Forum on Learners with SpLD IATEFL Birmingham 2016


Over the years I have noticed that many of the suggestions given for one SpLD are actually effective for many other learning difficulties, this may be due to the overlap that can occur when a student is affected by more than one difficulty.

I’ve also noticed that these tips are in fact useful for ALL my students not just those affected by SpLDs. That is why, I’ve divided these ideas into groups according to their impact, and not necessarily according to the particular group they were originally designed for.

So firstly let’s look at:

  1. Organisation

Many students with SpLD have organizational difficulties, this can mean forgetting work, or going to the wrong classroom and arriving late, etc. The students themselves don’t always realize that this is related to their SpLD, and teachers who are more than willing to differentiate for dyslexia for example don’t always take into account organizational difficulties. So it’s important to make allowances and help students organize their work and their time so that they can give more brainpower to learning effectively.

*(Filing system) – This is why it’s important to choose and stick to a simple method for keeping a record of the work produced. Teachers need to consider whether it would be better to have an exercise book or a folder for example. There are fors and againsts every system, dyspraxic students may find it difficult to stick paper into a book, ring binders need clearly titled sheets and frequent ‘tidy-up’ sessions are necessary to avoid losing papers. Ringbinders can also be difficult for dyspraxic students to use, it is easier for them to place sheets into a simple wallet. Although ringbinders can be useful for students who appreciate writing on a sloped surface.

Whatever system you decide on I would suggest using a particular colour scheme per school subject. So for example I provide my 5th years with blue folders for English as their textbook is blue, whereas their maths exercise book has a red cover; like their maths book.


* (Worksheets) – These days it’s rare to see students spending a lesson copying from the board, which is fortunate for all students not just those with issues concerning dyslexia. However it’s not just a question of replacing note-taking with a handful of handouts. Work should be clear and spread out to avoid looking cramped, Mindmaps and diagrams are a good way of conveying information for all students.

dyslexia-friendly fonts such as comic sans ms actually suit most students, and specific fonts such as dyslexie font are freely available to download. Some students find the glare of black print on white paper disturbing, so using pastel colours rather than white paper can be useful, and a simple solution for this is to use recycled paper, which as well as helping the environment is also not as bright as “new” paper, and is easier on the eye.



* Useful tools – include blue tack which can be handy for sticking paper to the table so that students find it easier to write on, it’s also a great noise-free fidget toy!

A window-pane card (like this one) can help a student concentrate on specific part of the page, rather than being overwhelmed. Dyslexia-friendly rulers which come in different colours provide the dual function of delimiting the work to be studied and dampening down that black-on-white glare I spoke about.

Finally, something which is important for all students is

*Routine – it’s not just students with (ASD) autism syndrome disorder who benefit from a clear routine, a lot of students are not at ease in the classroom especially if everything is happening in a language they don’t necessarily understand, and having lesson stages written clearly on the board at the start of a class, so they know what they will be doing and when they will have finished is very reassuring.


So after looking at organization methods, there are many tweeks we can make to our teaching that can make life easier for students with SpLDs.

(2. Teaching & Learning)

*Instructions – should be crystal clear, and you should of course avoid complex strings with multiple steps. I think it’s important to write them up on the board if that is possible, I know it may feel like a cop out but the student that wasn’t paying attention wasn’t using that moment as a learning opportunity anyway and now they can’t do the work and will disrupt others until they get back on track. Another thing I think is important is not to be afraid to use L1 when giving instructions, or indeed when necessary in the classroom. As a teacher you need to think of your objectives at various stages during the lesson, and if your aim is to have all the students telling their neighbor all the English words for fruit they can think of, and the quickest, most efficient way of getting that to happen is by using their L1 (if you can) then that will keep everyone on track. It can also be useful to look at and speak directly to students who have attention issues, and use their name when possible. It is a good idea to use students with SpLD as your partner when modeling an activity.



*Avoiding Writing – is relatively easy in the language classroom where we want to spotlight speaking anyway. However do remember that many students with SpLD may also have issues with short-term memory and so will need extra time to prepare and express their thoughts even orally, try using techniques such as think-pair & share (where you give the student a moment to think before talking to their neighbor and finally sharing their ideas with the whole class).

We are lucky that in the language classroom there are loads of ways of avoiding writing during final production or assessment, as I said oral doesn’t necessarily mean easy, so allow notes, or give students the choice of producing posters, films, or songs, as an alternative to letters, essays, etc.


*The language classroom is the perfect place to teach students social skills than certain SpLD (such as ASD- autism syndrome disorder) may affect. Using role plays or teaching emotions in English can be an excuse for actually teaching what facial expressions correspond to specific feelings. For example by presenting photos and asking the students how that person might feel and why they might feel that way. Role playing social situations such as being in a restaurant or arriving late for class can help students not only with their language but with their ability to deal with these situations when they arrive in real life. This can be even more important if the class is planning some change in the routine, a visit to a museum for example.


*(Differentiation -) Although recent publications have referred to the creative and imaginative abilities of students showing signs of dyslexia, it’s important to remember that not all students with SpLD (or even all those who show signs of dyslexia) are creative genius. Saying that, creative work is one way to enable differentiation in the language classroom although when doing manual craftwork or cutting out bear in mind this can be challenging for dyspraxic students for example. One way round this is to use their work as your example when you show the class how to do an activity, basically you are doing their cutting for them while avoiding embarrassing them. Other techniques such as project-based learning, philosophy for children, logo-visual and creative thinking can be very helpful in encouraging all students to produce fantastic work in the language classroom, and can enable gifted students to stretch themselves without leaving the rest of the class behind. Providing a box or file of suitable activities for fast finishers is a great way to stretch the more able and quicker students.


*(Homework )– A lot of students with SpLD have to work extremely hard all day just to keep up, so think about ways of giving homework that avoid too much writing, definitely no “finish the work set in class” type homework as that just penalizes slower students. Take advantage of devices, to set activities such as taking a photo of what is in the fridge to practice food or quantities, ask them to send you a tweet, record themselves talking, etc. Collaborative homework activities can be more motivating, and with technology students are quite able to work together from home, for example to brainstorm vocabulary for the next lesson. On the subject of brainstorming avoid activities such as “think of as many… as possible” with ASD students who have a tendency to take you at your word, instead give a specific time such as “that you can think of in ten minutes”.


  1. Classroom management is always an important issue in any classroom, more so when you have students with very different behaviours within one group.

The first method of ensuring effective classroom management is obviously by providing challenging but not demotivating work for all the students in the class, and hopefully we have looked at ways of doing that in the previous section.


*(Pick your battles )–Concerning discipline I think it is important to have a minimum number of rules and make sure that both the rules and the consequences for breaking them are simple and clear for the students. Use reward charts as well as sanctions, and always be sure to give students a way to “buy themselves back”. For example I give students two jokers per term for any forgotten homework or books etc, after they have used these jokers the school sanctions kick in, but they can always “buy” more jokers by doing extra activities, so in fact to avoid punishment for not doing homework they are effectively doing extra English at home, which suits my objectives and gives them a feeling of being in control of their situation.


*(Exit Route) – It seems obvious but it is important not to back any student into a corner (physically or metaphorically) where they feel they have no choice but to lash out, especially those with ADHD (attention deficient hyper-activity disorder) who can be very sensitive to impressions of injustice. Always provide them with a back-out route, by give them the choice of behaving correctly or doing a different activity, (written work rather than group work for example) and avoid calling them out in front of their peers.

Set up a secret signal with students who risk aggressive behavior, for example allowing them to leave the room or go to the bathroom if necessary.

If things do degenerate then tell the student you will discuss the situation with them at the end of the class, when both of you will have had time to calm down and hopefully you will have come up a solution.

If you can feel things bubbling up and it’s possible, ask the student concerned to go and run an errand, do some photocopying, etc. A few minutes break may be all they need to get back on track.

*Group work – is not the be all and end all of language learning, despite what we have been led to believe over the last few years. We ourselves often work individually or with people of our choice so why not allow the students to do the same? Suggest but don’t force groups and if the dynamics aren’t working then offer a different set up.

* (Movement) – I personally can’t sit still for hours, so don’t expect your class to, especially if they are coming to you from a class where they had to do just that, or it’s after a long school day, for example. Incorporate activities where they have to get up and move about, such as class questionnaires, or running dictations, etc It can be a good idea to allow fidget toys, or at least not insist that all the students put down their pens and sit facing the board like soldiers.


One of the most important things to do with all students, especially teens and extra-especially students with SpLD is as many activities as possible that raise self-esteem, what student wouldn’t want to feel good in the classroom or what teacher wouldn’t want to have students who are happy to be there?

For example ask your students to write a list of five positive adjectives to describe themselves, get them to tell the class about their most difficult challenge/their talent/ etc. This can help you get to know your students better and referring back to their talents in future lessons will reinforce their self-esteem.