Blog dedicated to learning disabilities, dyslexia, ADD and ADHD

Friday, April 07, 2006

Homework: Ruining Your Life?

by Sabra Ingall

Schoolwork is Challenging

The academic environment is becoming increasingly competitive. Students enrolled in school from kindergarten to medical school are expected to learn at a faster pace and retain more information than ever before. With both the complexity in information and pace of learning increasing, it is easier for students to fall behind and struggle with learning.

Difficulty in school often leads to struggles with homework. How do you know if your child is struggling? According to the Brookings Institution, the average time spent on homework for American students is less than an hour. If a student spends more than an hour on homework per day then this is a symptom of either excessive homework assignments or weak learning skills.

Other common symptoms of homework problems are: persistent frustration, a feeling of being overwhelmed, a continual failure to complete the work or think through a project. Students who struggle with homework often have difficulty staying on task, ignoring distractions, and handling two or more tasks at once. They sometimes lack the attention levels necessary for monitoring their environment and becoming focused learners.

Occasionally, tutoring or encouragement is enough to get the student back on track with their studies. In many cases, however, the problem is more complex and difficult to address. If the student has a deficiency in underlying cognitive learning skills, no amount of tutoring or extra homework will improve his studying efficiency because he will have difficulty processing the subjects taught to him.

Why The Struggle?

Cognitive skills can be considered your child's toolbox for learning; the unseen foundational skills. When you have the right tools you have a strong foundation, and any task will be accomplished with greater ease and efficiency. Imagine for example, trying to build a house with a hand saw rather than an electric one. It would take longer and be much less efficient. Imagine trying to type a paper. A fast working computer will make that job a lot easier to complete than a typewriter would! It is the same with cognitive learning skills. They are the tools your child uses for learning. When cognitive skills are strong, academic learning is fast, easy, efficient and even fun. When cognitive skills are weak, academic learning will be a struggle or even impossible. Therefore, cognitive skills are the ESSENTIAL tools for learning.


The key cognitive skills necessary for learning include:
  • Auditory Processing: Processing skills are critical because they allow one not just to hear differences in sounds but to interpret that information. A processing problem exists when a child has difficulty in hearing the difference, order, and number of sounds in a word. If a student is unable to process information accurately and effectively, she will likely suffer from numerous other symptoms such as poor reading comprehension, difficulty staying focused, and difficulty following instructions.
  • Visual Processing: This is the ability to form and manipulate accurate images in your mind. This skill is essential for math, reading comprehension, and many forms of problem solving. Remember the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words”? It is true! When you successfully create an image in your head, something most people do naturally and don’t even think about, your comprehension and recall is much stronger.
  • Memory Skills: Weakness in this cognitive skill is often the unseen culprit in a student’s inability to follow instructions or comprehend what was read. If a child has weak working memory skills for example, they are not clearly remembering and processing the information they are hearing or reading. This will affect their listening skills and is likely to affect their reading comprehension skills as well. By the time they have finished their paragraph or chapter, they may retain some of the facts, but miss parts of or the overall big picture of what they read!
  • Word Attack: This skill enables a person to segment and articulate new or unfamiliar words. When coupled with an auditory processing weakness, a student with word attack difficulties is sure to struggle while reading new material. This child can improve with practice but when new material is presented this child can easily get lost.
  • General Processing Speed: The ease and speed that a student handles incoming information is the basic boundary of his or her learning efficiency. For example, many pairs of sounds in English, called cognates, differ by as little as 40 milliseconds. /P/ and /B/ for example, or /T/ and /D/. Some children miss out on hearing the finer distinctions of these or other sounds and don’t even recognize this because it is likely that they have always heard this way. If a child is not processing rapidly enough, they may get lost following directions or completing assignments in a timely manner. Imagine how hard a child such as this one would need to work to decipher what is being said all day.
  • Logic and Reasoning: Planning and solving requires a person to recognize the connections between things. Weakness in this skill causes difficulty in planning out assignments and following through and figuring out how to work through a problem.

As you can see, many homework problems and/or learning difficulties, can stem from weaknesses in different cognitive skills. These often combine with specific attention deficiencies to make studying, following directions, and test taking difficult or almost impossible. Without strong cognitive skills in place, students will struggle to learn and retain information throughout their lifetime.

Your child's cognitive skills strength directly affects the amount of time your child spends on any academic task. Weak cognitive skills impact a child’s ability to learn, requiring more time studying and a greater need for homework help.
But, there is good news!

Cognitive Skills Can Be Trained

Weak cognitive skills can be identified and strengthened. Extensive research has demonstrated that we can change our information processing system—our brains. It is possible to probe underlying skills and then to enhance areas where a child demonstrates weaknesses. Proper testing allows us to identify the cause and effect relationships between particular learning skills and the academic and work activities they impact. This then allows us to attack the root causes of a learning problem rather than just accommodate and compensate for a child’s different learning style or even worse, just get frustrated with a child’s inability to “get the job done”! The following examples are designed to illustrate how a weakness in a cognitive processing skill or skills can impact a child’s ability to learn and get homework accomplished efficiently.

Example 1: A student struggles with reading and spelling.
The Cause: He has a weakness in his ability to blend, segment, and analyze sounds. This requires strong auditory processing skills. A weakness in these areas makes it hard to read and spell.

Example 2: A student has difficulty with word math problems.
The Cause: To solve a word math problem, it's essential to picture (visualize) the situation. This requires visualization as well as logic and reasoning skills. A weakness in these areas makes it very difficult to solve word math problems.

Example 3: A student takes too long to get his homework done.
The Cause: To get homework done efficiently, it is critical to work at a good pace. Weak processing speed could be the reason here!

An Evaluation Is the First Step

Permanent solutions to your child's long hours of homework and learning difficulties are available. A cognitive skills assessment will uncover specific weaknesses.

First discovering and then attacking and training weak underlying skills is the key to finding lasting solutions and reducing the need for homework help. Just imagine your child completing assignments without needing your constant attention! Test your child's underlying learning skills. What you now believe is laziness or avoidance when it comes to homework may be a learning skill weakness. These weaknesses can be overcome once discovered. Students who struggle to pass their classes can gain the tools and confidence to earn better grades and learn more efficiently. Although everyone cannot become a Mozart, everyone can improve their musical skills with the right kind of assistance. Everyone can improve!

Every student faces the complex demands of learning. If you or someone you know struggles to learn or read, or has other related learning difficulties, weak cognitive skills may be at the root of the struggle. Cognitive learning skills can be assessed and if this is the cause of the learning difficulty, it can be corrected and you can experience a lifetime of faster, easier learning and reading.

Sabra Ingall is a Speech-language Pathologist who is the Director of Educational Services at LearningRx-Metro DC. She can be reached through the website at or at (301) 897-3237.


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