learn more in my class than he did, but the standard practices of education didn’t work for him.
Students who, like Albert, do not learn well in traditional educational situations are often labeled learning disabled. However, this label is problematic. Learning disabled literally means “not able to learn” and creates a stigma for learning disabled students. Applying this label--whether by teachers, parents, peers, and even the students themselves--can make such students feel they are stupid or below normal intelligence. However, multiple studies prove this inference wrong. These students can learn, and can excel in academics. They just learn differently (Shaywitz, Davis 3, Levine qtd in Prescott 18-19, LaVoie Understanding Learning Disabilities, Krantrowitz 72-74, 78).
New terms refocus attention from an overall deficiency to a narrow developmental disorder that affects how the student learns. Two terms, specific learning disorder (SLD) and specific developmental disorder (SDD), emphasize that these disorders are specific in nature, suggesting specific coping strategies for individual disorders (Wender 5, 14; Eckwall 315-316). This change in terminology emphasizes that a student may have difficulty in one particular aspect of learning while mastering and excelling in others. Therefore, many SLD students may not need major modifications to succeed at a college level, but rather minor accommodations to meet his or her specific differing learning needs.
Some accommodations are naturally evolving with changes in pedagogy as well as technology. If teachers recognize and understand the needs of SLD students, they can begin to accommodate these needs with resources at hand. Some technological resources include specific assistive devices for SLD students and are offered through campus support services. However, many technology resources standard to most computer classrooms - word processing, Internet use, PowerPoint, and other types of multimedia - may benefit SLD students with only slight modifications. Unfortunately these technologies are too rarely evaluated for how they might help "individuals with learning disabilities to compensate for specific cognitive deficits" (Day and Edwards). Something as simple as encouraging students to word process all assignments can have a dramatic impact on a student with poor motor-coordination, which often makes his or her handwriting disorganized and difficult to read.
However, just because a teacher uses technology in the classroom does not mean the SLD student will benefit. In order for technology to truly function as an assistive devices, potential needs for accommodation must be considered when designing an activity/assignment. A crucial accommodation is giving explicit clarification whether in the classroom, in the lab, on the web, or via distance learning. Occasionally a more significant accommodation must be made for the SLD student. Thus, our challenge as educators is to help SLD student discover different methods of learning, without requiring excessive amounts of time or dramatically restructuring our courses. Facing the challenge begins with recognition and understanding. First, recognizing that spending some time making accommodations/modifications for these students is, in the terms of our economically-driven society, cost beneficial. Second, and most significantly, educators need to understand why standard academic practices do not work for SLD students and how they do learn.
The number of SLD students in colleges and universities is rising. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, in 1992, 65% of high school students with documented learning disabilities went on to postsecondary studies. This number has increased approximately 10% in the last ten years. In 1993, 25% of all college students identified themselves as learning disabled, and in 2000 this number increased to approximately 33% (NCLD). The number of SLD students in higher education is actually greater since many SLD students do not have the formal testing that legitimizes their learning disability. What this means is that one-fourth to one-third of freshmen students have some level of learning difficulty. Additionally, more SLD students now begin postsecondary education because distance learning and on-line courses provide easier access for them (Cook). What this means is that one-fourth to one-third of freshmen students have some level of learning difficulty.
Postsecondary administration and faculty must realize that these students are not just in developmental classes or in the community colleges; SLD students are enrolled in all courses. Though more SLD students enter college, not enough of them are graduating. The number of SLD students dramatically decreases in the upper-level courses. According to Hull, Sitlington, and Alper, SLD students who attend college or university struggle to earn a degree. Their study indicates that 80% of SLD students in postsecondary educational institutions do not graduate within five years of entering the program, compared to 56% of student with no disabilities.
Furthermore, only 44% of the SLD students have earned their degrees ten years after college enrollment compared to 68% of students with no learning disabilities. Similarly, high drop out rates exist in distance learning and on-line courses. The pacing and literacy demands have the "potential to exclude persons with disabilities who may [have] benefited from Web-based or distance learning" (Cook). The dropout rate for SLD students in colleges and universities is linked to the frustration these students face when standard academic practices inhibit their learning. It is ethically expedient for educators to make accommodations that increase SLD students’ learning and decrease their frustration with the learning process. From an idealistic standpoint, as educators, we should be ethically motivated to help all our students tap into their potential, and not simply those who can already succeed within the standard academic paradigm.
This attitude of inclusion also addresses technology in education. The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (Tech Act, updated 1994) promotes "specially designed devices and accommodations meant to empower persons with disabilities" (qtd. in Day and Edwards; Turnbull, et al 34). Reflecting this same empowerment of SLD students, the United States Department of Justice stated that ADA requires that "entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means" (qtd in Buargstahler). Both promote educational technology as a resource to accommodate SLD students.
Clearly, it is legally expedient to "create entitlement . . . [through] special services" for the disabled and prevent exclusion because of disability (Turnbull et al 34).
To ensure that colleges and universities comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Tech Act, federal funds are being made available to postsecondary for resources and training.
A primary purpose of the Tech Act
is funding grants for states to supply technological support to those with disabilities
(Turnbull et al). As a result, Day and Edwards contend that "virtually
every postsecondary" educational institution has assistive technology available.
They cite several examples. In Florida in 1994, 90 of 91 colleges and universities
provided such support. California has a "statewide system of specialized
educational programming involving technology for students with disabilities
in the postsecondary setting." Additionally, the federal government
is promoting faculty training for teaching SLD students. The National Joint
Learning Committee on Learning Disabilities and U. S. Department of Education’s
Postsecondary Division both cite studies showing that postsecondary institutions
aren’t currently doing enough for the SLD student’s success.
They encourage faculty to better facilitate SLD students’ learning, also citing
the beneficial impact such modifications would have on all students. To promote
faculty training in accommodations for SLD students, the federal government
has set aside five million dollars to “ensure quality higher education for the
disabled” (Hollander). With this grant, 25 universities including Brown,
Dartmouth, Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia are participating in a pilot project
(Levison). This project is groundbreaking in that it has changed the focus from SLD students to the academic system itself. Lynne Bejoain,
head of Disabilities Services at Columbia University, explains this new focus
of faculty training, “In the past, we’ve had the students adapt to the process,
instead of just looking at the process” (Levison, Hollander). With an $800,000 grant, Bejoain hopes to educate faculty at Columbia University about a "variety of new teaching methods, including how to present [information clearly and thus] engage" the SLD student in education beyond the traditional read/lecture methods (Hollander).
First, it is important to realize that the SLD student’s academic struggles are not due to below normal IQ, physical handicaps, emotional disturbances, or because of cultural or economic disadvantages. The National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) explains “that difficulties such as [these] may also be present by are not the primary cause of the learning difficulty” (Turnbull 107). Instead, SLD’s generally come from inability to successfully retrieve, process, or reproduce information. The federal government has defined learning disabilities in Public Law 94-142, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, as follows:
[A] specific learning disability means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. (qtd. in Turnbull 106, italics added)
Each SLD student is unique; each shows a different combination and severity of problems. This variety in SLDs can be frustrating for educators. They may feel that each SLD student must receive intense one-on-one attention to adapt to that student’s individual developmental disorder. However, there are some general patterns to learning disabilities that can assist the educator in making general modification that will assist a variety of SLD’s. The following summarizes three criteria to determine if a student needs accommodations.
A significant measurement of an SLD is the gap between a student’s academic potential and achievement. This is the standard measurement used by public schools to identify SLD students. Student potential is usually measured by an IQ test. If there is a “severe discrepancy” between this potential and the student’s performance, as measured by basic skills tests such as a Woodcock-Johnson or Wechsler Individualized Achievement Test (WIAT), the student might have a SLD. The term “severe discrepancy” is defined differently from state to state. Some states require anywhere from 1 to 2.5 standard deviations between potential and performance. Other states have more complicated formulas for defining severe discrepancy (Turnbull 108, 118).
The problem with this final measurement of SLD’s is that its broad description may make educators skeptical of or uncomfortable with its vagueness. However, because SLD’s are based on fundamental neurodevelopmental functions that inhibit learning, there are some significant signs that a student’s difficulties are SLD-related.
As seen in all three indicators, a principle sign of an SLD is the gap between potential and performance. As teachers become familiar with these measurements and definitions of specific learning disorders, they are better able to understand and therefore deal with this gap. Of equal importance, teachers will recognize that these students have the potential to learn, legitimizing their rights to receiving modifications in the classroom (Wender 36).
The following example illustrates how a teacher’s awareness of SLD indicators improved a student’s educational experience. In his writing class, Charles scored 85% on an essay test and 26% on the multiple choice, online test. The wide discrepancy alarmed his teacher. After meeting together, Charles and the teacher agreed that Charles should consult the Learning Assistance Labs. Here he received tutorial support, as well as a referral to one of the university psychologists who identified a recent traumatic brain injury as impacting Charles’s learning ability. Charles qualified for legal accommodations. Now a trained tutor acts as a reader for his online tests which will be "untimed." With this accommodation, his test scores reflect his true abilities and not merely his disabilities.
This mandate, however, does not have to be daunting. Accommodations may be as simple as the following
Perhaps the most significant yet simplest accommodation an educator can make is simply to acknowledge SLD students’ frustrations with learning. By the time SLD students reach a postsecondary educational institution, they have spent many years feeling frustrated with or incapable of learning. Often this frustration comes from teachers or parents telling SLD students that if they would simply try harder - concentrate more, or stop being lazy - they would learn.
Though these inaccurate criticisms may be somewhat understandable, they reflect what Richard Lavoie, executive director of Riverview School for adolescents with complex and severe language disorders, calls “blaming the victim” (Understanding). Specific learning disorders primarily affect language and organization skills, two dominant aspects of secondary education. However, these disorders often resemble lack of concentration or lack of motivation, causing teachers to blame the student. However, increased concentration doesn’t solve these students’ difficulties, and often such an accusatory attitude only increases frustration.
Because of their previous educational experiences, SLD students may perceive a teacher’s attempt to motivate as a symbol of their failure. Therefore, before teachers can help SLD students, they need to understand these students’ frustrations.
As Lavoie explains, “[We] must make a commitment to increase the sensitivity of teachers [as they deal with SLD students]. . . . Before we can fully understand the feelings of [SLD students] perhaps we must first see the world as he or she does” (“How Hard” 38). Through his video Understanding Learning Disabilities: How Difficult Can This Be? - The F.A.T. (Frustration, Anxiety, Tension) City Workshop, Lavoie helps teachers gain this sensitivity by illustrating the SLD student's perspective in a learning situation. In this video he shows educators the picture on the right, and tells them they need to identify the photo.
Some of the participants succeed immediately, but others do not. Lavoie then states, "I'll help you." He proceeds to encourage these participants: "Try harder. Just concentrate. If you don't get it in five seconds, you'll fail this workshop." The more he pushes, the more frustrated participants become. Lavoie's point is this. Motivation is not enough to help SLD students. Their failure to understand is because they don't understand the context for an individual piece of information.
By clarifying the context, as seen in the next photo, teachers focus SLD students on the larger picture. The lines drawn around the cow's face direct the observer's eye, indicating the main point of this photo. Before, without clarification, the observer isn't sure what to focus on. As this example indicates, motivation is not the problem for SLD students. Simply telling a student to spend more time on an assignment, or to try harder can often cause the student to quit or shut out all comments from the teacher. Instead, what the student needs is clarification.
To design specific accommodations that will be truly effective, educators must become aware of fundamental neurodevelopmental functions that could inhibit learning. Levine encourages educators to take a “phenomenological approach” to working with SLD students, meaning teachers should evaluate the phenomena associated with learning or the lack thereof:
Teachers [should] identify neurodevelopmental functions that are needed for the mastery of academic sub-skills (i.e., attention, memory, language, etc.) These neurodevelopmental functions represent a range of highly specific and basic developmental abilities that may or may not be adequate to satisfy the current academic and social expectations imposed upon a [student]. (2)
Identifying this neurological difficulty can improve the student’s attitude toward learning, by labeling “the phenomenon, rather than the [student],” making the student more open to accepting a teacher’s accommodations (Levine, qtd. in Prescott 17). These neurological struggles can be placed in three basic categories: inputting, processing, and outputting information. To accommodate students with these struggles, educators can use a VAKT method of teaching. VAKT stands for Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, and Tactile. This multi-sensory approach serves as the foundation for many of the accommodations discussed below.
Traditionally, teaching, especially
at a postsecondary level, focused on visual methods of learning (students read
texts) and auditory methods of learning (students listen to teachers). A combination
of VAKT methods helps students to input, process, and output information, especially
in settings involving technology (Day and Edwards).
Multi-sensory teaching, using VAKT modalities, supports all students well,
but particularly the SLD students’ learning needs.
Modifications and Accommodations
Inputting refers to the students’ abilities
to understand and receive information (e.g., definitions, concepts, assignments,
A common difficulty in SLD students is recognizing which information they need to remember and how individual pieces of information fit together. The following table outlines problems students often exhibit in class that result because of poor inputting skills. When evaluating these symptoms, notice that a significant problem in inputting stems from the fact that the traditional model for education is auditory - the student listening to the teacher to extract pertinent information. Many SLD students struggle with auditory models of learning, while excelling in other models (e.g., visual or kinesthetic). Another common inputting problem can be magnified in technology-based courses. Written language is the primary input medium in technology-based classes, yet 80% to 90% of SLD students struggle with written language skills (Day and Edwards). Nevertheless, assistive technology in both traditional and tech-based classrooms can be a valuable resource to accommodate students with language needs, if the teacher considers how these assistive devices improve the students' ability to input information.
Once teachers understand the neurological function that affects the students’ ability to input information, modifications can be developed to help students adjust to this difficulty. When modifying procedures and activities to facilitate students’ inputting capabilities, focus on clarification. Explain to the student the goals and outcomes for understanding the information (e.g., they need to know this information for a text, they need to read the syllabus to know reading assignments, they need to understand this concept to discuss it in a paper). Helping students understand why information is important will help them understand, retain and apply this information.
Teachers typically present information to students via the following: texts, reading assignments, online assignments and readings, audio/video presentations, lectures, demonstrations, drawings and charts, activities, student presentations, or guest speakers. When determining which inputting technique is best suited for accommodating SLD students, consider the following inputting problems and possible modifications:
|Inputting Problems||Teaching Modifications|
|Only understands auditory instructions - stems from oral language development exceeding written language development||
|Afraid to begin; too overwhelmed to try - stems from repeated failures in earlier educational settings||
|Can’t read well from the computer screen - stems from poor reading skills||
Poor note taking skills - stems from poor auditory discrimination. Students cannot follow organizational pattern in class lectures; therefore, they cannot discern critical information from minor points
|Failing reading quizzes, misunderstanding reading assignments, poorly developed essays - stems from inadequate comprehension skills||
listening and organizational skills (easily distracted, misunderstands assignments,
completes wrong assignment) - stems from perceptual distractions, i.e., inability
to filter out distractions or maintain long periods of concentration
|Misinterprets main idea of reading/class discussion, neglects individual pieces of a large assignment, does the assignment “wrong” because gets off on tangent - stems from neurological “wiring” that leads students to make atypical connections between ideas.||
Modifications and Accommodations
Processing refers to the students’ abilities
to remember, organize, and apply specific information to larger concepts, or
make inferences by connecting readings to larger issues (e.g., determine theme
or main idea of story and connect to current events). To understand processing
difficulties, compare cognitive information retrieval to retrieving information
from a filing cabinet. The teacher repeatedly asks the student to find information
stored in the "A folder." However, when the student read the textbook,
he or she did not categorize information alphabetically. Instead, the student
used colors for an organizational tool. Therefore, when the exam asked for information
about “file A,” the student will miss the question because he or she only considers
accessing that piece of information by looking in the “red folder.” A significant
part of processing modifications is helping students to 1) understand the conventional
filing system the exams/projects will require, and 2) developing exams/activities/projects
that allow the student to utilize his or her own “filing” system. Because of
their unique "filing" systems, SLD students often take more time to
process information. Thus SLD students would be insecure in answering questions
in a fast-paced group discussion whether in the classroom or virtual classroom.
With distance learning, this hesitancy becomes a greater problem, because the
student does not have to make eye contact with the teacher. Simple accommodations,
such as giving discussion questions before hand and then calling on students
to read responses, or just talk through their answers, can resolve this. When
modifying procedures/activities to facilitate students’ processing capabilities,
focus on clarification. Explain to the student the goals and outcomes
for remembering and applying the information (e.g., need to know for test, need
to apply concept in writing paper). Helping students understand why the information
is important will help them retain and apply this information.
Daily assignments and activities require the following processing skills: following directions, memorizing, computing, comprehending, drawing inferences, synthesizing, analyzing, etc. When determining how to facilitate students' processing capabilities, consider the following processing problems and possible modifications:
|Poor memorization–can stem from lower reading level or poor organization|
|Student gives up quickly, usually after one attempt–can stem from learned defeat: student expects to fail||
|Fear to participate in class, includes both actual classroom setting and synchronous virtual discussions––stems from needing longer processing time to formulate answers||
|Unable to make connections between various activities and various mediums––can stem from a variety of neurological difficulties as mentioned above; additionally, SLD students often function holistically better than in detail and have trouble inferring less obvious connections among details.||
|Unusual connections or inferences (student’s comments seem to “come out of left field”)–can stem from unique perceptions||
Outputting refers to the students’ abilities to demonstrate mastery of concept/knowledge through assignments, documents, projects, etc. (e.g., exams, homework assignments, papers, answering discussion questions). Often students with SLD's struggle demonstrating what they have learned. By modifying certain outputting techniques, teachers can better evaluate a student's actual understanding.
Many SLD students struggle with visual/motor coordination, which can be particularly frustrating when working with computers that require such manipulation. While some technology can facilitate outputting (e.g., typing assignments rather than trying to write legibly), some modifications may have to be made to accommodate this challenge (e.g., pausing slightly longer between steps in an activity). When modifying procedures/activities to facilitate students’ outputting capabilities, focus on clarification. Explain to the student the goals and outcomes for applying the information (e.g., need to know for test, need to apply concept in writing paper). Helping students understand why the information is important will help them retain and apply this information.
Activities and assignments such as quizzes, exams, essays, presentations, and class participation require outputting skills. When determining how to facilitate students' outputting capabilities, consider the following processing problems and possible modifications:
|Only gives “safe” answers (shallow interpretation or development of ideas) or chooses boring/simplistic topics for papers–can stem from lifetime of being “wrong”|
|Submits disorganized (in structure and in format), sloppy (poorly developed and poorly written) work–can stem from poor visual-motor coordination or poor organization skills||
|Speaks in jumbled, disjointed sentenced, or has disorganized ideas–can stem from inability to retrieved stored linguistic information quickly||
at multiple choice or other types of exams - can stem from confusion based
on too many choices, cannot filter out large numbers of options
; cannot connect question and options from test booklet to circle on answer sheet due to visual/motor coordination problems
|Can’t navigate online testing - can stem from complexity of recalling learned information when also thinking about using technology that is new to them, cannot deal with these complex tasks in time limits||
Postsecondary faculty can meet each student’s differing learning needs by assessing needs and then implementing accommodations. These accommodations needn’t be difficult to integrate into current programs. They may be as simple as effectively utilizing assistive technologies or support services. They may be simple clarifications whether in the classroom, in the lab, on the web, or via distance learning. Accommodations in one venue can easily be adapted to another because these environments for teaching writing probably have more commonalties than differences (Cook). These accommodations, by virtue of the universal-design principle, benefit not only the SLD student but also other students in the class. Learning from experiences like the one I had with Albert, educators can recommit to making accommodations that will improve their teaching. Instead of focusing on our own frustrations with a particular student, we can focus on learning from their frustrations. By accommodating their differing learning needs, we learn how to teach more effectively. Rather than adding to these students’ frustrations, we can help them reach their potential. We can learn from Lavoie’s admonition to educators, “The pain that a troubled [student] causes is never greater than the pain that he feels. . . . [SLD students] need [teachers] at their best. They can’t function, grow, or progress with anything less” (“How Difficult” 38, 39).
 These “expediencies” are adapted from Clutes, Loa. “Special Education Workshop.” Eastern Idaho Technical College, Idaho Falls, ID: September, 1994.