The Importance of Explaining and Checking for Understanding- part two

Background

Now, the inspiration for this two part series.  A few weeks ago (in my role as the learning support teacher), I started supporting a year 8 maths class and part of the support entails one-to-one support with a few students in the class.  I begin the lesson by working with a particular student — let’s call him Colin– who has learning difficulties and needs some pre-teaching as well as extra revision.  There is a long and painful story about how this type of support was added to my timetable and the reason that I started a new ‘program’ in the middle of the school term.  So, it was only a few weeks ago that I met Colin for the first time and administered a focused diagnostic test.

When I start a program of targeted instruction with a student I always start with a diagnostic test of some kind (numeracy or literacy based depending on requests from teachers) and I have a conversation.  This is a simple back and forth between myself and the student, covering a variety of topics including: schooling history, favourite teachers and subjects, parents, family details, hobbies, favourite movies and what they did on the weekend.  I can “look up” some of these details on the system, but kids don’t know that.  I also talk a little about myself and try to find some common ground between us so that I can use it in the future.  Considering that I work with students aged 12-17, I don’t beat around the bush at all, I ask them about their learning difficulties.  I ask them straight out.  By the time a student has reached year 8, they know they have problems and they are the best person to tell me how it impacts their learning.

The Conversation

Here is a script of the important parts of the conversation I had with Colin during our first lesson together.  I have omitted the chit-chat parts before and after and left in the section that ‘inspired’ this series.  The “Teacher” is me and the Student is Colin.

Teacher:  On your file it says that you have a medical condition.  It says you have a comprehension delay.  Did you know about that?

Student: Yeah, my mum told me. 

Teacher: What does that mean to you?

Student: (shrugs shoulders) Nothin’. 

Teacher: It doesn’t affect you in the classroom. 

Student: I don’t know. 

* At this point, I steered the conversation in another direction.  I think we talked about which subjects Colin enjoyed the most and what teachers did to help him learn.  I brought the conversation back towards the comprehension delay after a few minutes.*

Teacher: So, this comprehension delay.  Does that make it hard for you to keep up in class? 

Student: No.  I don’t care. 

Teacher: Hhmm, What do you think “Comprehension Delay” means? 

Student: It means I’m not good.  I can’t do good at school. 

Teacher: Who told you that? 

Student: No one.  

Teacher: So when your mum told you that you had a comprehension delay she didn’t explain what that meant?

Student: No. 

Teacher: Comprehension is a word we use for understanding and thinking.  Delay means the extra time it takes to do something.  When we say that you have a comprehension delay, it doesn’t mean that you can’t think or understand.  It just means that you think and understand a bit differently.  Your brain works in a different way to most people and because you think differently it sometimes takes you a bit longer to get to work it out.  I used to find some things in school really hard and when I got older I realised it was because I learned better from reading information over and over again.  Lots of teachers didn’t explain things the way I understood them and I would get confused.  I had a friend in high school could always explain it the way I understood.  She was a real help.  

Student: really?

Teacher: Yeah.  You said that most of the time you can keep up but sometimes you get lost and you have to ask a friend or ask your teacher for help.  The teachers who you like probably know how to explain it differently so you understand.  Some teachers haven’t worked out how to explain it for you yet.  

*I will stop here, because I think you know enough now.*

Another Story

I used to work with a young lady to improve her maths skills.  I met her when she was 10 yo and in year 5 of primary school.  She was struggling with many basic skills and this was making it difficult for her to handle the more difficult problems and concepts in the year 5 curriculum.  I worked with her for 5 years and she passed year 10 maths.  She studied and passed a board registered maths subject in her senior years in high school.  She thought differently too.  He brain worked a different way and once I worked out how to explain things to her, she succeeded.  Once she figured out how she learned and what she needed to do to understand, she succeeded too.

My Humble Opinion

The parent thought she was helping out by explaining to her child that he had a learning difficulty.  She thought that she was telling him that it wasn’t his fault he was having trouble in school.  She thought she was giving him the answer to his questions.  But, she didn’t check that he understood.  The student walked away from that conversation with a different message.  He walked away thinking he was stupid and couldn’t fix it.  He left with more questions and anger and sadness.

I’m not criticising the parent because I know she truly believed she was helping.

We have to learn from this experience. I have spoken to the parent and gently reminded her that Colin thinks differently and he needs to believe that: while he thinks differently, he is certainly capable of doing well at school.

So What?

Children with learning difficulties think differently.  I think we all knew that.  It is the teacher’s responsibility to work out how they think.  That is hard.  Explain concepts in different ways and check that your students understand.  If they don’t  understand; find another way to explain it.  Find another word to describe it, or draw a picture.  Find what works for them.  Give them opportunities to practice.  Help them to understand how they think and learn.  Help them to understand that they are different, but not stupid.  Help to see that they can learn and that asking questions (the right questions) will help them to move forward.  If students ask us the right questions we can help them.  But they will rarely know what to ask.  If we ask the right questions, we will know how well our students understand.

One other thing.

We have to be careful when speaking to children (and sometimes adults).  One statement from an adult can change how a child feels about their ability, self-worth and potential.  So, be careful what you say.  Allow time for your words to sink in and then check that you were understood.  It takes time, but it is simple and it is worth it!

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