Edwin (Ed) S. Ellis, Ph.D.
Special Education and Multiple Abilities
University of Alabama
Makes Sense Strategies, LLC
Research Affiliate and SIM Professional Development Specialist
University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning
My Background and Interests
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my interest in learning and teaching began way back in 1965 at age 15. My youngest brother had been diagnosed with learning disabilities, and with both parents working 80+ hours a week, many of the responsibilities for his treatment fell on my shoulders. This was back when perceptual motor training to establish brain hemisphere dominance to cure LD was in vogue. I spent countless hours doing “angels in the snow” types of activities with him and trying to help him learn to read and write, although I was somewhat clueless about how to do it. His and my own emotional experiences led me to pursue college studies in the area of psychology, and becoming a teacher never crossed my mind. I accidentally fell into special education when an opportunity presented itself with a tuition grant to pursue a master’s degree in special education/learning disabilities. I didn’t have anything else to do, and it seemed like a way to extend my interest in psychology in a practical way. Only when I had my own classroom and became very invested in understanding my students did I realize that I was one of those people who was “born to teach”… and born to observe and think about learning. I’ve been hooked ever since!
During the late 1970s, due to my service volunteer experiences developing a pretrial diversion program for delinquent adolescents and working in a adolescent drug rehabilitation program, paired with my experience as a teacher of students with LD, I became the education coordinator for one of the Child Service Demonstration Centers (CSDC), which were federally funded programs charged with developing and validating interventions for students with LD. Our particular CSDC program focused on developing interventions for adolescents with LD who had been adjudicated (convicted). Of the many CSDCs that were funded, only a few focused on services for adolescents, and fewer still actually did anything to validate their effectiveness. One of these was a CSDC directed by Don Deshler, a new Assistant Professor at KU, and another CSDC was directed by Naomi Zigmond at the University of Pittsburgh. Those of us concerned with the validation of our programs would meet at conferences to share what we were doing and our data. These were exciting times for all of us, and especially for me because I was collaborating with some brilliant people, and we were all trying to figure out what to do, how to do it, and how well it worked. Most of the CSDCs, however, failed to validate their interventions, so subsequent federal support shifted to funding five research institutes where learning disabilities could be addressed in a systematic, empirical manner, and interventions could be scientifically validated.
Dick Shieffelbush and Ed Meyen were awarded one of these institute grants, and thus the Institute for Research in Learning Disabilities (KU-IRLD) was born. Don Deshler, who was the Coordinator for the KU-IRLD recruited many of us who had been collaborating with him within the CSDCs to come to KU for doctoral studies and to work at the KU-IRLD (now known as the KU-CRL). That’s how I landed in Kansas, and that’s how I became a part of an effort to change education that continues today.
The Story Behind the SLANT Strategy
As one might imagine, addressing the social skills of adolescents with LD who have also been adjudicated as delinquents is a priority, so my interest in teaching social skills goes way back. As a doctoral student, I did a research internship with Tanis Bryan at the University of Chicago Institute for Research on Learning Disabilities. She and her husband, Jim, had done a considerable amount of research related to the social and motivational dimension of LD. Jim described typical students with LD as “paper-bag” kids – meaning they typically sit in the back of the classroom, expending considerable effort to be as invisible as possible as if they were hiding inside a paper bag. This notion really hit home with me. I tend to doodle when listening to others make presentations, so the SLANT Strategy emerged from my doodles while listening to Naomi Zigmond speak about her research on the social skills of adolescents with LD, and, in particular, the importance of at least appearing to be interested in class. Initially, the SLANT Strategy was a “fake-it-‘til-you-make-it” strategy for participating in class. However, as we were field-testing the instruction, I realized that it was a lot more than that. It evolved into much more of “take-control-of-your-situation” strategy. Probably the most powerful aspect of instruction in the SLANT Strategy is that it makes students aware of their own social dynamic and that they have the power to dramatically influence how teachers perceive and interact with them.
My thoughts about Learning Strategy Instruction (and how SLANT fits into the mix!)
There’s a fundamental difference between truly helping a student at-risk for academic failure and only providing an illusion of help. Clearly, teachers providing support to students at-risk for academic failure have only very limited time to help them. The bottom line is that teachers have a choice between spending their limited time and energy being reactive (reacting to the crises of the moment brought on by on-going problems) or being proactive (investing in instruction designed to provide long-term solutions by eliminating on-going problems). When faced with a new crisis (e.g., the student has a big test coming up), one obvious option is to react by tutoring the student to help her pass the test. The problem is that the student will still need external support the next time a big test comes up (and the next time, and the next time). She’s no more independent than before. Resisting the temptation to expend one’s limited opportunity engaged in short-term solutions is very difficult because these short-term solutions are what the student wants, the parents want, and what the core academic teachers want. Nevertheless, the result of providing reactive-oriented support is often an illusion of truly helping the student.
In contrast, teaching learning strategies is not intuitive. Substantial training is required to develop the expertise needed to provide effective strategy instruction. This expertise and the commitment to implement strategy instruction separates well-intentioned but relatively ineffective teachers from those who really make a difference in at-risk students’ lives. Almost anyone can provide tutoring, but it takes a real professional to provide effective instruction in learning strategies to provide help that fundamentally impacts the student on a long-term basis.
If teachers do not have the opportunity to provide intensive and extensive instruction in learning strategies, THE most extensively validated intervention for adolescents with learning disabilities lays untapped. While there have been many benefits stemming from the No Child Left Behind legislation and the inclusion/co-teaching movement, a costly downside has been the disappearance of specialized settings (i.e., resource classes) necessary for strategy instruction to be delivered in an intensive and extensive manner. While embedding core classes with instruction in learning strategies (e.g., integrating instruction in a vocabulary learning strategy into a history class) is partially effective, its impact falls far short of that which can be attained when teachers have the opportunity to provide the more intensive instruction where individual student progress can be carefully monitored and a mastery-orientation to instruction can be systematically ensured.
The acronym “SLANT” has moved into the lexicon of education. The term “SLANT” is readily found all over the Internet. Commercial companies have even ripped it off. I’ve seen it on countless classroom bulletin boards. The surface features of SLANT are immediately obvious (Sit up, Lean forward… etc.) but the real power of SLANT is the embedded instruction associated with what it means to be strategic, taking control of one’s learning, transforming attitudes from the typical passive “victim” mentality to developing a proactive “attack attitude” about learning, etc. The message here is that there is a LOT more to SLANT instruction than just exposing students to the SLANT acronym.
Not all learning strategies are created equal. Some have a bigger impact than others, some are more difficult to learn than others, and some are more difficult to learn to teach than others. Some require more time to teach than others. Thus, effective strategy teachers are strategic in how they approach this curriculum. They take a simple-to-complex approach to developing students’ repertoires of learning strategies. I designed SLANT as a “Starter-Strategy” – for both students and teachers. For students, it’s a good strategy to teach first because it’s easy to learn and its impact is also almost immediately obvious to them. Thus, SLANT instruction helps students become more invested in learning other powerful strategies that require more of their personal time and energy to master. Likewise, SLANT is a good first strategy for teachers to learn how to teach. The instructional procedures are designed to introduce educators to the instructional methodology associated with teaching learning strategies (the “Stages of Acquisition and Generalization”) in a simple, easy to grasp manner.
Teacher or Student Feedback on the SLANT Strategy
It’s funny what sticks. Over the course of my career, I’ve developed a lot of interventions, published a lot of journal articles that are extensively cited by others, and written several books and software programs. I’ve presented papers at conferences all over the world and conducted countless workshops in schools. Yet, when I meet new teachers, it’s not unusual for them to say something like, “Oh yeah. You’re the SLANT guy.” Go figure. What can I say? Teachers love SLANT!
My Contact Information
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (205) 394-5512.