Understand Learning Difficulties

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Math Difficulties

Signs of Math Difficulties

Students are known to self-identify as “good” or “bad” in math as early as 2nd grade! It’s unfortunate because many math difficulties can be overcome when students are given the right supports and encouragement. Common signs of math difficulties:

Lacks age appropriate fluency in math facts

Difficulty getting started independently on problem sets

Understands concepts but struggles with mental math or multi-step problems

Freezes on math tests but not in other subjects

Struggles to set up problems neatly, e.g. proper columns, decimals points, etc.

Cannot explain concepts or provide examples of when they might use the math skill in a real world situation

Does well on end of unit tests but completely forgets after the test

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math difficulties
Reasons for Math Difficulties

You can trace most math difficulties to one of four cognitive domains. It’s essential to understand which skill(s) are problematic to provide effective supports.

Memory skills are critical given the cumulative subject matter. Even students with the strongest conceptual understanding could struggle with weaker memory.

Spatial skills are key to visualizing problems or setting up work neatly. Spatial perception is one of the most unaddressed skills in most math curriculum.

Reasoning determines how easily students learn numbers and symbols as the language of math and translate that language to solve problems with both words and numbers.

Flexible thinking can affect how quickly students “get stuck” and give up.

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math problems
Math Strategies

Math strategies should be specific to the student’s age, topic and the underlying reason for the math difficulty. If you are confident in the root cause of a student’s challenge, try these strategies.

Memory, use hands-on reinforcement  and interleaved practice

Spatial skills, provide graph paper to keep numbers aligned and draw to scale

Reasoning, provide concrete examples and pictures

Flexible thinking, practice multiple approaches to problem solving

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Reading Fluency & Reading Comprehension Difficulties

Understanding Reading Challenges

By 3rd grade students should be “reading to learn” and no longer “learning to read”. It’s important to keep in mind that fluency is different from comprehension and both skills need to improve over time. Here are some signs that your student might be struggling with reading comprehension or reading fluency.

Can’t explain the main idea of what they read

Forgets key details

Re-reads 2 or 3 times to fully understand concepts and details, including fiction

Reads very slowly, often using finger to read or mouthing words

Avoids reading and/or refuses to read aloud

Often reverses letters and numbers after 2nd grade

Understands challenging concepts when they are explained but not when they are read

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Reasons for Reading Difficulties

Reading remains the primary way to learn in all subjects, even math and science, so addressing potential reading difficulties early is critical for long-term academic success. In elementary readers, a strength in one might mask problems in another. As students advance into increasingly longer and complex materials, these weaknesses might only begin to show in middle school. As a result, many students’ reading challenges might not become apparent until middle or high school. The most common reasons for reading challenges include:

Insufficient phonics instruction

Verbal memory

Executive functions (attention or working memory)

Verbal reasoning

Slower or inefficient processing

Other learning challenges such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, or auditory processing

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Reading Strategies

Given the complex inter-dependency of skills that drive reading comprehension and fluency, it is key to understand the root cause of reading difficulties before choosing reading strategies. While parents can provide key support and positive reinforcement, struggling readers will benefit from an experienced teacher to help them use reading strategies effectively.

Structured phonics

Self check-ins or providing books of higher interest to ensure engagement. 

Annotate while reading 

Create mind movies to help them visualize the storyline and remember key details

Find plenty of evidence-based strategies that can help develop your emerging reader.

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Writing Problems

Signs of Writing Problems

By 7th grade, students should be writing as fluently as they speak. Writing problems can be broadly broken down into writing mechanics (grammar, vocabulary, structure) and content (ideas, flow, and cohesiveness). You also want to consider difficulties with with a student’s ability to write or type efficiently so they don’t resist the physical effort of writing. 

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writing skills
Reasons for Writing Problems

Struggling writers often have difficulty in one of the following areas. Identifying which skill(s) are problematic is an essential first step to provide effective supports.

Memory skills are essential for good writing. Students need good working memory to keep track of their ideas while getting them on paper and good long-term memory to build ideas and apply proper grammar rules.

Spatial and visual motor skills will affect how efficiently and neatly students write or type. You’ll want to provide good tools and supports if these skills are interfering with a student’s writing.

Reasoning will support a student’s ability to write logically and use good evidence and facts to support their arguments.

Flexible thinking can affect idea generation and how easily students can write on a variety of different topics and formats.

Executive functions can affects how careful they are with grammar, punctuation and mechanics. Students with weaker executive functions also might struggle to write on topics where they have little interest. Or they might start strong but have difficulty finishing.

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crossword puzzles
Writing Strategies

As with reading, the best way to improve writing skills is to write more. But students need the right supports to ensure their effective progress.

Memory or Executive Functions, postpone grammar corrections until after the first draft. Have a dictionary or thesaurus readily accessible.

Flexible Thinking, provide help with brainstorming.

Reasoning, provide a structured outline.

Motor skills, use digital tools such as voice recordings and typing help that can make expressing ideas easier.

Effective and efficient writing is essential for all subjects. Writing skills are important for homework, note taking and test taking. Good written communication is one of the most valued skills by employers, so helping a student early on can reap enormous lifelong benefits.

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Memory Strategies

Understanding Memory

Memory can be a bit confusing, because many of us think of ourselves as having a good memory or bad memory. However, memory is not a single skill. Most students have one memory skill that is much stronger than another. Here are common signs of memory difficulties or a student who has high variability in memory skills:

Struggles to remember conversations or instructions

Knows math facts and concepts but struggles with mental math

Remembers the details of what they read but has difficulty remembering math facts, formulas, etc.

Understands what they learn but doesn’t remember when it comes time for homework or a test

Struggles with spelling or vocabulary words despite good comprehension

Often forgets what they just read or can’t remember key details

While it might appear that students are not listening, uninterested or not trying, it could be that they simply cannot remember what they read, saw or heard.

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Types of memory challenges

If your student seems to be struggling, you will want to pinpoint which type of memory is the biggest challenge. Alternatively you’ll want to be sure it’s not another challenge that looks like a memory problem.

Challenges with short-term memory or working memory will cause the most struggles with listening and following directions, mental math, and reading comprehension

Verbal memory will affect you ability to efficiently remember vocabulary, spelling, listening and details of what you read.

Visual memory will affect efficient recall of math facts, formulas, pictures and diagrams.

Attention and other academic difficulties also can look like memory problems

An objective screener or consultation is always the best way to pinpoint the cause so you can provide the right types of supports.

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Memory strategies

Fortunately, even if a student has a weaker memory skill you can use strategies around their stronger skills to help them learn more efficiently. Just be sure you accurately understand their strengths and needs so  you are sure to use the strategies that will be most helpful rather than try to use all of them.

Allow students with weaker working memory to use calculators, formulas and other reference materials when solving problems or writing a paper.

Use visual reminders or notes to keep them on track throughout an assignment or multi-step task

Provide pictures and other hands-on reinforcement for students with weaker verbal memory

Teach students with weaker visual memory to verbalize diagrams, charts and images to help their recall

All students will benefit from spacing out their studying and using retrieval practice

Every student benefits from a better understanding of their memory. Memory drives efficiency in school and in life. Better efficiency almost always translates into better grades, more enthusiastic learning, and more time for sleep and extracurriculars.

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Math Difficulties

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Reading Fluency & Reading Comprehension Difficulties

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Writing Problems

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Memory Strategies

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