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Learning Strategies

I think I know what it is she wants me to do, I just have no clue how to do it the way she wants it done.
Secondary II student, Weston School, Montreal, Quebec

One of the biggest dilemmas for my students comes from trying to access the information that their teachers want them to acquire. In Language Arts, the novel activities usually revolve around reading the book, answering questions, and then writing an essay. For students with language processing problems each of these tasks are daunting, all of them together next to impossible without an incredible amount of specialized external support in the form of a teacher or peer. One reason for this is that traditional novel activities focus on only one intelligence - Linguistic. Students who have difficulties with processing language cannot succeed in this area without a lot of outside help. It is unfair to assess students through activities based in only one intelligence when there are multiple intelligences. Students with language processing difficulties have strengths that are found in other intelligences and these should also be addressed in class activities and the assessments of them.

I will examine how different elements of web projects can be used as learning strategies which will eventually lead to more independant and authentic learning experiences for all students.

A Highly Structured Assignment

A web project that is designed along the principles of Layered Curriculum allows for a lot of choice within a solid structure. While this may be more of a teaching strategy than a learning strategy, IEPs for students with language processing difficulties generally stress structured work assignments. Organizational skills are difficult for a lot of people, but especially so for those with difficulties processing language. In fact, Frontline's "Inside the Teenage Brain" presents research on the hypothesis that the teenaged brain does not yet have the ability to organize information the way the adult brain does. It is therefore integral to all students, but especially those with language difficulties, that they be provided with a highly structured assignment within which they can process the new information and skills they are acquiring. As I wrote earlier, scaffolding is needed to make beautiful buildings.
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Choosing the Project Content

A very large part of each of my students' IEPs has to do with effective use of strategies when approaching any task. Strategies can range anywhere from the use of tools (calculators, reading charts, word processors) to modification of material and assignments (enlarging text, modification of assignment expectations). The range of activities that each student can choose from while working on a project like The Breadwinner web project promotes the selection of activities that fit within each of their available strategies.
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Online Discussion

It is rare for students with difficulties processing the language they hear to take part in class discussions. They are often lost and are unwilling to ask for clarification for fears of appearing 'dumb'. Such a student would opt for participating in and/or creating an online discussion as his or her strategy. Online discussions allow those involved to read, re-read, and take their time to process the ideas that are being expressed. For students who get lost in 'live' discussions, an online discussion still allows them to interact with their peers and teacher in a discussion about the novel they are reading.
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Creating Slide Presentations

A slide presentation is an excellent strategy for students to use when trying to organize their ideas into distinct units of information. It has often been suggested for students to make flashcards to help them organize their thoughts and information - but how much more fun to create animated flashcards for the whole world to see.
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Reading and Writing
In The Breadwinner web project students are asked to do most of their supplemental reading online. Reading through a computer is a strategy I often teach my students because a computer allows the reader to control the size of the words he or she is reading. The student is much more independant when he or she is able to control the text size. Often a student's difficulties with reading aren't as present when the text is enlarged.

For students whose difficulties with reading go beyond font size, there are programs available, like Dragon Naturally Speaking, which will read text to a student. This software was actually developed as a speech recognition software which leads us to...

Using a computer for writing is a strategy used by many students. Word processors allow students to take risks when they write. Students with language processing problems are often reluctant to write on paper because of the fear of spelling and grammar errors. Word processors take away that fear in that they can help edit their work, and it is very easy to erase on a computer - a click of a button and it is gone. Also, for students with fine motor defecits, keyboards are much more user friendly than pencils.

For those whose difficulties go beyond spelling and grammar, the Dragon Naturally Speaking Software mentioned earlier can recognize a student's speech in order to cut out the need for writing at all.
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Oral Defense

Students who create a web project for me will be assessed by way of an oral defense. Kathy Nunley presents the concept of oral defense as a way to deter surface level work by students or even cheating. I see the value of oral defense lying in how it can be used as a learning strategy by students. Oral presentation of ideas is a strategy that I often encourage my students to use. The writing out of ideas, for the student with language processing problems related to writing, is frustrating and can very rarely be used as accurate evidence that learning has taken place. An oral defense of a project allows students to really prove what they have learned without their knowledge being trumped by the task of writing. Oral defense is also a very good editing strategy: as students talk out what they have done on a project with a teacher they are able to see what still needs to be done, what needs to be revised, or what needs to be just taken away.
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No Final Copies!

The notion of a final copy is a huge idea for students. Students are often so hooked on the idea of a final product that once it's done - it's done. They dismiss their working drafts and put the assignment out of their minds when they hand it over to the teacher. But a web page is still accessible to its creator even after it has been 'handed in'. As a learning strategy, this facet of web page creation can allow students access to the idea that learning doesn't end, it is a living, breathing phenomena.
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Writing HTML

For students with language processing difficulties, it may seem ridiculous to even think of introducing a whole new code to learn. Yet, as I learn HTML while creating this web page I am realizing that HTML is much easier to write than English or French. HTML makes sense. Whatever you write has a very clear reason behind it. If it doesn't work there is a reason why it doesn't work - a forgotten slash or perhaps a missed bracket. One thing that I really like about writing HTML is that you can see the results instantaneously, in your browser, as you are creating your web page. It makes tracking your creative process quite easy.

I have not yet taught HTML to my students. Yet I plan to do so in the future. I would like to see if writing HTML can be used as a strategy to help understand how language works in general. When students are able to really see the results of a missed backslash or a forgotten command, could this experience possibly transfer over to an awareness of the construction of language? This is definitely an idea worth investigating.
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