British teach strategic skills to learning-disabled students

Elementary Pupils Counting With Teacher In ClassroomChildren with learning problems typically have problems generalizing what they have learned from one context to another. Researchers Susannah J. Lamb, Peter A. Bibby, David J. Wood and Gervase Leyden, University of Nottingham, studied the success of Reciprocal Teaching in overcoming comprehension problems with reading-disabled students. Their goal was to use the principals of Reciprocal Teaching in designing a program for students with more general learning difficulties.

Previous attempts to teach “study skills” have been relatively ineffective in improving students’ learning. Lamb et al. identified three principles used successfully in Reciprocal Teaching that improve reading comprehension: rehearsing learning strategies, explicit instruction and skill practice, and feedback about the effectiveness and relevance of the strategies used. The focus of this study was on the strategic skills themselves rather than any domain-specific skills.

Students were provided with explicit instruction, and throughout the sessions a teacher modeled effective strategy use. The children practiced target skills with a peer in a range of activities in order to facilitate transfer of these skills to new situations. Students were required to reflect on which strategies were most useful for particular tasks.

The children in the study attended local schools for students with moderate learning difficulties. All 41 spoke English as their first language and were between 13 and 16 years of age. Students were taught strategic skills in half-hour weekly sessions over 12 weeks. Children were matched with partners from their own class, but partners were changed each week to ensure that improvements were not due to certain pairs’ learning to work together effectively, but were the result of changes in individual children’s strategic skills.

The training approach

Training began with each pair of students sitting on either side of a small screen while they described to each other aspects of the materials in front of them — arrangements of playing cards, for example. Their goal was to have one student act as the “information giver” and enable her partner, the “information follower,” to create the same arrangement. Joint problem-solving activities were introduced later in the study. Students were instructed and aided by a teacher to use three strategies: asking, answering and checking.

Children were explicitly told that in order to complete the activities, they needed to think about asking questions when they didn’t understand, answering questions when asked, and checking to see if they had understood what their partner had said and that their partner had understood what they had said.

The teacher modeled effective questioning, answering and checking. The teacher’s praise and reassurance emphasized the value and relevance of appropriate strategy use. The support became task-specific when children had trouble, but at all times the children were encouraged to think at a strategic level. Children were tested before and after the 12-week intervention on three measures: a map task, a standardized reading test and an IQ test.

Training Results

Students were required to use the strategic skills they had learned to complete a map task. Seated on two sides of a screen, students were given different schematic maps and one student was told to describe the marked route around the landmark features on his map. Each map had some similar features and some different features.

Students then were given another map and switched roles; the information giver became the information follower and vice versa. Reading and IQ were also measured to determine whether students’ training improved strategy use on other tasks. Students’ reading was assessed using the Macmillan Individual Reading Analysis, and their IQ was measured with an abbreviated version of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children.

Only half of children show significant individual gains

Although post-test scores on the map task were significantly higher on average, only about half of the children showed significant individual improvement. When the children were split into two groups — those who improved on the map task and those who didn’t — it was apparent that children who began the study with the poorest skills made the most improvement. Students with better beginning skills did not improve. Researchers speculate that the task may have been too easy to show improvement for higher-performing students.

However, comparing these two groups on Reading and IQ scores showed significant differences as well. Students who showed improvement on the map task also tended to improve on reading and IQ measures. This indicates that improving general strategic skills, such as questioning, answering and checking understanding, improved students’ performance on other tasks as well. Students were able to utilize these skills in a variety of contexts.

When researchers began this study, they did not expect to see changes on reading and IQ measures over a period of only three months, especially with this population of learning-disabled students. It is important that the general strategic training used in this study improved performance in other content areas. But the question remains. Why did some students make gains and not others?

Perhaps a more difficult task is needed for the higher-performing students who didn’t make gains in this study. Another explanation is that the improvement was due not to the strategies taught, but to the increased time students spent on the task.

This program was interesting and motivating to students and encouraged them to persevere. Despite the lack of significant improvement in about half the group, the lowest-performing students demonstrated that short-term strategic skills training can help learning-disabled students to show progress across content areas.

“An Intervention Programme for Children with Moderate Learning Difficulties” British Journal of Educational Psychology Volume 68, Number 4, December 1998 pp. 493-504.

Published in ERN March 1999 Volume 12 Number 3

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