Teaching the Struggling Adolescent

Enthusiasm to begin the school day; attainment of B’s and A’s across the curriculum; enjoyment of (gulp!) reading a book; organization of Trapper Keepers and backpacks independent of adult admonition and frantic last-minute scrambling! Are these the wistful wishes of a parent of a struggling teenager? The bold response is “Not at all!” but let us glance backward to the onset of a process that promises (some reasonable facsimile of) the above while igniting potential and unlocking doors that have too often seemed slammed shut to the struggling adolescent.

The old “good news/bad news” quip that delivers an optimistic spin on pessimistic information may not be, at first glance, the standard approach to an article of this kind. However, the canvas of contradictions that may present in the adolescent profile is a typical reality that is best approached, if not for its dichotomy, at least for its complexity of challenges that emerge.

First, the not-so-good-news: Adolescents who struggle with fundamental language skills are at the highest risk for failure in all academic areas. Time is not on the side of language-deficient youngsters entering a literate information age that keeps warp-speed pace with developing technologies and burgeoning competition of a global economy. Implications of sobering statistics and current research are clear: Reading is only the tip of the language iceberg that discriminates, excludes, and penalizes an entire population that needs to learn but whose learning needs continue to be ignored. The National Reading Panel asserts that “illiteracy poses not only an education issue but a health issue, as well.”

Next, the good news: It is an exciting time to explore the unlimited potential of the learning brain. The convergence of science and education has galvanized professionals of many fields around the tantalizing evidence of how the brain – especially the dyslexic brain – learns best. In fact, ongoing work under the auspices of the NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) identified that effective language intervention must explicitly address phonological processing, synthetic phonics, vocabulary development, oral reading, fluency, and comprehension strategies.

Dedicated professionals recognize that bridging the academic gaps of middle and high school students’ achievement requires more than just teaching foundation skills. Rather, the experienced teacher energetically juggles language intervention with demands for keeping the student “afloat” in all areas. While engaging his cognitive level the educator must imbue the student with life-long strategies and instill a model for independent learning.

The challenges may be many, but an Orton-Gillingham trained multisensory instructor is energized by the prospect of maximizing each youngster’s specific language experience – weaknesses and strengths alike – and tailoring the intervention to address the unique shift that occurs in these critical years from learning to read to reading to learn.

Using the research-based tenets of systematic teaching, multisensory instruction provides visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile stimulation to learn the structure of language in a way that can be understood by the student. An approach specifically designed for the dyslexic population but adaptable to many classroom settings, multisensory instruction is not a methodology but a philosophy that incorporates evidence-based teaching practices. While assessing each lesson diagnostically, the structured flexibility of an Orton-Gillingham approach meets the individual language needs of the adolescent while simultaneously supporting requisite organizational skills, study skills, and pragmatics.

At Stone Mountain School, middle school and high school boys benefit from a combined approach of academic, behavioral, social, and emotional components in a safe environment that is structured to provide consistency and flexibility to meet the individual needs of this unique population. Steadily guiding the youngster to success while allowing ample reinforcement opportunities at every level of growth, Stone Mountain School designs learning opportunities that meet each student at his appropriate stage of development for acquiring critical skills while promising success that is well-earned and, eventually, self-directed.

Indeed, our students greet the school day with enthusiasm, make good grades (often for the first time), responsibly take charge of their environment (even their backpacks), and partner in planning for transition to their next school. By the way, many of our students seek free time from their demanding schedules in order to (gasp!) spend time with a good book.