Overcoming learning difficulties

Usha Chandrasekaran

The department of English in Seethalakshmi Ramaswami College, Trichy, Tamil Nadu, is running a major research project sponsored by the University Grants Commission, Delhi. The objective of this project is to educate teachers to identify cognitive and linguistic learning difficulties in high school classes and train these children in the mainstream without isolating them and labelling them as deficient learners. This perception of ours matches with a general, non diagnostic term in the learning disability literature which analyzes difficulties experienced by children in developing skills in listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, and mathematics. We identified some schools with limited learning-teaching resources. We then broke down our goal into manageable objectives.

Objectives of the project

  1. Addressing the teachers to improve their involvement and motivation.
  2. Meeting the students to find the reasons for their non performance.
  3. Writing instructional modules for teachers to increase their awareness of learners’ problems.
  4. Including learner training tasks in the same modules.
  5. Field testing these tasks.
  6. Providing the teachers and learners with more instructional materials as the situation demands.

Our project team is a real fire fighting team with six senior teachers, four junior teachers and five post graduate students. Apart from these permanent members, we have some learning exercise writers from among the undergraduate students who write interesting materials for the edification of high school students. This project can be looked at as a four-tier activity in which we train ourselves and our students who in turn train the teachers and students in the high school.

The teachers in high schools with limited resources at their disposal often look forward to having a team from a college provide their children with adequate reading and writing experience. The teachers in such schools are too few in number and they have limited facilities. One such government approved school very near our college welcomed us when we wanted to conduct a survey of reading and writing difficulties of the learners. The school is called a middle school and a little space divides the classes. We were really disturbed by the packed hall where children from class 1 to class 8 live a kind of community life with only some placards to show that they belong to different grades. Apart from the head teacher there were five other teachers whose main responsibility was to prevent the children from fighting with one another.

The school exists because of the all out efforts of the head teacher who brings her wards to school from the villages around river Cauvery near Trichy. She goes to these villages, counsels parents and arranges for the children’s commute. Several autos ply between the school and the children’s homes. The head teacher will rest in peace only after she packs them off in hired autos after the school is over. The head teacher somehow manages the expenses with the special grants given by the government.

Another reason why parents send their wards to this school is the midday meal scheme. With inadequate facilities, the teachers and head teacher supervise the preparation of food near a big gutter under unhygienic conditions. There is only one reluctant cook who refuses to follow instructions. When the cook absents herself the team of teachers does the cooking! Apart from supervision, the teachers have to serve food and maintain discipline while the children eat.

Anyone can imagine the drain of energy that all these activities would entail. No wonder that the teachers become work shy when it comes to teaching and learning. The project team discovered soon that the majority of the children could not read any written script, neither English nor the vernacular language, Tamil.


The textbooks used by the school are good and the college team was wondering why the experience provided by the textbooks did not help the students read and write with ease. There were other schools we visited as part of the project work, where we came across better facilities and teachers who were in control of the situation. Therefore, we decided to lend our increased support to this particular school in improving the children’s capacity to read and write.

Our business was then to motivate the reading teacher.

Motivating the teachers
Teachers must be reading something non-stop. The qualities of a reading teacher were discussed in our first informal meeting.

  1. The reading teacher who teaches languages under difficult conditions should always be ready to toil with learners who come from primary schools without an ability to discriminate between sounds and letters both in the vernacular language (Tamil) and English.
  2. They must be ready to work around the spelling system of the two languages.
  3. It is not enough if we talk about the phonic method or look and say method. We must see that the children are able to identify letters and match them with the sounds.
  4. The teachers must take to class interesting reading materials even if they are slightly above their present difficulty level.
  5. The reading teacher must be aware of the fact that though she can only train a group of learners it is only the individual learners who can be trained according to her present ability level.
  6. The teacher must convince herself that it is not an easy task to train individuals. Each child requires a different strategy.
  7. The teacher must accept that in any chorus reading session children depend on their rote memory and repeat what the teacher says with out really identifying the letters.
  8. Knowledge of the individual student’s family background will help in shaping the teacher’s approach to the learner’s reading and writing ability. When the teacher knows that there is no one to help the child at home she will become more empathetic to the learner.
  9. The college team identified some instructions in English which matched the teachers’ job of monitoring the eating routine. The teachers were instructed to use these routine expressions.

The teachers have been taught to get rid of negative statements from their discussions (Nothing can be taught in the school.) (Teachers have time only to address problems associated with the midday meal.) (The school requires adequate number of teachers.) (The children are not motivated.) Gradually, the project team pulled the teachers through their everyday difficulties and turned their attention towards the non-performance of the students. The teachers were assigned reading tasks and they in turn culled out materials for their children to learn. The teachers were given the following tasks.

Teacher task
Take a pen, paper, and a watch. Copy down the following text using the opposite hand to which you usually write with. You should complete the task within two minutes.

Hair fall is normal but there has to be sufficient growth of new hair too. What causes thinning hair and receding hairline is the lack of balance between hair fall and hair growth. The major reason for this imbalance is the poor health of the hair follicles.

Rationale: Did you find the exercise difficult? Our ideas on teaching are socially and culturally conditioned. We cherish negative attitudes because of insufficient knowledge. The difficulty that you experienced while doing the above exercise is exactly what a dyslexic child experiences while reading and writing.

The teachers were made to understand that dyslexic children have the following difficulties

  • organizing work related to reading and writing
  • comprehending meaning
  • experiencing left – right confusion
  • making kinetic reversals of letters b-d or as in flim for film
  • writing shabbily with jerky irregular strokes
  • forming letters in a poor, uneven fashion
  • finding it difficult to recall the sequence of letters in a word

These dyslexic children were found in all the classes in the random survey we conducted in the school. Because of the complex etiology of the teaching-learning situation we found it difficult to isolate dyslexic children from others who were experiencing difficulties in learning owing to their background and teacher neglect.

Attitudinal change
In the school under discussion right now, there is a change in the teachers’ attitude towards their children’s proficiency in reading. They look forward to the project team’s arrival. Some of the sessions are with the students and they welcome teaching sessions given by our young teachers and post graduate students in the project team. The head teacher vouches that the project team is responsible for the attitudinal change in the teachers’ approach towards reading and writing instruction. The students in our team are particularly happy that they could get around the difficulties in the school to mount a useful program. This again is a training opportunity for them. This is an opportunity for them to get hands-on experience about learning and teaching in a real world situation.

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References

  1. Children with Mental Retardation and Associated disabilities, DSE Manual, Rehabilitation Council of India.
  2. Onita Nakra, Children and Learning difficulties, Allied publishers, New Delhi.

The author teaches English at Seethalakshmi Ramaswami College, Tirchy. She can be reached at ushaaims@gmail.com.