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Identifying Specific Learning Differences

Anne Margaret Smith talks about identifying specific learning differences and advice on what to look out for
Hi. I’m Anne Margaret. I’m an English language teacher and also a dyslexia assessor. I’m going to talk today about how language teachers can start to identify specific learning differences in the learners in their classroom.
Identifying Specific Learning Differences, or SPLDs, in our learners is never easy, and particularly if you don’t share a first language with them. However, if you’re working with a student and you feel that he or she isn’t progressing as fast as he or she could, and that she’s not responding in the same way to your teaching as the other students, it may be that the difficulties are due to a cognitive difference, perhaps a specific learning difference, like dyslexia.
In this video, I’m going to talk about some of the issues that we need to consider when assessing a student for SPLDs, or assessing to rule out SPLDs, and suggest some things that teachers can do in the classroom to make a start, perhaps before handing over to a qualified assessor, if one is available. You may understandably feel a bit reticent about giving the student a label, especially with younger learners who are still developing their self identity. But sometimes it can be empowering for a learner to understand more about his or her own cognitive profile.
If the student does have an SPLD, it may be possible to put in place appropriate interventions and exam access arrangements, which could make a huge difference to their confidence and achievement. Even if it turns out that she doesn’t have an SPLD, it’s always well worth investigating what the barriers to learning are to see how you can help him or her to learn more effectively.
There are a number of issues to keep in mind, depending on the context in which you’re teaching, not least a range of cultural, linguistic, and emotional issues may mimic the signs of a specific learning difference. So the best starting point in any assessment is to find out as much as possible about the background of the student, to see if there’s any other way of accounting for the effects on language learning that you’re noticing.
Of course, if you’re working with students from your own cultural and linguistic background, it may be easier to identify any differences in learning patterns and behavioural patterns than if you’re working with a multicultural group or with students with whom you don’t share a language. In the latter situation, some interaction patterns may seem odd to you, but may be the result of cultural norms which are different from yours. For example, how people make and maintain eye contact varies around the world, as do the norms around turn taking. Perhaps the most obvious difference, and one that language teachers are usually aware of, is the effect that the first language can have on the acquisition of learning subsequent languages.
What may seem like a lack of phonological awareness or a problem with phonological processing may actually be the result of transferring phonological knowledge from the first language. The kinds of errors that typical language learners make when using a second language can be very similar to the kinds of errors dyslexic people make when using their first language. So we need to be very careful not to jump to conclusions. For example, if a monolingual English-speaking child misses out small words like prepositions or articles when writing and puts words in the wrong order, misspells common words, or run sentences together, particularly in written text, there may be an indication of an SPLD.
However, these are all very common language learner errors that we expect to see in our students’ written work. And unless there are other non-linguistic indicators, we shouldn’t consider them to be too significant.
Some students may be feeling the impact of an emotional upheaval, especially if they’re studying in an ESL or ESOL context, having relocated from a difficult situation, and are perhaps still feeling the strain of finding their way in a new environment. Our emotional well-being has a very great impact on our ability to learn. I know from experience, and I’m sure most teachers do too, that when we’re stressed, we may have trouble sleeping. And this may lead to lapses of memory, concentration, organisation, looking very like dyslexia in some ways. May only be temporary, however, rather than a lifelong characteristic.
I always recommend that any assessment process starts with observation. And this can be made more systematic by keeping records of what you see and feel to be indicative of an SPLD. Using an observation schedule means that you have more concrete records, rather than just your gut instinct to work with. You could also enlist the help of other members of staff, both classroom staff and those who see the learner in another context, to help you decide what the significant patterns of behaviour actually are. So what should we be looking out for? Well, some indicators of SPLDs are easier to detect than others.
If we remember that there is a great deal of overlap between the SPLDs, we might find that it’s easier to notice coordination issues in the classroom, such as irregular handwriting, or speed of processing issues. I think that most teachers, when they get to know their classes, start to notice which of their students need more time to complete tasks or to formulate answers to questions. Maybe the student’s interaction patterns stand out as being very unusual, even when taking into account his or her home cultural norms.
Perhaps you notice that a student is very intolerant of changes in the environment, whether that’s lighting, temperature, or noise, or that she seems to be constantly fidgeting and tugging at clothes, as if they’re constricting or uncomfortable. The student who’s always disorganised, turning up late with the wrong books, and seeming to present their ideas in any random order may have organisational or sequencing issues. Any combination of these signs may suggest a specific learning difference is present.
The period of observation can be followed up with a conversation with the student in which you find out how he or she perceives the situation. The observation notes are a useful starting point for this. Or, you could ask the student to complete a questionnaire, perhaps with some help. And in the case of younger learners, send the questionnaire to their parents too to see what their impressions are. We need to approach this quite carefully, of course, so as not to cause any upset or tension in the family. I would always broach this as our way of getting to know our students better, so as to be able to help them learn more effectively.
If from these initial inquiries we can’t account for the difficulties we have noticed, we may decide that it’s worth conducting some more formal assessment, perhaps administering some diagnostic tasks. There are a number of issues to keep in mind here too. For one thing, if you are working with students whose first language is not the majority language in your context. So if you’re working with people who have moved to the country where they’re learning, you need to be aware that many of the standardised tests used to identify dyslexia and other SPLDs in that context may not be valid for your learners.
They will probably have been trialled and normed on groups who are relatively homogeneous in terms of linguistic profile and educational background. Instead, you may be better using assessment material that has been designed specifically for multilingual learners, even if it’s not standardised and takes a more holistic approach from that usually required for a formal assessment. The CAMEL materials are an example of this kind of assessment suite.
If the student has had the opportunity to learn to read and write in his or her strongest language, it’s worth exploring how well he or she can do that and how easy it was for him or her to learn. Simply asking the learner to read out loud a text that has been written in this language can give a good indication about how confident and fluent she is with reading. Of course, some languages are much more regular than English and don’t pose the same kinds of challenges in reading as our deep orthography does. So it’s worth exploring whether, if she can read fluently, can she remember anything of what she’s read?
Similarly, asking the learner to write for 10 minutes in the language that she feels most confident using can reveal how quickly he or she can produce text and also show up any issues around handwriting, pen control, and spatial awareness in the text layout. Actually, I used to do this with all my classes when I was teaching ESOL. It was a really nice group bonding activity and showed up pretty quickly any students who may have literacy issues in their first language. In terms of the amount produced, we can only really compare within language groups.
So if you want to know what a typical performance might look like in a particular language, you can go to the ELTwell website and find the latest data there.
You could also do some group activities around memory. And keep an eye out for anybody who’s really struggling with retaining information. This can lead into discussions of effective memory strategies, which all learners can find helpful.
So even if you’re not a qualified assessor, you can still find out a lot about how your students learn and establish the pattern of their strengths and weaknesses. Observing how well organised and coordinated they are, noticing their memory spans and their speed of processing in class tasks, and finding out about their literacy development are all things that any teacher can do. This might eventually lead to a formal identification of an SPLD, or it might not. What it will do is signal clearly to your learners that you are interested in supporting them and perhaps give them the courage and the motivation to keep learning, even when they’re finding it tough going.

In this video Dr Anne Margaret Smith discusses how language teachers might spot signs of learning difficulties in the language classroom.

Identifying learning difficulties among multilingual speakers especially if no diagnostic tools are available in the students’ first language is not an easy task. Nonetheless, it is not impossible and the lack of first language test tools should be no excuse for giving up on diagnosis. The lecture provides you with advice and suggestions what to look out for among your learners and when you might consider seeking help from a trained and qualified dyslexia assessor.

Even if there is no assessment available for your learners yet, you can still make adjustments to your teaching and apply the teaching techniques we recommend in further steps of this week, and in Weeks 3 and 4.

  • Have you used any of the methods described in the video for identifying learning difficulties in your classroom?

  • Do you have some additional tips and suggestions?

Please share those with us in your comments.

In addition to the Cognitive Assessment for Multilingual Learners tool, you can also find some phonological awareness tests on the website of the Literacy Resources Inc.

You might also read more about it in Phillips, Kelly and Symes’ (2013) book: Assessment of Learners with Dyslexic-type Difficulties.

Transcript of this video is available in Chinese and Arabic.

This article is from the free online

Dyslexia and Foreign Language Teaching

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