Learn about Specific Learning Disabilities
Getting to Know Thomas
For most primary one students, words like "bed, bad and dad" are pretty simple; but for Thomas, remembering the spelling of these words can be an ordeal. Thomas used to get up at six every morning to practice his spelling. But all that hard work did not pay off - he always failed.
Thomas finds it impossible to master spelling because he:
- has difficulty understanding the relationship between the letters and the word
- is frequently confused about direction and time
- has a tendency to reverse letters, like writing "b" instead of "d"
- always forgets what he has learnt
Thomas' experience is a real life example of what we call Specific Learning Disabilities (SLDs). To help Thomas overcome these difficulties, his parents employ a range of techniques. To tackle his "b" and "d" reversal problems, his parents use a lot of visual and tactile cues, such as asking Thomas to use his fist (palms facing body, knuckles together and thumbs up) to check the direction of the letter "b" and "d" and writing out the words correctly with the tricky parts highlighted for him. Although he still has difficulties memorising new words and makes mistakes like writing "dread" for "bread" now he can write "bed" and "bad", "dirt" and "bird" with accuracy. To help him acquire new vocabulary, Thomas is asked to come up with a "favourite word" each day that is significant to him so that he can remember it.
Thomas' parents know that their efforts alone are not enough, so they have taken the initiative to communicate with the school. As a result, the teachers have become more aware of Thomas' limitations and abilities, and he now receives special guidance and accommodations to cope with his learning difficulties. He is given extra time when he sits for exams, and the teachers have also modified a learning plan for him. Gradually, Thomas has come to enjoy life, in a mainstream school.
Specific Learning Disabilities
According to the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, specific learning disabilities (SLDs) refer to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested as significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual and are believed to be related to some particularities of the individual's central nervous system. There are several types of specific learning disabilities, such as specific language impairment, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia. The most prevalent type of learning disability is dyslexia. Although students with SLDs are generally of average or even above average intelligence, they may have problems such as:
- Short attention span
- Difficulty in reading, spelling or copying words
- Frequent confusion about direction and time
- Inconsistent performance
- Speech problems
- Poor co-ordination
- Tardiness in response
- Difficulty in understanding and following instructions
Some of these problems can be found in all children at certain stages of development, but when a child has a cluster of symptoms which do not disappear as he/she gets older, it may be an indication of SLDs. Educators are reminded that typical students with SLDs may not display all of the above features.
How should I interact with children with SLDs?
Positive reinforcement often produces encouraging results; tolerance and understanding can help students rebuild confidence in themselves. The following may also be beneficial:
- Maintain communication with parents to help them better understand how to assist their children to tackle the problems they are facing
- Assist the students to work independently by teaching them how to organise and solve their problems step by step
- Initiate to reach out to students with SLDs
- Understand the strengths and weaknesses of the students and let them lead suitable activities where appropriate
- Create a support system for the students
- Ask questions from different angles and set clear goals for students
- Expand and contract sentences according to the comprehension level of the students
Educators should avoid using pressure in soliciting answers or response when the students show great unwillingness to do so. Making jokes about the students' mistakes or imitating his/her behaviour can cause great harm to the relationship between the educator and the student, as it will destroy the students' confidence in the educator.
How can I make my class inclusive for students with SLDs?
To assist students with SLDs to learn and/or enjoy school life, some adjustments are necessary. Some children with SLDs may need certain adjustments in teaching methods whilst others may require special accommodations in performance assessment. For example:
- Adopt multi-sensory presentation such as using handouts, overheads, audios and videos where appropriate
- Allow students to record notes in alternative ways, including audio-taping lessons
- Explain in both oral and written formats
- Reduce workload according to the students' needs
- Teach skills related to phonological processing and sound/symbol correspondence
- Where appropriate, make special arrangements for examinations such as extra time, alternative formats and alternative modes of assessment
- Provide extra tutoring or remedial classes for particularly difficult topics
Not all of the above accommodations are needed for students with SLDs; they are only suggestions of possible accommodations that can be provided to students with different types of SLD. The key is to provide accommodation according to the needs of the student.
DDO and the Code of Practice on Education
The Disability Discrimination Ordinance (DDO), effective since 1996, protects persons with a disability from discrimination, harassment and vilification on the ground of their disability.
The Ordinance makes particular references to the field of education to ensure that persons with a disability have equal opportunities in education. It requires educational establishments NOT to discriminate against students with a disability and to make reasonable accommodations to address their special needs. Such accommodations may include adjustments in teaching, communication, and assessment methods. The DDO also prohibits harassment in educational establishments, including harassment of students with a disability by other students. The law binds the government, educational establishments and their employees, and in the case of harassment and vilification, even the students.
The Code of Practice on Education under the DDO was issued in July 2001 by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) to provide guidance on the legal requirements under the DDO in the field of education. It serves to assist educational establishments in developing policies and procedures that prevent and eliminate disability discrimination, and educators in making provisions for students with disabilities. It covers a wide range of practical guiding principles on matters such as admission, providing access, curriculum design and assessment.
The Code is an aid for providers and recipients of educational services. It helps the providers to better understand what constitute non-discriminatory good practices in education, and the recipients to understand their rights and obligations.