Structured Literacy Programs: Teaching Principles

Last week, we talked about interventions that address phonological awareness and phonics needs. While these types of interventions are helpful to many students, the majority of students with a specific learning disability in basic reading and students with dyslexia need a very specific form of intervention to remediate deficits in the areas of word identification and decoding/encoding. This comes in the form of structured literacy. Although there are many structured literacy programs that research has proven to be effective, they all share the same teaching principles which are discussed below.

Systematic and Cumulative Direct Instruction

Structured literacy uses a systematic approach to explicitly teach students how to decode words using a specific scope of material that is covered in a specific sequence to ensure that concepts build on each other in a meaningful way. A systematic approach ensures that the concepts are taught following the logical order of language with the easiest and most basic concepts being taught first before progressing to more difficult concepts. Cumulative instruction means that each portion of the program reviews and builds on the concepts taught previously. With this type of intervention, a child practices a wide range of reading skills that build on each other over time, helping students read more effectively. This means that students work on skills like phonological awareness, sound to symbol association, syllables, and morphology. Each skill is broken down and each component is directly taught to the student with frequent repetition and opportunities to practice the skill to the point of mastery.

Diagnostic Teaching

Diagnostic teaching means that both the informal and formal data that is collected during instruction is utilized to drive subsequent lessons for the students. Both observation and more formalized assessment measures are used to determine which skills the student has mastered to the point of automaticity and which skills should be targeted for further instruction.

Immediate Feedback

Feedback is another important component of structured literacy programs. Because students are working individually with an instructor or in a small group, they are provided immediate feedback throughout the program. This allows the instructor to ensure that students are correctly applying skills and that errors are immediately corrected.

Multisensory Approach

Structured literacy programs use a multi-sensory approach to help students grasp reading skills. This means that the students use of all their senses (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile) to reinforce the systematic sequence of skills that they are learning. Some examples of this are writing letters or words in the air, in sand, or in shaving cream.

The teaching principles outlined above are key elements to what makes structured literacy effective. Next week, we will discuss the instructional elements that are integral to structured literacy programs.

Interventions for Basic Reading Skills

In our last post, we discussed the components of an evaluation to determine the presence of a reading disability. This week, we will cover how to match appropriate instructional strategies to the results of an evaluation.

The National Reading Panel determined that there are five main skill areas that are necessary for reading: Phonemic/Phonological Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension. Interventions should be developed to align with these main areas and the strengths and weaknesses identified within a student’s evaluation. The most foundational skills should be remediated first or in conjunction with other skill areas because students need to form a strong foundation before we can expect them to complete more complex reading skills.

The five areas identified by the National Reading Panel fall within the different eligibility categories for specific learning disabilities on the Evaluation Team Report (ETR). The ETR indicates that a student with a reading disorder may fall within the following special education categories: Basic Reading Skills, Reading Fluency, and Reading Comprehension.

This week we will focus on instructional strategies that will address the Basic Reading Skills category.

Phonological Awareness Intervention

Phonological Awareness is the most foundational skill related to reading, but it often gets overlooked. It refers to an individual’s awareness of the sound structure of oral language. Depending on the individual’s age and needs, intervention might include rhyming, sound matching, sound blending, and sound segmenting activities.

Phonics Intervention

Phonics is the next skill related to basic reading. It refers to correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters. Phonics intervention might include teaching letter to sound correspondence, high frequency sight words, syllable patterns, etc.

There are several resources that provide fun, engaging research-based activities to address these areas. For example, the Florida Center for Reading Research provides free printable activities based on grade level. Additionally, the University of Oregon also provides information about underlying reading theory and instructional strategies. Understanding, Assessing, and Intervening on Reading Problems by Dr. Laurice Joseph also provides helpful information about strategies that educators can use to address basic reading needs.

Providing these types of intervention in a small-group within a classroom setting can help remediate basic reading skills deficits, especially for those students who may have a mild reading disorder or simply need to fill in some skill gaps. However, many students with more significant reading concerns need a more intensive intervention program.

Next week, we will discuss structured literacy programs, which take a multisensory approach to systematically teach reading skills that students. These types of intensive intervention programs often work well for students with dyslexia and other basic reading skills deficits.

Evaluation for Specific Learning Disorders in Reading

Since we have covered basic information about Specific Learning Disability in Reading and Dyslexia, now we can talk about key components in diagnosing these disorders. There is no one assessment battery to diagnose dyslexia. When choosing your examiner, make sure to go with someone who specializes in learning disabilities. While there is no one test that can diagnose a learning disorder in reading, there are several specific assessment areas that should be examined, and an experienced examiner will be able to choose quality tools to gain information about those areas. The following areas should be considered in all evaluations if you or your child has difficulties with reading.

Phonemic/Phonological Awareness

Phonemic/Phonological Awareness refers to an individual’s awareness of the sound structure of oral language. This skill is measured by examining the client’s ability to manipulate sound. For example, assessments may require clients to identify sounds in words, rhyme, delete sounds from words, etc. While this may seem like a basic skill, it is foundational to reading, and many people who have deficits in phonological awareness have subsequent reading difficulties.

Rapid Automatic Naming

Rapid Automatic Naming (RAN) measures how fast a student can scan an array of visual symbols and encode a phonological response. This is usually measured by clients naming letters, numbers, colors, or other symbols as quickly as possible. This type of task measures the efficient retrieval of phonological information and executing a sequence of operations quickly and repeatedly, which is required when decoding unfamiliar words.

Alphabetic Knowledge

It is also import to assess a client’s sound-symbol correspondence skills. This can be accomplished by measuring the ability to associate sounds (phonemes) with specific letters (graphemes).

Word Identification

Word reading automaticity and decoding accuracy are both important components of word identification. Not only is it important that a client can identify real words, but it is important that they can decode nonsense words as well. Assessing nonsense word reading can be a more accurate measure of decoding words since it is unlikely that the client would have had opportunity to memorize these words. In addition to being able to read phonetically decodable words, an assessment for a specific learning disorder in reading should also evaluate a client’s ability to identify irregular words (sight words).

Reading Fluency

Reading fluency is a measure of how quickly and accurately a client can read. Timed tests are given to see how many words an individual can read within a specific time. Often assessments use word lists, sentences, and/or paragraphs to measure reading fluency.

Reading Vocabulary

Reading vocabulary measures a client’s ability to know what individually read words mean. This is an important task that contributes to overall reading understanding.

Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is a person’s ability to understand what they have read. Appropriate reading comprehension assessments will look at how students are able to read a variety of text types and answer both literal and inferential questions about the text.

Listening Comprehension

Gathering information about a client’s listening comprehension skills is important so we can compare scores from listening comprehension and reading comprehension subtests. If reading comprehension is weak while listening comprehension average, it gives us a clue that reading comprehension is likely the issue as opposed to broader comprehension concerns.

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning skills are directly related to an individual’s ability to regulate their behavior in order to achieve a goal or complete a task. Working memory, inhibition, and attention all play a part in our ability to read well and should be evaluated if there are concerns related to any of these areas.

An appropriate evaluation will provide insight into an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Once you are able to identify a student’s area of need, you can plan how to address it. Next time, we will discuss how to match what is found in an evaluation to appropriate intervention services.

Misconceptions About Dyslexia

In our last blog, we shared an overview about what dyslexia is. This week, we will talk about what dyslexia is not. There are many myths and misconceptions about dyslexia and reading disabilities in our society. If we are able to identify those myths and educate others about them, we will move towards being able to provide better services to our students with dyslexia. In our school psychology practice, we commonly hear the following misconceptions about students with dyslexia.

Visual Issues

We often hear people express that students with dyslexia have a visual processing issue that causes reading difficulties. However, we now know that dyslexia is a language-based disability. This means that things related to language processing, such as phonological awareness and sound-symbol skills, are impacted by this disability.

Letter and Word Reversals

Related to vision, many people also believe that dyslexia causes people to reverse letters and/or numbers. While some individuals do reverse their letters, it is only a small percentage. The primary issue is not that an individual with dyslexia sees or writes letters and words backwards, it is that they have language-based difficulties.

Cognitive Deficits

Another myth is that dyslexia means that individuals have cognitive deficits. In fact, many bright, even gifted, students can have dyslexia. Cognitive skills are usually not negatively impacted by dyslexia. Instead, specific skills related to language processing negatively impact reading and spelling skills.

Can’t Learn to Read

Another major misconception is that people with dyslexia can’t learn how to read. It is important to know that with proper intervention services, accommodations, and assistive technology, many students are able to make great strides in learning how to read.

In our following blog, we will address various components that go into conducting a thorough assessments for specific reading disorders.

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a term used to describe a Specific Learning Disorder in Reading that expresses itself in a specific way. Dyslexia has been defined by the International Dyslexia Association as:

“a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

Unlike oral communication, reading and writing are not natural processes. Over time, humans have created symbols that correspond with sounds as a way to communicate through writing. A variety of areas of the brain are affected by dyslexia, and we can see brain-based differences between those with and without dyslexia. As we see in the definition above, dyslexia is neurobiological in origin, which essentially means that individuals with dyslexia have brains that function in a way that causes difficulty with these skills.

Dyslexia occurs in people from all backgrounds and is not indicative of cognitive deficits. In fact, many bright students are diagnosed with dyslexia. However, certain skills such as phonological awareness, identifying letter sounds, decoding words, and spelling are often impacted.

Dyslexia is a fairly common diagnosis. According the International Dyslexia Association, around 6-7% of school-aged students qualify for special education services under the category of specific learning disability. Of those students who qualify with a learning disability, 85% have primary disabilities in reading and language processing. Of course, people experience differences in severity of dyslexia, and not everyone who has dyslexia qualifies for special education. The International Dyslexia Association has estimated that up to 15-20% of people in the United States exhibits some symptoms of dyslexia.

Our understanding of dyslexia and other reading disorders is constantly evolving as more research is being done in the area. While we have come a long way in our understanding of dyslexia, there are still many common misconceptions about it. Next week, we will address common misconceptions we hear about dyslexia in our school psychology practice.

Specific Learning Disability in Reading

If you and your child’s educational team suspect that they have a reading disability, the team will conduct an Evaluation Team Report (ETR) to determine if the student meets the definition of a student with a disability, as outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). In this step, the team will also have to decide which disability category is most appropriate based on the results of the ETR. Should the data support that your child has a reading disability, they would qualify under the category of Specific Learning Disability.

Specific Learning Disability has been defined by the Ohio Department of Education as:

“a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disability, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”

The Specific Learning Disability category is further broken into more detailed parts based on which exact skills the evaluation shows as an area of need. In the case of reading, your child may qualify under basic reading skills, reading fluency, and/or reading comprehension.

When we look back at our last blog about the five main areas of reading, we can see that they all fit within the ETR categories.

Reading Skills Matched to ETR Reading Disability Categories

Reading Skills Matched to ETR Reading Disability Categories

Basic Reading Skills

Both phonemic/phonological awareness and phonics can be considered basic reading skills. If your child has qualified under basic reading skills, this means that they have difficulty understanding and manipulating sounds in our oral language and/or have difficulty recognizing sound-symbols and common letter patterns when reading. This leads to issues with learning basic reading skills, such as accurately identifying words.

Reading Fluency

If your child has qualified for special education services in the area of reading fluency, this means that they have difficulty reading quickly and accurately with appropriate expression.

Reading Comprehension

Both reading vocabulary and comprehension skills falls under the reading comprehension category. If your child qualifies for special education in this area, it means that they have difficulty deriving meaning from text.

Next week, we will continue our discussion about reading disabilities by discussing dyslexia and its unique characteristics.

Important Areas of Reading Instruction

In 2000, the National Reading Panel, consisting of members of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHC), published a major study, which indicated there are five main areas that should be focused on to teach children how to read efficiently: Phonemic/Phonological Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Text Comprehension.

Five Main Skills for Reading: Phonological Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension

Five Main Skills for Reading: Phonological Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension

Phonological Awareness

Phonemic/Phonological awareness refers to the capacity to identify and manipulate phonemes (the smallest unit of sound) in oral language.

Phonics

Phonics refers to correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters in an alphabetic writing system. This included recognizing letter-sound correspondences as well as common spelling patterns.

Reading Fluency

Fluency refers to the ability to read quickly and accurately with appropriate expression.

Reading Vocabulary

Reading vocabulary refers to understanding the meaning of read words.

Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension refers to deriving meaning from written text.

All of these skills build upon each other. For example, we need to have an understanding of the building blocks of oral language before we move on to learning phonics. If we can’t apply alphabetic principals automatically, we likely will not be able to read fluently. We need to be able to read words fluently to be able to identify them and understand the vocabulary. And if we don’t understand the words we read, it will be very difficult to derive meaning from a text. While these skills increase in complexity, students often work on various skills at the same time.

In our upcoming posts, we will explore how these five areas relate to reading disabilities, psychoeducational assessments, and instructional strategies that can help students who need additional support in reading.

Answering Subjective Test Items

Last week we covered strategies to use during objective assessments.  During this blog post, we will review strategies to use during subjective tests.  While taking an objective assessment, the answer you choose can be right or wrong, subjective assessments rely on your instructor’s interpretation of what you have written to determine if you know the material.  Subjective test items can include essay or short answer responses.

Preparation is key in completing essay questions and short response.  Start your studying early so that you can not only recall information easily, but also apply it.  When you take the exam, you will want to implement previewing, planning, writing, and reviewing skills.

  • Previewing.  When you get your assessment, make sure to give yourself a few minutes to preview it.  Look over the test to see what is being asked of you and estimate how much time you have on each item.  If there are multiple essays to complete, consider which one you would like to answer first.  This will likely be the one that you feel you can complete most easily.  Then carefully read the prompt, underlining key words and phrases to gain a thorough understanding of how to complete the question.  If there are multiple components to the question, make sure that you consider each part.

  • Planning.  It is also important to give yourself time to plan your response.  Begin by writing a brief outline of your response.  Refer back to the question to make sure you’re addressing everything you need in your outline.  Also think of some specific examples you can include to strengthen your points.

  • Writing.  Make sure that you address the question within the first paragraph.  Following your introductory paragraph, each paragraph needs to start with a topic sentence.  Your goal should be to answer the question directly with as much information as possible to demonstrate your understanding of the topic.  Leave nothing to inference.  Make sure to define terms you use and support any statement with facts.

  • Reviewing.  When you plan how long you have to answer each item, remember to allow for time to review your responses.  Once you have completed all essay items, go back and read through your answers, checking for appropriate capitalization, punctuation, spelling, and content.  If you are running out of time, it is always better to have a partial response than leaving it blank so that you may receive partial points.

Now that we’ve discussed skills and strategies to increase your chances of success in an educational environment, we will transition to discussing specific disorders that individuals may have cause difficulties in school.

If you’re utilizing all of these study and time management strategies and you continue to struggle to achieve at a level that is equal to your effort, there may be something more going on. Next, we will discuss specific disorders that can explain underachievement in an educational setting.

Answering Objective Test Items

Now that we discussed tips for beginning an exam, this week we will be delving into different types of test questions.  Exam questions typically fall under two types: objective and subjective.  This week, we will focus on objective exam items.  On objective test questions, there is one correct answer.  These types of questions include True/False, multiple choice, matching, and fill in the blank. 

True/False Test Items: True/False items can be basic and test your knowledge of facts, but they can also be more complex and require you to demonstrate your ability to apply what you have learned.  It is important to carefully analyze several components within these types of questions.  You should always trust your own knowledge of material based on what you have studied and learned, but the following considerations may make it easier when you have doubts. 

  • Modifiers.  Modifiers describe the statement and can give you a clue as to whether the answer is true or false.  Absolute modifiers tend to be false.  These include words like never, only, always, etc.  Qualifying modifiers, on the other hand, tend to be part of true statements.  Qualifying words might include most, generally, often, etc. 

  • Negatives.   It is important to carefully read true/false statements and recognize if a negative is being used.  While negative are usually small words within a sentence, their impact is huge.  Negatives such as not, cannot, and other prefixes like dis-, un-, non-, etc.  completely change the meaning of a statement.  Additionally, using two double negatives an make a true/false item even more complex to understand.  It is helpful to underline all negatives so that you can make sure you are clear about what the statement is saying.

  • Strings of Items.  When there is a list of items within a true/false item, underline each item in the list and determine whether all of the items are true or false.  For example, even if just one listed item is false, then the entire item is false.

Multiple Choice Test Items: Multiple choice items, where you are given multiple options and you have to choose the best one, is one of the most commonly used test formats in post-secondary education.  You must be well prepared, read, and carefully consider what the question is asking and which response is the most appropriate. 

  • True/False.  True/False questions can be made into multiple choice items.  An example of this type of question could be, “Which of the statements below are false…”  In this case, use the strategies listed above for true/false test items, eliminating items that are clearly true.

  • Modifiers.  Much like True/False items, options using qualifying modifiers are much more likely to be correct than those using absolute modifiers.  As you read through your choices, cross out items that clearly do not make sense as well as items that use absolute modifiers in a way that makes the response false.

  • Numbers.  When all choices are numbers (like percentages, years, height, etc.), the correct option is usually less likely to be the extreme number.

  • Decoys.  When taking any assessment, make sure to carefully consider all your options.  It is not uncommon to put incorrect responses into multiple choice items.  If you do not look carefully, you may choose the incorrect answer first without fully considering your options.  

Matching Test Items: Matching items usually require you to match a word to a definition or idea. 

  • Make sure to read the directions for this portion of the assessment carefully.  Often, items can be used only once, but sometimes the instructions indicate that they can be used more than one time.

  • Match items that you are certain of first.

  • If you can only use an item once, make sure to cross out all of the items that you have already used.

These tips about objective assessment items are not meant to replace good study strategies.  The only way to do well on an assessment is to properly prepare, but this information should help you critically analyze your test items.  If you truly don’t know the right answer on an item after you have gone through these different strategies, skip it and come back to it if you have time at the end of the exam.  Next week, we will cover test-taking strategies for objective assessment items.

Test-Taking Strategies

Test taking can be very anxiety producing for students.  Luckily there are several strategies that can help you better prepare and feel more comfortable the day of the test.

Preparation.  In past posts, we have highlighted the importance of planning your time, note-taking, reading, and studying.  We cannot overstate the importance of preparation enough.  Frequent review of material throughout the semester, not just immediately before the exam, will help you truly master the material and feel more confident in your ability to do well.

Scheduling.  Besides coming up with a plan to manage your time throughout the semester (link), you will also want to think about your schedule the day of the test.  It is best not to schedule your study time right before the exam; all of your studying should be happening before the day of the test.  Knowing that everything is already done should relieve stress.  You won’t feel rushed getting to class, and if something were to go wrong, you won’t lose valuable study time.  You also should avoid scheduling anything immediately after a test.  This way, you will not be preoccupied with the time and whether or not you will be late to your next appointment, and can completely focus on the task at hand.

Previewing.  When you begin the exam, you should first preview the test so that you can come up with the best strategy for that specific exam.  Knowing how much time you have to complete the exam, how many questions there are, which questions are most time consuming, and which questions are worth the most points can help you come up with the best way to prioritize the questions.

Starting.  Once you have previewed the exam, it is time to begin.  First and foremost, read the instructions carefully.  This is such a vital step of the test-taking process.  Make sure that you understand what is being asked of you by re-reading the instructions and underlining the important components.  Ask the instructor for clarification of anything you might not understand.  Once you start the test, remember that you don’t have to go to in order.  You may want to prioritize questions worth the most points first, and then complete low point items later.  If you come to a question that you don’t know the answer to, skip it and come back to it.  Sometimes completing other questions will give you the information you need or prompt you to remember relevant material.  

Now that you have basic strategies to begin your exam, next week we will talk about specific item types and tips on how to address each one.

Study Strategies

Once you have determined how to organize yourself, read your materials, found the optimal study environment, and taken comprehensive notes, it is time to actually study the class material in to prepare for your assessments.

Studying is not what happens a few days before an exam. It is everything that you do throughout the semester. Going to class, taking notes, reviewing your notes, reading the assignment, meeting with a study group-all of these activities count as studying. And it begins on the first day of the semester. Keeping up with your work is an asset that cannot be underestimated.

Frequent Review. Course content is interconnected and should be continuously reviewed through the semester. Without ongoing review, we forget content over time. In order to transfer the information from your short-term memory to your long-term memory, you should review your notes within a 24 hour period. It is advisable to set aside a few minutes every day to skim through your notes, fill in missing information, and identify questions that you may have.

Keep the Format in Mind. When preparing for an assessment, it is essential that you study with the test format in mind. Not all test formats are similar, so you must modify your study strategies to reflect the type of thinking skills required on an exam. For example, a multiple choice exam typically requires memorization of factual information in comparison to a short answer or essay exam which typically requires application of information. You should also have a sense of how many questions will be on the exam in order for you to allot enough time to each question.

Active Study Methods. For many people, simply reviewing their notes is not enough to master information; they must utilize active study methods. One such strategy is to draw diagrams or charts to represent relationships between ideas. You can also make flash cards to review regularly. If you are provided with a study guide, complete the guide and use it to guide your study sessions. If you have not been provided a study guide, create your own. It is also a good idea to work through practice problems and old exam questions. In order to check your mastery of the material, cover up your notes and talk through a concept as if you were teaching it.

Study Groups. Another idea that can aid in studying is to create or to participate in a study group. Study groups are proven to provide greater opportunities to ask questions, review material, clarify and discuss information, and encourage a variety of problem solving strategies. They can also help to reduce procrastination, increase motivation, and ease anxiety.

Communication with Professors. The last and potentially most impactful study strategy is to get to know your professors and teaching assistants. They are the experts in the course content who have studied the material themselves. Because of this, they are uniquely positioned to help you develop effective study strategies in a particular content area. The more familiar they are with you and your difficulties with the course content, the more they are able to provide you with targeted support.

Once you implement the above study strategies and determine which strategies best met your unique needs, it is time to take the exam. Next week we will discuss specific test taking strategies to optimize your performance on the assessment.

Note-Taking Strategies

Last week, we talked about reading strategies for the college level.  Note-taking is also an important skill to use while in class and while studying independently.  We suggest taking notes while you read before class and taking notes during lecture.  This will provide you with a study guide of the material when it comes time to review.  The key to effective note taking is to use a system that organizes information in a way that will be helpful to you and there here are many strategies that can be used to achieve this. Below are two note-taking methods that many students find effective.

The Cornell Note-Taking System.  Draw a horizontal line on the bottom of the paper to allow for approximately two inches of space to write a summary.  Draw a vertical line approximately two and a half inches from the left side of the paper to be used as a recall margin.  The remaining large area on the paper is the note-taking area.  Take notes of main ideas, details, important graphs, etc. in the note-taking area, skipping lines between concepts.  Write several questions about the main ideas in the left margin to act as a study guide.  After learning the material well, write a summary of the material in the bottom area.

cornellnotes_Image.png

Image from: University of Maine Fort Kent

Traditional Outline.  You may also choose to make a traditional outline instead.  Even if you decide not to use the Cornell Method, it is still helpful to think of questions about the material, study until you are able to answer those questions, and write meaningful summaries of notes.  When writing notes while reading, you should use your text to guide how you set up your notes.  For example, if your text has headings or sections, it would be helpful to use those headings or sections as headings in your notes.

  • Main Heading

    • Subheading

      • Main Ideas (Important people, Places, Events)

      • Vocabulary Definitions

No matter which method of note-taking you chose to implement, taking comprehensive notes while reading and in class are essential to your success in a post-secondary environment. Next, we will explore additional study skills that are effective for adult students.

Reading at the College Level

Once you have organized yourself (link), your materials (link), and found your optimal study environment (link), the next step is to actually study. In a post-secondary institution, independently reading the assigned content is the first step to preparing yourself for in-class learning and studying for exams.

We highly recommend reading the chapter or assigned reading before attending the lecture that will cover the same topic. Proper scheduling using your syllabus is an important step to make sure that you are able to do this. When you read the material prior to the lecture, it allows you the gain exposure to the information more than once. This is especially important because you must be exposed to information multiple times before it transfers to from your short-term to your long-term memory. If you read the chapter before your lecture, you will have at least three exposures to the material: before the lecture, during the lecture, and during your study time after the lecture. It also allows you the opportunity to solidify new concepts prior to the lecture and develop specific questions to ask during the lecture. Accessing the information prior to the lecture also allows you to process the information with respect to your disability. An example of this would be if you have a reading disability, you are able to listen to an audio recording of the chapter.

When reading advanced level texts, it can be more difficult to read the content, understand the vocabulary, and comprehend the meaning. In order to encourage comprehension, is important to preview the text prior to beginning to read it. When previewing the text, you should read the title and the author’s name and think about the source. Next, skim the Table of Contents to see how the chapter relates to other chapters within the book. Begin by reading the abstract, introduction, and summary or conclusion. Then, read the headings and subheadings while looking at the graphic aids and photographs which will help you to determine the majority of information that will be covered in the chapter. Prior to begin reading, decide which portion is the most important or will be covered by the next lecture and prioritize that part of the chapter.

Below is a list of helpful questions to guide you during the previewing process:

  • Why are you reading this text (i.e. class discussion, background information, exam, or a paper)?

  • How long is this reading?

  • What do graphic aids/photographs tell you?

  • Are there any new terms or concepts?

  • What do I already know about this subject?

  • What you need to know about the text?

  • Turn headings and subheadings into questions and try to find the answers when reading.

Then, decide how much you are going to read, read that portion, and take a quick mental break. Before moving on to the next section, it is essential that you are able to answer the questions that you generated prior to reading. If you are unable to answer the questions, then you should reread the section until you have a thorough understanding. If a particular topic proves difficult for you, it is also appropriate to ask your previewing questions during the lecture.

Taking notes while reading can increase comprehension and improve your retention of information. Next week, we will discuss the importance of note taking and methods for taking effective notes.

 

Finding Your Optimal Study Environment

Now that you have your schedule and materials organized to set you up for success, it is time to consider your environment.  Many people underestimate the importance of their study space, but where you study is important to facilitate learning and reviewing the materials that are necessary for your classes.   While some people can concentrate well under almost any circumstance, the majority of students need a specific type of environment to foster good study habits.

When you identify study time in your schedule (link), you should also identify where this will take place.  If you have thought of all of the places that meet your needs beforehand, you should never be stuck if plans change or a space is unavailable.  The following are all things you should consider in choosing your optimal study environment.

Visual Distractions.  Some areas of your home, school, and community are busier than others.  You should consider the amount of activity happening in different environments and whether you can maintain your attention.  For some, it doesn’t bother them if people are walking by.  Others may look up at every person as they walk past.  Decide whether having activity around you is distracting or not.

Noise.  Noise is also an important factor to consider in planning your study environment.  Some students have better focus in areas without background noise, while others aren’t bothered by it.  For example, if you go to a coffee shop, you know that there will likely be background conversations as people order their coffee and talk with their friends.  Noise isn’t only caused by other people.  It can also be the radio, TV, or construction happening outside.  As you work in different environments, be mindful of your concentration and how it is affected by different noise levels.  Once you know how your body responds, you will have a better idea of what to look for in a study space.

Temptations.  Even if you have set up a study area that is best for you, sometimes temptations get the best of us.  It is easy to watch TV, talk on the phone, or get involved in your favorite activities if they are readily available to you while you study.  If you often find yourself getting involved in other activities while you should be studying, you may wish to study outside of the home to reduce potential distractions.

Physical Comfort.  How you feel within the environment is another important component in choosing your ideal study area.  If you constantly feel uncomfortable, it is hard to stay focused.  Choose spaces that have tables and chairs that meet your needs.  Also, consider whether the area has adequate lighting.  For example, it might be difficult to read somewhere that has dim lighting.  Air temperature is another consideration.  If you feel too hot or too cold, it will keep you from focusing on the task at hand. Finally, if you are a student who, whether for health reasons or for comfort, prefers to eat or drink while studying, find an area that allows food and drink in their facility.

Flexibility.  After you take a mindful approach to see how you react to different environments when studying, it will be easy to come up with a list of places that match your preference.  Remember to be flexible.  What works for you as an individual might not work if you change your study approach.  For example, you will likely have different needs if you are working with a partner or group.

Planned Breaks. Everyone has different capacities for concentration.  While working in an environment that suits you best will help sustain your focus, it is also important to recognize our individual differences.  Plan breaks as needed.  Two ways to plan a break is either by time or activity completion.  For example, if you find you can only concentrate for a half hour, schedule in purposeful break for every 30 minutes of studying.  If you find it is easier to take a break after completing a task, break up your reading, notes, or assignments into meaningful sections and take a break after your complete each one.

Now that we have covered what you can do to organize your time, materials, and space, we will be shifting to strategies to address specific skills you will need as you work your way through your post-secondary career.  Join us next time!

Everything in Its Place: How to Organize Your School Materials

Now that you have your schedule organized, it’s time to think about how to organize your materials.  There’s no one “right” way to do it; you may need to try multiple different strategies and choose the one that works best for you. 

Color Coding.  Color coding can be helpful to make sure you bring the right materials to class.  One way to use the color coding organizational strategy is to assign each course a color.  This means that the book, notebook, binder etc. that you need for each course would be one color.  You can look at your text book cover as a guide of which color to use, or you can use book covers.  If you are disorganized or distracted, it is much easier to pick up every blue item than make a mental list of everything you might need for history class, for example.

All-In-One Approach. While many people find color coding materials helpful, others still have difficulty remembering to bring all of the required supplies even if they are color coded.  If that is the case, it is often easier to keep everything in one large binder.  The challenge here is to make sure that the binder is well organized with specific sections for each course.  It may still be helpful to color code the sections within the binder to foster organization and separation of course materials.  Additionally, it is usually helpful to have small spiral notebooks in each course section for notes.  This keeps all of your notes together and in order. 

Organizing Your Binder.  You will either have multiple smaller binders if you are using one for each class, or one larger binder if you are using a single one to hold all course material.  You should put your syllabus in a protective sleeve in the front of each binder or section.  Next, you should have a color coordinated spiral notebook to keep your notes organized.  Following the notebook, you should insert any in-class handouts so that you can easily access them.

Bag. Many students carry their materials to class, but it may be better to have a well-organized bag.  This will allow you to make sure you have all of the small materials you need like pens, highlighters, calculators, etc.  If you keep them in a specific spot in your bag, you won’t have to remember to take any additional supplies with you.  You will just have to change out the binder and books you need.

Once you find an organizational system that works for you, stick to it and try your best to keep your binders and bags neat.  It can be very easy to simply put papers or notes into your bag or in a book, but the care that you take following your system will save you a lot of time looking for things you need but have lost in the future.  For our next blog post, we will address finding or creating an environment that fosters productivity.

Project Management: How to Keep Procrastination at Bay

As we saw last week, having a system to manage our time is very important.  But if you often find yourself putting off tasks, you likely will not see the benefits.  Consistent procrastination can make situations more stressful than they need to be, and that ultimately can affect your ability to learn and recall class materials.  However, the following steps can make completing assignments and other tasks more manageable. 

Preview.  The first step of project management is to preview your assignment.  You will scan your syllabus or assignment directions to get an idea of what you need to do.  It is important to preview instructions as soon as you get them.  This will allow you to ask for clarification if you don’t understand something, as well as allow yourself enough time to complete the work.

Plan.  Once you have a good understanding of the assignment, you should break the assignment into logical and manageable goals.  While you can do this mentally, it can also be helpful to write a list.  Read through your list and prioritize the order in which goals need to be completed.  This visual representation will help keep you on track and make the assignment seem less overwhelming. 

Schedule.  This is where you should decide about how long each task will take and enter it into your scheduling system.  Having a set time to complete the tasks will minimize your tendency to procrastinate.  Try your best to be realistic about your timeline- it’s better to schedule too much time to complete a task than not enough.

Follow-Through.  Once you have done the previous steps, it is time to actually complete your tasks.  Follow your schedule as closely as possible.  It is important to give yourself time and space conducive to work.  If you’re still having trouble holding yourself accountable, schedule work times with classmates or tutors.

Rewards.  You should be proud of working hard to complete each step.  Many times, completing each step will make you feel more confident about your skills and interested in the assignment.  But at times it is hard to feel motivated.  If that’s the case, give yourself small rewards for completing different steps.  This could be scheduling time to do something you really enjoy in your free-time, making a phone call to a close friend, or buying yourself a small reward.

Flexibility.  While it is important to try to stick to your plan, sometimes it doesn’t work out the way you anticipated.  If you have given it an honest effort, you might need to make some changes with your plan or scheduling to better meet your needs.

Time and project management are essential components to success in the post-secondary setting.  Join us next time to learn more about other organizational skills that can help you achieve in your learning environment.

Time Management for Students

Managing time effectively can be one of the most challenging parts of being a student, especially when you consider all of the responsibilities confronting adult students. However, how you manage your time is one of the only aspects of college that you have total control over. Effective time management is the single most important empowerment tool for the overburdened college student. When determining how to most effectively manage your time, the following considerations are imperative.

The first step in taking control of your time is to find a specific time management system that works for you. Every effective time management system must have consistent schedule, which will allow you to save time, keep appointments, and gain a visual representation of your commitments. Although initially setting up a schedule/system may be time consuming, the long term time savings will be worth it. Having a calendar allows you to visually conceptualize your week, understand where you have pockets of time, and when you’ll be pressed for time. Your time management system must be written. If it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist.

The two most popular time management systems are either a digital time management system or a paper time management system, and it is essential to take into consideration your time management strengths and weaknesses while choosing your program. Many apps can be utilized to assist with time management which include: Google Calendar, Google Keep, and Remind 101.

Whether you chose a digital system or a paper system, the first thing that needs to be scheduled into your system is your class time. These blocks of time should include any commuting time that it will take you to get to and from your class. Then, schedule in work obligations and necessary activities of daily living such as breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Following those main blocks of time, you should schedule study time for yourself. For each hour in class time, you should be spending 2 hours studying/preparing. Conclude by adding your free time, social activities, and family obligations. Remember to include activities that you enjoy as rewards for keeping to your schedule.

When scheduling your study time, be honest about your concentration. If you know your concentration diminishes after an hour, do not schedule yourself for a four-hour, no-break study session. Based on your knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses, build in reasonable breaks between and during study sessions. Engaging in physical movement during these scheduled breaks can increase concentration when you return to studying.

You must also plan for the short-term and the long-term. Focusing on one aspect at the expense of the other can lead to scheduling conflicts and forgotten obligations. Not only should your schedule include daily classes and study sessions, you also need to consider long-term projects and papers. Start by looking at your syllabus to determine what projects/papers are going to be time consuming and will be a large part of your overall grade for the course. Take the time to break those assignments down into reasonable steps and establish deadlines for each step. This will help decrease the last-minute rush to complete your projects. Having them completed early will also allow you to get feedback from you professor prior to turning it in for a grade. Also allow time in your schedule to make appropriate edits based on others’ feedback.

There are a few common pitfalls that you want to be sure to avoid, especially when you first implement a time management system. Don’t take too much time to plan out your study schedule for the week. If your system of time management is too time consuming, chances are you are using this method of “time management” as a means of procrastination. Stick to your system. This does not mean become totally inflexible. Make sure your system can handle those unforeseen circumstances that affect us all.

Ultimately, the goal in managing your time is to put yourself in control. Following these simple strategies can help you to manage all of the responsibilities that adult students face. If you are struggling with creating or maintaining a time management system, the student Disability Services or Student Accessibility Services staff can help you to define your priorities and create an effective time management system. Join us next we as we discuss strategies to help stave off procrastination.

Assistive Technology

As we have been discussing in our most recent posts, accommodations, services available at your postsecondary institution, and private services can all be helpful in addressing the needs associated with your disability.  Another support comes in the form of assistive technology.  Assistive technology is a piece of equipment or product system that you can use to increase, maintain, or improve your functional capabilities.  If you have accommodations through a Section 504 Plan, assistive technology may be included as an accommodation.  Your Accessibility Office should be able to provide you access to some assistive technology.  You may also wish to invest in assistive technology of your own.  Below we will discuss common assistive technology tools that may be able to help you improve your performance as an adult student.

Reading Software.  If you have a disability that affects your reading skills, you will likely benefit from having access to reading software.  This is most helpful when you are able to read along with the text while you listen the audio recording.  Common examples of reading programs are:

  • Kurzweil3000. This is a cloud-based services for reading. Many colleges and universities can provide you free access to this program or other similar ones if you have a Section 504 Plan.

  • Learning Ally. A collection of more than 75,000 digitally recorded textbooks and literature titles in audiobook format.

  • Google Read and Write. An application that will work for the majority of webpages through Google Chrome. It includes text-to-speech, dictionary, translator, and word predictions.

Writing Software.  If you have a disability, you may wish to seek out assistive technology that addresses your written expression and spelling .  These could include:

  • Grammarly. This application corrects grammatical mistakes, while also correcting contextual spelling errors and poor vocabulary usage. Grammarly can be useful in combination with a voice-to-text program, such as Dragon Speaking Naturally, in order to catch grammatical errors or determine the appropriate work usage in context.

  • Spelling and grammar checks on your word processing program, such as Word. If you have a Section 504 Plan to address this area of need, you will likely be able to type in-class assignments and assessments.

  • Dictation. You may also find dictation will aid you in your writing tasks. Dictation programs change voice to text so that you can speak what is being written on your word processing program. Dragon is one company that produces widely used speech recognition programs.

Audio Recording.  Being able to record your lecture can address many needs such as writing, processing speed, and attention deficits.  Check with your institution’s Accessibility Office to learn more about your school’s recording policies.

  • Most phones now have the ability to record. This may be less obtrusive than other recording tools.

  • Smartpens. A Smartpen is a pen you can use to write notes that also records audio. Depending on the type of pen you get, you can transfer your notes with audio to your computer. Livescribe is one company that produces a variety of smartpens.

Organizational Apps.  If you have a disability that affects your memory or organizational skills, you may find organizational tools helpful. 

  • Write your schedule in your calendar app.

  • Set reminders and alarms for complete tasks.

  • Google Keep. Google Keep is an app that allows you to make notes to yourself, set reminders, and keep checklists in an organized way.

The information above are just a few of many of the assistive technology available to you.  As technology continues to advance, we are able to seamlessly integrate assistive technology into our lives to meet areas of need we may experience.  Now that we have covered services and technology to help you in your postsecondary career, we will be focusing on strategies you can implement to help you have success as an adult student.

Private Supports for Adult Students

In our previous blog, we discussed the supports that you can access at a postsecondary educational institution. Services, such as accommodations through a Section 504 Plan (link), must go through the Disability Services or Student Accessibility Services office.  Many postsecondary organizations also provide additional supports that all students can access, such as the writing center or counseling center.  There are also many services offered privately within the community. Typically, private services may be closer to the direct instructional services that you received as part of your IEP.

Private Tutoring. There are many different types of tutoring that are provided privately; however, they typically fall into two general categories.

  • General Academic Tutoring. The first type of tutoring for adult students is general academic tutoring. General academic tutoring provides overall coaching on study skills that can have an impact on multiple subject areas and enhance learning outcomes. They may provide you with general learning skills, study skills, test taking skills, tools for homework and assignment completion, brainstorming, editing, and accountability to ensure assignments are completed in a timely manner.

  • Subject-Specific Tutoring. Subject-specific tutors fall into two categories. The first category work with students in a specialized academic subject, such as chemistry, psychology, or physics. This type of tutoring focuses on current work in the specific subject area of the tutor’s expertise. The second category of tutors work with individuals who have deficits in specific foundational skill areas such as reading, written expression, or math that impact global educational functioning. The most common deficit is in the area of reading, which impacts the learner’s ability to achieve across all subjects areas. There are many research-based programs that have been proven to help individuals build their skills in the area of reading. At Achievement Advantage, we provide Wilson Reading System tutoring to support and build reading skills for both K-12 and adult students.

Executive Function Coaching. Executive functions are the self-management system of the brain. Many individuals with ADHD and other related diagnosis have weak executive functioning skills that make it difficult in the college environment. Executive function coaching focuses on teaching specific strategies and tools to improve sustained attention, organization/time management, planning, task initiation, task completion, self-monitoring, and emotional regulation. Mastering these skills has a positive impact on educational, occupational, and social functioning.

Private Therapy. Some students may wish to forego the counseling center at their university or may not have counseling services available to them at the school they attend. In these cases, private therapeutic services may be beneficial. When seeking private therapeutic services, the individual has the ability to choose a therapist that specializes in your specific diagnosis or needs.

Private Evaluation. Another service that adult learners may wish to seek privately is a comprehensive evaluation. Many adults seek private evaluation when they begin to struggle to master the content in a postsecondary setting that may reveal an undiagnosed learning disorder. Other adults seek a private evaluation in order to clarify a previous diagnosis that they feel may be incorrect or need updated documentation to substantiate the presence of a disability. Moreover, some adults may seek an evaluation to provide updated recommendations for accommodations and specific intervention services to address the educational needs that they have.

Knowing all of your service options and seeking the appropriate supports is essential for individuals transitioning from K-12 to adult educational options. When both public and private services are combined, students with disabilities succeed at postsecondary institutions at high rates. Next time we will discuss assistive technology that can further aid adult learners with disabilities succeed beyond high school.

 

 

Additional Supports for Adult Students

Last week we shared information about accommodations students with disabilities might need in a postsecondary setting.  While a Section 504 Plan is designed to help you better access the curriculum, you may still find that additional services are required to meet your needs.  Many career centers, colleges, and universities offer a variety of supports that all students can access. 

Disability Services.  In order to obtain accommodations, you will need to contact the office that supports students with disabilities.  They will be able to inform you about their process for requesting accommodations.  They may also have additional services available to you such as on-going meetings with their staff, workshops, or access to assistive technology.  They will also be able to make recommendations about where to find additional services you may need.

Counseling Center.  All students have access to the counseling center, but if you have a disability that affects your mental health, the counseling center can be an invaluable resource.  Most counseling centers have a variety of counselors who specialize in different areas of mental health. 

Medical Center/Clinic.  If you have a disability that affects your health or you need to take medication to address symptoms of a diagnosis, clinics are staffed by doctors and nurses.  In the event that they are unable to meet your needs, they will be able to make an appropriate referral to another professional in the area.

Writing Center.  Writing centers are widely offered in many educational settings.  Staff members will be able to help you at all stages of your writing, depending on your needs.  They can help at the planning, writing, and editing stages.

Academic Departments.  If you are having difficulties in a certain subject area, you should consider speaking with the administrative assistant of that department.  Often times, they may have formalized tutoring hours that you can attend.  If not, they may know of other students who volunteer as tutors.

Communicating with Professors.  While professors are not responsible for providing remediation instruction, they are required to have office hours and are able to answer questions and provide guidance.  If you did not do well on an exam or assignment, make time to meet with your professor and ask them about how you can do better in the future.  If you have an upcoming test, you can ask questions about topics you still are unclear about.  Or if you have an assignment coming due, they can ensure that you are on the right track.  In all cases, when you meet with your professor, you should come prepared.  This means that you should already be doing the work, whether that’s having begun studying or started upcoming assignments, so that you have specific questions. 

While accommodations and other services provided by postsecondary services are necessary and helpful, sometimes adult students need additional services to help them be successful in school and other areas of life.  For the next blog, we will focus on private services students with disabilities may wish to seek outside of their educational organization.