Teaching English to Students with Learning Difficulties (LDs)
Summary: How to teach ESL to to students with Learning Difficulties
Learning Difficulties can have significant implications for language and writing acquisition, and as such are important considerations for English teachers. However, when properly managed, LDs need not prevent students from progressing with their English and realising their full linguistic potential.
About Learning Difficulties (LDs)
Learning difficulties (LDs) refers to a range of complex and often misunderstood neurological-based processing challenges. In most instances, these processing issues present challenges to the acquisition of basic skills such as reading, writing and math.
Just because a student has LDs does not mean that they can’t learn as well as other students. It does, however, mean that different teaching methods may need to be applied to compensate for the specific aspects of learning that they find challenging to process.
It is important to reiterate that LDs are not an indicator of low intelligence or limited learning capacity. They refer to difficulties in specific areas of learning and many people with LDs have above average intellectual capacity. For reference, see: Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Richard Branson and many more!
LDs and ESL acquisition
Three common forms of LDs that are particularly pertinent considerations for English teachers are:
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity
Students with these challenges may need a more tailored and individualised teaching plan to assist them with their English learning.
English teachers must be vigilant for evidence of LDs amongst students
Identifying and acknowledging LDs as soon as possible is very important to ensure that students receive the best support in their learning.
English teachers in developing nations must be extra vigilant as students are far less likely to be identified with having LDs than in the major English speaking countries where more rigorous systems of diagnosis are currently in place.
For a comprehensive list of symptoms and signs that indicate a student may have LDs, see here.
Best practices and strategies for the ESL classroom
It is estimated that up to ten percent of the population have LDs. As such, it is fair to assume that almost any classroom will contain students that have LDs.
A pertinent consideration for teachers is how to cater for the needs of students with LDs without holding back other members of the classroom. Fortunately, the approaches outlined below are, in fact, good overall teaching practices and will be beneficial to not just LDs students but to the entire class.
Please note: It is advisable that teachers do not indicate that a particular classroom exercise is targeted at specific members of the classroom. This will assist in keeping the classroom environment all inclusive.
Focus on what can be achieved instead of what cannot
Rather than focusing on the aspects that students find difficult, focus instead on developing the areas they are having success in. This should increase their self-esteem and confidence. From there, it is easier to introduce new learning activities, building from a position of strength.
To illustrate, if a student suffers from ADD or ADHD, focus their attention on shorter activities. This will help compensate for their difficulties in holding concentration for extended periods and allow them to keep focused for the entire exercise.
Break longer tasks into smaller, ‘bite size’ chunks. This will allow ADD/ADHD students to complete the entire lesson plan but also allow them to naturally break concentration at appropriate intervals.
Praise every and any successes
Building a student’s confidence to acquire language skills is always important and LD learners are no exception to this.
Always praise progress positively. When areas become difficult or particularly challenging, it is best to swiftly move on to new tasks to avoid the student becoming frustrated. Keep the momentum of learning going.
Have clear goals and structure lessons transparently
LD students can really benefit from having a clear understanding of what the day’s learning objectives and activities are going to be as it allows them to prepare themselves.
Using a familiar lesson structure or style frequently can be beneficial also as LD students do well with some level of regularity and structure.
Instead of a list of don’ts, have a list of dos.
Without adequate planning, LDs such as ADD and ADHD can lead to behavioural difficulties in the classroom. A list of positive ground rules can mitigate any such problems by fostering a ‘lead by example’ atmosphere in the classroom.
Examples of positive ground rules include:
The class is a team, not a group of individuals
Cooperate with other class members
Listen to others and wait your turn to speak
Treat others with respect and they will reciprocate
Sharing is caring – help your study buddy and let them help you
Praise the achievements of your classmates and help them out when they need support
Reduce possible distractions
Many students with LDs are particularly vulnerable to distractions. By reducing or eliminating noise and any other distracting elements in the classroom, language exercises will be more effective.
Create a ‘study buddy’ system
By partnering students together in a ‘study buddy’ style system, LD students can benefit from working with others, which can help build a cohesive classroom environment. Furthermore, having students in pairs can help with talking and writing exercises. Each student can offer the other feedback on talking and also proofreading for writing tasks.
Offer proofreading help to dyslexic students
Dyslexic students can find reading and correcting their own writing difficult. By offering proofreading help this can give them more confidence and freedom to write their ideas fully without the fear of wondering if their grammar is as polished as other students.
Stimulate all of the senses for learning
A multi-sensory teaching approach will allow LD students to better substitute for the channels that they may find difficulty learning by. For example, instead of silent reading sessions, have text read out loud and utilise visual and kinaesthetic aids.
LD students can learn English as effectively as anyone in the classroom if proper provisions are made. These suggested teaching strategies can, in fact, benefit the entire classroom as a whole and help ensure that LD students are given all the support needed to reach their fullest potential.
Zachary is an ESL teacher and freelance editor for Cambridge Proofreading. He has English tutored a number of students with dyslexia and LDs.