When introducing new content to students with learning difficulties, instruction may need to be adjusted in the following ways:
Break learning down into small steps
Avoid making big conceptual leaps or moving through new content too quickly. Break them down into smaller steps than for most of your students. Focus on teaching and then embedding the key knowledge and skills that students need to know before moving onto the next step. Ensure that your instruction is clearly sequenced, cumulative and well structured.
Make clear links between new ideas
Explain things clearly and in a way that makes the connections between existing knowledge and new knowledge explicit.
Help students focus their attention
Check-in regularly with students that have trouble focussing their attention and ignoring distractions, so that they are accountable for their progress on a task. Try asking things like, 'Show me where you will be up to when I come back in 10 minutes.'
All students benefit from teaching being presented, and opportunities to practise, using multiple modalities (for example, auditorily and visually) instead of just being written. Teaching concepts using multiple modalities can help students to demonstrate their understanding before explaining it in sentences. It can also assist them to explain new ideas or share this knowledge or skills with others.
Ask recognition questions
Students with learning difficulties may have trouble rapidly retrieving information so that answering questions can be difficult and may even create a sense of fear for some. It is important that all students feel able to contribute to class discussions, so scaffold your questions carefully for struggling students and provide as much support as needed to facilitate a correct response.
Ask a recognition question first. For example, 'Would you call this … or …?', and then follow up with recall questions once the student's knowledge has been stimulated.
Have students explain images
When a task or text has images, you can encourage the student to describe what each image shows. They could name the items in an image or make observations about these items and the links between them.
For example, 'The
next to the
Help students to recognise what they have learned
The purpose of doing a task is to change what students know or can do. It is important that students understand this. After they have finished a task, teach students to ask, 'What did I learn? What do I know now that I didn't know before?'
For example, a student's reflection after reading a non-fiction book about cats might be: 'Before, I thought that all cats were pets. Now I know that there are pets and wild cats. There are also "big cats", which are wild, like tigers and lions. I didn't know that tigers and lions were also cats.'
Helping students to recognise what they have learned helps to build their confidence and self-efficacy as readers. It also shows students that they can be successful and motivates them to persevere with other activities in future.
Make sure the student can explain or show you what they know once they have finished the task, to ensure they fully understand. This type of teacher-student dialogue will help students with learning difficulties to transfer this knowledge from their short-term working memory to their long-term memory.
Create a safe space in the classroom
Many students with learning difficulties will be anxious about responding to questions and initiating tasks in their learning. This can prevent them from fully benefitting from activities and tasks designed to extend them. Calling on non-volunteers is one helpful strategy to facilitate this environment.
With scaffolding, encourage students to take risks in their literacy learning. For example, when they encounter a new word ask them, 'What do you think this could mean, based on the rest of the sentence?' Encourage them to consider links between other words they know and to think about the steps they have already taken. It is important that this is done in a positive way without consequences or value judgments (such as asking a question one-on-one instead of in front of the entire class).
Give students time to think
Providing students with enough time to process information and respond is important, particularly for students with learning difficulties. Avoid rushing students by allowing a little extra time but balance this with not letting struggling students stay for ‘too long’ when responding.
Provide regular, immediate and corrective feedback. Acknowledge what the student already knows or has done, discuss this in positive terms and then point them in the direction of what they need to know or think about next.
Teach language skills
Students with learning difficulties often have trouble thinking about texts and their meanings in different ways. This is because much of their cognitive energy is taken up with simply recognising and reading the text. This means that, compared to their peers, struggling readers may be missing out on opportunities to build their vocabulary, general knowledge and sophisticated use of language.
Gradually teach students new ways of thinking and the language for describing these actions. For example, prompting students to, 'Say it in another way' or 'Create a picture in your head'. When students learn to do this, and can use these actions when instructed, you will be more able to direct their thinking moment to moment.