Tag Archives: learning difficulties

Consulting Pupils on the Assessment and Remediation of the Specific Learning Difficulties


  • To consult with primary and post-primary pupils on their level of participation in the assessment and remediation of their specific reading difficulties
  • To share ideas and findings between the two partners of the project via e-mail and face-to-face meetings
  • To work with Northern Irish and Southern Irish research partners to understand what constitutes good practice in collecting and analysing research data
  • To provide opportunities for young people in Dublin and Belfast to exchange information about their learning experiences

To empower the young people involved in this project in becoming more fully involved in designing, implementing and evaluating their education plans.


Makaton: an introduction

Makaton is a language programme which involves speech and gesture, eye contact, body language and facial expression.  It is based on a series of basic everyday words and uses speech as well as gesture and/or signs.  Children who may be experiencing difficulty with their speech often find it much easier to understand and communicate using gesture and/or symbols, thus helping prevent frustration and opening up new ways for children to communicate with others.

Makaton was developed in the 1970s to help children with learning disabilities to communicate.  Its use has spread however to many other children too who may, for a wide range of reasons, be experiencing difficulty communicating for short or longer periods of time.

Makaton is introduced in stages, beginning with basic words and progressing to more complex words and concepts.  In every case it is recommended that the choice of core or supplementary vocabulary be personalised according to the experiences of the individual child.

Further information can be obtained from the Makaton Charity website.  Here there are links to training resources and also information about the (truly excellent!) award-winning BBC television series Something Special whose presenter Justin Fletcher (now a patron of the Makaton Charity) was awarded the MBE for his services to children’s broadcasting in 2008.

Global Developmental Delay: what is it?

Global Developmental Delay (GDD) is a subset of developmental disabilities with early onset and relates to children who experience significant delay in two or more developmental domains (e.g. gross/fine motor, speech/language, cognition, social/emotional) compared to their chronological peers.

The term GDD is often reserved for younger children (under 5 years of age).  The prevalence of GDD is uncertain and disputed but is estimated to be between 1 and 5% of children.  The causes of GDD are varied but often relate to chromosome and genetic disorders such as Down Syndrome or fragile x syndrome, or may be due to abnormalities in spinal cord or brain development such as spina bifida or cerebral palsy.  In some cases the exact cause of GDD remains unclear.

Children with GDD may miss developmental milestones in two or more of the following areas:

  1. motor skills: children may be late in developing gross motor skills (such as sitting up) or fine motor skills (such as picking up smaller objects)
  2. speech and language skills: children may be delayed in understanding language and in producing language or gesture (such as babbling, imitation)
  3. cognitive skills: children may be slower to develop their skills in reasoning, memory, learning new things
  4. social and emotional skills: children may be delayed in their ability to interact with others

It is recognised that early identification is centrally important to enhancing the future development of children with GDD.  Increasingly children with GDD are identified at, soon after or even before birth, so that intervention support in the form of physiotherapy, occupational therapy or speech and language therapy can be put in place from an early age.

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.

Teaching pupils with Moderate Learning difficulties

  • In some schools breakfast and lunch clubs appear to be effective.  Pupils are paired with volunteers from higher ability classes.  Special libraries of graded books are used and pupils work their way through them.  Records are kept and pupils/tutors make a note for each book read.  Certificates and progress awards are presented.
  • To teach spelling use techniques like finding the little words in the big one, breaking words into syllables, clapping the rhythm to work out syllables.
  • When writing Education Plans make the targets specific and related to general reading, writing, spelling tasks needed in all cross-curricular areas, e,g, improving certain aspects of punctuation, learning high frequency words, writing a story with a beginning, middle and end.

Useful techniques

Picking out key words/key facts in a written piece of information
Brainstorming/Mind Mapping
Subject dictionaries
Word walls
Cloze procedure
Matching activities

Severe or Complex Learning Difficulties

In the past pupils with severe learning difficulties or complex needs would have been placed in special schools. This is not always the case now and increasingly pupils with severe physical disabilities are joining mainstream classes. It might be reasonable to suggest that the SENDA legislation will make this much more possible in many cases. Most pupils will have a medical diagnosis and will have had medical intervention since a very young age, but it is important to remember that some conditions, e.g. muscular dystrophy, may not be diagnosed until the early years of school. In addition to their physical problems, these children may or may not have learning difficulties. It is also important to remember that the needs of children with physical conditions may change over time, more so than with their able-bodied peers.

There is likely to be a large team of professionals and carers involved in the life of a physically disabled child and it is important that each knows and understands what the aims for the child are. They should all be working towards the same purpose. One way of helping this liaison might be to use a folder into which each person places their reports and which is owned and carried by the child.

Although it may seem obvious to consider such things as access and motability, other things need to be thought about such as the dignity of the child in terms of toileting, seating and feeding. In addition, it is extremely important that the whole ethos of the school is about inclusion; not just integration in terms of the child being physically present in the class, but about him/her being part of the class. The child’s medical and physical needs are part and parcel of how he/she will access the curriculum and should therefore be a consideration when planning.

A baseline needs to be established from the point of view of each area of need. The EP should then be constructed with input from all the involved professionals and will include educational, physical, therapeutic, medical and behavioural targets. This will enable overlap where teaching in one area can help in another. Each professional may well have to prioritise the targets to suit their particular role.

Teaching Strategies

People who can help: SENCO/Resource Teacher


Further Information

Including Pupils with SLD in the Numeracy Strategy

Multi-sensory Rooms

Teaching and Learning with Pupils who have Severe Learning Difficulties

Innovative ways of electronic access to curriculum

Moderate Learning Difficulties (MLD)

This is likely to be the most common difficulty present in the pupils in your class.  Pupils with this problem are usually performing at a significantly lower level than their peers in reading, writing, spelling and sometimes numeracy.  A learner with MLD is likely to be struggling with both the content and the presentation of their work.  There is no identified specific reason for this difficulty.

This problem may not be apparent in a child’s early years and the severity of the difficulty may only become obvious when children start to undertake standardised tests.  Moderate learning difficulties tends to be diagnosed on the basis of an IQ test.

If the IQ is 70 or below, give or take a few points, then the child is considered to have MLD. A teacher usually can tell it’s  MLD  when the pupils are ‘slow’ in all areas – i.e. it’s not just language ability that is affected but they are slow to pick up new concepts, maths is weak, and the difficulties occur across all areas of the curriculum.

Pupils with MLD are likely to be in the early stages of the Code of Practice (N.I) and are most likely to be taught mainly within the class but may be withdrawn for short periods of time each week.  They will have Individual Education Plans with specified targets on them relating to their particular difficulties.

Case Studies
Teaching Strategies
People who can help: SENCO/Resource Teacher;

Further Information


Learning support guidelines

These guidelines published in 2000 are an attempt to ensure that suitable early intervention procedures are in place to enable all children achieve appropriate levels of literacy and numeracy on leaving primary school.  The guidelines are intended to  help schools  plan and  consider whether they are provided the best approach for children with learning difficulties.  They are intended to help class teachers, learning support teachers and parents work together to help the children.

The guidelines deal with development of policies, the role of the principal, resource teacher, learning-support teacher, class teacher, identification of pupils needing learning support, planning support programmes, individual planning and use of specific methodologies for literacy and numeracy support.

Further Information

Learning-Support Guidelines can be purchased from:  Government Publications, Postal Trade Section, 4-5 Harcourt Road, Dublin 2,  telephone 01-6613111 ex 4040

Draft guidelines for teachers of students with general learning difficulties

This is a set of 3 books which give extensive information, advice and guidance to teachers teaching pupils who have a range of special educational needs.  Book1 is designed for teachers of pupils with severe and profound disabilities who are most likely to be in special schools.  Book 2 is for teachers of students with moderate disabilities and Book 3 is for teachers of students with mild disabilities.  Books2 and 3 would be most useful for teachers in mainstream schools.

The books begin by outlining the general aims of education in an inclusive educational system.  They explain the role and responsibilities of all those involved in educating pupils and give guidance on how to produce suitable policies and teaching plans.  They also give a lot of guidance on teaching strategies within and across subject areas for both primary and post-primary teachers.

Further Information


Case Study: Literacy

Image of footballer I particularly like Lexia for phonological training where literacy problems require it…..
When Jamie was assessed last year at the end of fifth class I think all of us who had taught him felt some guilt. Not so much for his lack of attainment; we all knew about that and could, to some degree, put it down to poor attendance and inattentiveness when he was present. What got me and, I think, my colleagues were the indications of very low self-esteem. He is a very talented athlete and I had always tried to build on that but the psychologists’ report made it plain that he still saw himself as a failure at school and a disappointment to his teachers and family. We all realised that Jamie had been one of those children who dealt with his learning difficulties by keeping his head down and avoiding notice where more troublesome peers got more attention and whatever help was going.

Image of Light Bulb I decided to focus first on reading and, although the indications had been that he would never manage a phonological approach to reading, I believe that Lexia has brought considerable improvement. Much more significantly, however, I discovered that he had an interest in electricity and I set him up with a free program which I had downloaded from the ‘net which he could use to set up virtual circuit boards with switches, bulbs, motors, buzzers etc. Pretty soon the child who had spent his school life silently avoiding any contact with classroom activity was asking permission to bring friends into the resource classroom to show what he was doing. On the day of the Christmas holidays we had a small party in the room for all the “resource kids” and they were given a range of games and toys to play with. Jamie only wanted to go to the computer with a friend to continue a project he had been working on.

At the end of that day, I happened to be in his classroom when he was leaving. He went out then stuck his head back in and shouted “Happy Christmas, everybody!” There would have been nothing remarkable about this from another child but the class teacher and I just looked at each other. We both knew that there was no way that last year’s Jamie would have done the like in a century of Christmases. Jamie’s progress in academic areas continues to be slow but definite. I am convinced that the change in his self image has everything to do with his progress in other areas.