What's the Difference -- Slow Learner or Learning Disabled?

Why is it so important to be able to identify the slow learners in a class as opposed to those children with specific learning disabilities? After all, we have had the ill effects of labelling stressed on us ad nauseam. Everybody knows the old self-fulfilling prophecy experiments from college days. What you expect to get is exactly what you will get. Social justice and inclusive curriculum advances have also contributed to our awareness and sometimes even our wariness of special needs kids. What then can be possible benefits of identifying these two quite specific groups?

There is only ever one justification to labelling a child with a specific tag. That is to ensure that the level of service and support provided to that child is markedly improved. As the learning needs of these two groups are quite different, it is important to make correct identification for programming needs.


A slow learner is a child of below average intelligence, whose thinking skills have developed significantly more slowly than the norm for his/her age. This child will go through the same basic developmental stages as other children, but will do so at a significantly slower rate. However, this development, while being slower, nevertheless be relatively even.

On the other hand, a child with specific learning disability, is one of average or above average intelligence who has specific difficulties which can make learning very difficult. There may be deficits in any of the basic central nervous system functions, which have to do with the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning or mathematical abilities ie attention, memory, language, auditory and visual perception, motor coordination and planning, spatial orientation, impulse control and sequencing. In short, if there is a discrepancy between the child's potential and actual achievement.


Slow Learner

1. Developmental
-- may have immature language patterns or speech problems

2. Social
-- poor judgement, immature social behaviour, prefers company of younger children

3. Personal
-- frustration, aggression, anxiety

4. Academic
-- may show proficiency with particular tasks rather than a subject areas, poor memory, difficulties understanding several steps in a task

5. Learning
-- needs to have new information linked to old, difficulties transferring information learned in one situation to other situations.

Learning Disabled

1. Academic
-- reading -- confuses similar words and letters, loses place, repeats words, does not read fluently, persists in using fingers to follow along, does not like to read

-- spelling -- uses incorrect order of letters in words, it has difficulty of associating correct sound with appropriate letter, reverses letters

2. Mathematics
-- has difficulty associating number with symbol, cannot remember number facts, confuses columns and spacing, has difficulties with story problems, has difficulty comprehending maths concepts

3. Physical
-- perceptual motor difficulties
-- visual perception difficulties
-- poor visual decoding
-- general coordination deficits (balance, eye -- hand)
-- poor auditory memory (difficulty following sequence of directions)
-- attention deficit
-- mixed dominance (hand, foot, eye)
-- lack of adequate eye movement control

4. Psychological
-- emotional instability (violent reactions)
-- difficulty learning by ordinary methods
-- low social acceptance (disturbed peer relations)
-- low self-concept/self-esteem
-- general disorganisation (time and actions)

5. Social/emotional/behavioural
-- hyperactivity (gross, noisy, constant movements)
-- hypoactivity (quiet, nervous, fidgety)
-- impulsivity
-- poor concentration span (distractability)
-- low frustration tolerance
-- emotional lability (highs and lows)
-- seems paradoxical (may remember past events in minute detail is I cannot remember number facts and spelling just learnt, may build the most intricate models that may be so clumsy s/he trips over his/her feet, make other most fanciful stories start cannot sit still long enough to hear one)

There are similarities between the two groups e.g. errors in number and letter production, reading errors, behavioural aspects, but the differences are what influence the type of instruction used.

How to cope in the classroom

Chances are that your school will have access to the services of a support teacher and a guidance officer. However, chances will be high that the demands on both these people will be extreme and they will be loathe to take on new kids. However, if you can show that you have really tried to accommodate these kids by trying as many of the following suggestions as practicable, s/he is much more likely to see that his/her assistance is genuinely required. And you never know, you might not even need extra assistance once you've tried a few things yourself.

Consider these suggestions

1. Alternatives to traditional home work tasks. Homework is an endless source of problems the kids and their parents. Remember, this child has probably worked twice as hard as every other child just to keep up through the day and does not need another couple of high stress hours when s/he gets home. Modify tasks, or if this is too time-consuming, cut back the amount a child has to do. Minimise written work in particular.

2. The opportunity for intensive sessions with the child, using individual or small group sessions. Overteach! You may think you will die of boredom and frustration by remember, you're being paid for this! Use interesting, challenging, self-correcting, extension work for the rest of the class while you spend time over teaching (NOT overtelling)

3. Allow the child to use crutches e.g. reminders stuck to the desktops, markers to keep place, taped readalongs, calculators

4. Consider alternative responses and assessments. Do more oral work and have short, easy to read/write assignments.

5. A good supply of reference books and supplementary readers appropriate in terms of interest level and competency level.

6. Teach the child specific reading techniques e.g. pre-reading routine, word attack technique, self-correcting skills and give very specific instructions to a teacher aide if you are having him/her work with this type of child.

7. Try implementing a Parent Tutor program, Peer Tutor program, Teacher Aide program (although remember to give you a plenty of training and very specific instructions when working with LD children)

8. Praise the child at every opportunity. Grab every chance to let this child shine in in the classroom. LD children, in particular, show learning abilities as well as disabilities.

9. Implement a buddy system to ease your supervision of daily work. But do you let the child choose his/her own buddy -- within reason

10. Chat to the child. Let him/her know privately that you are on his/her side if she/he keeps trying for him/herself

11. Chat to parents. Let them know the same thing and see if they have any extra information that will help you. Engage their help in providing a quiet, well organised place a home in which the child can work and in supervising home tasks. But remember, don't make it too onerous. Find plenty of positives to talk to them about the same time as the problems.

12. Adjust your expectations. Slow learners will always be behind their chronological peers -- which doesn't mean they can't be expected to improve. It just means it will be slow. LD children can, with the right help, be expected to attain chronologically appropriate academic levels in time.

Many of these suggestions will be more suitable to either the slow learner or the learning disabled child. It is important to keep in mind that many will help both groups as long as the overall type of instruction is different. Systemic developmental instruction paced at a rate consistent with their learning ability is best for slow learners. Highly specialised remedial instruction focusing on the specific learning disabilities is needed for the LD child.

It is vitally important to make your classroom are safe and non-threatening environment for all the children in your class. Everybody needs to understand that you do not under any circumstances put people down and that you will not tolerate anybody else doing so. Model on a daily basis warm, supportive praise statements for every child in the class. It is hard work for some kids but there is always something and you will soon find the children copying your supportive behaviour. Encourage children to help each other with daily tasks but be prepared for a little more class noise. It will be worth it when you see just how nurturing and supportive even the most hard-boiled child can be.

A thought in closing -- there are children who are slow learners who also have specific learning disabilities. The story is almost too complex to contemplate so if you suspect you have one of these, scream in your best to abandoned teacher voice for the support teacher and guidance officer. After all, classroom teachers have to survive too!

Karen is a trained support teacher in learning difficulties, with 10 years experience. She is also a published freelance writer. Reprinted with kind permission from SPELD QLD Inc

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