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10 Keys to Unlock a World of Learning

  • Randy Saller The Old Schoolhouse
  • 2009 7 Oct
10 Keys to Unlock a World of Learning

Danny reads a paragraph for the fifth time. He begins to write, but gets stuck. "Is it spelled ‘hous' or ‘hows'?" he wonders. After several attempts, he guesses. Two words later he is stuck again. Exhausted, he shoves the paper aside and puts his head down.

Students like this are likely to be identified as "learning disabled." The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) reports that "5% of public school students are learning disabled."1 It is likely that there is a similar population of learning disabled students who are being homeschooled. The NCLD defines a learning disability as "a neurological disorder that affects the brain's ability to receive, process, store and respond to information." It impacts one's ability to listen, speak, read, write, and perform math.2

Each learning disabled student is different, but there is a common need for unique instruction. Homeschooling parents are in the best position to provide the flexible, creative, and compassionate instruction these students need. Many homeschooling parents of learning disabled students may feel pressure from family or friends to let the "specialists" teach them. In reality, you are the specialist. You know your student best. This intimate knowledge combined with Godly leadership and good instructional practice is essential to help your learning disabled student achieve his or her potential.

I will share ten valuable instructional strategies that can help learning disabled students of any age. The term "learning disabled" is used to describe students who can benefit most from these strategies, but these strategies are useful for any students who are experiencing learning difficulties.

1. Differentiating Instruction

Differentiating is a term that refers to tailoring instruction to meet learning needs while satisfying age-appropriate objectives. It involves forging different routes to the same learning destinations. When studying Shakespeare, students with writing difficulties may need the option of illustrating a scene in seventeenth-century England or reenacting a portion of a play to demonstrate learning. During time designated for research, let students with reading difficulties take notes or summarize as someone reads aloud.

Students with organizational problems may need a clearly posted weekly schedule. If students have trouble completing tasks, use a timer to challenge them to "beat the timer." Differentiating can be as simple as giving students five division problems instead of ten or having students answer questions orally rather than through writing. Flexibility is the trademark of differentiating instruction. Pursue grade-level objectives, but pursue them with methods that set students up for success.

2. Teaching Mnemonics

Did you ever hear your teacher say "Never Eat Soggy Waffles"? Your teacher wasn't forbidding you to retrieve breakfast from the water, but rather he was teaching you a way to remember the four directions (north, south, east, west) by using an easy-to-remember acronym.

Memory is the bedrock of learning. In my experience, students with learning disabilities usually have difficulty with visual and/or auditory memory. Mnemonic devices help students like this recall important information. Students who have difficulty spelling may use the vivid acronym "Dynamite Opens Every Safe" to remember the spelling of does. "Roy G. Biv" (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) is an acronym that is commonly used for learning the colors of the rainbow. Our oldest son learned his multiplication tables by skip counting to a melody. A teacher I know recites with students, "Eight times eight fell on the floor. When I picked it up, it was sixty-four."3

When we want something to stick well, we use super glue, not paste. A mnemonic device is a kind of super glue; it bonds learning experiences to memory.    

3. Multisensory Instruction

God, the Master Designer, wove a variety of wonderful senses into our bodies to help us discover and investigate new things. Students who have limited auditory or visual processing skills need to be able to move and even to taste things as they learn. Reading about an avocado is one thing, but drawing, touching, and tasting an avocado builds a lasting mental imprint about what it actually is. How vastly different the sensation of counting real money is compared to counting from a book, or finger spelling in shaving cream compared to writing words on paper.

Nature is an indispensible and inexpensive resource for multisensory instruction. We live right across from a nature preserve. Few things captivate our children like the gall fly nests, salamanders, bugs, and countless specimens we collect. These creatures form the heart of our summer curriculum. Nature is an immense and ever-changing laboratory for sensory exploration. Use it often.

4. Identifying Learning Styles

"I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made . . . ." (Psalm 139:14) Students' learning styles differ as much as their appearances differ. Learning styles are simply preferences for learning. These preferences are influenced by emotions, environment, relationships, sensory traits, and thought processes.4 Teaching to a learning style is planning instruction in accord with students' natural learning rhythms.

Our older son loves sports. During a lesson on averaging, we collected data by shooting baskets. Our two younger children are always on the go. We keep clipboards handy for scavenger hunts and other "move as you write" activities. During reading, I often give my students the choice of working together or alone.

Keep a journal, and as you observe your children, respond to these questions: What engages your student? How do noise, seating arrangements, and color influence his learning? When is she most alert? Answers to questions like these create useful learning profiles to help understand and honor students' natural dispositions for learning.

5. Using Flow Charts

Many learning disabled students have difficulty comprehending and carrying out multiple-step processes. Flow charts help students organize and process this kind of information. Flow charts simply outline the sequence for performing a skill or solving a problem. Text boxes and a brief amount of text, along with arrows that signify a shift from one step to the next, represent the steps.

I frequently use flow charts to teach multiple-digit computation. Flow charts can be developed for many other topics, including alphabetizing words, writing a letter, or completing an experiment. Students that regularly use flow charts rehearse language that is consistent, which eliminates confusion that arises when students hear directions presented a little differently.

As learning disabled students get older, they long to do things on their own, just as other students do. Flow charts can foster a sense of independence, and when the student forgets how to do something, he has a resource he can go to.                 

6. Creating a Listening Center

The most difficult subject for learning disabled students to master is reading. Reading a grade-level book can be laborious and frustrating. Creating a listening center is one way to restore the joy of reading. The learning center consists of three things: a tape or CD player, a recording of a book, and the book itself. Learning disabled students can receive these materials free of charge through the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). Even listening to the recorded story without following the words can help students internalize new language structures and vocabulary words that enhance reading skill and confidence.

7. Active Reading

Homeschooling parents of students who have reading difficulties can be tempted to elevate "reading skill" above the calling to glorify God. Some parents may rationalize, "I know these books are violent or a little suggestive, but at least he's reading." Reading is an interactive activity. The authors are conversing with us directly or through storytelling. Students can be at high risk for absorbing values that contradict Biblical values. Put limits on what kind of books enter your home, and explain the Biblical precedence for book selections you make so that your students can begin to do this themselves.

Train students to evaluate the contents of a book from a Biblical worldview. Some books have a unique mixture of good and bad. When parents ask important questions, students can learn to distinguish between the two.

Every so often something comes up in one of our 7-year-old's favorite books that challenges our Biblical worldview. For example, one of the stories features a sorcerer. This compelled us to ask, "What does the Bible say about sorcery?" By selecting books carefully and asking questions that examine the moral fiber of a book—active reading—students become active participants in the reading process. They begin to understand that the true purpose of reading and writing is to glorify God. 

8. High-Interest, Low-Level Reading

One characteristic of a proficient reader is the ability to read independently. Students with learning disabilities often perceive themselves as dependent readers. The books they want to read are often too difficult for them to read by themselves. Access to high-interest, low-level reading books creates positive reading experiences, making it possible for them to read successfully without assistance.

Many of these types of books are available. Rookie Read-About® Science books by Allan Fowler and the I Can Read! books are good for younger readers. Rookie Biographies® through Scholastic and sports history and sports fiction books by Anastasia Suen appeal to middle school students. Remedia Publications has a series of high-interest, low-level reading workbooks for students of elementary school age. 

A high-interest, low-level reading book has engaging story elements. It also has a comfortable readability level. An independent readability level formula used by many teachers is as follows: 98% word accuracy and 80% comprehension.5 Use of The Fry Graph Readability Formula is another way to evaluate the compatibility of a book for a student. This graph presents a range of grade-level readability levels based on average number of sentences and average number of syllables in three randomly selected one-hundred-word word passages.6 However, be willing to think outside of the box. A student may be determined to read even though he recognizes only 80% of the words and shows only 50% comprehension. Your support is more crucial than a strict adherence to a readability formula.

9. Phonemic Awareness

An estimated 80% of students with learning disabilities have difficulty reading.7 But what is reading, and how do we know we are teaching it successfully? In 1997, the National Reading Panel (NRP) was created to assess research-based knowledge on reading. The panel concluded that there are five components in a quality reading curriculum: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.8

Reading begins with phonemic awareness. Instruction related to phonemes (units of sound) should begin with consonant and short vowel sounds before moving to more complex sounds. Students with phonemic awareness can blend sounds to form words, such as c-a-t. The use of letter tiles is a great way for students to explore the sound components of words. These can be made with miniature ceramic bath tiles or tiles made from laminated poster board. According to the NRP, "scientific evidence shows that teaching children to manipulate the sounds in language (phonemes) helps them learn to read."9

10. Developing a Student Portfolio

On a wall in our home, we keep a running record of how much our children are growing in height. Our 13-year-old still enjoys seeing these records of growth patterns. Students in homeschooling families want to see the growth rings in their learning. Many homeschooling families create student portfolios. Portfolios are ongoing, organized collections of student work.

Developing a student portfolio conveys to your child that what he accomplishes at home for God is valuable. This doesn't mean we save every paper scrap. Selected work should be meaningful and distinct to the student or someone in the family. The sample of the student's work may be a science report, a first attempt at cursive writing, a special story, or a photo of a project that took a lot of effort. Portfolios fuel an "I can do it" attitude with learning disabled students because their growth over time is documented; their progress is obvious.  

Today many parents are realizing that homeschooling is a valuable option for teaching students of all ability levels. The old cliché "home is where the heart is" expresses a lot of truth. For many students, family relationships provide the most vivid demonstrations of the love of Christ. Parents, more than anyone, can combine good instructional practices with Christlike compassion as they educate their students. What more does a student need?

Randy Saller and his wife Amy Jo homeschool their three children in Lake Villa, Illinois. Randy has worked with learning disabled students for the last sixteen years, is an adjunct professor, and has been published by Turtle® magazine. He can be contacted at www.randysaller.com.


1. Executive Summary, National Research Council. (2001). Learning Disabilities at a Glance. National Center for Learning Disabilities, retrieved February 23, 2009, from www.ncld.org/content/view/448/391/.
2. Ibid.
3. Stoneberg, Stephanie.
4. Dunn, Rita. (1967). The 21 Elements. Learning Styles: Nurturing the genius in each child. Article retrieved from www.geocities.com/~educationplace/ls.html.
5. May, Frank B. (1990). Reading as Communication: An Interactive Approach, 3rd Edition. Columbus, OH: Merrill Publishing, p. 384.
6. Ibid, p. 316.
7. WETA. (2008). Reading and Dyslexia. LD OnLine:  The World's Leading Website on Learning Disability and ADHD. Article retrieved February 25, 2009, from www.ldonline.org/indepth/reading.
8. National Reading Panel. (1997). What research topics did the panel examine? Article retrieved from www.nationalreadingpanel.org/FAQ/faq.htm#1.
9. National Reading Panel. (1997). What did the panel conclude about phonemic awareness (PA)? Article retrieved from www.nationalreadingpanel.org/FAQ/faq.htm#7.

Copyright 2009. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Summer 2009. Used with permission. Visit them at www.TheHomeschoolMagazine.com.