Engaging All Learning Styles in English Language Arts
By: Angelica Gentile-Tyler, English Teacher at the Academy at SOAR
If you have taken an English course in any American school, then you know what to expect: classic novels, term papers, chapter review quizzes, grammar worksheets, and grades for essays written in red pen. Many students with Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder struggle to meaningfully engage in English classes like this example. Ignacio Estrada once wrote that “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” At the Academy at SOAR, our English department is engaging the whole child in English classes that break the mold of the “sit and get” model of some traditional school. We strive to engage students in rigorous thinking, reading, discussion, and writing in a way that makes sense and intrigues children who are often the first to decry “I hate reading” or “ I’m a terrible writer.” On our campus, students move, debate important news articles, color-code books, and write in ways that take a red pen to the traditional English class archetype. To be clear, teaching the “ADHD child” in ways that are engaging, dare we say even fun, is just good teaching for all children. So our English department works hard to choose relevant literature, dissect current events, and craft memorable lessons that help students rewrite their own narratives of what it means to be a critical reader, thoughtful writer, and effective speaker.
Engaging the Auditory Processor
Many students at the Academy at SOAR would rather spend hours crafting the perfect beach playlist than ever read a book voluntarily. They work best academically when they can slide on a pair of headphones and “zone into” their independent tasks. In our English classes, using a student’s auditory strength means carefully crafting lessons with plenty of opportunities to talk out ideas, process arguments as a group, analyze song lyrics, listen to political speeches, and teach students how to analyze tone and inflection in a video.
One project that really highlights how SOAR students use their auditory strength in English is our Symbolism Soundtrack assignment. During our first unit of the year, students read This is Where it Ends by Marieke Nijkamp. As we studied figurative language, symbolism, allusions, repeating ideas, and mood, students were able to prove their knowledge and understanding of these concepts in a personally relevant way: by creating a movie soundtrack that would play if the novel was ever translated to the big screen. Students immediately jumped at the chance to show how their own musical taste could link to important ideas in the novel. Students analyzed the mood of scenes from the novel and the musical tones of a pop boy band’s heartbreak anthem. Others showed how the repeating lyrics in the chorus of their favorite hard rock song connected to repeating themes of frustration in the novel’s characters. Our aspiring soundtrack engineers had to carefully select scenes from the book and present logical claims for why their songs should play during one portion of the movie rather than another. Figurative language from rap lyrics were compared to the struggles our novel’s characters faced. Not only did students get to infuse their love of music into their detailed projects, but they were also able to skillfully display the English concepts they could apply to both music and their readings.
Get Moving: Engaging the Kinesthetic Learner
Curled up, alone with a good book in a cozy chair at the library sounds like heaven for some book-enthusiasts, but for an ADHD child, the prospect of silent reading glued to a couch might be a vision of misery. At SOAR, our English lessons often engage our students in movement.
Graffiti Board reading is a great strategy to get kids moving and analyzing short articles, without the strict limitations of a desk. A page or short passage is glued to a larger poster-sized piece of paper. Students then rotate in small groups to each poster, annotating the article, responding to other comments, or highlighting important parts of the text. Arrows, boxes, speech bubbles, and symbols are all part of the organized chaos of Graffiti wall reading. Because the passages are shorter than an entire article, students must move quickly at each “wall,” making sure to respond in their own colored marker to get credit for their thinking. For our students who struggle to sit still, this activity allows them to focus on their reading and analyzing, instead of worrying about controlling their fidgeting nature.
Another strategy that helps readers get moving in English class at SOAR is called a gallery walk. Similar to strolling a gallery in an art museum, students stroll the halls of the school, responding to posted images or passages that relate to our reading. Students exercise their inferencing and critical thinking skills, carefully analyzing the images’ important details, deeper meanings, or connection to our reading content. “Museum” visitors generate questions and start to see links between current events and our readings. Gallery walks are not limited to 2D displays either; objects and artifacts can also be used to aid in generating discussions or making concepts more concrete for kinesthetic learners.
Picture It! Engaging the Visual Learner
Students with ADHD and other learning differences often struggle to take abstract concepts, like the arc of a novel’s plot, and translate them into short-term memory. “I forget” and “I don’t remember” are often shouted when English teachers ask their students “ Do you recall our lesson last week on rhetorical speech devices?” Our English department strives to always make thinking visual by providing students with visually stimulating anchor charts for new concepts, lessons on annotating texts using highlighting, and other activities that allow students to process new concepts using their visual strengths.
Much of the 2018-2019 English curriculum is based on reading gurus’ Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s’ book Notice and Note. The authors explain that many students, especially those with reading difficulties or attention problems, struggle to know what is important in a new text or book. Notice and Note lays out a series of signposts, or writing strategies, that authors use in most literature and informational text. Signposts like Contrasts & Contradictions, Extreme Language, and Aha Moments help students know what to look for when they are reading. Students at SOAR are taught to annotate or mark up, each new text they encounter with our signpost symbols. Some symbols include a yin-yang for contrasts in the text or an exclamation point for the use of extreme or absolute language. Our visual students love drawing and marking over their articles and novels. Students begin to see patterns that authors use repeatedly and slowly they become more confident in attacking new texts alone. Using a few signposts in a dedicated way to help our students with memory and attention problems learn a skill deeply, rather than piling on mountains of new skills with little understanding.
Students with a visual strength can learn important English concepts through the act of drawing also. But rather than simply drawing pictures to accompany a text, students at SOAR draw to display their understanding of English standards, like analyzing the changing mood of a passage through a character’s dialogue. In one project, students highlighted mood clues and words with a strong connotation in their novel. Using markers, readers created a visual representation of the mood shifts in the passage. Students can literally see how the mood changes in a passage after processing through artistic representation.