The Foundations of Learning: Building Blocks of Academic Success

By Kelly Besecker

Educating a student is like building a house. For the house to stand firm, it must have a strong foundation. Likewise in education, students must have strong foundational skills that prepare them to learn throughout their entire academic careers.

Preparing students to learn involves building a base of skills and abilities that can be drawn upon daily in the classroom. Different from knowing the alphabet or how to count to 100, true foundational skills go deeper and involve not only abilities of the mind (for example, memory and problem solving) but also physical abilities, such as coordination and balance, and the senses. In other words, much like a house’s foundation, the skills required for learning lie deeper than those that are readily apparent, such as memory and concentration.

To understand how students learn, it’s important to understand the components of learning fundamentals.

The Role of the Senses

Sight, sound, smell, touch, taste – these are the five senses that most of us recognize. However, research has pinpointed many more senses that create perceptions about the world around us. If these senses work together, we are able to merge and organize information into a coherent mental picture of our environment. This is known as sensory integration.

Sensory integration involves the brain, the spinal cord and the nerves – the central nervous system. It allows for abilities such as balance and hand-eye coordination. Students who have fully developed sensory integration skills are better prepared for classroom performance. For example, a student’s handwriting is improved through developing fine motor skills. Posture and balance help a child maintain attention and focus in the classroom. Yet, not all students have fully developed sensory integration skills, which can lead to problems for them in the classroom. Also, sensory integration dysfunctions may go unrecognized and may be attributed to other causes, like clumsiness or laziness.

Processing Information

It’s common practice for schools to conduct sight and hearing screenings to detect potential impairments, yet seeing and hearing abilities are only half the battle when it comes to learning. Information received by the eyes and ears must also be processed. This is known as visual and auditory processing.

There is a difference between eyesight and vision. Eyesight is what we see with our eyes. Vision is the brain’s learned response to information perceived by the eyes. Visual processing is important because researchers estimate that about 80 percent of the information that reaches us comes through our eyes.

Visual processing weaknesses are possible even with perfect eyesight. Such problems can include eyestrain, poor visual concentration, narrow peripheral vision, shallow depth perception, slow visual reaction time or difficulty tracking the eyes left to right or top to bottom, all detrimental to a student’s ability to learn.

Likewise, perfect hearing does not indicate that a student is able to listen to directions and follow them. Auditory processing skills are the key to effective listening. Auditory processing is critical when it comes to learning to read, reading comprehension, spelling and classroom learning to name just a few.

Fundamentally, students must be able to comprehend and produce the discrete sounds that comprise words, called phonemes. These sounds are the basis of phonics. Auditory processing skills enable the listener to discriminate between these sounds, selectively attend to certain sounds and not others (i.e., filter out background noise) and remember verbal information.

Brain Skills

As one might imagine, the ability of the brain to function is critical to learning. Essentially, the brain is the common denominator tying together the various aspects of our ability to learn.

The workings of the brain, or cognitive abilities, cover a broad spectrum of aptitudes, including comprehension, memory, deductive reasoning, interpreting symbols, concept formation and other mental skills.

Research has shown the brain, much like a muscle, can be exercised and molded. This “plasticity” of the brain means that we can in fact “train the brain” to learn. If a student has a weakness in a certain area, it is possible to strengthen that area through mental exercises.

Putting It All Together

Strengthening learning abilities by building skills in cognition, sensory integration and perception is the basis of a foundation for successful academic performance. Once students have mastered fundamental abilities, they can learn subjects with more speed.

In an ideal world, these foundational skills would be mastered before subject work, but in today’s classroom, that is not always the case. Some students come to school prepared to learn with these abilities because they have been able to acquire them informally. Others come to school “unprepared to learn” and need help building these skills. Sometimes cognitive, perceptual and sensory integration skills can be obtained in the classroom setting. Often, however, classroom teachers are faced with a broad diversity of student needs and only one curriculum that is focused more on advancing student’s progress in subject matter than on building fundamental learning skills.

Sometimes supplemental help is needed to aid children in strengthening their learning skills. While many tutoring programs only offer students assistance in specific subject areas, some tutoring programs have programs for building foundational skills in cognitive, perceptual and sensory integration.

Building Blocks for Learning Success

Returning to the building analogy, the groundwork for a successful academic career lies in developing key cognitive, sensory integration and perceptual skills. Once a student is proficient in learning, they can master any concept or content they are challenged with. When fully built, skills in cognition, perception and sensory integration are the foundation for lifelong academic success.

Kelly Besecker is vice president of SuccessLab Learning Centers, the only retail tutoring chain in the Washington metropolitan area that identifies, evaluates and remediates 43 separate cognitive, sensory and perceptual skills to eliminate learning barriers for students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. For more information please visit .


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