10. Learning Difficulties

When Florina was in the first grade, she started learning to read. Florina’s parents were surprised when Florina found reading difficult. She was bright and eager at home, so they thought that reading would be easy for her. It wasn’t. She couldn’t match the letters to their sounds or combine the letters to create words. Florina’s problems continued into second grade. She still wasn’t reading and was having trouble with writing. 

Gerald loved school and excelled in his Malagasy and Social Science lessons. However, since the start of school he had made no progress in Mathematics. He could not even choose the right money to pay for things or add numbers larger than 10 together. He hated his Mathematics classes and rarely wrote anything or completed the class work which got him in a lot of trouble.

Marc was an average student who was successful in most subjects. However, he found social interactions with the teacher and other students difficult. During class time, he would often make funny noises, and occasionally in lessons he got angry and threw things. When this happened, he got into trouble and the school were considering asking him to leave.


Q) Do some of these stories sound familiar? Think about students you have known who have similar problems.

Each of the students in the examples has a learning difficulty. This means they find it very hard to learn or behave in the same way as other students.

A learning difficulty can cause a person to have trouble learning and using certain skills. The skills most often affected are: reading, writing, listening, speaking, reasoning, mathematics and social skills.

How to help students with learning difficulties?

Firstly, with all learning difficulties it is important to realise that most students are trying their best to do a task that may be hard or impossible for them. Of course, they get fed up with the struggle at times. Encourage them for trying instead of telling them off.

It is also important to recognise that there is a big difference between a lazy student and a student with learning difficulties.

Secondly, good teaching is important. Ensure your lessons are clear, well managed and students are actively involved in lessons. Plan lessons to contain a variety of different activities. Try to keep notes that students must copy short and to the point.

If you teach very young students, many of their natural behaviours may look like learning difficulties. For example, young students may have a very short attention span or struggle to read and write. Most will overcome these difficulties with a little help, though a few will continue to struggle. For many students who struggle with one aspect of learning a simple intervention is enough.

If you have a student who is struggling in class, you should try the following four things:

  1. Identify the problems the student has. Recognise they are probably trying their best but are just not as successful as other students
  2. Talk to the student about their problems and chat about how they might improve. Often talking with a student is enough to produce an improvement.
  3. Provide extra tuition and support for the student.
  4. If you are successful, well done! If not, consider the strategies discussed in the rest of the chapter.

Summary of common learning difficulties

Dyslexia – difficulties in reading and writing.

Imagine it’s very difficult to read something other people find easy. Or that your writing gets jumbled up and spelling can be a nightmare.  Richard Branson (a billionaire businessman) is a dyslexic.

Dysgraphia – difficulties in writing the shapes of the letters.

Imagine it’s very difficult to write words down, you spend all your energy getting the shape of a letter down on the page, so you can’t concentrate on the ideas or thoughts you are trying to write down. The famous scientists Albert Einstein and Louis Pasteur had dysgraphia.

ADD/ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)

This is where someone has symptoms of hyperactivity, inattention and/or impulsivity. Imagine that sitting still in one place is very difficult. Your body wants to move around and run, jump, be active, but you must stay in one place all the time. You can’t concentrate on what is going on for more than 30 seconds without your mind drifting. Some students with ADD quietly lose attention and daydream. The film producer Walt Disney had ADHD.

Dyscalculia – difficulties in mathematics.

Imagine it’s very difficult to do math, the numbers just don’t stick in your head. When you try and read numbers, they all jump around and don’t stay in order. The founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates is said to have Dyscalculia.

Autism – People who have autism have difficulty with social interaction and social community. They often have repetitive patterns of behaviour. The world is often overwhelming to them which affects their behaviour. They can struggle in a place with lots of people, find social interaction exhausting and feel very anxious if there are changes to their normal routine. The famous composer Mozart had autism.

Stunting due to malnutrition – Children who have been born to a malnourished mother or are malnourished in the first years of their life often do not grow to reach their full physical or intellectual potential. The famous scientist Voltaire and the English Queen Victoria were very small and likely stunted.[1]

Foetal alcohol syndrome –If a pregnant mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy, the child has a higher risk of learning difficulties and physical disabilities. One common symptom is ADD or ADHD.


1) Are students with learning difficulties intelligent?

2) Can you think of a student who you teach who has one of these difficulties?

3) How do you think students with learning difficulties feel?

Selected answers: 1) Normally yes, though stunting can reduce intelligence. 3) Students compare themselves to other students and get upset they aren’t doing as well as them. They may feel frustrated they just can’t do what everyone else does. Sometimes they give up and refuse to do tasks that they find very difficult.

More detailed information


Dyslexia is defined as having problems with reading and/or writing.


A dyslexic student may show one or many of these symptoms:

  • Reads slowly and with difficulty.
  • Good at learning by listening, but struggles to learn by reading.
  • Has bad spelling.
  • Finds writing by hand difficult, but can give excellent spoken explanations.
  • Gets the order of letters muddled when reading and/or writing.
  • Writes b’s as d’s and vice versa.
  • Finds organisation of time and materials difficult.

How can you help students with dyslexia?

Different support methods will help different students:

  • Photocopy notes for student. Learning will be easier when they don’t have to write lots in the lesson. They are better at learning by listening and watching.
  • Never take marks off for poor spelling but do correct it. This is not always possible in school or national examinations.
  • Provide a quiet area for students to work.
  • Use a variety of teaching styles, not just reading text.
  • Present material in small bits. Include clear step by step instructions for any tasks. This will benefit all students, in particular dyslexic or dysgraphic students.

· Use large print and big spaces between lines for dyslexia.

  • Move the student to the front of the class so your writing seems larger.
  • Ensure the board has good contrast, repaint if necessary.
  • Use a notebook with large spaces between lines for students struggling with writing.
  • Don’t tell students off for poor work, help them understand it’s OK to find it hard, encourage them to persevere.
  • Often students find typing easier than handwriting. If possible, use a typewriter or laptop.
  • Dyslexic students learn best by listening to speech or discussion. Reading and writing may hinder their learning.
  • Encourage the student!


A student is dysgraphic if they struggle to draw things including letters and words. The example on the right is for an 11 year old student who is now an outstanding academic despite their dysgraphia.


  • Writing is very hard to read, even the student may be unable to read their handwriting.
  • Finds doing any tasks with hands very difficult and may avoid these tasks.
  • Struggles to write and think at the same time – can copy notes but can’t think about them at the same time.
  • Clumsy.
  • Poor hand-eye coordination.
  • Organisational issues – loses things or can’t keep a diary or track of time.

How can you help students with dysgraphia?

Different support methods will help different students:

  • Photocopy notes for student. Learning will be easier when they don’t have to write lots in the lesson. They are better at learning by listening and watching.
  • Never take marks off for poor spelling but do correct it. This is not always possible in school or national examinations.
  • Teach students to write starting with large movements and then gradually getting smaller:
    • Write as large as they can in the air.
    • Write as large as they can on the board. Erase their writing using the same motion.
    • Write as large as they can on a slate.
    • Write smaller letters on a slate.
    • Write large letters in a book.
    • Write smaller letters in a book.
  • Use a notebook with large spaces between the lines.
  • Provide a quiet area for students to work.
  • Don’t tell students off for poor work, help them understand it’s OK to find it hard, encourage them to persevere.
  • Often students find typing easier than handwriting. If possible, use a typewriter or laptop for written work.
  • Dysgraphic students learn best by listening to speech or discussion. Reading and writing may hinder their learning.
  • Encourage the student!



  • Has exceptional difficulties with mathematics.

How can you help students with dyscalculia?

  • Focus on the things they will need to be able to do to succeed in everyday life.
  • Give them work that is of a level they can succeed at.
  • Understand it’s something they find difficult.
  • Encourage them to persevere. Many people with Dyscalculia persevere and improve.
  • Differentiate your lessons (see the differentiation chapter). Don’t expect a student with dyscalculia to be doing the complex maths you are teaching the rest of the class… but if they are sitting a national exam remember you need to teach them to obtain a few marks in the exam.

Students who struggle to focus and pay attention

Often shortened to ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder).


  • Hyperactive (ADHD only).
  • Impulsive (ADHD only).
  • Can’t sit still always moving around in seat (ADHD only).
  • Gets distracted easily and struggles to concentrate for a long period of time.
  • Can do silly things that disrupt the classes (ADHD only).

ADD is a quiet loss of attention that doesn’t disrupt other people. ADD is often hard to spot, whereas the hyperactivity makes ADHD much more noticeable.

How can you help students with ADD or ADHD?

  • Calm lessons. Avoid too much excitement but keep the lesson interesting.
  • Variety in lessons. Activities should last for less than 20 minutes.
  • Give the student something to squeeze in class, like a sponge. The fidgeting helps them.
  • Allow the student to go for a walk when they need to.
  • Give simple step by step instructions.
  • Move the student to the side of the class nearer the front. This is because they have fewer visual distractions at the front and side of the class.
  • Give the students a rest break. Encourage them to run around. However, running in circles makes them more hyperactive. Encourage running in straight lines e.g. ‘run to the gate and back’.
  • Reward good behaviour with praise, or a stamp or sticker in their book.
  • Look for the student’s strengths.
  • Help students who do silly things to understand social expectations, e.g. ‘Lili, when we are in class you should stay in your seat.’
  • Remind students who have become distracted what they are meant to be doing.
  • Don’t allow students to use their difficulty as an excuse for bad behaviour. They need to find a way of coping with their difficulty that doesn’t disrupt your class.
  • Encourage them!

Students with Autism

Like all the difficulties already mentioned, a student will not have all the symptoms and the severity of the symptoms will differ. Many non-autistic students suffer one or two of the following symptoms:


  • Difficulty in starting and maintaining a conversation or engaging with ‘chit-chat’.
  • Takes phrases literally, which can make it difficult to “read between the lines” regarding understanding proverbs, jokes and common sayings.
  • Difficulty understanding different viewpoints, new ideas and broad concepts.
  • Difficulty understanding other people’s emotions and feelings.
  • Difficulty expressing their own emotions and feelings in a socially acceptable manner. May seem calm and suddenly explode or express feelings in an inappropriate way.
  • Wants to interact with other people but does not know how to do it.
  • Finds it difficult to build relationships and friendships with others.
  • Not sure or does not understand the ‘social rules’ for different settings.
  • Anxious.
  • Enjoys or requires structure and routine – becomes upset if routine is disrupted.
  • Has a strong memory for information, routine and processes.
  • Difficulty linking events or actions – understanding cause and effect. E.g. John made a rude comment, so Elise hit him.
  • Not much awareness of time which can make it hard for them to complete work on time, arrive at meetings on time or give a good estimate of how long something will take.
  • Repetitive behaviours as well as limited intense interests or activities.
  • Obsessive interests. For example, may spend hours talking about their favourite toy.
  • They can find it difficult to be in a very noisy place.
  • Makes funny noises or a tic.
  • Students with autism understand the world in a very logical way. Illogical things (such as people behaving differently depending on their mood) are difficult for them.

How you can help students with Autism?

  • Get the attention of the child before starting a conversation.
  • Speak clearly and keep your sentences short.
  • Say things in the order they will happen.
  • Tell them what to do. Don’t tell them what not to do! E.g. ‘Sit down’ instead of ‘don’t walk around the class’.
  • Don’t use humour or sarcasm unless you are sure they understand and are in the right mood.
  • Accept they may need some time alone.
  • Try to make your feelings clear. Tell them what you feel. For example, if you are crying, tell them whether you are happy or sad.
  • Explain the boundaries and rules for a social situation.
  • Encourage the student to interact with others doing something they enjoy.
  • Help the person to develop social interaction skills, perhaps by practicing at home or school.
  • Use stories as a way of explaining appropriate ways to respond to certain situations.
  • Help them understand people by explaining clearly why people act in a certain way.
  • Use objects, pictures, demonstrations and written material as they learn well from these.
  • Have a consistent, familiar routine in class.
  • Be fair and just.
  • Give brief, clear instructions.
  • Help students break a complex task into smaller parts. For example, if asked to ‘Write an essay about Toamasina’, you might split this into smaller tasks: ‘First write about what you will find in Toamasina. Then write about the things you like about Toamasina. Finally write about the things you would like to see improved in Toamasina.’
  • Help the student understand how they should behave (e.g. ‘We don’t make noises in class’).
  • Be patient with the student.


  • A boy refuses to move from one classroom to another. Instead he sits on the floor and starts to cry. The teacher realises that the boy finds it hard to change room unexpectedly. In future the teacher gives plenty of warning of a change to routine.
  • A girl shouts at someone in class who touches her. Later the teacher explains to the student that shouting at people makes them feel scared and it’s not a good thing to do.
  • A boy doesn’t realise that what he is saying is offensive to other pupils. The teacher talks to him and explains that he is offending people, and this means they won’t want to talk to him.



If a pregnant woman is malnourished, or a child is malnourished, the foetus or child will not grow properly. Their bodies will be smaller than they could be and their brains won’t develop fully. They will be less intelligent and less able to learn than other children. They are more likely to get sick and more at risk of cancer and diabetes. Around 50% of children in Madagascar are stunted.

How can we help students with stunting?

Once students are stunted, there is nothing that can be done to reverse the process. However, they still have the ability to learn and develop, though some may find it harder than others. Many famous important people from the past were stunted, so don’t write them off!

It is important to teach the wider family of stunted children about good diet and family planning.

Better education for all students will improve agriculture, family planning and diet in Madagascar. These improvements should reduce stunting. If your school has many stunted children, can you teach parents how to improve agriculture, family planning and diet?

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome

Children who were exposed to high levels of alcohol in the womb may have a variety of issues. Treat the symptoms and educate parents to avoid alcohol during pregnancy.

General comments

Sometimes students may have more than one learning difficulty.

If a student has a learning difficulty it is not their fault.

There are many rarer learning difficulties. Some are bizarre. A friend associated emotions with mathematics. She enjoyed and was good at adding. However, she was bad at subtraction because the idea of taking things away upset her. If you have a struggling student, take time to talk with the student. Ask them what they find hard and how you can help them.


1) Discuss or write about a student you know who may have a learning difficulty.

  a) What do you think the difficulty is?

  b) How will you change how you teach them or treat them as a result of the lesson?

  c) Talk to the student and ask them what they find easy and hard about your subject and what it feels like. Ask them about things you observe they find difficult.

2) How has this chapter changed the way you think about learning difficulties?

[1] http://wphna.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/GC-July-August-2010-blog.pdf accessed January 2020