Linking Cognitive Abilities to Instruction: Essentials for Teachers and Tutors

Cognitive abilities are the resources that students “bring to the table” with respect to learning and performance. Since academic subjects like reading, math, and writing are really byproducts of these cognitive processes, when there are deficits in specific ability domains, students’ capacity to achieve mastery of those subjects will be limited.

It is essential for teachers and tutors to fully understand students’ cognitive profiles because the pattern of their ability strengths and weaknesses will provide a roadmap for instructing students in ways that they can best access the curriculum. This is the basis for what is known as differentiated instruction. Knowledge of students’ cognitive abilities also makes it possible to create a truly individualized educational plan (IEP). Without this information, the “I” in IEP is lost.

New developments in neuropsychological theory like the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) theory permit evaluators to pare back the different layers of abilities much like peeling the layers of an onion. Evaluators first choose test batteries that zero in on areas of suspected deficiency.  The first layer contains the broad abilities while the next layers look at narrow abilities that comprise the more global domains. This provides teachers with precise information even within subject areas about which cognitive abilities are interfering with learning and performance. For example, one student with a verbal fluency deficit found it difficult to generate verbiage when asked to develop a narrative writing piece. The teacher, unaware of this deficit, pressured the student to produce more details. However, this just exacerbated the situation, creating undue anxiety and eventually behaviors as the student attempted to escape from a situation where a lack of mastery created intolerable discomfort. By pointing out to the teacher the incongruity between the demand placed upon the student and the student’s ability profile and providing a different way (i.e. using imagery to generate details)  to help the student, the dilemma was resolved. Similarly, another student with a reading deficit was instructed in phonemics. However, while the student could associate letters and sounds in the remedial setting, once back in the classroom reading was still labored. By investigating the nature of the reading problem it was discovered that this student was suffering from surface dyslexia not dysphonetic dyslexia. That is, this student could decode, but still was hampered by deficits in rapid retrieval of the shapes and contours of letters and words. Once remediation was shifted to focus on the orthographics rather than the phonemics of reading, the student began to read more fluently. The moral here is that it is not enough to say that a student has a reading problem. It is most important to uncover the exact nature (i.e. deficient ability) of that problem. Without understanding the cognitive strengths and weaknesses, instruction may amount to shooting from the hip.

Neuropsychological evaluations that target suspected areas of ability deficits can yield data that can be directly translated into individualized instructional strategies for use in the classroom. Teachers who are given this roadmap will need a wide array of instructional tools to address specific ability deficits rather than using a one-size-fits all approach to remediation.



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