Alternative Teaching Strategies for Students with Learning Disabilities

SNOW – Special Needs Opportunity Window ( )

Learning disabilities are often an invisible handicap. Students with learning disabilities do not have a hearing or visual impairment, a physical disability, or below average intelligence. However, they demonstrate difficulties in the following areas with regularity over an extended period of time:

  • receptive language (listening, reading), language processing (thinking, conceptualizing, integrating), and expressive language (talking, spelling, writing)
  • mathematical computations
  • visual, auditory, motor, organizational and/or conceptual skills
  • focusing attention, leading to uneven or inconsistent performance
  • behaviour (often immature, impulsive, and egocentric)
  • self-esteem and social skills (including fear of school)
  • an inability to produce answers (even when there is mastery of content)
  • cognitive style (often careless, disorganized, impulsive, off-task)
  • comprehension (may seem satisfied with peripheral understanding and may misinterpret what constitutes completeness)
  • time management.

The Ministry of Education and Training provides the services of four provincial demonstration schools for Ontario children with severe learning disabilities ( Amethyst School in London , Centre Jules Léger in Ottawa , Sagonaska School in Belleville and Trillium School in Milton ). These schools aim to develop the students’ academic and social skills so they can return to their local school boards within two years.

In addition to providing residential schooling for students with severe learning disabilities, the provincial demonstration schools have special programs for students with severe learning disabilities in association with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD). These are highly intensive, one-year progams. The Trillium School also operates Learning for Emotional and Academic Development (LEAD), a special program for students with severe learning disabilities who require an additional level of social/emotional support.

Students who are eligible for admission to a Provincial Demonstration School , but who wish to remain in their home schools, may apply for alternative educational program (AEP) funding. AEP agreements are resourced and monitored by the Provincial Demonstration Schools.

Motivational Strategies

  • check papers by marking correct responses rather than those that are incorrect
  • give immediate reinforcement of correct responses
  • keep graphs and charts of student’s progress.

Presentation Strategies

  • use many modalities, e.g., oral presentation, board notes, overheads, diagrams, class discussion, activity-based learning
  • give instructions after eye contact has been established. Instructions should be clear and concise; sequenced logically; verbally rehearsed by student (“what should I do?”; reviewed after a time lapse; written on board or in notebook
  • organize assignments so they are broken down step by step; outlined in writing, both in student’s homework book and on chalkboard
  • use a direct teaching method and teach in small, incremental steps, from simple to more difficult
  • encourage students to question for clarification and additional information
  • avoid using figurative language unless it has been specifically pre-taught
  • provide extra time to complete assignments that might otherwise be completed in class
  • give students several short assignments rather than one long one
  • check with the student frequently to give help before frustration begins
  • give the restless student opportunities to move. Some students need physical movement, e.g., rocking or tapping, to concentrate
  • use experiential, concrete activities to teach abstract concepts.


  • use a direct teaching approach, e.g., phonics, trace and pronounce a word simultaneously
  • use special materials, e.g., high interest low vocabulary reading material
  • reduce the quantity of material.

Writing and Note Taking

  • Students who have difficulty with written work may have problems transferring what they see into a written form because of motor, memory or processing difficulties, so teachers should consider:
  • negotiating written assignments. Allow students to write less and allow more time for the work to be completed
  • teaching the elements of a proper/acceptable written assignment. Keep good models/samples visible for references
  • providing alternatives, such as, paper that has larger spaces and lines, the computer, diagrams, assignments on audiotape
  • accepting different writing forms for different purposes, e.g., point-form notes for summarizing or mapping
  • encouraging students to listen first and then write their notes. Doing both at the same time may be confusing
  • when students need to transcribe notes from point form to draft copy, letting them record or dictate to another person, or use a computer
  • when students need to transcribe notes from draft copy to final copy, deciding the requirement for correct spelling. If it is essential, use a word processor or peer editing, etc.
  • in taking chalkboard notes: using point form; allowing plenty of time for copying; using clear, well-spaced script; providing a photocopy of teacher-made or pupil-made notes when necessary; using summary sheets (have a group summarize the notes together)
  • in working on research projects: assisting with the formulation of a framework; allowing the use of live interviews or TV and radio programs; providing photocopies (enlarged, if possible) and assisting the student with highlighting key terms/information; assisting the student with categorizing and sequencing the material according to the framework.


  • read the student exactly what he/she has written. The student will often be able to self-correct in this way
  • provide assistance with proofreading for spelling, punctuation, and syntax from a peer, peer-tutor, parent, teacher
  • provide a checklist to help focus the student’s attention.


  • provide opportunities for extra drill
  • support the use of manipulative and concrete materials, such as, computer programs for drill and practice, calculators, cuing strategies, e.g., colour coding, bold, underline, and models/charts
  • problem solving: pre-teach or review new/necessary vocabulary; use diagrams/concrete materials; have the problem read to the student; have the student paraphrase and/or rehearse the information and necessary steps and operations.

Test Taking

  • prepare student ahead of time by explaining the expectations for the test
  • prepare review sheets; encourage student to do them. Give immediate feedback regarding strengths and weaknesses
  • make sure student understands test instructions
  • accept spelling as written unless it is a previously specified dictation
  • allow adequate response time, oral or written
  • allow short answer tests to be taken orally. Answers could be recorded and transcribed.

For Essay Tests:

  • read questions to student
  • have students formulate a framework for their response/answer
  • have student dictate to peer-tutor
  • use verbatim scribing
  • if scribing not available, have student record answers for marking or later transcription
  • focus on quality of content in the answer than with structure, unless, structure of response is also being evaluated
  • consider testing longer exams in shorter time segments
  • consider alternative evaluation techniques;
  • oral test: teacher/peer reads questions and/or writes the student’s answers
  • open book test: student has the use of notes, good for evaluation of process/skill more than knowledge
  • closed book test with different requirements for answers, e.g., short answer, true/false, matching, multiple choice (very difficult for learning disabled student with language deficits)
  • taped tests; student listens to tape and responds on tape
  • take-home tests
  • extended time to complete the test
  • resource room
  • short quizzes instead of major tests
  • partial marks for answers
  • critique early drafts of papers and encourage rewrites

Reprinted from: Special Needs Opportunity Window