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Books in Translation

Best Practices for Student Engagement
January 3, 2013 | Volume 8 | Issue 7
Table of Contents 

Strength-Based Learning Strategies for Special Needs Students

Thomas Armstrong

From the earliest days of research on learning disabilities, a multisensory strategy has been viewed as perhaps the best instructional intervention to use with students who have trouble reading and writing (see, for example, Slingerland, 1996).

As students learn their letters and sounds, have them form letters in clay or with pipe cleaners, draw them on pavement with chalk, trace them in sandpaper, or manipulate them using colored blocks or tiles. Capitalizing on their strong visual-spatial skills, suggest that students write captions for photographs or draw storyboards to show their understanding of the sequence of a story.

To enhance reading comprehension, tell students to close their eyes and visualize what they have just read. Some students have even found that the use of colored overlays or special lenses improve their perception of words (Williams, Kitchener, Press, Scheiman, & Steele, 2004).

Reading materials should be chosen with a student's interests in mind. A student who enjoys mathematics, for example, might like to read Counting on Frank by Rod Clement, while a student who is fascinated with insects might enjoy Matthew Reinhart's Young Naturalist's Handbook: Insect-lo-pedia.

To personalize learning, show students how to take their dictated material from speech-to-text software and transform it into a book that could then be catalogued in the school library. If students exhibit music as a special strength, have them use percussion instruments to tap out the syllables of words or use singing or chanting to turn phonemes into musical sounds. This is especially helpful in addressing the phonological difficulties that many individuals with learning disabilities face (Overy, 2003).

Here are some additional strength-based strategies to use with students who have learning disabilities:

  • Use video to teach specific content.
  • Provide students with a camera or camcorder to record their experiences.
  • Draw pictures or use graphic organizers to illustrate concepts or content (see the Education Oasis website for a selection of 58 possible graphic organizers).
  • Use reading material that includes rich visual representations—photos, flowcharts, decision trees, diagrams, and so on.
  • Teach creative thinking techniques to your students (see Michalko, 2006).
  • Teach mind-mapping strategies for taking notes (see Buzan, 1996) or use mind-mapping software (e.g., Kidspiration).
  • Provide software or apps that make use of visual-spatial skills, such as animation or graphic arts programs.
  • Allow students to doodle while they're listening to lectures (see Andrade, 2010).
  • Use Google's "image search" feature to find pictures that illustrate vocabulary words and concepts.
  • Let students color-code texts using highlighter pens.
  • Have students create imaginative pictures of their vocabulary words (see Mallet, 2011).
  • Provide students with "the big picture" before going into details when teaching a subject.
  • Integrate the arts into academic subjects.
  • Use Legos, D-stix, hexaflexagons, blocks, pipe cleaners, or other three-dimensional materials to illustrate language arts concepts.


Andrade, J. (2010). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24(1), 100–106.

Buzan, T. (1996). The mind map book: How to use radiant thinking to maximize your brain's untapped potential. New York, NY: Plume.

Mallet, K. (2011, November 14). Skilled readers rely on their brains’ "visual dictionary" to recognize words [Press release]. Georgetown University Medical Center. Retrieved from

Michalko, M. (2006). Thinkertoys: A handbook of creative thinking techniques (2nd ed.). Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

Overy, K. (2003, November). Dyslexia and music. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 999, 497–505.

Slingerland, B. H. (1996). A multi-sensory approach to language arts for specific language disability children (Rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service.

Williams, G. J., Kitchener, G., Press, L. J., Scheiman, M. M., & Steele, G. T. (2004, November). The use of tinted lenses and colored overlays for the treatment of dyslexia and other related reading and learning disorders. Optometry: Journal of the American Optometric Association, 75(11), 720–722.

Excerpted from Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strengths-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life (pp. 33–35), by T. Armstrong, 2012, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Reprinted with permission.


ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 7. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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