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Learning difficulties in the ELT classroom: How to identify them and what to do

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 which 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.

General indicators

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 which 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

Behavioural   

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

Communication issues

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 issue 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 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?

Teaching principles

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.

Use a multi-sensory approach for teaching and checking understanding. For example,  give instructions with visuals, gestures and words, use different ways to check understanding such as mini whiteboards and traffic lights signals. Use visual icons on your board to show the order of teaching in your lesson.

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’.

Use an assessment for learning 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.

Celebrate their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses. These can be academic or personal strengths, such as kindness, perseverance, and good humour.

Create an inclusive ethos in class. To do this, try using class contracts which 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.’

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 co-ordinator or manager responsible for learning should be there to talk through your concerns.

For more on identifying and working with students with learning difficulties, join me for my upcoming webinar on the 20th June 2018. After the webinar you’ll understand the most common signs of learning difficulties, and will know how you to best work with students affected by them.

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Marie Delaney is a teacher trainer, educational psychotherapist, and director of The Learning Harbour, 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).


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Teaching Students with attention, concentration and hyperactivity difficulties – how to stop those spinning tops

Dice with different moods on each face

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Marie Delaney is a teacher, trainer, educational psychotherapist, and author of ‘Teaching the Unteachable’ (Worth). She will be hosting a webinar entitled “Teaching Students with attention, concentration and hyperactivity difficulties” on 11th and 14th March. Here, she explores some of the themes of the upcoming webinar.

Imagine being in a crowded shopping centre, music blaring, people shouting, laughing, talking excitedly all around you, traffic whizzing by, flashing neon signs, … and sitting in the middle of this chaos, trying to learn a foreign language.

This is what it is like for some learners in our classrooms. Information and ideas bombard their brains and they find it impossible to focus on one thing.

Joachim, a learner says.

It’s as if every room in my brain has the lights on, I don’t know which room to go into first, in case I miss something important in another room.”

Teaching these learners can make us feel quite agitated and stressed.

Agata, a teacher says

Teaching Maja gives me a headache, she is like a spinning top, never stopping. I lose my own focus when talking to her.”

The behaviour of these learners usually falls into one or more of the following categories:

Inattention

  • They are easily distracted
  • They cannot pay attention to detail
  • They do not seem to listen or follow instructions
  • They forget things all the time

Hyperactivity

  • They fidget and squirm
  • They constantly leave their seat
  • They seem constantly ‘on the go’ as if driven by a motor

Impulsivity

  • They shout out
  • They cannot wait their turn
  • They often express emotions inappropriately

Some of these learners might have been diagnosed with ADHD. However, there are many possible reasons for this type of behaviour. If we can try to understand the underlying reasons and identify the needs of the learner, we can find teaching strategies to support them.

Possible reasons for the behaviour

  • They might be tired or hungry
  • They might be preoccupied about outside worries or feel unsafe in class
  • They might lack confidence and be anxious about their ability to do the work
  • They might not understand the classroom rules
  • They might have difficulties with executive functioning – the part of the brain which we use to think and solve problems. This also includes the internal voice, the voice we use to self-regulate
  • They might have difficulties with working memory – holding information in our minds long enough to act on it

Identification of needs and teaching strategies

This leads us to the following learner needs and possible teaching strategies:

The need to feel safe and secure

  • Have a few clear classroom rules and remind learners of them
  • Have a clear reward system; involve the learners in the design
  • Set clear time limits for work; give warnings when time is nearly over
  • Have a worry box for learners to post their concerns to the teacher
  • Sit the learner near the teacher, away from distractions such as windows, heaters
  • Allow the learner to go to a designated quiet area if the classroom gets too stressful
  • Use visual prompts and timetables

The need to build self-esteem

  • Notice and praise when the learner is on-task and behaving appropriately
  • Focus on the learner’s strengths
  • Send home good reports
  • Encourage study buddies

The need for help with self-regulation

  • Use individual laminated whiteboards for learners to show their answers rather than shouting out
  • Allow the learner to work with headphones on or to imagine wearing headphones to cut out distractions

Above all, do not give up with these learners, they will benefit from your perseverance!

For other ideas on meeting the needs of these learners, particularly with regard to executive functioning and working memory, join my forthcoming webinar on 11th and 14th March entitled “Teaching Students with attention, concentration and hyperactivity difficulties“.


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Dyslexia – A Problem or a Gift? Part 2: Teaching Strategies

Teacher helping dyslexic studentMarie Delaney is a teacher, trainer, educational psychotherapist, and author of ‘Teaching the Unteachable’ (Worth). Following her first article on dyslexia, where she looked at what dyslexia really is, she now returns with strategies for teaching dyslexic learners.

In my previous article I looked at the problems learners with dyslexia might face in the English classroom. In this blog, I will share some teaching strategies which can help these learners in the key areas of sound/letter recognition, working memory and confidence.

Problems with recognition of sounds and letters

1. Think in colour

Learners with dyslexia have problems matching the sounds of English to the written word. Use different colours to show the patterns of words, to break down the sounds into manageable chunks. For example, boat, coat, moat.

Some learners will benefit from writing or reading in certain colours, or using certain colours of paper, or certain types of colour transparent overlays which can be put over the reading page. Encourage the learner to experiment to find a colour that works for them.

2. Hear it, see it, feel it

Multi-sensory teaching helps learners to consolidate sound and letter recognition. For example: 3D letter shapes can be used to practise keywords; letters can be traced in sand or clay; words can be made physical by making letters from the body.

Understanding time is a problem. It can help to get learners to stand in different places on a timeline to illustrate tenses and aspect.

3. Visualise

Teach learners how to visualise words. Learners with dyslexia need to develop their own internal visual dictionary. Encourage the learner to imagine the word up high, visualising it rather than sounding it out. They hold the word as a photo in their mind. Write new words on the learner’s right of your board, up high. This encourages learners to access their visual memory.

Problems with working memory

Working memory is the part of the brain which allows us to hold information recently given to us and to act upon it. Learners with dyslexia have problems with their working memory, they often say that words quite literally fall out of their heads.

1. Instructions, instructions, instructions

Remembering instructions is very difficult for some learners. We need to work on giving instructions in all senses, using visual cues and gestures. Check understanding of instructions by giving an example and getting an example back from learners.

2. Teach reading strategies

Learners with dyslexia find reading comprehension difficult because they quickly forget the paragraph they just read. Show them how to recognise topic sentences, how to use colour to highlight keywords, encourage them to stop regularly and ask themselves “What have I just read?”.

3. It can be fun

Use memory games to develop working memory. For example, put words on the board, rub one word out, ask learners what word has been rubbed out.

4. Draw it

Use mind maps – they give learners with dyslexia the big picture and help them to condense information in a meaningful way.

Problems with confidence and self-esteem

Despite our best teaching efforts, learners with dyslexia often lose confidence about learning. They can feel stupid and frustrated when their progress is slow.

We can work on this in class in different ways:

  • Teach learners how to access positive states for learning, e.g. remembering a time when they felt confident, keeping the confident feeling as they try their reading
  • Let the learners explain to the rest of the class what it is like to have dyslexia
  • Work with their strengths, for example, use activities where learners have to create new solutions to problems
  • Use audio recordings, encourage learners to record their answers
  • Mark work for content, not always for spelling
  • Don’t label their slow progress as being lazy
  • Praise skills other than literacy, for example, give a reward for the most creative learner
  • Use drama activities to help learners express their thoughts and show their creative ability

Above all, encourage your learners to view their dyslexia as a learning style rather than a learning handicap. Celebrate difference!


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Dyslexia – A Problem or a Gift?

Student being helped by teacherMarie Delaney is a teacher, trainer, educational psychotherapist, and author of ‘Teaching the Unteachable’ (Worth). She will be hosting a webinar entitled “Dyslexia – A Problem or a Gift?” on 9th and 18th October.

What do Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Muhammed Ali have in common? They all found school and teachers difficult. Thomas Edison’s teacher sent a note home when Thomas was 6, which said “He is too stupid to learn”.

These successful people had dyslexia. Their teachers didn’t know much about dyslexia. They labeled them lazy and stupid. You may have students with dyslexia in your classes and not even know it. Often these learners are labeled slow, lazy, or daydreamers. It’s not true. In order to help these learners, we, as teachers, need to understand more about it.

What is dyslexia?

As you read this, are the letters clear to you, are any moving around, blurred or reversing? Bropaply not. (Probably not.)

For a learner with dyslexia, reading a simple paragraph of short words is slow and agonizing, even worse if they are asked to read it aloud. Reading comprehensions are difficult because the learner forgets what they have just read.

Dyslexia is an information processing difficulty, primarily affecting reading, spelling and writing. In English, students have problems with phonological processing (linking sounds to words), visual processing (seeing words and letters) and working memory (remembering what has just been said). The learner can also have problems with organization, sequencing and number skills.

Signs that a learner in your class might have dyslexia include:

  • Written work is poor compared to their speaking ability
  • Reading slowly, hesitantly, and misreading words
  • Difficulty matching sounds to letters
  • Seeing and writing letters as flipped or reversed e.g. ‘b’ as ‘d’ or ‘p’
  • They say that letters move around or are blurred on the page
  • Forgetting what they have read or just been told
  • Problems being punctual
  • Daydreaming or seeming to ‘switch off’
  • Easily getting tired when reading or writing

But what’s the real problem?

The main obstacle for many of these learners is not dyslexia. People with dyslexia can succeed in life. For many, the main problem is that difficulties in class can cause them to lose confidence. They label themselves slow and stupid. They become demotivated, misbehave, give up, or become stressed.

Typical learners’ comments are:

“I thought I was stupid; I couldn’t keep up; the teacher didn’t care.”

“I ask them to explain; they explain again using the same words; I don’t understand and they get angry.”

Teacher encouragement and support is vital for these learners at these times. It is very important not to jump to conclusions about the meaning of a particular behaviour and to try to understand why it’s happening.

The gift of dyslexia

Dyslexic thinking has strengths. Learners with dyslexia are holistic thinkers; they see the big picture, make new connections. They are creative, with good 3D spatial reasoning. They succeed in the arts, become entrepreneurs or work in areas requiring innovative thinking. It’s important to work with these strengths in our learners, allowing opportunities for creative, big picture thinking. The English curriculum provides plenty of scope to do this with projects, problem-solving scenarios, drama and stories.

And a final note…

Remember that you have great influence over these learners’ lives. You don’t need to be a specialist teacher, but you do need to work with your learners to understand why they are having problems and give time, support, and encouragement.

A final example from history – “His teachers said he was mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift in his own foolish dreams.”

That foolish dreamer was dyslexic and…

his name was Albert Einstein.

We need dyslexic thinkers. Let’s try to keep them turned on to learning!

For more on dyslexia and teaching strategies, join my upcoming webinar entitled “Dyslexia – A Problem or a Gift?” on 9th and 18th October, and read my follow-up blog, which will be posted in a few weeks’ time.


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5 Myths About Teaching Learners With Special Educational Needs

Group of friends in a circle from belowMarie Delaney is a teacher, trainer, educational psychotherapist and author of ‘Teaching the Unteachable’ (Worth). She has worked extensively with pupils with Special Educational Needs and trains teachers in this area.

Do you have learners with special educational needs (SENs) in your class? Have you had any training for teaching these learners? Probably not.

In many countries across the world governments are promoting a policy of inclusion for learners with SENs. However, there is often a gap in training and resources for teachers to implement this. This has led many teachers to feel anxious and insecure about their teaching skills. There are some common fears and misconceptions which make a lot of teachers anxious.

5 myths that make teachers anxious

  1. You have to be a specially trained teacher to teach learners with SENs
    Not true. Good teaching strategies will benefit all learners. Good classroom management and a positive attitude are things every teacher can have.
  2. It takes a lot of time and extra planning
    It doesn’t have to. If you already plan your lessons with a variety of activities and use a mult-sensory approach, you do not need to do lots of extra planning.
  3. You can’t do fun, challenging activities
    Not true. See beyond the label. Learners with SENs are individuals with their own personalities and strengths. Discover your learners’ strengths and build on these in your classroom activities.
  4. Other learners suffer because of having learners with SENs in their classes
    Not true. Other learners benefit from developing understanding and acceptance of differences.
  5. Parents of learners with SENs are challenging for teachers
    This does not need to be the case. These parents have often had to struggle to get help for their children. They can help you to understand the issues and develop strategies together which work. See them as allies, not critics.

So what works?

You already have lots of classroom management skills which will help learners with SENs. Like all learners, they need clarity, consistency, understanding and a multi-sensory approach to learning. In the case of learners with SENs, these things are absolutely vital.

8 top tips

  1. Instructions
    Make these clear, concise, give them on a step-by-step basis. Check by giving an example and getting an example. Give in different senses – for example, have visual cues such as an ear for listening and gestures to reinforce. Avoid the use of sequencers, such as ‘before you do this,’ and give the instructions in the correct order.
  2. Use positive classroom language
    Say what you want learners to do, not what you don’t want them to do. For example say ‘Look at the board’ rather than ‘Don’t keep turning around’.
  3. Use visuals to reinforce rules and routines
    For example, have a traffic light system to show when the whole group is going off task. Use visual cues to let learners know the order of activities in the lesson.
  4. Think about your learners needs and have a seating plan
    For example, hearing impaired learners will need to sit near the teacher, learners with ADHD need to sit away from distractions such as windows and radiators.
  5. Learn from your students
    Ask them what helps. Get to know their strengths and interests.
  6. Use a multi-sensory approach
    For example, have learners step out the word stress, draw the word stress, sing the word stress. Get feedback in different ways, for example, use individual mini whiteboards where learners hold up their answers
  7. Create a positive environment where learners help each other
    For example, have a buddy system where learners sometimes help those with SENs. Use activities which develop empathy such as guessing about people in the room.
  8. Work with parents and other professionals
    Focus on what works, not the problems. Do more of what works.

Above all, see your learners as people and not as labels. And enjoy learning with them.