08/24/2015  |  By Steve Gillis

I taught Special Ed during the first five years of my teaching career. I taught high functioning developmentally delayed elementary and junior high students (everything from PDDNOS to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to Cerebral Palsy), as well as learning disabled students (dyslexia, severe language learning disability, etc.)

I had absolutely no formal training in this area. – I am trained as a secondary school French Immersion teacher. These five years were an eye opener for me. I learned that:

  • Special’ kids are just like any other student. They just learn differently.
  • Assistive technologies that were meant to help the students did not always meet their needs. I found that the most common computer applications – word processing and presentation software – were more useful in helping the students learn. It should be noted that the field of learning disabilities (LD) is a complex one and that there are many approaches to helping LD children. With that in mind, I want you to understand that the strategies presented in this article are global in nature.

Understanding the LD Student

There are three major factors that a teacher has to take into account when it comes to teaching a LD student. Firstly, understand the disability – what is it and how it manifests itself. The same learning disability may present itself differently in different individuals. Two students who are dyslexic might not have the same learning problems. There are varying degrees of dyslexia, as there are varying degrees of all types of learning disabilities. Plain and simple, understand the situation before seeking a solution.

Secondly, do your research.  Find out what has worked best in previous years for the student. Talk to teachers, parents and most importantly the student. The student is most often the one that understands what works and what doesn’t work for him or her. I have always believed that you can teach anything to anybody as long as you put it in a way that they will understand. LD students are a prime example of that adage. Often times they will have trouble grasping a concept, but if you put it in a way that they can relate to they will excel. Simply put, learning what worked will help you to put things in ways that the student will understand.

Thirdly, understand how the student will achieve the outcomes. This does not mean that you have to water down the outcomes; it simply means that you have to find ways in which the student can achieve the outcomes based on the learning disabilities. It means that the teacher has to be flexible in his or her approach. Let’s assume that the students have to complete a science project. Little Johnnie has a LD and struggles at putting together a written report, yet can talk your ear off about the subject at hand. Would you be willing to let him present his project orally? Would you be willing to allow him to use technology to record his project and submit it as a MP4 voice recording? The use of technology often helps the student meet the outcomes by leveling the playing field for the student.

Standing Out in the Classroom

There is nothing worse than standing out in the classroom. Some kids are cruel and they’ll poke fun at the one that stands out. Unfortunately, that is what happens when a well-intentioned school staff member provides a student with a learning disability special access to a computer —often a laptop with special software.  Don’t get me wrong, there are times when special software is needed. In such a case the teacher has to make every effort to ensure that the child using the computer is not bullied. However; in the case where special software is not needed and the school provides a computer for the child because he or she is LD, this might defeat the purpose of helping the child. A prime example of this is the school in which I teach. We have three students that have special access to laptops – no special software is added, yet they refuse to use them because they say that they stick out like sore thumbs in the classroom. The trick to getting them to use their laptop consistently is to show them how the most common software applications, namely word processing and presentation software, can be used to meet their needs so that they don’t stand out in the crowd.

Word Processing

One of the most common tools that are found in most word processing packages — Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc. — is the spellcheck tool. Some teachers do not allow their students to use spellcheck because they feel that students should know how to spell. That attitude sets the LD student up for failure. Quite frankly, the teacher’s goal should be to set the student up for success, not for failure. Let’s be realistic, in the real world most people use spellcheck whether it is to spellcheck their email, a document or using autocorrect on their smartphones. Rather than disallowing the use of spellcheck, maybe the teacher should consider teaching the students how to use spellcheck — and grammar check — to understand the spelling and grammar rules. Simply put, use spellcheck as a tool to teach and reinforce spelling and grammar rules.

An excellent strategy to teach students the use of spellcheck is not to allow the students to correct any spelling or grammatical errors of their first draft. Once they have completed their rough draft, they are to edit their work with a peer. They are to explain the spelling or grammatical rules of all underlined words to their peer. Using this approach will benefit all students and keep the LD student from standing out in the crowd.

Presentation Software

One of the biggest fears of most students is the fear of public speaking. Imagine how scared some LD students are of presenting in front of their peers. Insisting that students must present in front of their classroom is another way of setting up the LD student, and I dare say most students, for failure. I understand the argument that students must learn to present in front of a group of people, but technology has changed the way in which presentations can be done. I allow all of my students to create PowerPoint presentations that include a voiceover. A voiceover allows the students to record their presentations as often as they want until there are no mistakes in the audio portion of the presentation. What does that mean to the students? Firstly, they don’t get nervous standing in front of their peers. Secondly, they can submit a perfect product. Thirdly, they enjoy presentations much more, because they don’t feel the pressure of a live presentation.


We have to meet the needs of a diverse clientele in our classrooms. The challenge is to ensure that students with learning disabilities have the same learning opportunities as the rest of the students in the classroom. Technology levels the playing field. These simple strategies that I have shared with you will help all students to succeed no matter what their abilities.

Steve Gillis is president and chief learning office for Net Learning Solutions Inc.
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