Tips for Supporting Students with Learning Difficulties

Firstly I’d like to make it clear that I’m no expert, in fact the more I study this subject the more I find there is to learn. These ideas come from having read around and also over ten years experience of teaching in secondary schools. Like you, I’ve come across students with a variety of learning issues, but also the longer I teach, the more I see that every learner is different, whatever their “label”.

While it is considered wrong by many to label a child “dyslexic” or other, my experience has shown me that most kids react well to discovering that they aren’t dumb, that they are just wired differently to others.

I quite agree that every child is different and learns differently, that the best tips are to get to know your student and what works for them, however before gaining experience the hard way it can help to know about these tips and suggestions.

We have all heard about the percentage of students with learning difficulties in a class, or possibility of overlap, chances of ending up in prison and how famous people such as Winston Churchill, Bill Gates and Einstein may be/have been dyslexic/Aspergers or other, but that doesn’t actually help you when faced with a SEN student in your class.


This text is split into different learning difficulties, although we will see that many things that help one group of students will help another group, and even more so, the more I study this topic the more I find that what helps students with learning difficulties in fact helps all the students in the class, therefore these ideas can be used with everyone and not just those with specific issues.


A lot has already been said about dyslexia in the language classroom, there are online courses such as and great books that you can find in the reference section at the end. However here’s a brief overview of some tips and things to be aware of;

Some Ideas

Use pastel (or recycled) paper rather than white

  • Use dyslexia friendly fonts without “serifs”, such as comic sans
  • Dyslexia-friendly glasses or rulers can help some students
  • Avoid copying from board by giving worksheets to complete
  • Give a choice in final production; poster, video, presentation or written work
  • Allow certain students to have wordlists of common words available during tests


Be Aware

  • It is a misconception to believe that dyslexic students will be more comfortable in oral production
  • Short-term memory difficulties may cause problems
  • They may also experience organisational difficulties such as being in the write room at the right time, remembering material etc.
  • Not all dyslexic students are necessarily creative genius, so don’t assume they are


Also known as DCD or developmental coordination disorder, dyspraxia involves issues with physical coordination, but also short-term memory and speech.

Some Ideas

  • Think about an organization solution – either a notebook to stick sheets into or an easy-to-open folder
  • However a ringbinder can be a good idea to provide a slanted surface to write on
  • Bluetack under paper can help secure it
  • Colour-code books and folders for easy organization
  • Avoid excessive writing (allow for different production like with dyslexic students) which may be difficult and tiring
  • Provide time prompts during tests to keep students on task – use a time timer
  • Avoid moving classroom furniture too often
  • Avoid changing routine too much
  • Allow student to sit near/lean on wall if necessary (beware science lab stools!)
  • Be lenient if student takes longer to move from class to class
  • Don’t throw things, balls, pens at student
  • Allow or provide a fidget toy
  • Help planning with mindmaps and templates/prompts
  • Avoid need for using scissors etc.
  • Let student use bathroom whenever necessary

Be Aware

  • Dyspraxic students often have good language skills but difficulty in expressing their thoughts
  • There may be difficulties with visual memory
  • Time is often a difficult concept to grasp – analogical clocks are better than digital
  • There may also be concentration/attention difficulties



Not all people with ADD (Attention deficit disorder) are hyperactive, these people (especially girls) can be dreamers, they can pass under the radar in a classroom. ADHD is sometimes linked to Tourettes’ syndrome, which can manifest itself in tics and repetitive behavior, and also dyspraxia.

Some Ideas

  • Students may over-react to what may seem minor triggers, especially related to fairness and justice
  • They will not back down in such situations so do not confront them, instead always provide an “exit route”
  • Speak to the student and organize a secret signal that they can give if they need a breather, or that you can give to keep behavior on-track
  • It can help to establish a contract, so the student knows clearly the rules to follow and the consequences of not doing so
  • Keep rules clear and to a minimum
  • Be prepared to ignore mild bad behavior – pick your battles
  • Use charts and rewards
  • Use same paper and font as with students who show signs of dyslexia
  • Use a window-pane card (card with hole in so student only sees work that is current)
  • Sit students at front, facing you
  • Avoid too many visuals, wall displays, etc.
  • Try to give homework that won’t need book and can be completed/handed in online
  • These students often work well with technology (quizlet, etc.)
  • Give short, positive instructions
  • When explaining an exercise, hold up & use this student’s sheet to provide the example
  • Use “I need” not “you must”
  • Plan activities involving movement into the lesson
  • Give/allow a fidget toy


Be Aware

  • ADHD students are often visual, rather than auditory learners
  • Be aware of any medication, does it last all day or 3-4 hours?
  • Medication can suppress appetite
  • Girls especially, may be more emotional and impulsive
  • ADHD can make students appear 1/3 younger than their actual age, so a 12 year old may behave more like an 8 year old
  • Working memory may be a problem – use strategies such as mnemonic devices
  • They may prefer fact to fiction
  • Can be good mimics – so praise that accent!


ASD (Autistic Syndrome Disorder)

The term Aspergers syndrome has been dropped from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, it is now part of a broader ASD, autistic syndrome disorder, and refered to as high-functioning autism. However it is unlikely that you will have children with severe autism in your class unless they are accompanied by an assistant. If this is the case then ask this person what kind of things you can do and run your lesson plan by them sot hey can prepare the student.

Some Ideas

  • Ask the students and their parents what makes them comfortable
  • Provide a visual schedule – note on the board the plan for the lesson
  • Keep to a routine, and give plenty of warning about any change and what to expect
  • Prepare a secret « escape code » in case the student needs to take some time out
  • Use the classroom as an opportunity to role-play social situations
  • Also teach facial expressions and emotions
  • Maps of local places and lists of equipment will help organisation as well as teaching English
  • Work on other people’s viewpoint, it may be difficult for a student to understand why someone is crying on a picture for example
  • Expect very honest statements such as « you’ve got a spot » and don’t take them personally
  • Use a student’s particular area of interest, they may prepare presentations etc on this theme
  • Let these students stay in the classroom during break if they are more comfortable in a quiet, calm environment
  • Make marking clear, symbols andabreviations will need explaining
  • Mindmaps and templates can help organise work
  • Cover unecessary information on a worksheet with a post-it
  • Don’t set open-ended tasks, i.e. 10-20 words, not « as many as you can »
  • Remember students take language literally – this is a chance to explain idioms to everyone, homonyms will also need attention
  • Use diagrams where possible

Be Aware

  • ASD students usually have difficulties in generalizing information and using it in a different context
  • They may prefer adults who are more predictable
  • They may misinterpret emotions, i.e. if you raise your voice when a motorbike passes outside they may assume you are angry with them
  • It can take 6-10 seconds to process information, be aware of this when giving instructions – especially several, one after the other
  • Expect literal replies, i.e. “Do you know the time?” “Yes”
  • They may have difficulty making eye contact, or knowing when to break it
  • They may well do better in a higher level class even if they are under-achieving (although I haven’t found a solution for this in the foreign language classroom)
  • They are often visual learners
  • They may experience fine motor control difficulties
  • Look up PECS (Picture exchange communication schedule) and Social Stories by Carol Grey


Gifted & Talented

Usually gifted is defined as a generally high level of achievement, whereas talented refers to high achievement in the area of sport, music and the arts.

Personally students in this group are amongst those I have most difficulty in accommodating, as many of the hints suggest giving more challenging work, this may work in a subject such as maths, based on logic, but in foreign language it seems that if they haven’t leant the vocab then they can’t go up a level.

Some Ideas

  • Often enjoy technology-based activities
  • Value mistakes & errors – encourage exploration & learning
  • Create real reasons for work, eg. Really send a letter to a tourist board
  • There are many forms of teaching that involve higher-order thinking skills that are useful for G &T, for example –
  • LVT (logo visual thinking),
  • project-based learning,
  • P4C (philosophy for Children)
  • the TASC process
  • Use work stations
  • Put “thunks” & challenging games on the board as warm-ups and fillers
  • Prepare a fast finishers box or file

Be Aware

  • G&T may be sensitive to criticism- they are more used to praise
  • They may be stuck in fixed mindsets, assuming intelligence is fixed and not developing
  • They may have little experience of learning
  • They may be under-achieving
  • They can misread social clues
  • They are often more at ease in adult company and may lack social skills
  • They can have a very advanced moral reasoning and be concerned with fairness



Although you may think that difficulties in using, recognizing and rationalizing number won’t affect learning a foreign language, this is not always the case

Be Aware

  • Not just numbers, but time and prepositions will also be a challenge



More and more I realize that everyone is different, but also what works well with learners with difficulties, works well with everyone, so these last few suggestions are the ones that in my opinion you should really try and carry out, if you aren’t doing so already.

  • Create and stick to your routine
  • Constant overlearning
  • Think hard about instructions
  • Limit note-taking
  • Don’t submerge tired students with work & homework
  • Think carefully about pairs and groups
  • Use technology for organization (class blog)
  • Positive speaking (walk slowly, not don’t run)
  • Lots of self-esteem activities
  • Simple filing system
  • Lots of demonstrating
  • Don’t rely on students to “notice”



Online course – dyslexia and foreign language teaching

Bennett, J. 2014 Dyslexia pocketbook Teachers’ pocketbooks Ltd

Kormos, J. 2012 Teaching languages to students with specific learning difficulties Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Reid, G. & Green, S. 2011 100+ ideas for supporting children with dyslexia. London: Continuum

Reid,G. 2011 Dyslexia- a complete guide for parents and those who help them. Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Schneider,E. & Crombie,M. 2003 Dyslexia and Foreign Language learning, Oxon: David Fulton Publishers

British Dyslexia Association


Biggs, V. 2014 Caged in Chaos Jessica Kingsley Publishers


Kewley,G. & Latham, P. 2008 100 ideas for supporting pupils with ADHD :Continuum

Brower, F. 2007 100 ideas for supporting pupils on the Autistic Spectrum Bloomsbury