Helping Students with Learning Disabilities : Part Two

For  Part One  of this article, click on the link

So, you’re not an expert but you feel fairly sure that one or more pupils in your class have some sort of learning disability. And there’s no-one you can turn to for advice. What can you do in your classes that may help the learners involved, that certainly won’t make things worse for them, and at the same time won’t hold back the other members of the class?

Luckily, as I said in the first part of the article, many of the strategies recommended for helping students with learning disabilities are no more than good teaching practice – they just become even more necessary in this situation. And some of the more specific action can just be turned into a fun activity for everyone. There is no need for the class to know that activities are targeted at particular student, or to mention the idea of learning disabilities at all. Many of the actions can be introduced just by saying This is something that a lot of people find useful. Try it, and if you find it makes things easier, you can go on using it …
Below are some of the strategies that you can use which are likely to help all your learners. No more than an overview is given here, but these ideas and many more are discussed in the articles and websites referred to in the text and in the further reading section.

1. Create a positive classroom environment which is success oriented and in which what the students can do is more important than what they can’t. For example, when working with children who you suspect to suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), keep activities short, breaking longer assignments down into separate stages which you are sure they can cope with, and deal with one stage at a time. Give positive reinforcement after each stage – possibly just praise, or, with younger learners, a concrete reward such as stickers. Find out if your dyslexic learner has above average abilities in other areas – for example, highly developed interpersonal, musical, or artistic skills and give them a chance to use those skills in the lesson. For more on nurturing self-esteem, see this article by Robert Brooks.

2. If students have behavioural problems, provide clear ground rules stated positively (what you do want the students to do, not what you don’t), reinforce positive behaviour with praise and rewards, and establish clear consequences that will follow if the rules are broken. An excellent source of information on dealing with students with ADD and behavioural problems can be found on the TeacherVision website. Look at the various articles under the heading Teaching Students with ADD/ADHD

3. Provide clear objectives and a clear activity structure for the lesson, and show how these are related to what has gone before in the course. Preview the structure and objectives at the beginning of the lesson, refer to them as you work and review them at the end, making sure the learners understand exactly what they are going to achieve and how. Make sure they understand from the beginning what you expect them to be able to do at the end. They will often benefit from a lesson structure which remains the same each time, so that they know exactly what they are doing and why. The same criteria are important in choosing the coursebook.

4. Consider how much time learners need for an activity. Learners with ADD will need a brisk pace to the lesson, whilst dyslexic learners will benefit from more time to complete activities. This may mean that you have to abandon the lockstep at certain points in the lesson and have students working on different tasks. Consider too how long homework is liable to take, giving different assignments if necessary, and how long students will need for tests. Where the problem is recognised, it is common practice to give students with learning disabilities extra time for tests and exams (this option is also available for students taking Cambridge ESOL exams such as FCE), and if you are working in a situation where you do not want to make the situation explicit, tests without time limits can be the answer.

5. Students with learning disabilities are often highly sensitive to noise and other distractions. Reduce these as much as possible, for instance by placing the learners close to the teacher and the board rather than at the back of the room where they can see and be distracted by what else is going on.

6. Use a multi-sensory approach to learning. This may be as simple as reading aloud the explanations or homework that you write on the board, but you can also use multi-sensory activities which present or practice language through audio, visual (non-verbal) or kinaesthetic channels. For example, to teach spelling kinaesthetically, cut an old towel (or other piece of rough material) into rectangles about the size of half a mouse pad and stick each rectangle on stiff card. Ask the students to learn the word by writing it with their finger on the cloth. If they have difficulties forming the letters, help them by guiding their hand – in large classes this can be done as pairwork, with the learners without disabilities acting initially as the guide. Again, no-one needs to know why roles were allotted as they were, and this is an activity which can help more than just the students with learning disabilities. As someone with a predominantly kinaesthetic learning style, it’s a way of learning foreign language vocabulary which I find useful myself.

7. When creating handouts, make them as “reader-friendly” as possible. Use text styles which are as easy as possible for students with dyslexia to read. Choose “non-curly” fonts such as Arial or Verdana and use large print; avoid italics, underlining or using all capitals - which obscures the shape of the word making it less easy to identify. Pastel coloured matt-finish paper creates less glare than white gloss paper, and dyslexics often find it causes less visual stress. The visual stress and reading difficulties caused by glare, also called Meares/Irlen syndrome, is a problem that many non-dyslexic people also share. It can be reduced by coloured filters – sheets of transparent coloured vinyl - which are placed over the text. Different people will find different colours most helpful. You can find out more – and see whether you yourself might benefit – on the Dynamic Vision website. In addition, this article by Mario Rinvolucri talks about how the use of the filters might be introduced into the EFL classroom, and also gives the address where they can be obtained.


In addition to the references given in the first part of this article, other useful sites include :

Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by szlea via flickr.

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