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Academic Difficulties in Reading, Reading Comprehension, Writing, Spelling and Math

Using a Neuropsychological Lens to Find and Treat the Root Causes of Academic Delay

The first sign that a problem exists in a person's learning emerges when there are difficulties in learning to read, to write, or to do mathematical calculations. However, the root of the problem is usually in brain-based visual, motor or auditory processing systems.

When a psychologist delivering a standardized assessment looks at a person's performance with a neuropsychological lens, the root causes of the difficulties and strengths emerge. For example, using the Wechsler tests, low scores in the working memory index subtests and the Arithmetic subtest suggest difficulty with the first step in learning from an oral presentation, especially being able to hold an age appropriate amount of data in memory while performing the next step in the task. In such a situation the problem looks like difficulty in doing math, but no amount of tutoring solves the problem of classroom mastery from oral presentation, especially when the teacher's teaching style is largely oral. Self-esteem and self-confidence issues compound and further mask the real problem.

At the Vancouver Learning Centre, not only are these root cause problems identified, but specialized and targeted rehabilitation programs are designed to address the problem directly through specialized exercises in oral working memory called the Effective Listening Program. At the same time the gaps in the learning hierarchy are filled in by using the learner's strengths in visual processing. In this situation visual display is used to show and teach the content missed in the past and to frontload the new content coming up by using a preview system called the week-ahead program.

Similarly, problems in reading, spelling and written expression often have their origins in brain-based factors that can be detected by significantly lower scores in some subtest areas. Remedies are used to address the weaknesses directly and teach through strength areas of the student.

Progress Reviews and performance outcomes in school grades provide evidence that these strategies work to change overall learning outcomes and open doors to academic achievement and performance not previously possible, which provide potential future life opportunities. In so doing life outcomes for the learners are transformed.

In addition, the Vancouver Learning Centre faculty are specialists in the dynamic teaching of all academic subjects from teaching reading and written expression to young children using innovative programs, to supporting upper level high school courses either in one-to-one teaching or through correspondence courses (supported by one-to-one teaching) in math, science, English and social studies.

The Academic Programs

Reading (Decoding) and Reading Comprehension

Teaching children to read so that they achieve mastery of the decoding process in a timely manner is the best and most important investment the education system can make in the future intellectual development of its citizens. The main task of every teacher in elementary school is to teach reading. It is also the main task of every young learner to learn to read.

But what if it doesn't happen for some children in a timely way? Then every effort must be made to search out new, effective methods for these children.

Methods for Teaching Reading

At the Vancouver Learning Centre, four different methods of teaching the phonetic code are included in the programs of children who need to learn to read. The method chosen depends directly on the tested and targeted needs of each learner.

1. Selma Herr Phonics (a traditional method of teaching decoding).

Best features: It uses a systematic (letter by letter, bigraph by bigraph, trigraph by trigraph) method with lots of practice.

2. The Queensland State Reading Program(a program used over decades to teach hundreds of thousands of Australian children to read).

Best features: It uses common and funny imagery (Australian humour) at the primary level to attach sound to symbol. e.g. “a is like an apple on a twig, c is for cake with a bite taken out. Reading Comprehension is integrated immediately using wonderful stories from classic English literature to teach both meaning and the values of good citizenship.

3. Renée Fuller, Ball-Stick-Bird Reading program. This method simplifies the decoding process using capital letters first formed in the shape of a ball, a stick, and a bird (an angle). Sounds are immediately attached to symbols and the blending process begins on page 3. Both reading words and an exciting story start immediately. Reading comprehension is included from the beginning.

Best features: This is the most robust and reliable method in teaching reading to the most challenged learners. In spite of its simplicity, its science fiction story makes it interesting to people of all ages. It allows respectful learning of the basics to older learners while being simple enough for our youngest beginners.

At the Vancouver Learning Centre, over the last three decades, we have been using these three methods alone or in combination to teach children with a variety of reading difficulties to learn to read successfully. Our graduates have gone on to successful academic courses at every level. These methods have proved their worth and will continue to be used.

4. The EduArt Method. In 2011, we imported a new method of teaching reading in a stimulating format combined with writing and drawing. Called EduArt this teaching program was created by Mona Brookes, the creator of the Monart Drawing Program (, which has been used at the Vancouver Learning Centre for two decades. The EduArt method has been acquired by the Vancouver Learning Centre as the first Canadian centre to use this method of teaching reading.

Using the fun of drawing, so successfully developed in her Monart Program, Mona Brookes sets out to teach the lines, patterns and shapes of the letters in a disciplined manner, ensuring the eye's attention is focused on the letters' visual details. Then she teaches the children to attach sound to symbol by combining this with funny and interesting images and information; for example, by attaching the sound of the letter “A” to the image of “Ape” and to “Africa” while teaching interesting facts about both words. Using a three-level entry system, Brookes provides stencils that cater to different levels of ability, thus producing an approach that is friendly to the multi-skill-level classroom, while at the same time making it possible to enter the system anywhere from preschool to Grade Three or even beyond. The method anchors what is learned by teaching the children to draw the letters using the lines, patterns and shapes mentioned above. At its very essence, Brookes makes the learning of reading and writing both fun and interesting.

The inclusion of learning to draw the letters using a correct pencil stance is both unique and a bonus in three ways:

  • It engages the fine motor cortex and the discipline of eye hand coordination right from the start, thus adding the power of doing to seeing and hearing.
  • It makes the accurate and beautiful creation of the letters themselves a valued part of the process in the way we used to do when we taught handwriting, thus eliminating the need to teach writing as a separate skill.
  • Children love to draw and when the drawing is presented along with funny and engaging images and important and thoughtful information, the process becomes intrinsically interesting and fun. Children enter the field willing and even enthusiastic to practice, and therefore to learn to read and to write.

A Benefit to Teachers

The EduArt system is also a special benefit to those teachers whose phonics training was never appropriately anchored in their own schooling, even though to graduate from Teachers' College they had to have learned some system for phonetic decoding (even if they had to teach themselves). In teaching reading through the EduArt system with exciting and colourful graphics and prepared lesson stencils, the teachers will re-learn the phonic code themselves, making them better teachers and better readers for their own purposes.

Advantages for Children with Learning Disabilities

At the Vancouver Learning Centre we have been using Mona Brookes’ “Monart” system for more than two decades to teach learning disabled children and youth to pay focused attention to the visual details of lines, shapes and patterns. We have found that in addition to helping these clients learn to draw, their enhanced ability to pay focused attention to visual detail improves their abilities in spelling and reading. New research in how the brain learns to read shows that this visual attention to detail depends on the brain’s fovea or central vision, the very same process we use in reading. Thus, in children whose brain systems for reading are inefficient, as they are in dyslexic readers, this method provides extra practice and training in the very area that needs to be strengthened. Furthermore, because creating or drawing the letter slows down the process for all learners, their slower rate of processing is more likely to be accommodated.

As a result we are excited to consider what benefits children with learning difficulties will derive if we extend their disciplined training directly to the core tasks of learning to read, write and spell. It is likely that children challenged with learning because of auditory processing difficulties but who are good visual learners who learn best by seeing and doing, will derive special advantages by using the EduArt system. Further, learners who are challenged by their language delay, especially second language learners, will benefit by the clear imagery that enables them to attach sound to symbol, which allows them to blend words even when they are unfamiliar with the sound of the word or its meaning. Considering that the second parallel process in learning to read is a search in the mental lexicon (the brain’s dictionary) for meaning, the teaching of new vocabulary along with learning to decode is an additional bonus.

A Brain-Friendly System

From the perspective of Neuroscience, the EduArt method simplifies the learning task by reducing letter complexity to lines, patterns and shapes. Like the Monart System, it creates disciplined and focused attention to the way the letter looks, and supports the sound factor by attaching meaningful visual imagery of easily recognized graphics like “A” is for “Ape,” which does not rely on the auditory processing systems alone. It thus both simplifies and enriches the learning experience. Further, by adding the writing component in an integrated way, it increases the critical involvement of the visual motor system, sending the signals to different sites through the brain's circuits and pathways involved in learning to read and write.

Children with dyslexia and ADHD who have difficulty learning to focus their attention on the printed word will benefit by the discipline of learning the simplified lines, patterns and shapes of the letters. The interesting graphics and the drawing component will both help focus their attention and encourage the practice they need to create the memory traces in the brain involved in reading and writing.

To read more about the dyslexic brain and how we learn to read, see “Reading in the Brain: the New Science of How We Read” in the Vancouver Learning Centre Newsletter Vol. 1 No. 4 October 2011.


Numeracy. Humans have been calculating beyond simple recognition of quantities for only a few thousand years. For this reason, to learn the sophisticated set of procedures involved in the numerical operations of adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, using fractions, decimals and percent—and particularly in solving problems using these procedures efficiently—the learner must be systematically taught. Because each step is building a hierarchy of skills, each step must be mastered by the learner. This is the task of every teacher and every learner in Grades 1-7.

Many learners have difficulty with mastery of math procedures and concepts. This happens for a variety of reasons. Regardless, there is no short cut in this step by step procedure.

Learners with learning disabilities, who have problems with mastery through oral instruction, or whose pace of learning is slower, or whose ability to pay attention was compromised, develop gaps in the learning hierarchy platform. They don’t master their multiplication tables in a timely way, or they have difficulty with the language of problem solving or knowing what operation is called for. They have serious difficulty with math as the grades proceed. Self-confidence and self-esteem plummet. They avoid practice and they make matters worse. Eventually their teachers recommend the simpler math programs, the ones that do not lead to university or post-secondary education. This compromises their future education, since the principles of Math 11 in high school are the key to many post-secondary programs. They lack the qualifications they need for their chosen vocational path.

At the Vancouver Learning Centre we address the math curriculum proactively from grades 1 to post-secondary levels.

At any level we begin by using a learner’s strength (e.g., visual display) to build the math hierarchy into a solid structure in a step-by-step manner. We fill in the gaps as we proceed. Using the week-ahead program we preview the learner’s math program one-to-one. Using our innovative teaching methods our talented faculty who specialize in teaching math help the student successfully achieve the credentials they need.

In grades 10 and higher, if the learner is not successful in learning math in the classroom, we opt to teach correspondence courses one-to-one. The student is able to earn the credentials needed at their own pace, taught by teachers who know how to teach math and how the student learns best.

VLC students have a high rate of success of earning the grades they need in math principles 11 and 12 to enter their post-secondary programs of choice.

Spelling Grammar and Written Expression

The discipline of learning to spell, to pay attention to visual details, to build complex sentences and paragraphs, and to express oneself with good communication skills, is one of the Vancouver Learning Centre’s signature specialties.

Special methods of teaching the structure of language, how to learn words, etc. (critical for earning the grades needed to succeed academically) is taught dynamically by VLC teachers who specialize in teaching thee skills.

Using mind mapping to plan and guide the writing, and processes to encourage creativity and clear written expression, VLC students make excellent progress in learning the skills needed to earn high grades in language-based courses.

Vocabulary/English/Social Studies

Learning the meaning and use of words begins very early in every child’s life, as the natural ability of the speaker and the quality and kind of the language environment are critical in the preschool years from 6 months to 5 years. If, during this time, hearing is compromised, even by such things as multiple ear infections, allergies or genetic factors, the child arrives at kindergarten unprepared cognitively, and often socially and emotionally, for academic success. This is because language and the understanding of word meaning are the building blocks of intelligence. In school, word knowledge is the currency on which good grades are built.

A child who arrives in kindergarten without the language skills in English equivalent to their class mates has difficulty understanding teachers’ instructions and in learning to read, write and spell. These first level skills are the tools for learning everything else in the elementary school. If their mastery is incomplete and full of gaps, that also compromises success beyond grade 7.

Some children catch up, but because language meaning also underlies the fast developing cognitive skills of early childhood, many do not. This problem is worse if continued compromised hearing or a learning disability is also present, or even if the dysfunctional immature behaviour causes avoidance strategies to challenge level tasks.

This simplified description of how language delay develops shows how complex the problem of diminished performance can be. Most important, because these skills also underlie learning to read and write efficiently, the root causes are masked as limited intellectual potential, and poor achievement is expected by teachers, parents and the students themselves.

At the Vancouver Learning Centre the neuropsych lens applied to the assessment often reveals the root causes. A three-pronged approach is undertaken:

Further, when learning is compromised and language is affected, all the other skills are affected, too, particularly social studies and science. These learners develop a fragmented picture of history, geography and science, which affects their academic life journey profoundly. Here, too, the VLC Signature Worldview program weaves the tapestry of these curriculum subjects together, providing a meaningful understanding into which new lessons in these subjects can be integrated.

Learning to Learn

The skills of how to achieve excellence in the life-long skills of learning is not usually directly addressed in schools at this time. It begins with paying quality attention in a disciplined manner to hear precisely the teacher’s instructions, to pay visual attention to the details of the written word, to sit in such a way as to maximize the efficiency of eye movements of foveal (centre of the eye) vision for reading, etc.

Special techniques in listening effectively, taking notes, planning essays, using word resources, word learning, and spelling are applied as a VLC Signature Learning to Learnpackage in a way that fits the needs and lives of each learner. It provides advantages to any learner compromised by other factors, and it extends the reach and depth for gifted learners. Further, at the Vancouver Learning Centre learning skills are individually mentored by gifted teachers trained to apply those specialized techniques one-to-one. As a result, VLC alumni emerge with outstanding skills as learners that stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

Next Steps

  • If you would like to have answers as to what can be done, you can book a complimentary interview with Vancouver Learning Centre Director Andrew Taylor by telephone at 604-738-2277 or by e-mail.
  • If after you are fully informed through the interview and by reading this website you are interested in proceeding, Andrew will provide you with an assessment date to begin the process.
  • If you have further concerns or questions you can speak to VLC principal and senior psychologist, Dr. Geraldine Schwartz, either by telephone or by booking a further personal complimentary interview.
  • The assessment will provide a clear statement of the student’s cognitive and educational strengths and weaknesses along with a detailed program that is offered as a proposal. The program is delivered by the Vancouver Learning Centre’s highly qualified teaching faculty, one-to-one.


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