Helping Students with Learning Disabilities : Part One

If you look at the literature on learning disabilities, you’ll find statistics like “one in ten children are estimated to suffer from some form of learning disability”, “15% of Canadians are affected by learning disabilities”, “one in six children suffers from dyslexia”. The figures are obviously contradictory, but it’s equally clear that whatever the truth, a high number of people have some sort of cognitive disorder which affects their learning.

It's not surprising then if, every so often, we suspect that one of the learners in our classes may be failing because of a learning disability. And yet it is a topic which, as far as I know, is rarely covered on TEFL courses, meaning that EFL teachers are largely unprepared to help students with these problems.

In these two articles I want to look first of all at what we mean by a learning disability, and secondly, what practical measures we can take to help these learners achieve to the maximum of their, often very high, ability. And many people with learning disabilities are high achievers – Richard Branson, Tom Cruise, Whoopi Goldberg, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Jamie Oliver to name but a few.

What comes to mind when you hear the term “learning disability”? Dyslexia, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder perhaps? And how well do you really understand these terms? Dyslexia, for instance, is an umbrella term which covers a variety of more specific disorders, and two dyslexic people may well have quite different problems.
All together over sixty different learning disabilities have been identified – and this, for the ordinary EFL teacher is the first problem. Most of us will never have a really in-depth understanding of the field, and are unlikely to be able to diagnose learners’ problems with any real degree of accuracy. We may have a general feeling that “something’s not right” and feel that a student demonstrates various general indicators of dyslexia, ADHD etc, but diagnosis is the work of experts. Not every learning problem is a learning disability. For example, as the Helpguide website points out :

If parents or teachers have a personal style at odds with the child’s style (such as a highly structured, visually organized adult and an energetic, kinesthetic child who learns by doing, not by seeing), the mismatch may appear to be a learning disability in the child.” 

To be sure you have diagnosed a learning disability correctly, you really need confirmation from an professional.  
But most of us are not so lucky. If you are working in the private sector, you are unlikely to have the necessary help and back-up of a learning disability expert. Even worse, in some parts of the world the concept of learning disability may not be recognised at all, and even when it is, the education system may not provide the means of dealing with the problem. And if the system doesn’t recognise the problem, then neither will the students themselves – or their parents if they are of school age. This is the situation in which students will start to get “labelled” – as “lazy”, “badly-behaved” or “stupid” – and to believe it themselves.

Luckily, there is a lot you can do without having specialist knowledge – and without necessarily having to mention the idea of learning disability to either the institution where you are working or to the students themselves. Many of the strategies that can be used to help students with learning disabilities are, I feel, just general principles of good teaching – they just become even more necessary than usual with this type of learner. We’ll talk about those in the next article, but in the meantime there is a wealth of information on learning disabilities on the web. You’ll find some of the most useful general articles listed below, while others which focus specifically on teaching strategies will be listed in the next article.

In general terms, a learning disability is a neurological malfunction which may create problems with tasks such as focusing and maintaining attention, text-deciphering, interpreting and organising information, remembering verbal information and many others. One article which gives some excellent visual examples of what it means to be dyslexic and to try and read a normal text can be seen on the ETNI website. Because of these problems, the learner will consistently underachieve academically – that is, underachieve in terms of what their general level of intelligence, be it average or high, shows them to be capable of.
However, given this, what are the warning signs that a student may have a learning disability? There are too many to list them all here, but in summary, they may include :
  • reading and writing problems - generally poor reading ability, tendency to reverse letters (ie reading saw for was, or writing d for b), poor spelling etc.
  • auditory problems - including excessive sensitivity to noise, or difficulty paying attention when spoken to.
  • spatial problems - difficulty in following instructions, or differentiating right from left.
  • motor problems - such as extreme clumsiness.
  • memory - such as difficulty in memorising information.
  • organisation - may have difficulty organising belongings, following a schedule etc.
  • social - may not use eye contact, may have difficulty reading body language or facial expressions, and experience social isolation.
  • attention - may have a short attention span and be easily distracted, and have difficulty conforming to routines.
Two articles which include fuller descriptions of the symptoms of learning disorders can be found here and here.

If you’re working in a part of the world where learning disabilities are recognised, and if you’re in the state system, you may well have someone on the staff who is an expert – or at least the possibility of referring the student to an expert. In any case, you will be able to sound out the opinions of other members of staff who have taught the student to see if they agree with you, and to see if they think referral is necessary.

See here for Part Two of the article.

  • Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by Kevin Zollman via flickr.

Further reading
  • For a detailed and very useful account of the problems caused by, and the signs of, various learning disorders, see these excellent articles by Christine Root and Pearl Pirie
  • Follow these links for specific information on dyslexia, on indicators of dyslexia, and on ADHD
  • Kormos and Kontra (eds) Language Learners with Special Needs: An International Perspective Cambridge

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