Cognitive Training for Struggling Learners

Cognitive skills are inborn or innate skills gathering information from the senses: hearing, seeing, touch, smell, and taste and processes this information for knowledge or learning. The primary sources of input or taking in information, for academic purposes, are seeing and hearing. Cognitive skills also determine speed and accuracy in the learning process. For instance, how fluently a child reads and comprehends information seen and heard, or how quick and accurately a child can solve a word math problem. If a child has one or more weak cognitive skills learning is difficult, and the struggle to learn continues. If a child is distracted and cannot give attention to the instruction or task at hand learning will be blocked.

Therefore, it is evident that even one cognitive deficit can stop or hinder learning of any kind. However, the good news is that cognitive skills can be enhanced and developed with systematic training. The process of cognitive development involves neurons or connections in the brain creating branches or offshoots, as cognitive skills begin to grow and develop through stimulation and training an individual’s brain develops in cognitive areas including:



* visual and auditory processing,

*long and short-term memory,


*visual memory,

*simultaneous and sequential processing,

* divided attention or ability to perform more than one task at a time

In addition, higher order skills derive from cognitive skills and include:

*logic and reasoning,

*problem solving,



Cognitive skills training can help any student who:

*works and/or reads slowly,

*cannot remember or recall information,

*cannot follow two or more instructions in succession,

*makes careless mistakes,

*experiences difficulty with letter-sound relationship (phonics)

Some children who struggle to learn make poor grades, but other children struggle to make good grades and keep up with their peers. The question needs to be asked, “Why is learning easier for one child, but difficult for another, when all the other contributing factors are equal and every educational resource is available to them? Cognitive skills deficits is most often the answer. Cognitive functions include how well an individual can:

* attend to information and instruction

* comprehend;

* concentrate on a task;

* follow a series of steps, such as a word math problem; and

* focus and keep attention in the midst of distractions

For instance, Jason and Daniel are 9 years old and in the same fourth grade class. Both students have a good home and opportunities to succeed. Similar characteristics of both children include normal intelligence, good classroom instruction, parental and teacher support, and good health. However, the boys perform extremely different at school.

Jason, is a highly motivated student, but works extra hard to keep his grades up to par with the rest of his class. He sacrifices enjoyable activities and time with friends and family to work hard, just to achieve average grades. At first glance, we would not think of Jason as having a learning disability, but he does. Daniel, wants to succeed as much as Jason. However, Daniel is failing to keep up with his class, lacks motivation, and continues down the road of frustration and failure each day. Which child has the disability Jason or Daniel? Most of us would quickly label Daniel as the child as having the serious learning disability. However, Jason is working extra hard staying one step away from disaster.and Daniel has stopped trying to learn. Both have learning deficits. A child should not be in either of these situations. Learning should and can be an enjoyable experience.

Tips on How to Motivate Your English Language Learners to Study ESL

Rod Ellis defines motivation as referring to “the efforts which learners put into learning an L2 as a result of their need or desire to learn” (1995).

The two main types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic, can affect the learning process. Intrinsic motivation is task motivation that derives from an inherent interest in the learning tasks while extrinsic motivation refers to the external influences that affect the strength of learner’s motivation such as that which comes from teachers and parents.

While some students have their own intrinsic motivation or external motivation, other students need to be motivated to learn. There are many things that you can do as a teacher in order to motivate students to learn. These strategies are based on various articles I have read below.

Students are more likely to want to learn when they appreciate the value of the classroom activities, and when they believe that they will succeed if they apply reasonable effort. Hence, “student motivation to learn is an acquired competence developed through general experiences but stimulated most directly through modeling, communication of expectations, and direct instruction or socialization by significant others – especially teachers and parents” (Brophy, p.40) When it comes to lower performing learners, teachers realize that such learners are accustomed to experiencing failure, hence, the teacher’s task is to help them experience success.

Here are some strategies and tips that may motivate students and stimulate them to learn.

  • Provide a supportive environment and establish a trusting bond. “Motivation is the feeling nurtured primarily by the teacher in the learning situation” (Ellis, 1994). Greet your students, interact with them, indicate a personal concern about them as individuals.
  • Cater levels of activity to students’ level – try and make sure that the learning tasks pose a reasonable challenge to the students – neither too difficult nor too easy.
  • Help students recognize links between effort outcome – learning is a long term plan of effort and investment.
  • Break down learning steps into digestable pieces.
  • Minimize student’s performance anxiety during learning activities.

Articles on Motivating Students

Brophy, J. Synthesis of Research for Motivating Students to Learn. Educational Leadership, Oct. 1987. p.40-48. (article summary)

Ellis, R. (1994) The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.