The sudden switch to online learning, now happening in many countries, could potentially disadvantage students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs). In the rush to set up various digital platforms, employ different tools and assign tasks, the needs of students with SpLDs might be ignored or temporarily delegated to the background.
Judit Kormos is a Professor in Second Language Acquisition at Lancaster University, where she is the director of the MA TESOL distance programme. She is the lead educator in the Dyslexia and Foreign Language Teaching MOOC, offered by FutureLearn. In this blog, Judit will give practical ideas for how to assist students with Specific Learning Difficulties in the first stages of online learning; so they can meaningfully and successfully engage with online tasks. We’ll look at key challenges of students with SpLDs and offer solutions for how teachers can help in overcoming these challenges in online learning. These approaches and techniques can hopefully be useful for every learner and promote inclusive online learning.
It is crucial to ensure that students with SpLDs do not fall behind in the early stages of moving to online learning. That they get the relevant support even when their home becomes the classroom.
Supporting online learning
Learners with SpLDs often struggle with planning their learning and understanding how to complete tasks in face to face contexts, even when they are explicitly told by teachers what to do. As SpLDs often run in families, the chances that they can get parental support, particularly in the area of language learning, are even smaller than for other children. Therefore, it is crucial that when online learning is set up, they are well supported. There are many ways to do this, including:
- Explain clearly in a step-by-step manner how various platforms work. How to log in, where tasks can be found, and in what order they need to be completed
- Students need time to adjust. Introduce things slowly, give reasonable deadlines and only assess work after students have adjusted to the new learning environment
- Dedicate special tasks, online forums, and hold online discussions on how to learn at home. The initial language learning activities can be about useful strategies for organising work at home. For example, you can assign videos to watch that give some useful tips. It is crucial to establish a learning schedule within a day, as well as for a longer period, such as a week. This can be done as part of a group discussion or through individual support
- If possible, have one-to-one meetings or small group meetings with your students who have SpLDs. Check how they are coping and give them assistance in getting started and staying engaged in online learning
- Assign a peer mentor for students with SpLDs who can help them. Extra credits, bonus points, etc. can be awarded for support if you think that’s appropriate in your context.
Students with SpLDs often have a shorter attention span and might find focussing on learning activities challenging, particularly at distressing times. To help them you can do the following:
- Break down complex tasks into smaller steps
- Stagger instructions for students with SpLDs so that they get a sub-task for each day; or at a specific interval which will then lead to completion of the final outcome
- Show your students how to use time management techniques, such as the Pomodoro Technique. Ask them to find apps on their personal devices (e.g. smartphones) that can help implement it. The Pomodoro Technique is a controlled way of asking students to stay focused for a set of specific periods, interspersed by breaks.
Adapting written instruction
Students with SpLDs often have reading difficulties. When teachers send instructions for online learning, these are mostly in written form. To help them, consider the following:
- Make sure instructions are short, concise and clear. Ensure they are arranged on a page so that the steps and stages are clearly visible
- If possible, send instructions in a format where the students can easily reformat it for their needs (i.e. don’t send PDFs which are difficult to reformat)
- If you have the means and time, read the instructions for the students and send the sound file together with the instructions. It is even better to prepare a short screencast or video explaining how things work or how tasks should be completed
- Given time pressures and other priorities, this might not be feasible. Show students how written text can be converted to speech on phones or laptops; for example, Microsoft Word has a read-aloud function.
It is crucial to ensure that students with SpLDs do not fall behind in the early stages of moving to online learning, and that they get the relevant support even when their home becomes the classroom. For further ideas on how to help students with SpLDs in language learning, please see Kormos, J. (2020). Specific Learning Difficulties in ELT, part of the Cambridge Papers in ELT series. Or visit here for more information.
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