As an English Language teacher, you may have students with unidentified additional learning needs in your classroom. Often these learning difficulties are ‘invisible’, not easy to recognise in class, or hidden behind other issues such as poor behaviour, and an apparent lack of motivation.
Identifying ‘invisible’ learning difficulties
Difficulties that have not been identified by any formal assessment can surface in a variety of ways. They may first appear in an English Language class because the focus is on activities that require students to communicate and interact with other students, using all four skills of listening, reading, writing and speaking.
Although it is not the teacher’s job to diagnose learning difficulties, it’s important to know how to recognise when a student might be struggling because of a learning difficulty.
Indicators that students might be experiencing difficulties greater than expected for their age and level include:
- having problems understanding and following instructions
- finding it difficult to concentrate and being easily distracted
- having difficulty with tasks that require fine or gross motor skills
- being able to speak much more fluently than they can write
- finding it difficult to start tasks or never managing to finish them
- avoiding doing tasks
- having problems participating in whole-class or group activities
- appearing not to listen, or not responding to questions or instructions
- having problems making friends and maintaining relationships.
These indicators reflect three main issues: Behavioural, Communication, Social Skills
Learning difficulties often first present themselves in classes through poor behaviour and non-compliance or non-completion of tasks. Many of these issues relate to impaired working memory. Working memory is the part of your brain which holds information long enough to act on it. When working memory is impaired, students find it difficult to remember and act upon instructions, to copy things down correctly from the board, to remember what they have just read in a reading text. This shows up in class as
- Not writing things down properly or avoiding writing down from the board
- Not following instructions or continually asking what they should do
- Appearing to switch off when reading longer texts and losing focus very quickly
- Appearing disorganised and forgetful
Learning difficulties can also show up as communication issues. They can occur in receptive language (understanding) and/or expressive language (producing). Students find it difficult to understand what they have to do or to show what they know. It can lead to students having difficulties in communicating with the teacher and their peers. They may not want to work in groups, appearing withdrawn and isolated, sometimes not understanding humour or everyday conversation.
Social skills issues
Social skills issues can relate to language issues or social and emotional difficulties. Students may have problems taking turns, showing empathy, and understanding other students’ perspectives. As the language classroom operates on social interactions, lessons can present a real challenge to these students.
These indicators do not necessarily mean a student does not care about learning. They can be indicators of students with additional needs such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit, speech, and language difficulties or ASC (autistic spectrum condition).
However, most students experience some of these difficulties from time to time. If you’re concerned about a student in your class, gather objective information about how often the problems occur and how serious they are. Consider:
- Is the problem across all classes and at all times of the day?
- Is the problem in certain class groupings?
- Where is the child sitting? Can they hear and see properly?
- Who is the child sitting with? Does this make a difference?
- What kinds of tasks can the child do?
- When the child is engaged, what engages them?
- Is the work too easy or too difficult? How do you know?
- Does the work involve a lot of writing? Sitting still? Copying from the board?
- Is the child only noticed for negative things? What are their strengths?
- Does the child have trouble following instructions?
- Does the child have trouble remembering visual and/or auditory information?
The important thing to remember is that all students need to feel safe and valued in their class. Good teachers provide this for all their students by maintaining positive relationships, clear structure, routines, consistency and clarity.
1) Use a multi-sensory approach for teaching and checking students’ understanding.
For example, give instructions with visuals, gestures and words. Use different ways to check a student’s understanding such as mini whiteboards and traffic lights signals. Use visual icons on your board to show the order of teaching in your lesson.
2) Focus on developing positive relationships with your students.
Notice if you are only interacting negatively with some students, those for example, who are always causing disruptions or are slow to respond. Get to know them as people, beyond any labels. Every student is unique and different and brings something important to the class. Avoid jumping to assumptions that they are ‘lazy’ or ‘don’t care’.
3) Use an assessment-for-learning approach
Try an approach such as 2 stars and a wish, where you encourage students to focus on their own progress against specific criteria rather than on overall attainment levels.
4) Celebrate their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses.
These can be academic or personal strengths, such as kindness, perseverance, and good humour.
5) Create an inclusive ethos in class.
To do this, try using class contracts that are value-driven rather than rules-driven. ‘In this class, we give people extra time if they need it’. ’In this class, we help each other.’
6) Use the English class to develop social skills in all students.
Try activities like ‘find 5 things in common with your partner, or ‘5 things which are different’, this creates a sense of belonging and allows students to celebrate difference.
Remember that it is not your job to diagnose. If you are concerned about a student, gather as much information as you can. Discuss with other teachers to determine whether the difficulties are only in English, or are also in other lessons. Find out whom in your school is responsible for additional learning needs, typically a school psychologist, special educational needs coordinator or manager responsible for learning should be there to talk through your concerns.
Marie Delaney is a teacher trainer, educational psychotherapist, and director of The Learning Harbour, an educational consultancy, in Cork, Ireland. She worked for many years with students of all ages who have SEN, in particular in the area of behavioural difficulties. She has worked with Ministries of Education and trained teachers in several countries on inclusion policy, curriculum, and inclusive pedagogy. Her main interests are bringing therapeutic approaches into teaching and learning, supporting teachers in their dealings with challenging pupils and promoting inclusive education principles for all. Marie is the author of Special Educational Needs (Oxford University Press, 2016).