Ten tips to help struggling English language learners

Ten tips to help struggling English language learners

How to help struggling English language learners

In previous blogs we discovered some of the key issues around inclusion and what we need to be aware of in our classrooms. Here we look at how we can help our students with a SEND become successful language learners.

The focus is how we can build on their existing strengths, and assist them practically to compensate on their areas of weaknesses. Let’s look at this in the context of reading and writing lessons, with ten simple yet practical examples that you can use in your very next class.


Ten tips for new and experienced English language teachers

1. Lexis introduction and repetition

When introducing new language, it’s a good idea to take a structured approach. So, when you are introducing new words, do this slowly. Don’t assume a nod of the head from your student means they have understood. Then, ensure that language is repeated. This allows the learner to develop confidence and self-esteem when reading.

2. Set reading at an appropriate level

It probably goes without saying, but ensure that the text you have chosen is appropriate for their current level. Be careful about the degree of challenge you build in. Learners with SEND can easily become demotivated if demands are too high. We want our students to enjoy a reading activity, rather than being fearful of it. If they struggle over every third word, reading is going to become less interesting and tedious, more of a challenge and potentially cause them to give up. There's more info on discovering the level of your students here >>

3. Reading aloud

Don’t ask a dyslexic student to read aloud in class. This is going to be a significant challenge for them and may negatively impact on them for the rest of this lesson, or ongoing lessons with you.

However, we know that reading aloud is important, especially for lower-level learners, so do this in a quiet period, perhaps with the teacher or with a sympathetic peer. You will, in time, get to know your students and can judge when this might be appropriate.

Consider reserving reading with this learner for a quiet time with the class teacher. Alternatively, let them know ahead of time that you are going to do some reading aloud in class and let them practise beforehand. This gives them time and potentially will enable them to produce a better result, helping them grow their confidence. Again, using this personalised approach is reinforcing supportive learning rather than putting them on the spot. 

4. Divide up your texts

Long passages of text can be overwhelming for learners with reading difficulties.

Therefore, consider using L-shaped rulers. L-shaped rulers have different benefits. Using one L-shaped ruler allows learners to track words on a line. Students can use two L-shaped rulers to create a reading box or window, which removes any distracting images or other words, allowing for an easier reading experience. Alternatively, a transparent coloured reading ruler may work just as well. 

5. Use a neutral type font on material you prepare

Stay away from Times New Roman!

Use sans serif fonts, such as Arial and Comic Sans if possible. This gives letters the appearance of being less crowded on the page. Alternatives include Verdana, Tahoma, Century Gothic, Trebuchet, Calibri, Open Sans. It is suggested that a font size should be 12-14 point or equivalent. Some dyslexic readers may request a larger font. Can you print worksheets in different font sizes and have learners choose which one they find easiest to work with?

6. Use bold for emphasis

Rather than write in uppercase or capital letters (which some learners find harder to read), use bold where you want to emphasise something. Similarly, avoid upper case, italics and underlining. These can make text run together and therefore be difficult for learners with dyslexia and dyspraxia especially.

Rather than dense text, can you use bullet points to help separate things out on the page? Or perhaps you might try wider line spacing. Simple steps like this will help to make a learner friendly text for all your students. 

7. Consider your background

It’s been suggested that different colour backgrounds can give learners who struggle with SEND more difficulties when reading. Therefore, we suggest sticking to white or plain backgrounds for your reading texts, as these reduce contrast and movement.

8. Use visual, auditory and kinaesthetic strategies for spelling

We can teach our learners some useful strategies for helping them with their spelling. So, if they have a reasonable level of ability, your learners can look for patterns in words, such as repeated letter pairings, or use mnemonics to help them spell. Here's an example:

because:  Big Elephants Cannot Always Use Small Entrances (BECAUSE)

Get them to use colour to pick out patterns in words, or a highlighter or bold to find any hidden words in other words, such as hospital. 

9. Use technology

Where possible, use tech. If you can get your learners using a computer or smartphone to write with, then this avoids the need for them to write physically. Alternatively, there is speech recognition software freely available on smartphones, or a reader pen to help your learners. The reader pen works best with text on a plain background and this text-to-speech technology helps learners with ADHD, dyslexia or dyspraxia develop their reading comprehension confidence. 

10. Reading for meaning

Some teachers find that a reading for meaning learning strategy is helpful for learners with a SEND. This strategy focuses on understanding what we read and finding meaning within it. When students read for meaning, they try to have two types of questions in mind:

1) literal questions, such as what the story is about   

2) inferential questions, such as is it fiction or non-fiction.

(Note that for learners with ASD, literal questions will be much more straightforward, and they will most likely struggle with inferential questions.)

Reading for meaning helps learners make sense of texts because it focuses on making interpretations based on evidence. 



We hope this is of some practical use for you, wherever you are teaching English. The key point is to think about how to build on existing strengths in your learners, and use these practically to compensate for their their areas of weakness. 


In our final blog in this series, we will provide you with some general guidance for helping your learners with a SEND, including our top takeaway. Watch out for this coming soon.

This material forms part of the content of the internationally accredited 250-hr TESOL Professional Course (Level 5) and also our 80 hour TESOL Re-Equip course for experienced teachers wishing to upskill, where you will find examples and further research on all of the above areas.

You can read the other blogs in this series below:

Part 1: Why do some ESL learners struggle more than others?

Part 2: How to identify potential learning inhibitors in EFL students


  • Author: William Bradridge
  • Date: 16/02/2023

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