Learning Difficulties: Time to get practical

by Alejandra Ottolina in Blogs & Articles

What we all need to know

Did you know that at least one in every ten children is likely to show some kind of difficulty in different areas of the school curriculum? And that although these difficulties might sometimes be overcome, they often persist into adulthood? The truth is that these are not illnesses so there is no ‘cure’ for them. As regards their origin, we can say they are a type of Neurodevelopmental Disorder that impedes the ability to learn or use specific academic skills such as reading, writing, or arithmetic and they are unexpected in that other aspects of development seem to be fine. We refer to them as Specific Learning Difficulties, and they include Dyslexia, ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder), DCD (Developmental Coordination Disorder), and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), among others, which clearly shows that these difficulties are not usually related to intellectual ability or the lack of it. However, they have an important impact on the child, family members, teachers and classmates, basically because it is not easy to understand how individuals with these needs perceive the world and process information. Although neurosciences have made great progress, much remains uncertain or unknown, and we, teachers, lack both knowledge and training in this field. Therefore, if we want to help all our students, we need to observe them very carefully to discover what they like, what makes them feel comfortable in class, what upsets them and how they learn better as well as who they get along with. This clearly takes time, which is precisely why teaching students with special education needs is a real challenge.

Accommodations in ELT

As teachers, when we notice a child who struggles to read simple words while the rest of the class read long texts easily, one who cannot finish tasks, is extremely disorganised or regularly fails to follow instructions, we often ask ourselves: ‘Can children with Specific Learning Difficulties learn English? If so, how can we make our materials more accessible to all? Can we teach inclusively without lowering expectations?’ Let us analyse these key questions one by one.

Firstly, we must say that children with Specific Learning Difficulties can learn a second or foreign language unless they receive professional advice against it. What is important is how they are taught. We should always bear in mind that they may need adjustments in the materials they use. These come in the form of accommodations or modifications. The former implies changes in our approach, and can be done in four ways: presentation, response, setting and timing or scheduling.

Some children learn better when we present texts, for example, in bigger fonts; others may show better comprehension skills when they can both listen to and read a text at the same time instead of just reading it. They may also react positively to personal photographs so, instead of using the photos in a textbook to present routines, we could ask all the class to bring photos of their pets and talk about what they eat, drink, do and don’t do. This will make the whole lesson more meaningful. Similarly, when we notice difficulty in memorising new vocabulary, instead of teaching ten words at a time, we could present smaller vocabulary sets. If we are teaching fruit words, for example, we could group them according by colour or in alphabetical order, and teach four at a time.

The second type of accommodation refers to the responses we expect from our students as we often need to shorten their production, aiming at more oral than written work.  Instead of having the class write complete answers to questions about a text they have listened to or read, we could have the oral True or False version. Ticking the correct sentences and matching questions and answers are useful options as well. They take less time and less effort. However, the content and aims are the same, we are only adjusting the approach.

A setting accommodation refers to the need to look for a quieter classroom or one without too many windows to help those who get easily distracted, or to change the seating arrangement to help a child with social difficulties, for example.

With regard to timing and scheduling, we can say that this is the type of accommodation needed to help those who require more time to complete written tasks. Speaking in practical terms, we should bear in mind that children with difficulty often finish their classwork at home. In addition to this, they often have appointments with different professionals after school. All this means that it would be advisable to keep homework to a minimum. It is also worth remembering that they may need to sit different sections of a test on different days to be able to focus, as is the case for children with reading difficulties or attention deficits.

In all the examples discussed so far, the content being taught, practised or tested remains the same. We have not lowered our expectations, but there are times when the content ought to be changed because the child lacks the physical, cognitive or emotional tools to access it. Here we’re talking about modifications. These are not so frequent and often require specific authorisation processes as they affect the curriculum.

Strategies and tools

Whether we need to make accommodations or modifications, there are simple yet practical strategies we can use. Anticipation is one. We can ask students who have difficulty in reading a text or listening to an audio file, to read or listen at home before we use it in class. Students can then take the time they need, without feeling any kind of pressure in the classroom alongside their peers. This usually has very good results but it cannot be done without their family support so we should seek their commitment in advance.

Task segmentation is another strategy. If an exercise in the book has got eight questions, we could divide the class into two and have each group answer four questions. Pair work is another alternative. Similarly, when dealing with reading comprehension, we could divide the text into paragraphs, and instead of having six questions below the text, we could have two questions after each paragraph so that students know where to find the information.

Finally, there are also tools that could aid our work. Technology is one. While mobile phones and computers help students avoid mistakes when they write, there are apps that transform written texts into audio files and vice versa, for example: Leo – Recording and transcription (to transcribe recordings into texts) or Reading Machine (for reading practice). Also, most textbooks nowadays include a digital component that allows teachers to project whole pages or just an exercise on a whiteboard. This heads-up methodology does not only add variety to the lesson but also implies working with larger images, which helps students with reading or concentration issues.

Another useful device is the reading window: a cardboard rectangle with a hole in the middle that serves as a window as you place it on a text. It acts as a kind of frame to help students focus as they read. This is very useful specifically for dyslexic students, who often struggle with ‘dancing letters’.


Summing up

We have read about Specific Learning Difficulties, their causes and how to deal with them. The following chart summarises the main ideas.

Specific Learning Disorders




Disorder that impedes the ability to learn or use specific academic skills without any compromise in other areas

Schemes of work

Accommodation – Modification


Changes in the approach




Timing/ Scheduling



Content and aims change







Reading window

It is essential to highlight one very important concept, the fact that labels do not help. We are teaching professionals so this should remain our main task. We should avoid diagnosing students. Instead, we should focus on thorough observation of their behaviour, attitude and work. That is the key to discovering how they learn better and thus how we can help them.

About the Author

Alejandra Ottolina is a highly experienced teacher trainer who has taught all levels in both public and private sectors. She has lectured in Argentina as well as in neighbouring countries, and has authored several Teacher’s Books: For Winners, Insights and Phases, among others. She is Macmillan’s Academic Consultant and is currently doing a degree in Educational Therapy.

by Alejandra Ottolina in Blogs & Articles