Special Needs and ELT

27 Jun

I wonder what experience many EFL teachers have of working with learners with special needs.

My own experience is fairly minimal – about seven years ago I did a placement test interview with a student who was partially deaf.  It sticks in my mind because I found it difficult to understand the student and I was obviously concerned not to confuse my lack of understanding with any weaker language areas the learner displayed.

Since then – nothing.  At least nothing that I’m aware of.  Until about four or five months ago when I began to notice that one of my learners was doing an awful lot of hiding in the classroom, her written work displayed some very odd errors – a lot of letter transposition and L1 phonetic spelling of L2 items – and her assessment scores were weak, particularly her reading.  I began to wonder if she might be dyslexic.

Now at this point it gets a bit tricky.  My own view is that if I was a parent and my child’s teacher suspected dyslexia, I would want to know about it.  But this isn’t always the case.  Personally I don’t understand why not – dyslexia doesn’t suggest any lack of mental faculties – just a different way of accessing the world around you.  Nevertheless, it is not always easy to predict the reaction of parents to the implication and as my DoS pointed out, I have no training in this area and am in no way qualified to state with any degree of certainty whether dyslexia is an issue or not.

On reflection I have to wonder why not?  I don’t mean why am I not qualified – the reason there is because I trained as a teacher, not as an educational psychologist.  What I mean is why aren’t learning difficulties covered in teacher training courses?  When I did my DELTA six years ago – we were asked whether any of our schools had a policy related to learning difficulties – only four people put their hands up and we all worked for the same school.  I suspect that most schools would argue that they are generally inclusive and therefore don’t need a policy.  Fair enough.

But I think that CELTA, DELTA and MA ELT courses should include components on teaching learners with learning difficulties as standard.

As an addendum to this story, my student’s mother came into school to see us the other day.  Having had something of a battle to get things arranged and appointments made and so forth, my learner was recently diagnosed with dyslexia.  Frankly, I see this as a brilliant step forwards – because now we can help her move forwards in her learning more effectively and she can stop hiding.

Further Reading & Resources:

Naomi Epstein runs the “Visualising Ideas” blog sharing her ideas and experiences teaching deaf and hard of hearing learners (amongst other things!)

Michael Strong “Language Learning and Deafness“, Cambridge University Press

E. William Clymer & Gerald P. Brent “English for International Deaf Students: Technologies for Teacher Training and Classroom Instruction”  a downloadable pdf from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology.

Sue Swift “Helping Students with Learning Disabilities: Part One” from the ELT Notebook blog, and there’s the second part here: “Helping Students with Learning Disabilities: Part Two“.

Gemma Ormerod’s summary of the #ELTChat on “Teaching Dyslexic Students

Sharon Turner writes as a dyslexic English language teacher, describes what it can be like to be dyslexic and offers some very useful advice for teachers on how to help dyslexic learners in her post: I am Dyslexic and It’s now a blast!

Chris Wilson shares his resources and handouts from a seminar on Dyslexia he gave, as well as links to yet more useful resources.

Chris Wilson also created and links to the IH Young Learners group Dyslexic Learners Linoit – a sort of cork board of guidance and links for teachers of dyslexic learners.


10 Responses to “Special Needs and ELT”

  1. Aniya Wednesday 27 June 2012 at 11:13 #

    Interesting post, personally I haven’t had to deal with it professionally as a teacher, but personally yes, my youngest son although 21 now is autistic. That said I know of a teacher who had to deal with a high functioning autistic “person” and she found it a real challenge. As special needs goes on the whole, I think yes that there should be a more in-depth look whilst teachers are taught on courses. Obviously courses are not going to be based totally on special needs but an insight would surely help. Aniya

    • David Petrie Thursday 28 June 2012 at 10:37 #

      Hi Aniya,
      You’re right – it’s perhaps unrealistic for teachers to become experts in the field of special needs – I think though, that what I would like to see is that teachers being given a starting point. At the very least an overview of how to help dyslexic learners or strategies for helping other special needs students, but ideally much more than that!

      • Aniya Thursday 28 June 2012 at 12:39 #

        Hi David, I agree on at least addressing the situation and giving input for the basics. It’s probably easier for us so called “social” teachers as we can look/find info on most of the major social networks, but there are so many teachers who are not tech savvy and I think a lot of the time that’s where the problem lies, not enough info for our offline colleagues, so courses ought to start the trend introducing at least a base of info to go on. Special needs is just that, but the “special” always seems to have been forgotten. I could tell a tale or two.. Aniya

  2. Sharon Turner Thursday 28 June 2012 at 09:17 #

    Thank you for raising the issue here. I am an ELT educator who is dyslexic. I agree that learners need help when they are processing differently to the others around them. It is important we get involved. However any help also needs to praise the dyslexic learners strengths. Often it is treated as a disability which is possibly why dyslexic people hide. I know I have hidden it until recently because of the stigma attached. I was so pleased in this article that you appreciate that there is nothing wrong with the person’s mental facilities. After seeing so many dyslexic students still being treated like a disease I finally ‘came out’ as dyslexic. Here is the post I wrote celebrating the strengths as well as some simple techniques that teachers could use to help learners: http://www.sharonzspace.com/?p=425

    • David Petrie Thursday 28 June 2012 at 10:53 #

      Hi Sharon,
      Thanks for sharing your post – great reading and some really useful advice – I’ve added it both to the post above and on Chris Wilson’s IHYL dyslexia linoit.
      I do find the reaction of people to dyslexia completely mystifying – both parents and some teachers have frankly bizarre reactions, though this latter may be more historical than current. I’ve heard apocryphal stories of teachers taking the view that dyslexia is just a scam for students to get more time on tests and that it’s just laziness. Similarly I’ve heard of some parents who refuse testing or diagnosis because of the stigma attached and would rather their children suffer through school than be “labelled”. To an extent I can see the point that there are sometimes dangers in “labelling”, but I just don’t understand such a strong reaction!
      Again, thanks for sharing your story,

  3. Simon Thomas Friday 29 June 2012 at 06:53 #

    Hi David

    Thanks for this post – I agree that time should be spent on how to deal with learning difficulties; it’s an issue that does arise in classes from time to time.

    I think one problem might be the brevity of the CELTA course; furthermore, there is the danger of making incorrect diagnoses, which could well hinder a student’s progress rather than helping them, and the problem of social stigma – once labelled as having a (potential) learning difficulty, the student, or their parents, may feel shame, and may resist the label even at the expense of their development… And, of course, where do you stop with the training? After all, there are all manner of mental (and physical) health problems one might encounter.

    Nonetheless, I feel inadequately prepared to deal with common problems which affect learning (like dyslexia, ADSD, or even depression) and whole-heartedly agree that at least basic training (in spotting symptoms, in learning how the problem might affect learning, and in providing some basic assistance) should be given – either via initial teacher training courses or through subsequent (and compulsory) in-house CPD workshops, led by an expert. I think we also need to be taught both not to be too hasty about, or certain in, our provisional diagnoses, and how to broach the subject with students, their peers, and their parents or guardians.

    Hope all is well and best wishes!


    • David Petrie Friday 29 June 2012 at 14:13 #

      Hi Simon,

      Sorry, I’m not suggesting that teachers should be trained in special needs or dyslexic assessment – that requires a degree of time and specialisation that, as you point out, wouldn’t be possible to incorporate into most teacher training courses, especially not a 4 week CELTA! Teachers are teachers, not psychologists!

      What I’m suggesting is that as teachers are invariably in a good position to notice when signs of a learning disability present themselves, that they should receive some training in what those signs are. At least that way the teacher can involve the parents and potentially trained psychologists who would be in a position to make a formal diagnosis and the child would be more likely to receive the help and support they need.

      I also agree wholeheartedly with your points about training teachers to assist learners in the classroom and in broaching the subject with parents or guardians – this is also what I think should be covered in teacher training courses.

      All the best,

      • Simon Thomas Friday 29 June 2012 at 14:44 #

        Sounds very sensible to me – couldn’t agree more!

        Will send you an email this evening, too.

        All best wishes


  4. Rita Maria Pecorara Friday 23 September 2016 at 10:45 #

    Dear All,

    I’ve just found this blog by chance, and I’m now wondering if I can still make contacts with you or it’s too late…

    I’m writing my Delta 3 Assignment on a SEN area (teaching blind students), and I’ve been struggling to find materials and/or people who could give me any kind of support, or share experience. I know mine is a so-called low-incidence disability, but I see it’s hardly ever addressed, and personally I think we should actually focus on areas like this one too.

    While we are not expected to be experts at all kind of SEN/SEND areas, we should all get overall training on learners’ disabilities, so to have at least an insight of the problems – as some of you mentioned before.

    My question is: regardless the work I’m doing now for my Delta, do you know if there are any specific qualifications on teaching SEN/SEND students in ELT?

    Thank you in advance for your help and for this blog!


  1. Why teacher training courses should include work on learning difficulties | efl-resource.comefl-resource.com - Friday 29 June 2012

    […] should include work on learning difficulties Posted on 28 June, 2012 by Simon Thomas David Petrie presents his case and shares some very useful links about helping students with various learning difficulties.Share this post:Bookmark on DeliciousDigg […]

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