Learning Disabilities in the ESL Classroom.

Learning DisabilitiesThere have been several occasions in my classes where I have been baffled by the somewhat lack of progress a student was making. Even after repeated instruction and individual tuition, there seemed to be little progress made in their language abilities. My problem was in knowing if the student was simply struggling with learning another language or if they perhaps had learning disabilities (LDs).

By learning disabilities I mean a student who has problems acquiring and using language (spoken or written) and using key skills such as listening, speaking, reading, writing, spelling or doing mathematical calculations. Dyslexia would be the most prevalent LD. Problems resulting from visual, hearing, or motor disabilities are not classed as learning disabilities.


Of course in most ESL school settings there is no qualified special needs teacher or means of testing for learning disabilities. Even if there was, I don’t know any teachers who have received training on how to deal with learning disabilities in an ESL classroom and there is very little information out there on the subject.

So what can we, as teachers, do when we suspect a student has a learning disability? How do we know if it is a LD without specialist advice? And how can we deal with this practically in class?
I by no means claim to be an expert on the subject but have compiled a list of some ‘common sense’ ideas to try with classes where you suspect you may have a student with a learning disability and some key issues learners will have in class.
Remember that students themselves may not even know they have an LD. Often students have developed coping mechanisms over the years for dealing with an undiagnosed LD in their own language e.g. ‘getting general information about what is said or written through the overall context when specific words or concepts are not understood. Substituting known words for words that cause difficulty’. These skills cannot be called upon so readily in English resulting in the LD becoming more apparent and problematic. The LD could be further pronounced by English orthography which may be extremely different to the learner’s first language.


Things to look out for:

Students with learning disabilities usually have average or above average intelligence but display a wide gap between expected and actual performance. Here are some markers of LDs to be aware of in class. For a more detailed breakdown of different LDs, here is a useful link.

Language Difficulties:

Difficulty remembering instructions, appears forgetful, problems with letter names and sounds, difficulty retrieving words when speaking, difficulty processing information visually e.g. letters, poor reading and spelling skills, difficulty organising and sequencing information, poor handwriting.


inconsistent production of work and contribution to tasks, lack of accuracy during tasks, inability to know what the main points are in texts and excessive focus on irrelevant points.

Questions to ask yourself:

All of us have experienced some of the issues above at some point in our lives but if you notice a student is having problems ask yourself:

Are the problems general of specific to one area of learning? If it is a learning disability then the student usually has strong and weak areas e.g. good at speaking but weak writing skills. If they are making slow progress across the board it may be something else.
Has the problem persisted over time? If the student has a learning disability the problem is persistent and is unlikely to improve much without professional help. If possible talk to other teachers and see if they have noticed the same issues with the student.
Have you given repeated instruction with no improvement? If you have repeatedly gone over a point and given them 1-1 attention with no improvement then they may have a learning disability.
Does the problem inhibit learning significantly?


What else could it be?:

Your student may have an LD however it may be something else, take into consideration:
• Lack of study habits (for more information on this please see my previous post)
• Poor attendance and completion of study outside the classroom
• Lack of motivation
• Previous educational experiences and expectations

What can we do as teachers to help students with learning disabilities?

Whether your students have learning disabilities or not these practical ideas can be incorporated into the ESL classroom without disrupting other students or drawing attention to a student’s LD.
• Focus on the learners strengths and praise them.
• Have a wide range of activities in each class which incorporate different learner styles e.g visual, interpersonal, intrapersonal, kinasthetic. There are many tests that students can do online to assess their learner styles.
• Give instructions in different formats e.g. orally and written. Break them down and simplify. Give students time to process the instructions and task information. Do lead-in tasks.
Rephrase key points of texts, arguments etc. to reinforce the main ideas. Don’t repeat verbatim.
• If you do weekly tests, perhaps change the format of it from time to time. If possible, give students extra time.
• Go through study skills with your class.
• Provide structure to classes with logical sequencing.
Record what kind of tasks work well and which don’t. If a student is struggling to understand something you could try the task again at a later date but in a different format e.g. turn a reading task into an aural activity.
Talk to the student (but be wary about mentioning learning disabilities and the stigma they may feel about it). Maybe it’s not a learning disability, maybe they expected something different from the classes, they’re homesick, maybe they’ve hit a plateau.

Over to you, what issues have you encountered in your own classroom and how did you deal with them?

One Response

  1. Colette Diamond

    For me the most challenging part is not so much dealing with the student with the possible learning difficulty but trying to manage this within the classroom setting and being aware of the needs of the other students. It’s a very finely balanced exercise and sometimes we manage it well and other times I feel that I could do it better. It’s also useful when students take it upon themselves to help the individual student sometimes and I find that this can be very beneficial to the whole class. It also helps to create a nice dynamic within the group.

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