Are you working at home with a bright, hardworking child or teenager who has to work too hard to learn? This is the child who does not respond to all the other curricula or materials and teaching strategies that have worked so well with your other children. In fact, you may be on your fourth reading/phonics program, your third math program, and on your fourth spelling program, if you have not already given up on spelling with this child. If it is your first child who is struggling, you may now have a younger sibling who is yelling out the words from the corner of the room. That’s when you decide that “something is up” with this child. You wonder if this child has a processing problem, a learning disability, or dyslexia. You are puzzled, because orally, he/she is so good in many things, and loves to listen to stories. What is going on?

According to Dr. Mel Levine, M.D., in his book, A Mind at a Time, all learning requires energy. He refers to it as “battery energy.” I like this term. It clearly describes what we see happening with the struggling learner. This child is using way too much battery energy to write or remember sight words or phonics for reading. We see the battery drain happen before our eyes. Our question is, why is this child having to work so hard at things that should not take so much energy to learn or remember? It is generally because one or more of the child’s four “learning gates” are blocked. We think of these learning gates as information pathways. The children who learn easily seem “smart” because they don’t have any major blocks in their information pathways. Our struggling learner may have many blocks. When we speak of a blocked learning gate, we mean that the processing skill has not transferred into the automatic brain hemisphere. The child continues to need to concentrate on the processing task because of this lack of transfer.

Let’s explore these four learning gates. As you look at the list of characteristics of a struggling learner, it is important to remember that many children have one characteristic but aren’t struggling. Conversely, a child does not need to display all of the characteristics to qualify as a struggling learner.

1. Visual Processing Gate

The act of moving the eyes over a page from left to right is not a naturally developed trait. For example, in Israel they read right to left, and in Japan they read in a column. This is a process that we teach when a child is first learning to read, usually by having him track with his finger across the page to train his eyes to move in this fashion. After some practice, this should transfer to the child’s automatic hemisphere. How do we know if this process has not transferred and is taking too much energy? These are some of the characteristics this child will exhibit:

- Reading reversals (on = no; was = saw . . . after age 7)
- Skipping of little words, but can read longer word
- Reading begins smooth, but soon becomes labored
- Older child who can read, but tires easily . . . yawning shortly after beginning reading

2. Writing Processing Gate

When the child’s visual/spatial skills or the act of writing haven’t transferred into the automatic hemisphere, he often looks like he’s sloppy, lazy, or unmotivated. His papers are poorly spaced, or he refuses to write much of anything for the parent. This is the most common learning gate that is blocked in gifted children. It seems like they are “allergic to a pencil.” Transferring his thoughts into writing, or just copying something, takes a huge amount of battery energy for this child. Characteristics include these:

- Frequent or occasional reversals in letters after age 7 (even if only “once in a while”)
- Copying is laborious
- Poor spacing in math papers
- Great stories orally, but writes very little
- Does mental math to avoid writing