How to identify potential learning inhibitors in EFL students

How to identify potential learning inhibitors in EFL students

Inclusion in TESOL – Part 2

According to UK government statistics, around 12% (or one in eight) learners in mainstream UK education have a SEND (Special Educational Need or Disability).

In the second of this three-part series on inclusion in TESOL, William Bradridge, Director of Studies at Global English TESOL, looks in detail at the conditions ADHD, ASD, dyslexia and dyspraxia, which we should be aware of when we are teaching English language learners.

This in-depth article is designed to help you recognise why some ESL learners may struggle in your classrooms. 


Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

The NHS defines ADHD as:

“...a condition that affects people's behaviour. People with ADHD can seem restless, may have trouble concentrating and may act on impulse.”

It goes on to state that:

“Symptoms of ADHD tend to be noticed at an early age and may become more noticeable when a child's circumstances change, such as when they start school. Most cases are diagnosed when children are 6 to 12 years old. The symptoms of ADHD usually improve with age, but many adults who were diagnosed with the condition at a young age continue to experience problems.”

If a learner in your classroom exhibits symptoms of ADHD then often you will find that they struggle to settle down to work. They may fidget, bounce up and down in their chair, find difficulty following directions or be unable to concentrate for more than a short period of time. They may regularly seek distractions, or possibly cause them for the rest of the class.

Not only can this be unsettling for you as a teacher, but also for other members of the class, who probably don’t understand why their classmate is behaving in this way.

The classroom environment can seem overwhelming to a student with ADHD. It’s hard enough having the condition, but coming into a lesson which requires focus and concentration, as English so often does, can easily compound the issue.

Learners with ADHD can quickly become stressed and emotionally exhausted by the process of trying to learn in an environment which doesn’t feel natural. As teachers, we may see learners encountering problems with memorisation or organisation, or both. So, you may find that a student with ADHD is more likely to forget to write down their homework, or may regularly forget to bring it to class with them.

Some students with this condition find language learning especially challenging, simply because their general approach to learning has to be different.

In the past, it was quite common for these students to be identified as perhaps difficult or disruptive, possibly unresponsive or just “bad at English”. The teacher would try to minimise the student's negative behaviour, to focus on the majority of the class who weren’t causing problems.

That’s possibly quite true today, but there is a growing awareness in EFL that this approach is antiquated and potentially discriminatory.


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

The NHS suggests that those with ASD “...may act in a different way to other people”.

It goes on to state that:

“Autistic people may:

  • find it hard to communicate and interact with other people
  • find it hard to understand how other people think or feel
  • find things like bright lights or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable
  • get anxious or upset about unfamiliar situations and social events
  • take longer to understand information
  • do or think the same things over and over.”

It continues:

“Autism is different for everyone. Autism is a spectrum. This means everybody with autism is different. Some autistic people need little or no support. Others may need help from a parent or carer every day.”

About 1/100 children in the UK are autistic and the ratio of boys to girls with ASD is about 3:1. The National Autistic Society outlines several key areas of concern:

  • social communication and social interaction challenges
  • repetitive and restrictive behaviour
  • over- or under-sensitivity to light, sound, taste or touch
  • highly focused interests or hobbies
  • extreme anxiety
  • meltdowns and shutdowns

If you have a student that may be autistic in your EFL classroom, they may present as having difficulty in understanding some of your classroom directions and instructions. Subtlety is not something on their radar. They hear what you say in very binary terms, as either black or white, with no grey. In other words, they cannot infer any type of subtext.

Again, this can be unsettling for you as a teacher and create additional work. You'll need to think even more carefully than usual about how you give instructions for tasks. Other members of the class may find this manner of delivery a little strange, as well as their classmate’s difficulties seeming a little ‘odd’ at times.

People on the autism spectrum often struggle with social skills, preferring their own company, because they don’t understand simple social cues and interactions. Therefore, not only can it be difficult for them to work in pairs or groups, but they can lack some of the imaginative skills required when we conduct tasks like role play.

Specifically, in terms of learning another language, many autistic people have phenomenally good memories for vocabulary and rules.   However, some people with autism can find it very difficult to differentiate between the sounds of language. They can sometimes speak in a monotone, and therefore hearing or trying to replicate sounds which don’t appear in their L1 can be extremely challenging.

Since students on the spectrum often need more time to process information, reading and writing tasks are likely to prove simpler than listening or speaking, which are more spontaneous. However, even organising written work into a cohesive passage can be difficult. With reading comprehension, trying to work out what the writer might be saying is tough – if it’s not on the page, it’s not there. Facts are fine – guessing opinions and going deeper to understand context, less so.

Many are also better able to understand material presented visually and so visual aids can be helpful in learning vocabulary.  However, with great difficulty seeing the hidden meaning of idiomatic language in L1, L2 idioms can also prove problematic.

Since people with ASD often struggle with social skills, they can often speak very bluntly and typically, they find it difficult to maintain eye contact with people they are speaking to.

This can be misconstrued as rudeness, but that it not the case – they simple speak the facts as they see them. As a teacher, you need to be aware that rudeness or disrespect or being hurtful are not at all intentional – it’s quite possible that it's not within their skills to be tactful or to couch opinions in more gentle terms. 

Such issues need careful work,. but it’s impossible to ‘teach’ the appropriate response for each and every possible situation which might arise.



Dyslexia is one of the main areas we are likely to come across as EFL teachers, as it impacts significantly on the cognition and learning of some of our students.

The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia in the following way:

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterised by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. … Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

While many people are under the assumption that dyslexia just affects reading and writing skills, actually, as the above definition suggestions, it impacts on four skills.

Dyslexic learners share one common difficulty and that is that face failure to decode or recognise and interpret letters, which makes understanding the written word more difficult for them.

So, we might possibly expect a dyslexic learner to miss words or phrases out while reading aloud, or make incoherent and inconsistent spelling mistakes, or make mistakes when pronouncing certain phonological sounds (which may also be mother tongue interference) or even have barely intelligible handwriting.

From a practical sense, we know that students with dyslexia have difficulty in recognising and distinguishing between different letters. If you think about it, this may be even more challenging for them when it comes to their English lessons, because they not only have to try and manage their dyslexia but also incorporate learning a new language, with new letters and formations, at the same time.

Dyslexic students often have problems with spelling and this is even more challenging in English because it's not a phonetic language. There are many exceptions to our spelling rules, as we know with the rule “i before e except after c”. Therefore, potentially spelling in English is going to be more challenging for them than spelling in their own language.

A further issue is that English is written from left to right. However, dyslexia students often struggle between left and right, they can get confused with the way the letters should be read. Or even in the direction in which the text should be read.

Additionally, our alphabet has letters with mirror images such as d and b, and almost with p and q (depending on how it is written), so this can be another challenge. So, all of these are ways in which dyslexic learners can struggle.



The NHS defines dyspraxia as follows:

“Developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD), also known as dyspraxia, is a condition affecting physical co-ordination. It causes a child to perform less well than expected in daily activities for their age and appear to move clumsily.”

It goes on to comment that “DCD is thought to be around 3 or 4 times more common in boys than girls, and the condition sometimes runs in families.”

Dyspraxia impacts learners through impacting on both their gross and fine motor skills. With gross motor skills, like throwing or jumping, students may engage in these activities clumsily.

For us in the EFL or ESOL classroom it’s likely the dyspraxia will impact on the fine motor skills more significantly, where learners are required to make smaller movements. Therefore, your students may well also have problems with handwriting or drawing.

Eye movement, which is a fine motor skill, impacts on the pace at which a learner who struggles with dyspraxia can read. Therefore, it might take them longer to read a passage or text than others in the class. Similarly, they may need longer to fully articulate their thoughts, or be able to keep their handwriting neat and well organised.    

Indeed, as we mentioned in our first blog post on this issue, dyspraxia can overlap with other learning difficulties. So, a student may have dyspraxia and ADHD, or dyspraxia and dyslexia, or dyspraxia and autism. This can make any diagnosis of a specific condition more difficult to identify. 

However, it’s not just that.

Children with dyspraxia may be thought by their classmates to be clumsy. Teasing about this may start at an early age and can then lead to feelings of low self-esteem. Practical outworking of this might include them being always paired with lower ability learners in pair work settings, for example. 

In the same way, a teacher who simply tells the student off for their scribbly handwriting is only going to make that learner feel worse about something that is potentially outside of their ability. However, it’s most often the comparison with classmates that causes the dyspraxia (or dyslexic) learner to feel less worthy than their peers.

As teachers, an inclusive approach means that we will try to support them rather than assume that they are slow or less able than others.


Questions to ask ourselves

As a result, it can be difficult for a teacher to always understand the best course of action. How do you prepare a lesson for a student with SEND needs, alongside the rest of your students, who don’t present those needs?

What if you have more than one learner in your class with the same learning inhibitor?

Or the same learning inhibitor that expresses itself differently?  For example, no two people on with autism are necessarily on the same point on the spectrum.

Or if you have a learner with ADHD, another with dyslexia and a third with a hearing impairment? 

What about the student who presents with examples of a disability, but doesn’t have any formal SEND background?

There is the added impact of the refusal to acknowledge SEND as an issue at all in certain cultures, as this would bring stigma. Individuals and families may well be in denial about it and may not want to acknowledge that the SEND actually exists at all, especially in their son or daughter.


Some potential answers to consider

If we are not a qualified professional, able to screen people for dyslexia, for example, and qualify people for special assistance with that condition, then we shouldn't be saying that a student has the condition.

However, if we are aware of some of the ways in which a dyslexic learner can present, then we can potentially raise this with our Director of Studies, if we feel that there is an issue which might be inhibiting learning.   

You might feel real frustration that your student is not interested in learning and is disengaged from the lesson. But from your student’s perspective, your classroom is a stress-filled environment from which they just want to escape, and the learning experience is one that causes a huge amount of stress, low self-esteem and emotional distress.

This then exhibits as inappropriate and disruptive behaviour, or a refusal to engage or a complete attempt to withdraw from learning.

As a result of all this, it can be difficult for us as teachers to always figure out what may be the best course of action to support our students.

In the final article on our series on inclusion in TESOL, we will look at some general tips that may be helpful for you. Watch out for this coming up soon. You can read the first article in this series here >>



We look at the most common challenges you are likely to come across when your students present with a SEND on the 250 hr TESOL Professional course, in the module on Inclusion in TESOL.

It's also included in our 80 hour TESOL Re-equip course for experienced teachers looking to update their training.


  • Author: William Bradridge
  • Date: 01/02/2023

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How to identify potential learning inhibitors in EFL students