Teaching with Strengths and Interests

"Finally, the single most important implication of research in dyslexia is not ensuring that we don't derail the development of a future Leonardo or Edison; it is making sure that we do not miss the potential of any child. Not all children with dyslexia have extraordinary talents, but every one of them has a unique potential that all too often goes unrealized because we don't know how to tap it."

Maryanne Wolf, researcher and parent, in her book Proust and the Squid, p. 209

Getting Started:

When you have your first session with the student, it is important to begin by listening to her. This indicates that there is more of a partnership, in which her views are just as important as your own input. It is also useful to immediately focus on the student’s strengths. You may find the following statements and questions helpful for getting started:

  • I hear you’re a great (soccer player)! How long have you been playing?
  • Tell me something you’re proud of.
  • What is something that you really enjoy?
  • Where is your favorite place to be? What do you like to do when you’re there?
  • What is something that you are the best at in your family?
  • Add your own observations of specific strengths from the assessment. Make this very concrete -- “You scored better than 84% of kids your age for how quickly you could name letters and numbers.”
  • Tell the student that you see a lot of potential in him (be very specific about the areas).

Enlist the student’s help to set goals and determine how she will work on them.

Projects work well for addressing goals in an intrinsically motivating context. The finished product is further reinforcement for all of the effort and learning that has taken place. Ask your student what she would like to work on and determine what you can accomplish in your context. Perhaps some of the project will be the student’s responsibility outside of your sessions.

One pitfall to try to avoid is falling into the role of a tutor. If your only goal is to keep pace with the other students, you will not have the time to dedicate to helping your student learn how to learn. Addressing the underlying skills for reading, writing, organization, and studying will serve your student better in the long run and will be more motivating when it is in a context that is interest-based.

How do I set goals?

Have some general ideas for goals in mind. Before you share these, solicit ideas for goals from your student. This will help you to prioritize and modify your goals to share with the student. You may find the following statements/questions useful:

  • What is one class you’d like to improve in? 
  • What part of (Math) is hard for you?
  • What grades do you want to get?
  • What do you want to do after high school?

Summarize what you heard the student say. You might find the following script helpful:

“So it looks like you’re really strong with… but not as strong with… Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Right now, in middle/ high school, you are being asked to focus your attention on a lot of different topics. After you graduate, you will be able to pick which area you want to specialize in. You will be able to focus on your strengths. People could pay you for your strength in social skills and knowing what to say to people who are upset. Maybe you could get paid for your ability to figure out creative solutions to problems.”

Working on a student’s weaknesses through her strengths and interests allows you to play an important role in her life. In time, you will be a trusted adult in this student’s life who helps her to dream and define herself. For more specific examples of goals, see How do I write IEP goals that include my student’s strengths and interests?