Moderate Learning Difficulties: unravelling the confusion


In 1978 the Warnock Report introduced the term ‘moderate learning difficulties’ (MLD) to replace the formal term ‘educationally sub-normal to a moderate degree’ or ESN (M) introduced in 1945.  Ironically, although one of the main aims of the Warnock Report was to move away from a medical model in which children were labelled according to their deficits and to move towards a social model focusing on individual provision according to the individual needs of every child, this single label of MLD has  become associated with a very wide range of children and even with a particular kind of special school setting.  The term MLD itself has traditionally been loosely defined and receives much less attention than other special educational needs such as children with specific learning difficulties (such as dyslexia) or autism, despite the high numbers of children identified as having MLD (see figures below).

The NI Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs (DENI 2006) makes only general reference to learning difficulty, noting that:

The term “special educational needs” is defined in the legislation as “a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made”. “Learning difficulty” means that the child has significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of his or her age, and/or has a disability which hinders his or her use of everyday educational facilities. (p.1)

Some confusion is undoubtedly caused by the fact that in the Code of Practice the term “learning difficulty” clearly embraces both physical and learning disability.  Furthermore, the Code of Practice does not proffer any definition of moderate or severe learning difficulties, noting only that for children with learning difficulties, “Their general level of academic attainment will be significantly below that of their peers. In most cases, they will have difficulty acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills and many will have significant speech and language difficulties. Some may also have poor social skills and may show signs of emotional and behavioural difficulties.” (p.69)  The Code acknowledges that for children with severe or profound learning difficulties, there may already be considerable information available to schools from health and social services who may have been involved with the children from birth.  This concurs with the suggestion by Fletcher-Campbell (2005) that most children’s moderate learning difficulties are identified only once they begin formal education (rather than before).

In England the Department for Education and Skills provided a useful definition of moderate learning difficulties in 2003, and here there is a move towards a focus on purely intellectual difficulties:

Pupils with moderate learning difficulties will have attainments significantly below expected levels in most areas of the curriculum, despite appropriate interventions.  Their needs will not be able to be met by normal differentiation and the flexibilities of the National Curriculum.

They should only be recorded as MLD if additional educational provision is being made to help them to access the curriculum.

Pupils with moderate learning difficulties have much greater difficulty than their peers in acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills and in understanding concepts.  They may also have associated speech and language delay, low self-esteem, low levels of concentration and under-developed social skills.


Recent Department of Education figures in Northern Ireland (2007/08) reveal that there are 1576 children with MLD (as their type 1 need) in special schools, 3681 in mainstream primary schools and 3689 in mainstream post-primary schools.  Of the 8946 children with MLD in Northern Ireland’s schools, 5601 (or 62.6%) are boys.   Children with MLD often have one or more other special educational needs as well.  In one study (see Norwich and Kelly, 2005) it was found that those pupils with MLD in special schools were more likely to have other additional areas of difficulties: for instance 75% of the pupils with MLD only were in mainstream schools, while the remaining 25% were in special schools.  For pupils with MLD and two other areas of difficulty, there were only 29% in mainstream schools with 71% in special schools.  In this sample only 16% of pupils with MLD had no other associated difficulties.  The range of other possible additional needs is  extensive but in this study the most common difficulties were language and communication difficulties, motor impairment and emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Any attempt to make international comparisons is also thwarted by considerable variance in definitions across national boundaries.  In New Zealand, for instance, the term MLD refers to children with IQs between 35-50, while in Hungary the IQ range is 51-70  for what is termed as ‘educable mental retardation’.

Classroom pedagogies

The discussion above makes it clear that it is unwise to assume any form of homogeneity within the “category” of moderate learning difficulty.  There is a concomitant need for teachers to address the individual needs of individual children in their classrooms, whether in mainstream or in special school contexts.

Notwithstanding the individuality of the child with MLD, the uniqueness of the setting, the nebulous nature of definitions and the international variance in recording, a number of basic classroom pedagogies should be considered.  As ever, the key is critical reflection by the teacher and continual adaption to meet the individual needs of the learner.  Some strategies might include:

  1. A differentiated approach in the classroom, especially in a mixed ability mainstream setting (e.g. more support through worksheets).  In Northern Ireland the new curriculum offers greater opportunity for flexibility of approach through its statements of minimum entitlement replacing the more prescriptive Programmes of Study.
  2. Attention to grouping of pupils to ensure that pupils with MLD are encouraged and supported by their peers.
  3. The use of lots of visual aids as pupils with MLD often experience significant difficulty with literacy and numeracy (see definitions above).
  4. Effective use of classroom assistants (where present).
  5. Effective use of Individual Education Plans to identify, achieve and review targets in specific subject areas.
  6. Encouragement and praise where possible.  Pupils with MLD often experience low self-esteem which can become a significant barrier to learning.
  7. Close liaison between the school and parents/family of the child with MLD.
  8. Other useful strategies are common to the teaching of children with or without any special educational need (for instance: thorough planning, structure, creativity, use of motivational tools, ability to grasp and retain the attention of pupils, variety and pace of methods, respect, rapport, subject knowledge etc).

Final questions to consider (Any responses welcome):

– To what extent is the term moderate learning difficulty a useful one?

– To what extent is there a need for a clearer definition, or is there an agreed working definition in practice anyway?

– Given the push towards inclusion, to what extent do we still need separate schools for children with MLD, and if so, is the MLD badge the most appropriate one?

Suggested further reading:

Fletcher-Campbell, F. (2005) ‘Moderate Learning Difficulties’, in A. Lewis and B. Norwich (Eds.) Special Teaching for Special Children, Maidenhead, Open University Press.

Norwich, B. and Kelly, N. (2005) Moderate Learning Difficulties and the Future of Inclusion, London, Routledge-Falmer.