Your students aren’t progressing — you have no idea why. Find out what you need to know about learning difficulties to turn around your teaching.
It’s the last days of summer. Two boys are on the beach. “School again next week,” says Luca. His friend, Marc, digs deeper into the sand and doesn’t look up. “I want to burn the school down.” Luca laughs but Marc isn’t joking. Aged eight, he still can’t read fluently in his mother tongue and he’s behind with maths. Next year, they start foreign languages – English. He is failing and his classmates laugh at him. Marc, going into second grade, already feels deep shame and embarrassment and never wants see his school again.
Marc is one of the many children struggling at school. He has learning disabilities that show up in one of the three basic learning skills (reading, writing or mathematics) or can affect specific higher level processing skills. Learning for Marc is more than difficult. Fortunately, his parents are keeping an eye on him. His dad had difficulties at school and they have been doing some research, learning disabilities have an underlying genetic cause.
Different terminology – let’s set things straight
There is often confusion about the term ‘learning disability’ (LD) so, let’s unravel that first.
Internationally, interchangeable terms are used to refer to ‘learning disabilities’.
The USA, Canada and Australia use the term ‘learning disabilities’ and the more recent term ‘specific learning disorders’ to refer to a group of disorders that affect a broad range of academic and functional skills. Specific learning disorder refers to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia where more obvious areas of cognitive dysfunctioning can be seen, assessed and diagnosed.
In the UK, specific learning difficulty (SpLD), is used to cover the range of learning difficulties referred to in the United States as ‘learning disabilities’ or ‘specific learning disorders’
It is important to note, the UK is the only country using ‘learning disability’ to refer to a range of developmental disabilities or conditions invariably associated with more severe generalized cognitive impairment and mental retardation.
The nuts and bolts of learning disabilities
‘Learning disabilities’ and ‘specific learning disorders’ cannot be diagnosed like ‘chickenpox’ or ‘tonsillitis’ which have known causes with recognized symptoms. Instead, the term ‘learning disabilities’ is broad and refers to a number of cognitive variances that can affect the ability to learn to read fluently, to write, spell, perform mathematical calculations, listen, speak, organise, plan and remember. These differences influence learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning.
What doesn’t cause learning disabilities?
Low intelligence, environmental disadvantages, mental retardation or emotional disturbances do not cause learning disabilities and neither do hearing and/or vision problems. Socio-economic factors, cultural or linguistic differences, lack of motivation or ineffective teaching are not direct causes of learning disabilities either. Instead, learning disabilities are the result of genetic and/or neurobiological dysfunctions that alter brain functioning. They are usually life-long and range in severity and co-exist with various conditions including attentional, behavioural and emotional disorders.
How common are they?
Teachers of English as a second language or foreign language can expect that nearly a quarter of their classes will be struggling learners with different intensities of learning disabilities that cause unpredictable academic under-achievement or achievement which is maintained only by unusually high levels of effort and support. The most common difficulties originate from memory and attention weaknesses and poor reading and writing skills.
What to look out for?
If you have students in your classrooms who are under-performing in an unexpected way and their progress does not correspond to the amount of work and determination they are investing, it is possible they have an undiagnosed learning disability or specific learning disorder.
What can you do now?
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If you have concerns about students, consult with educators and other professionals in your education establishment or school to determine what steps to take and how problems can be addressed.