Online Dyslexia Tutoring: Learning Principles Are Fundamental

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Despite knowing what cognitive skills are involved when children learn to read, and having a better understanding of what happens in the brain, dyslexia is still considered to be an incurable, persistent and life-long condition (Novembli & Azizah, 2019; Knowles, 2017).

This should perhaps come as no surprise, as teaching reading is ultimately an educational matter. In teaching, whether on the sports field or in the classroom, we need to adhere to certain learning principles to produce successful outcomes. Yet, when it comes to dyslexia, there seems to be a complete lack of knowledge and application of educational learning principles to guide and govern dyslexia interventions. A search on Google Scholar, for example, delivered few results when keywords such as “principles of learning,” “learning principles,” “teaching principles” and “principles of teaching” were added to “dyslexia intervention.”

Lopes (2012) has criticized the imbalance between biological and educational perspectives in published research: “Overall, the educational perspective is underrepresented in published research about dyslexia, while the biological perspective is overrepresented. This is puzzling since to date biological perspectives have not produced any effective interventions for dyslexia, and almost all major claims for the biological view remain unproven” (p. 215).

Learning principles a core aspect

A dictionary page that explains the meaning of learning principles.

The application of certain educational learning principles is a core aspect that has so far been overlooked in dyslexia interventions. Thorndike (18741949) called learning principles thelaws of learning” and provided a conceptual foundation for how people learn (Alutu, 2006). Examples of Edublox’s “laws of learning” in dyslexia intervention are listed below. By applying these fundamental learning principles, we could enable children with dyslexia to learn to read — and spell.

1.) Learning is a stratified process

This age-old — but ageless — principle was already pointed out by Herbart (1776–1841). “One never, he insisted, apprehends anything in isolation, but always in terms of one’s background of previous experience and learning. So the first consideration in properly organized learning would be to make sure that the learner had the right background” (Mursell 1954, pp. 210-211). Putting it differently, students’ prior skills and knowledge can help or hinder learning (Ambrose et al., 2010). Certain preliminary skills need to be mastered first, before any person can learn the skills of adding and subtracting, or the game of baseball. The same applies to reading.

2.) Cognitive skills training should be multi-cognitive

In physical training, a balanced workout is important as overtraining one part of the body can cause deformity, for example, the Popeye syndrome when overtraining the biceps. The brain is no different. In Maguire et al.’s experiment with London taxi drivers, growth in the posterior hippocampi seems to have come at a cost, as they had reduced anterior hippocampal gray matter volume compared with bus drivers, with anterior volume decreasing with more navigation experience (Maguire et al., 2006).

One should also consider the role of mutualism. A mutualistic view suggests that cognitive abilities mutually facilitate growth. For example, better reasoning skills allow individuals to improve their vocabulary more quickly, and better vocabularies are associated with faster improvement in reasoning ability (Kievit et al., 2017).

3.) Cognitive skills can only be improved by task loading

In the classic experiment of Ericsson and Chase, transfer did not occur following 250 hours of short-term memory training. The student, known as S.F., was required to repeat sequences of random digits. Every time he got a sequence right, a digit was added. When the experiment was concluded, S.F. could repeat sequences of a staggering eighty-plus random digits. However, when tested on random alphabet letters, his short-term memory performance immediately reverted to normal. Through interview the researchers discovered that S.F., who happened to be a competitive runner, pictured an unconnected string of three or four digits as one single race time. In this way be relieved the burden on short-term memory and, like any mnemonist, took advantage of an already existing code in long-term memory (Shenk, 2010). One way to prevent students from using techniques or strategies is to offer a series of cognitive exercises.

4.) New knowledge and skills cannot be learned without repetition

As far as one can go back in history, repetition (also known as drill-and-practice) has been considered the backbone of successful teaching and schooling. Although Hinshelwood (1917), the father of the study of dyslexia, seemingly had no knowledge of cognitive skills training, he did not doubt that remediation of dyslexia was dependent on very frequent repetition. But in the 1920s and 1930s, repetition and rote learning became to define bad teaching. Good teachers don’t fire off quiz questions and catechize kids about facts. They don’t drill students on spelling or arithmetic.

When properly conducted, however, drill-and-practice is a consistently effective teaching method and should not be slighted as “low level,” and appears to be just as essential to complex and creative intellectual performance as they are to the performance of a virtuoso violinist (Brophy, 1986). Christodoulou (2014) argues that memorizing doesn’t prevent understanding, but rather is vital to it. The very processes that teachers care about most, says Willingham (2009), — critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory. Knowledge ready in long-term memory is often required as a stepping-stone to understanding something deeper.

Whatever the case may be for the average student, repetition certainly benefits children riddled with learning challenges. A meta-analysis of 85 academic intervention studies with students with learning disabilities, carried out by Swanson and Sachse-Lee (2000), found that regardless of the practical or theoretical orientation of the study, the largest effect sizes were obtained by interventions that included systematic drill, repetition, practice, and review.

From a neuroscientific perspective, repetition is important in the “wiring” of a person’s brain, i.e. the forming of connections or synapses between the brain cells. Without repetition, key synapses don’t form. And if such connections, once formed, are used too seldom to be strengthened and reinforced, the brain, figuring they’re dead weight, eventually “prunes” them away (Hammond, 2015; Bernard, 2010).

5.) A “pyramid of repetition” needs to be constructed for the beginner learner

This principle, derived from the works of Suzuki, means that the beginner learner must start by repeating a limited amount of material many times over and over. Gradually, less and less repetition will be necessary to master new skills and new knowledge.

In his book Nurtured by Love Suzuki (1993) shares the story of a little parakeet that was taught to say in Japanese: “I am Peeko Miyazawa, I am Peeko Miyazawa.” According to Mr. Miyazawa, Peeko’s trainer, it took three thousand repetitions of the word Peeko over a period of two months before the bird began to say “Peeko.” Thereafter “Miyazawa” was added, and after having heard “Peeko Miyazawa” only two hundred times, the little bird could say its full name. When Mr. Miyazawa coughed for some days due to a cold, Peeko would say his usual “I am Peeko Miyazawa” and then cough. With less and less repetition, Peeko learned more and more words, and also learned to sing. “Once a shoot comes out into the open, it grows faster and faster… talent develops talent and… the planted seed of ability grows with ever increasing speed” (Suzuki, 1993, p. 6).

No doubt it is the same with a human being, as the following story, also taken from Suzuki (1993, pp. 92-93), illustrates:

Since 1949, our Mrs. Yano has been working with new educational methods for developing ability, and every day she trains the infants of the school to memorize and recite Issa’s well-known haiku. [A haiku is a short Japanese poem, consisting only of three lines.]… Children who at first could not memorize one haiku after hearing it ten times were able to do so in the second term after three to four hearings, and in the third term only one hearing.

By combining cognitive training with the systematic teaching of reading, while simultaneously applying fundamental learning principles, the way is paved to improve the reading, writing, and learning abilities of children with dyslexia — and even help them completely overcome their challenges.

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References and sources:

Alutu, A. N. (2006). The guidance role of the instructor in the teaching and learning process. Journal of Instructional Psychology (33)1, 44-49.

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bernard, S. (2010). Neuroplasticity: Learning physically changes the brain. Edutopia. Retrieved February 12, 2020 from https://www.edutopia.org/neuroscience-brain-based-learning-neuroplasticity

Brophy, J. (1986). Teacher influences on student achievement. American Psychologist, 41, 1069–1077.

Christodoulou, D. (2014). Seven myths about education. London: Routledge.

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Hinshelwood, J. (1917). Congenital word-blindness. London: Lewis.

Kievit, R. A., Lindenberger, U., Goodyer, I. M., Jones, P. B, Fonagy, P., Bullmore, E. T., & Dolan, R. J. (2017). Mutualistic coupling between vocabulary and reasoning supports cognitive development during late adolescence and early adulthood. Psychological Science, 28(10), 1419-1431.

Knowles, J. (2017). Diversity, inclusion and equality in practice placements: Experiences of pre-registration student nurses with dyslexia (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). London Southbank University, London.

Lopes, J. (2012). Biologising reading problems: The specific case of dyslexia. Contemporary Social Science, 7(2), 215-229.

Maguire, E. A., Woollett, K., & Spiers, H. J. (2006). London taxi drivers and bus drivers: A structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis London taxi drivers and bus drivers. Hippocampus, 16(12), 1091-1101.

Mursell, J. L. (1954). Successful teaching (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.

Novembli, M. S., & Azizah, N. (2019). Mobile learning in improving reading ability dyslexia: A systematic literature review. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, 296, 220-226.

Shenk, D. (2010). The genius in all of us. New York: Doubleday.

Suzuki, S. (1993). Nurtured by love (2nd ed.). USA: Summy-Birchard, Inc.

Swanson, H. L., & Sachse-Lee, C. (2000). A meta-analysis of single-subject design intervention research for students with LD. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 38(2), 114-136.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.