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Everyone Can Learn: Strategies for Teaching Adults with Learning Disabilities

  • Everyone Can Learn: Strategies for Teaching Adults with Learning Disabilities

The following blog post was written by Emily Albertsen, a faculty member at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement.

Recently my colleague Jennifer Acevedo and I participated in a two-day workshop on adults with learning disabilities and ADHD. This workshop was part of the LIFE: Learning is for Everyone series of professional development workshops offered by Calgary Learns. The workshop was delivered by Dr. Anne Price, Ph.D., R. Psych., Director of Clinical Services at CanLearn Society. 

Part one of the workshop focused on adults with learning disabilities. 10 per cent of all people in Canada and at least 30 per cent of adults in foundational learning and literacy programs have a learning disability. Learning disability is a term for a complex and heterogeneous group of processing disorders that include dyslexia (severe difficulty in reading) and dysgraphia (severe difficulty in writing).

To learn about part two of the workshop, read Everyone Can Learn: Strategies for Teaching Adults with ADHD

While everyone has different strengths and everyone experiences challenges in learning at some point, learning disabilities are different. People with learning disabilities perceive information in the same way, but they process it differently. Neuroscientists have been able to detect real differences in the structure of the brain of someone with a learning disability. Their brains are wired differently and process information in different places.

Some facts about learning disabilities

  • LD are lifelong: there are strategies for learning but there is no “cure”.
  • LD are usually found in people of average or above-average intelligence: people with learning disabilities are NOT less intelligent.
  • LD are a pattern of uneven abilities: each person will have strengths in some areas and challenges in others.
  • LD are an information processing difficulty.

Learning disabilities can affect:

  • the processing of sound
  • language
  • visual spatial perception
  • speed
  • memory
  • attention

What does this mean for instruction? While some things in an educational setting are going to be more challenging, people with learning disabilities can learn if they are given effective instruction, strategies, and support.

Strategies for effective instruction

Be clear and explicit
  • Break your instruction into small, manageable pieces.
  • Demonstrate or model what you are teaching.
  • Guide your learners in practicing new learning.
  • Give specific feedback.
  • Allow independent practice.
  • Gradually remove support (scaffolding).
Give intensive instruction
  • Give instruction on the same topic for a longer period (can be broken up into shorter sessions).
  • Allow time for teaching individually or in small groups.
  • Engage your learners: frequently ask questions that elicit interactions, physical responses, or reflection and thought.
Give extensive instruction
  • Identify key words and ideas.
  • Review frequently.
  • Explicitly teach vocabulary and recycle frequently: a learner needs to meaningfully engage with a word at least twelve times to learn it.
Teach strategies for reading, writing, and learning
  • Teach how to approach tasks.
  • Teach ways to learn.
  • Teach steps for planning, performing, and reflecting on learning.

Dr. Price also gave examples of effective ways to teach reading and effective tools for teaching comprehension, many of which will likely be familiar to instructors of foundational learning and ELL:

  • Teach phonological awareness (the awareness and manipulation of the individual sounds of language).
  • Teach learners how words are formed (morphology), such as common prefixes, suffixes, and endings.
  • Teach word attack strategies.
  • Help learners to develop reading fluency.
  • Use comprehension tools such as KWL charts, Venn diagrams, concept webs, and other graphic organizers.

Attending this workshop was an excellent experience. It was packed with information and practical strategies for instruction to help meet the needs of all learners in our classes. These instructional strategies are critical for supporting people with learning disabilities, but they are also excellent strategies for English language learners, ESL literacy learners, adult literacy learners, and in fact all learners.



Your and Jennifer's blogs are of great interest for someone who works in a literacy program. What I find discouraging is 30% of adults in foundational learning and literacy programs have a learning disability and fewer than 20% of adults who have ADHD are diagnosed. What is encouraging is that the strategies for effective instruction that you listed are approaches that most instructors are aware of and use. One always hopes that, although we can't cure the problems, we can at least make the classroom more accommodating and pass on strategies that will help the learners outside of the classroom and in their future.

Emily Albertsen

Hi Don,
Thanks for your reply. This is a subject I am just learning about but I also found it discouraging to see how many adult learners in literacy programs have a learning disability. I can't help thinking that the educational system has let them down their entire lives for them to now be in this position. Like you, I found it heartening to see that the strategies for teaching someone with an LD are very similar to the strategies for teaching ESL literacy. I hope that we can continue to find ways to teach ALL learners in our classes.