Tips for teaching English to students with learning disabilities

Chris Parker
Tips for effectively teaching ESL to students with learning disorders who may be struggling, and how to address all of their different needs and interests

Teaching English as a second language (ESL) can be difficult without knowing the proper strategies to do so, but it can be even harder if your students have learning disorders. Even experienced teachers often go many years in their profession before teaching their first student with a learning disorder or disability, and many are then unsure how to adapt their teaching practices to best help their student. Having taught many students with these types of issues over the years, I’ve developed the following resource to help you with this.

The most common learning disorders

While there are many different types of learning disorders that you may encounter as a teacher, below are some of the more common ones. These disorders can have a wide range of different symptoms, though here are some ways in which they can specifically affect learning in an ESL context.

  • dyslexia – impacts reading and the ability to comprehend information
  • dysgraphia – can affect motor skills, including handwriting abilities
  • dyscalculia – makes it hard to understand numbers, including math
  • dyspraxia – can cause difficulties with processing patterns/sequences
  • ADHD – negatively affects attention, engagement, and/or behaviour
  • NVLD – non-verbal learning disorder that can affect all learning skills

Recommended strategies

The following seven strategies are some of the most effective ways I’ve found to help those who are struggling in class because of their learning disorders.

1. Use recasting instead of correcting

Students with learning disabilities can become easily frustrated and discouraged, especially when they’re told that they’ve made a mistake. You should therefore avoid directly correcting errors and, instead, point these out in an indirect way by using recasting.

Recasting is simply repeating something that a student has said or written incorrectly but in the correct form. Once you recast what a student has said, they will learn what they did wrong without feeling discomfort and will normally remember this later.

Recasting example:

Student: “I wented to the market today.”

Teacher: “Oh, you went to the market today?”

Student: “Yes, I went to the market today.”

2. Provide students with additional time

As the teacher, you will normally have control over your lessons and how much time you allot for each activity. It’s important to remember that students with learning disabilities often have processing difficulties, so they will typically need more time than most students to respond to questions or assignments.

You must be patient and provide them with this extra time by planning your lessons ahead to predict which activities they may need more time with. Have extra activities on hand for your other students to keep busy with while your struggling students are given more time to catch up.

3. Develop content around prior knowledge

When teaching new students with learning difficulties, you should learn as much as you can about what knowledge or skills they already possess. You should then plan and develop your content around this prior knowledge and build upon it with any new things that you teach them, which is a concept known as constructivism.

Building on a student’s prior knowledge has two main advantages:

It activates schema

A student’s prior knowledge serves as a mental organizing system, known as schema, that allows the student to make sense of new, incoming information by using what they’ve already learned to analyze it while associating it or contrasting it with things they’re already familiar with.

It maintains comfort

Unlike some other types of students, those with learning difficulties typically don’t learn well under pressure, so you shouldn’t bombard them with too much new information that’s difficult to understand. By building on a student’s prior knowledge, students can start the learning process within their comfort zone with something they already know, which can make the learning process less intimidating for them.

4. Always consider students’ affective needs

Students who struggle to learn things often have issues with their emotions, feelings, or attitudes, which are their affective needs. While your role may be as a teacher and not a psychiatrist, you can help students overcome these types of issues by finding ways to address them through careful selection of learning materials.

To address affective needs, learning materials should be:

  • culturally relevant so students feel more comfortable
  • appealing to students’ interests to maintain motivation
  • age-appropriate so students can better relate to topics

To make materials culturally relevant, you’ll need to find out more about your students’ cultural backgrounds and allow them to bring in things from home that can be intertwined with your English lessons. The materials should also appeal to students, such as by using materials that are fun and excite young students while grabbing their attention.

Of course, all of these materials should also be age-appropriate, as comic books, for example, will be more relevant and appealing to younger students than novels. When presented with these types of materials, many affective needs are then met.

5. Supplement materials rather than alter

Your goal when teaching struggling students is to help them reach the target language level that they should be at, so they can keep up with their peers academically and not get left behind. So while developing content for them based on their prior knowledge can help, you’ll want to ensure that content is still on the same level as their peers.

You shouldn’t remove important topics or concepts from the curriculum that these students should be learning. Instead, you should supplement anything you develop or provide to them by using visual aids or media that will make the learning process easier and the core learning materials more comprehensible.

Supplementation examples:

  • pictures
  • music
  • videos
  • maps
  • charts

6. Substitute accommodation with remediation

Making accommodations for students with learning disabilities is sometimes necessary because these students often can’t retain or process information the same way that other students can. However, using too many accommodations can serve as a crutch for some students where they’ll have difficulty reaching the language levels of their peers without it.

What are accommodations?

An example of an accommodation would be if a student were having trouble remembering how to say a full sentence of five words in a single breath, and you instead asked them to at least say one word before pausing and then saying another. It’s important to make accommodations when necessary, but if you see an opportunity to remediate instead, take it.

What are remediations?

Remediations are where we specifically target an area where a student is struggling and focus on helping them improve within this area so that they can learn how to function near the level of their peers. Instead of simply allowing the student to say one word at a time at first, you should look at a way to remedy this issue instead by asking yourself what strategies you could use to enhance the student’s memory.

7. Use VARK with attention to the senses

You should also always consider that all types of students can have different learning styles, including those with disorders. There are many different types of learning styles, but the VARK model includes the four predominant types and has become the most popularly used model for teachers worldwide.

The different learning styles found in the VARK model are as follows:

Visual – students with this style learn best with graphics, whether it’s maps, pictures, movies, graphs, charts, or diagrams.

Auditory – this style refers to learning things through auditory experiences, such as lectures, music, podcasts, and discussions with other students.

Read/write – this is more of a text-based learning style where students prefer to learn with things that they can see in print, whether they’re reading or writing them.

Kinesthetic – kinesthetic learners are those who respond best to real-life experiences or simulations of experiences, which can include some of the same things that appeal to visual learners when they’re simulated.

It’s well-known that those with learning disabilities typically respond best to sensory-based activities that involve sight, sound, touch, and movement, and they usually prefer auditory and kinesthetic learning styles, though this isn’t the case for every student.

So, while you should always provide materials that try to address all styles when possible, you should take note of students who respond well to these two particular styles and provide more activities based on these styles for those who do.

Always remain patient and flexible

Teaching students with learning disabilities can have many advantages, but it also comes with many unique challenges that this guide should help you overcome. Always remember to remain patient with your struggling students and be considerate of their differences. Learning disabilities can vary where a student’s memory, writing, reading, speaking, or other skills can be affected, so you should always remain flexible and ready to adapt your lessons and materials to their specific needs.

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Written by Chris Parker for
Chris has been studying linguistics academically for several years and has taught ESL in both primary and secondary schools.

One comment

  • Santiago says:

    This is a very useful article which in my opinion every teacher coping with struggling students should read as it will help them a lot in class.

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