Making the ELT classroom work for learners with special educational needs
9 October 2019

How can ELT teachers support international English language students who have dyslexia and other specific learning differences?

With Dyslexia Awareness Week and English UK's Student Experience Conference this Friday, we asked Anne Margaret Smith, director of ELT well and co-ordinator of the IATEFL Inclusive Practices & Special Educational Needs special interest group, for some tips on supporting students in the classroom.

What is neurodiversity and dyslexia? How many students in an ELT classroom might have specific learning differences?

Anne Margaret suggests roughly 10% of students in a class might be neurodiverse, with dyslexia or another specific learning difficulty:

  • Neurodiversity is an atypical way of processing information and an unusual way of perceiving the world
  • Dyslexia is about processing phonological input, affecting memory, organisation and processing speed.

Find out more at and or on Facebook at IPSEN.SIG

How do you identify ELT students with dyslexia or forms of neurodiversity?

The first step is to be more aware of what dyslexia and other specific learning differences are, and how they affect language learning, says Anne Margaret. "Secondly, they need to get to know their learners – that's true for all teachers and learners – and find out how they work, how they work best and what they find challenging. Teachers could do some very informal evaluation in a class and just check out which students have got good memories, and which need a bit more time to finish tasks. We need to know their strengths as well as their difficulties."

She added: "I would always recommend doing this at the beginning of a course or when a new learner starts. You could get them to write for five minutes in their own language, because for some students that's a scary thing. You might pick up that their literacy development in their own language has been patchy, and start a conversation asking whether they find this challenging. You might find a reason why their literacy hasn't developed.

"It's important to keep communication open and reassure them that you're not going to chuck them out of the class, but help them succeed." This is important, she says, because in a lot of countries students with learning differences are excluded.

Will ELT students have been identified with specific learning differences in their own countries?

"Specific learning differences are rarely identified before students come to the UK. In a way, we don't need a formal identification – we need to know how they are working and their areas of strength and difficulty," says Anne Margaret.

How can ELT teacher identify differences and help neurodiverse students to succeed?

Anne said: "Students might need more time to process information or they might have poor memories, organisation or sequencing."

"There are things you can do in the classroom that make it more accessible for everybody. The good news is that whatever you do to make lessons more inclusive is good for everybody. That's been backed up by research. Good practice is good practice.

"It's about making small changes in the classroom that will make learning easier for everybody, but particularly for those students who have additional challenges."

Tips and resources for teachers to support ELT students with neurodiversity and specific learning differences (SpLD)

Simplify giving instructions

Give time to understand instructions and give one step at a time, not six in a row. If the activity is complex, list the instructions step-by-step on a board or screen

Consider the lighting in the classroom

Some of your students may be sensitive to the flicker of fluorescent bulbs. Could you get a daylight bulb that replicate natural lighting? Could you seat affected students closer to the window?

Create groups with different skill sets for group work

Combine talents so that good writers are with someone who is less good at writing, but is full of ideas "so they do better than either would individually."

Improve the ease of reading textbooks

Make some text windows – L shaped pieces of card which can be put on the page to block out everything except what the student is focusing on. "You don't have to present your neurodiverse student with them: anyone who wants to use them can." download a text window template +

Provide extra time in exams if necessary

Anne Margaret says she is sometimes shocked when teachers can't get adjustments for students with special educational needs from international exam boards, but says it can be hard to get formal evidence. She has developed an assessment tool which works with non-native speakers of English, and recommends a pre-IATEFL conference event in April 2020 focusing on inclusive and accessible assessment, run by the SIGs IP&SEN and TEA.

Discover expert advice to enhance the student experience

The Student Experience Conference on Friday 11 October in London will focus on student inclusion outside the classroom and supporting students facing exclusion.

Anne Margaret will also provide training for teachers on identifying dyslexia in multilinguial learners in London and York next year. The sessions will empower you to identify the learning needs of students and put appropriate measures in place to assist with any difficulties.

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