Let Strengths Set the Pace of Learning

As the weeks in third grade went by, Noah became more and more unhappy with school—and with himself. By November, his parents seldom saw the creative, fun-loving child they’d known at the start of the year.

Noah’s Story: The Hard and Easy of It Noah always struggled with reading and writing, but that didn’t bother him too much. He knew he was dyslexic and that it would take him longer to master those skills.

What troubled him was math. Noah had always liked math, and he was good at solving problems with numbers. He enjoyed tracking stats in his favorite sports, and he excelled at the “brain teasers” the teacher gave for extra credit.

But Noah struggled with memorizing and retrieving math facts. He had trouble remembering the steps in lengthy procedures, like long division, and remembering number sequences. When he had to “show his work,” his handwriting problems made everything even harder.

In class, Noah’s teacher required him to finish problems in a “two-minute drill” to get to the next math level. But Noah couldn’t do problems quickly enough to advance, so he’d been stuck at the same spot for weeks. Without the boost of succeeding in his favorite subject, his spirits fell. So did his grades in other subjects.

We saw Noah in our clinic. He was like many children with learning and thinking differences. His biggest struggles were with “basic skills”—like sounding out and spelling words, writing neatly by hand, memorizing things by rote and remembering rules and steps.

But he excelled at many higher-level thinking skills like problem solving, creativity, nonverbal reasoning, making connections and recognizing patterns and making hypotheses and predictions.

For Noah, it often seemed like “hard things” were easy and “easy things” were hard.

The Problem With Gatekeeping To us, the problem was clear. Noah’s low-level skills were being used as gatekeepers that prevented him from advancing as far as his high-level thinking would allow.

This is a common issue. Teachers and parents often worry that letting students with learning and thinking differences study more advanced materials before they master basic skills will hurt them in the long run. But though common, the fear is misplaced.

Kids like Noah can develop in ways that are different from “typical learning” children. While they usually take longer to master basic skills, their ability to learn more advanced concepts may equal or even exceed that of their “typical” classmates. Engaging their interests in advanced topics in areas of strength usually increases their desire—and their ability—to master basic skills. It doesn’t cause them to neglect those skills.

If we wait to stimulate their higher-level abilities until they master low-level skills, kids like these could lose confidence and interest. As a result, their talents could fail to develop or even waste away.

Ways to Engage Higher-Level Strengths We can keep kids like Noah excited about learning. To do so we have to balance work on lower-level skills with more stimulating tasks that engage higher-level strengths. Here are just a few ways we can do that:

What This Means for Noah So what happened to Noah? His teacher eventually let him work to the level of his understanding without worrying about his speed. Noah then quickly caught up with his class’s top math group. By the end of fourth grade he was two years ahead of them. Once again Noah loved math. He felt good about himself. His grades improved in all subjects.

What changed? Noah’s view of himself—and what he could achieve—was no longer defined by his challenges, but by his strengths.

We should never become so focused on what children can’t do that we fail to build on what they can do.

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About the author

About the author

Brock and Fernette Eide, Dyslexic Advantage co-founded the organization Dyslexic Advantage and are co-authors of “The Dyslexic Advantage” and “The Mislabeled Child.”