Varinder Unlu, Academic Director at Bloomsbury International and Coordinator for IATEFL IP & SEN Special Interest Group, offers some insights and advice into teaching students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD).



The majority of students learn English and other languages without too much difficulty, but there are some learners who struggle more than others and find it challenging. There are many reasons for this, a large number of which can be identified quickly by teachers who can help learners acquire language more efficiently. However, there are some learners who find language learning particularly difficult because their general approach to learning is different. These students get labelled as being difficult, disruptive, unresponsive or just bad language learners. Yet around ten percent of our students have a specific learning difference, which could be anything from dyslexia or ADHD to dyspraxia or Asperger’s syndrome, or it could be a physical disability such as sight impairment or hearing problems. Most teacher training courses do not teach us how to deal with students who have Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs). Teachers need to have an understanding of students with learning differences and how these affect general learning processes and the mechanisms of second language acquisition. We need to be aware of such students and the importance of being able to recognise the signs of SpLDs. This article will give useful advice about how best to deal with students with SpLDs and what teachers can do to help their students.

What is SpLD?

The most important thing to remember is that a student with a Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD) is not slow, nor are they being lazy or difficult. They simply have a different approach to learning. An SpLD affects the way the student processes information and learns, and it does not have any correlation to the level of their intelligence. SpLDs are usually hereditary and they often co-occur, which means that they can appear in a number of different ways and no two learners will have the same difficulties, as they will range from mild to severe on the spectrum. Some of the most common characteristics of SpLDs are:

  • Memory difficulties
  • Organisational difficulties
  • Writing difficulties
  • Visual processing difficulties
  • Reading difficulties
  • Auditory processing difficulties
  • Time management difficulties
  • Sensory distraction: an inability to screen out extraneous visual or auditory stimuli
  • Sensory overload: a heightened sensitivity to visual stimuli and sound; an inability to cope with busy environments

How can it affect the classroom?

Students with SpLD can be difficult to identify in the language classroom. Poor performance in reading, writing and other areas of learning could simply be down to poor language proficiency in the second language and not necessarily a sign of an SpLD. This, combined with a distinct lack of teacher training and awareness of how to identify and help learners with specific learning differences, plus the refusal to acknowledge SpLDs in certain cultures due to the stigma attached to learning difficulties, results in less inclusive language teaching by teachers which is therefore more challenging for the learners.

This has a direct impact on the classroom. There is general frustration from the teacher, who might feel that the learner is not interested in learning and is disengaged from the lesson. From the learner’s perspective, the classroom is a place causing a huge amount of stress, low self-esteem and emotional distress, which can in some students then lead to behavioural problems and withdrawal from learning.

What are some useful techniques?

There are a number of ways teachers can help students with SpLDs become successful language learners. It involves a mixture of building on existing strengths and compensating on areas of weaknesses.

Reading and writing lessons

  • A structured reading scheme that involves repetition and introduces new words slowly is extremely important. This allows the learner to develop confidence and self-esteem when reading.
  • Don’t ask students to read a book at a level beyond their current level, as this will instantly demotivate them. Motivation is far better when demands are not too high and the learner can actually enjoy the reading activity. If they have to labour over every word they will forget the meaning of what they are reading.
  • Do not ask a dyslexic student to read aloud in class. Reserve this for a quiet time with the class teacher. Alternatively, perhaps give the student advanced time to read pre-selected reading material, to be practised at home the day before. This will help ensure that the learner is seen to be able to read aloud, along with other students.
  • Real books should also be available for paired reading with another learner, which will often generate enthusiasm for books. Audio books can be of great benefit for the enjoyment and enhancement of vocabulary. No learner should be denied the pleasure of gaining access to the meaning of print even if they cannot decode it fully.
  • If you prepare extra materials on your own remember to:
  1. use 12 point Ariel or Comic Sans – not Times Roman.
  2. avoid dense texts without headings or bullet points.
  3. avoid UPPER CASE.
  4. use white backgrounds (they reduce contrast and movement).
  • Teach students useful strategies:
  1. track text using a ruler.
  2. trial spelling strategies.
  3. look for patterns in words – highlight them in colour.
  4. use mnemonics.
  5. break words up by syllable or visually.
  • Use technology, e.g.:
  1. word processing (avoids handwriting).
  2. Texthelp, speech recognition software, reader pens like C-Pen Reader, recorders.

Lesson plan adaptations

  • Layout
    Teachers should ensure that documents given to students with dyslexia only contain instructions needed for the exercise without any unnecessary details, as these could be distracting. All materials for students with dyslexia should have a clear layout, short sentences and an uncomplicated structure.
  • Illustration
    Images that exemplify sentences or unfamiliar words are really useful. By spacing out the instructions and adding a diagram, students can follow it without having to understand every word – this is called ‘reading for meaning’.
  • Developing meta-cognitive strategies
    Metacognitive strategies are methods to help all students understand the way they learn. By using metacognitive strategies teachers can help students with SpLDs to develop an appropriate plan for learning information, which can be memorized and eventually routine. As students become aware of how they learn, they will use these processes to efficiently acquire new information and consequently become more independent thinkers.
  • Differentiation
    Differentiation is a process by which differences between learners can be accommodated so that every student has the best chance of learning, and teaching is more inclusive:
  1. Tasks – Set different tasks depending on students’ abilities and learning styles.
  2. Grouping – Collaborative learning allows roles to be allocated within the team which cater for each student’s skill set and learning needs.
  3. Pace – Allow learners with SpLDS more time to complete tasks.
  4. Outcomes – Students complete the same task, but different results and answers are acceptable.
  5. Expectation – What is the teacher’s expectation of the learner, and what is the learner’s expectation of themselves?
  • Multi-sensory learning
    Using all of the senses (taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing and movement) can be effective. Not all senses are used in every lesson, but lessons including them can help students engage with the material in more than one way. So if you are teaching a lesson about food, you may want to take in different kinds of food, as well as pictures of food. Any large movement activity for students involving dancing, throwing a ball or other activities involving academic competition such as quizzes, flashcards and other learning games can also be very motivating. Creating visual maps linking the ideas that come up related to a topic is a further way to engage students.


Learning another language can be challenging for learners without SpLDs, and so for those learners who do have learning differences it can be an even bigger challenge. However, this is not to say that it cannot be achieved.

By understanding this issue teachers can be more inclusive in their teaching, by accurately identifying language learners’ additional needs. They can then share best practice and experience, disseminating information about inclusive teaching methods, materials and resources for working with learners who have additional needs in the classroom.