Strategies for Success: for the Student with a Nonverbal Learning Disorder

by Dr. Emily Levy
(Originally published in SPINS, Winter 2006)

Most elementary, middle, and high school students face increasing academic challenges as they progress in school from year to year. With each year come greater school demands and newfound social pressures. Students are expected to develop sound skills in reading, writing, reading comprehension, and math. They also must make and sustain new friendships, learning to respond well to humor and social cues. Learning to “fit in” take on an increasingly important role. For almost any student, these demands can be challenging. Yet for students with non verbal learning disorders, the demands are often frightening and overwhelming.

Students with nonverbal learning disorders are generally highly intelligent and have strong auditory processing and oral expression skills. Yet they often have difficulties in breaking down multi-step instructions, solving complex conceptual problems, understanding visual-spatial relationships, and developing strong social and communication skills. Because of their strengths, these learning challenges are often overlooked. As a result, students frequently suffer in school as the classroom workload becomes increasingly complex.

It is important that students with nonverbal learning disorders learn the right types of strategies and learning tools to help build their areas of academic difficulty. The earlier students learn these tools, the easier the demands will be for them as they move through school. The strategies detail below will help them develop complex reading comprehension, multi-step problem solving, and visual-spatial skills.

Complex Reading Comprehension

While most students with nonverbal learning disorders have strong decoding skills, they tend to have difficulties with reading comprehension, often missing the “big picture of what they are reading. They may also have trouble visualizing information that they read and making inferences from text. As a result, learning specific strategies for building strong reading comprehension and inferencing skills (two of the most important skill areas in school) are important for their academic success.

The following multi-step reading comprehension strategy helps students identify the topic, main idea, and important details of what they are reading and differentiate the “big picture” from the minute details. It also helps them learn to summarize information and distinguish between explicit and implicit reading comprehension questions. The strategy works as follows:
After a student reads a passage, he or she should first identify the topic of what was read. The topic is one, two, or three words describing what the passage is about. For example, some topics might include trees, cells, or World War I. It is short and to-the-point, and should not be confused with the main idea! Students should highlight the topic in blue. Next, the student should identify the main idea. The main idea describes what the author is saying about the topic. For example, if the topic of a passage is trees, the main idea might be: Growing trees is an easy process. Or, if the topic is World War I, the main idea might be: There were many causes for World War I. Students should highlight the main idea in green. Finally, the student should look for the important details, which is important information describing the main idea. Note that students should only highlight what is important, not every bit of text on the page! They should also try to highlight only words and phrases when possible, not full sentences. The important details should be highlighted in yellow.

Once the student has finished reading and highlighting the passage, the next step is to create a one-to two line summary on the bottom of the page of what he or she read. This summary should be in the student’s own words and should summarize the main ideas and most important information from the passage. For many students, creating such a concise summary is difficult at first, but the more they practice this technique, the easier it will become.

After students read a passage, they are often asked to answer reading comprehension questions in a multiple-choice format. The “Explicit/Implicit” Strategy is helpful for answering these types of questions. After the student reads a question, he or she should determine whether that question is explicit (mark with an E) or implicit (mark with an I). An explicit question is a question whose answer comes directly from the text, such as facts or statistics. An implicit question is a question whose answer does not come straight from the text. Instead, the student must infer the answer based on information that he or she read from the text. Some inferential questions might include, “Based on information read from the text, you can conclude that _____” or “The main idea of this passage is likely ____.” Students with nonverbal learning disorders often have trouble with these inferential questions and it is therefore helpful for them to learn to distinguish between Explicit and Implicit questions

Step-by-Step Problem Solving

Many students with nonverbal learning disorders have trouble with step-by-step problem solving. This skill often parlays itself into the realm of math word problems, amongst other areas of school. Learning an effective step-by step strategy is helpful for solving these types of problems.

The SIAS (Sign, Important Information, Arithmetic Problem, and Solution Sentence) strategy is a great technique for learning to break down and solve math word problems. It works as follows: first and foremost, students should learn key words which tell them what kind of problem they are about to solve. For example, for addition word problems, some key words include in all, in sum, or altogether. Students should create note cards or keep a log of all types of word problems (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, etc.) and their corresponding key words. Next, the student should read the problem. He or she should underline any relevant information, cross out any irrelevant information, and circle any key word or words which define what type of problem it is.

The next step is to fill in the multistep parts of SIAS. Underneath the problem, in vertical formation, the student should write the sign (plus, minus, etc.), then the important information (numbers that are important for solving the problem), followed by the arithmetic problem (for example, 6+12 =), and ending with the solution sentence as a full sentence in his or her own words (for example, Six apples plus twelve apples equals eighteen apples). This multi-step problem solving strategy helps students break down the information in the problem and move from language to arithmetic and back to language.

Visual Spatial Organization

Visual Spatial Organization is another area that is often difficult for students with nonverbal learning disorders. The webbing strategy can help them break down information and create a visual-spatial web of information that they read. The webbing strategy works as follows:
The student should first read a paragraph of multi-paragraph passage. Next, he or she should identify the topic of the passage and highlight it in blue, find the main idea and highlight it in green, and identify the important details in yellow (see above)> The student should then extrapolate this information into the form of a webbing diagram. This visual-spatial diagram will look as follows:

The student should draw a diamond in the middle of the page and write the topic inside it (for example, World War I). Next, he or she should draw a rectangular box on the top of the page a write the main idea in his or her own words inside the box. Finally, he or she should branch out of the diamond in the center of the page with large bubbles containing the important details, again in his or her own words. The student can then color code the topic in blue, main idea in green, and important details in yellow. The more the student practices this strategy, the easier it will become to create visual-spatial images of information that he or she reads.

While the academic challenges of school consistently increase with each grade level, learning specific learning strategies can make these transitions much easier. It is important for students with nonverbal learning disorders in particular to learn these tools and how to apply them to their academic work. The more they practice using these tools, the greater their skills and confidence will become.

Dear Dr. Levy, My son received an excellent report card. I can’t say enough good things about his EBL tutor. She has done a tremendous job helping him improve his reading and writing skills. Most importantly, she is wise and kind. She is always patient with him. Because of his tutor, my son writes with much more ease.
– Parent