When it Comes to Learning, Intensity Matters

No two students are alike – no surprise there, I’m sure! The students we see in our clinic at Applied Learning Processes do have one thing in common, though. They all have a deficit in one or more sensory-cognitive processing functions that support the ability to learn. These processing functions include:

Orthographic Processing refers to the ability to establish and retain visual memory for letters and common spelling conventions.

Phonological Processing is a function of the auditory system that includes sensory perception of the individual sounds that compose spoken syllables. This processing function supports the cognitive functions involved in accurate decoding and spelling.

Visual/Verbal Integration is a processing function in which mental images based on prior sensory perception correspond to units of language and support the cognitive functions involved in both oral and written language comprehension and expression, including number sense and mathematical concepts.

Visual-motor Processing involves the ability to notice visual/spatial detail and retain that information for reconstructing graphic representations. Visual-motor processing supports the cognitive functions involved in understanding spatial concepts in language and in mathematics.

When a student presents with dyslexia, our first job is to figure out which deficits are contributing to the problem. A student might have good orthographic processing but suffer a weakness in phonological processing. This type of student can usually memorize words pretty easily so it doesn’t really look like she has a serious reading or spelling problem until about 3rd or maybe 4th grade. Another might have weakness in both areas, so in spite of an exceptionally high IQ, reading just doesn’t ever seem to “click” for him. The next student might have a moderate phonological deficit compounded by weakness in visual-motor processing so it looks like he can read fairly well for a 3rd grader but spelling and writing are described as “horrible”. So, even if the student has already been tested by another professional and given the diagnosis of dyslexia or specific learning disorder with impairment in reading, we still need to dig a little deeper to figure out which processing functions are involved and how severe the deficits appear to be. Once we get this figured out we are ready to design a treatment plan and begin our work.

The latest research on reading intervention indicates that the students who make the most progress are the ones in a one-to-one setting or in groups of 2 or 3. At Applied Learning Processes we work one-to-one with every student. The 1:1 ratio allows us to pace the student based solely upon her particular needs. It also makes it possible for us to adjust the actual treatment to fit her symptoms and level of severity. For example, if a first grader with dyslexia has a significant deficit in visual-motor processing, it’s likely she is struggling to stabilize her ability to recognize and reproduce letters and numbers correctly. We might need to spend quite a bit of time initially working her brain’s ability to notice the parts of a graphic and how those parts are related to each other. Some letters share the same parts. Lower case b, p, d, and q, for example, all have a vertical straight line with a curve attached. If the brain is not attending efficiently to the parts and how they are related, it is hard to decide which of those letters is which. That makes reading and spelling especially tricky if you’re in the first grade. As the brain gets more efficient at noticing the relevant spatial detail involved in identifying and reproducing letters, the treatment to remediate a phonological deficit begins to move faster and more efficiently, also.

Daily stimulation of the sensory processing system is another critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to remediating a reading disability. This has been our experience through the years and is also validated by recent research. We sometimes use analogies to explain this to parents. For example, if you want to do some weight training, you’ll need to do it everyday in order to build up your muscle mass. If you only do it 2 or 3 times a week you’re not likely to move very fast or get very far. You have to stimulate the growth of the muscles every day in order to reach your goal. This holds true when stimulating the brain’s processing functions, too. If you only receive the treatment 2 or 3 times a week you will be at it for years and may “burn out” before you reach your goal. If you do it intensively every day, it may only take weeks or a few months to get there. A student with a reading impairment needs an accelerated instructional approach – an intensive daily intervention – in order to change the trajectory of his learning curve. Otherwise, his peers will continue to rapidly increase their skills and the gap will continue to widen.

Families are busy. Children have school all day, then extra-curricular activities, social events, and homework in the evenings. Fitting anything else into the schedule requires significant adjustments and commitments on the part of the whole family – especially if we’re recommending a remediation approach that involves two hours of treatment per day and five days a week. However, our goal with the treatment process is to get the student’s brain processing functions developed and stabilized so that she has the “toolkit” in place to benefit like her peers do from traditional instruction. Students who receive this kind of intervention experience renewed self-confidence in their ability to learn, improved self-esteem, and success from their efforts to build good reading and spelling skills. Their grades improve, they spend less time on homework, and they become independent learners. Their parents report that their children are happy again, their anxiety levels are much lower, and they no longer fight going to school. These are some pretty cool benefits that aren’t reflected in test scores and research reports!

Melinda Buie, M.A.Ed.
Clinical Director
Applied Learning Processes


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