Learning Disabilities In EFL

It’s hard to know what to do when someone in your class seems to be having more problems than others. I’ve worked with a couple of people who may have had learning disabilities – and had a roommate with whom I had a few informal language exchange lesson, who only later told me she had dyslexia. I felt bad because I’d given her something to read, but how could I have known?

I think teachers certified in their own country (as public school teachers, etc.) probably have at least some training in this – the CELTA doesn’t really cover it, and realistically, while it seems like human decency to do your best to provide some reasonable alternative for someone with a learning disability, there are often not that many other choices. Despite my large mental index of classroom activities, I don’t really know what I would do if told I was to teach someone with a specific learning disability; I could guess (and I’m reasonably clever, believe it or not) but I just know so little about the variety of learning disabilities that I doubt I’d be very effective.

I think some people are placed in a level that’s too low if they have issues with reading. I also think learning disabilities are – very widely – not topics that people bring up, even when it might seem to be to their advantage to do so, and even in countries where learning disabilities are seen in a more realistic light. Many EFL teachers also work with students for a relatively short period and may not have as much of an opportunity to make an educated guess as to whether or not a student is dealing with a learning disability.

Similar issues (slower progress for no clear reason) may come up in English speaking countries – perhaps there are some people who never attended school or never learned to read or write in their own language. They don’t have a learning disability, but there are literacy skills involved which may go beyond the means of a typically trained EFL teacher.

In any case, it makes sense to me that the longer you teach, the more likely it is that you have come into contact with a student with a learning disability. It would be an interesting and potentially useful field to learn more about; maybe it would turn out that students who just seem slow in fact have a learning disability and there are appropriate, practical ways to address this. It came to my attention that the Chicago organization where I did some preliminary ESL training – Literacy Works – started offering a workshop on this topic and on the off chance that any readers are in Chicago, I encourage you to go.