Learning Difficulties It would be nice to think that an ESL

It would be nice to think that an ESL teacher could enter the classroom with a friendly smile, the appropriate warmer and a well- planned lesson, and the result would be a room full of students progressing continually in their language skills. However, with a task as great as learning English as a second language, the experience is rarely that easy. Learning English has its’ own unique difficulties, and it profits the ESL teacher most if these challenges are explored and prepared for before entering the classroom. One such challenge is students with learning disabilities; when it is believed that a student has a learning disability, teachers must consider diagnosis and appropriate teaching methods.

It can be hard to make the decision to evaluate students for a learning disability when they are learning English as a second language. Mainstream teachers may believe any problems an ESL student has stems from a lack of language skills, while the ESL teacher may think the student has other issues besides the lack of language skills, and in other cases, the reverse may be true. It is hard for either to make the first move towards suggesting that a child has a learning disability because there are so many factors to consider; however, no should leave the matter unexplored. It should be every teacher’s goal is to see each student progress, so it is imperative that teachers seek the best ways to help each child. One aspect of helping a student would be to not unnecessarily attribute the label of learning disabled; therefore, teacher will want to rule out any other factors that might be hindering a child’s language progress before suggesting a learning disability.

1) Is the teacher somehow responsible' The teacher has to examine teaching habits, materials and interaction with the student to be certain everything possible is being done to ensure the child should be able to understand the material.

2) How long has the student been speaking English' The child may be going through a silent phase, just absorbing information.

3) Do the parents speak any English at home'

4) What kind of personality does the student have' Is the child shy, reserved, introverted or loud and active'

5) Is this merely a behavior issue' Some children need different kinds of attention for various reasons. For instance, some are angry because their parents put them in this learning environment.

6) Could there be a physical impairment, such as, hearing problems, poor eyesight, even illness'

7) Consider what stress or pressure the student may be experiencing. For example, many Asian parents put their children in several other classes after the regular school day ends and on weekends. These parents may be requiring their children to learn a third language, have tuition classes with teachers of various dialects, and learn music, art and a sport. These students stay up late and get up early, and this will affect their progress. This is not an exhaustive list; ESL teachers must try to know their students and be understanding, yet, after these and possibly other factors are ruled out, it is a good idea to look more closely at what is causing a lack of progress. Susan Litt, author of “Learning Disability or Language Development Issue',” suggests in the fore- mentioned article that a “prereferral process” take place. Litt says:

oIdentify the problems experienced by the student.

oIdentify the source of the problem.

oPresent the problem to the [necessary person or group at your school]. The ESL teacher should attend the meeting along with the classroom teacher.

oInvite the parents to the meeting.

oDevelop a plan of action at the meeting to be implemented by all concerned parties.

oHave a follow-up meeting to discuss the effectiveness of the proposed interventions and how they worked or didn’t (Litt, “The Prereferral Process”).

Once the above steps have failed to help, the next step is to refer the student for diagnostic testing. There are again many factors to consider when it comes to testing. Everyone involved should be sensitive to the parents and student; it should be clear that this is a positive step and not a negative one. They should be reassured that the child’s best interest is in mind, the outcome is not necessarily permanent, re-evaluation will take place and changes will be made whenever necessary. If a school does not have diagnostic tests, those available to schools should be researched and selected carefully, or the school should contact a specialist. It is best if the test is in the student’s native language; unfortunately, there are many cases where this is impossible, and in such cases, a trained interpreter should be used, not someone related to or friends with the student in question (Litt, “Assessing the ESL/Bilingual Student”). Ideally, the testing would be done by trained professionals, as well. This, too, will not always be possible, so it is important for teachers of ESL students to get educated about various types and combinations of learning disabilities. Teachers can determine the source of some language difficulties. One distinction that must be made is whether the learning difficulty is due to learning or language problems (Litt, “Questions to Determine Learning Disabilities”).

oHas the child’s problem persisted over time' If the child has a language problem, errors in his/her oral language skills will improve over a period of time. If the child has a learning problem, his/her skills will not improve.

oHas the problem resisted normal classroom instruction' If the child has received explicit instruction in the problem area and still does not improve, it is probably a learning problem. oDoes the problem interfere with the child´s academic progress'

oDoes the child show a clear pattern of strengths and weaknesses' Does the child have good oral skills but poor written skills'

oIs there an irregular pattern of success' Does the child seem to get it one day and not the next' Affirmative answers to these questions most likely mean that the student has a learning disability. It is also important to note that if the problem the child is having exists in both the first and second languages, it is also likely that the child has a learning disability (Litt, “Questions to Determine Learning Disabilities”). There is a wealth of information from which teachers can glean in order to search for answers and ways to help students with learning difficulties and far too many avenues to list in a short article, but one helpful source that is short and concise is written by Christine Root, a professor of Harvard University. She is the author of “A Guide to Learning Disabilities for the ESL Classroom” in which she references several other authors in order to inform those involved with ESL students about “classroom behaviors associated with several learning problems, the results of research into them,” and “practical suggestions to classroom teachers (Root, 1).” Although, a caring teacher will peruse many sources for information, this article is a good place to start to get a glimpse into the complexity of learning disabilities and the hope that can be offered to students with learning problems. Once it is determined that there are learning disabilities, the teacher will want to set about planning to meet the student’s needs, assuming this is possible, and the student does not need to be moved to a specialized school. To begin with the teacher/s will need to keep in mind that this student is not lazy, nor does the child need to try harder (Root, 13); it is the responsibility of those helping this child to make all the effort to help the student progress. The learning climate may need to change. The classroom should not be too distracting, and the student should be seated in the front of the room, so the board and the teacher can be in clear view. Tasks will need to be planned differently, and strategies will need to be explored (Root, 13). Modifications can be made in the way material is presented and tested. To help a student learn and study, the teacher might hand out vocabulary cards with pictures and add pictures to notes and tests. The teacher should try to present the material both orally and in writing; the student should be given an outline or notes. When speaking, the language should be simple and unvaried; the student may be confused if the teacher chooses different words or sentence structure when repeating instructions. It is vital that information be organized and structured; it helps if it relates to past experience and builds on knowledge the student already has. The teacher must model the language and not force speech. Many of the teaching methods are similar to those of any language teacher, yet the student with learning difficulties needs more simplicity. This student may not need to repeat the activity; “it may be a matter of having [the student] do it differently. (Root, 13)” It is most important that the ESL student with learning difficulties receive plenty of time, patience and encouragement. They should be re-evaluated to determine how their needs can continue to be met. These students are in an extremely challenging situation, learning in a foreign language when learning is difficult for them in the first place. It is vital to the learning disabled students that teachers continue to be students themselves and always be researching and studying what might best help their students. Painfully, occasionally, a student cannot be helped by the ESL teacher, and that student must move to another learning environment better equipped to meet his or her needs, but when a student can be helped in the ESL classroom, it is the teacher’s obligation to make every effort to make progress possible. The task may seem too daunting, but it is worth every effort, and the results may be life changing for the student in need.


Litt, Susan. Learning Disability or Language Development Issue'. 17 December, 2006.

Root, Christine. A Guide to Learning Disabilities for the ESL Classroom. TESL-EJ Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language. Volume 1, No. 1. April 1994. 17 December, 2006.