Why do some ESL learners struggle more than others?

Why do some ESL learners struggle more than others?

Inclusion in TESOL - Part 1

In this first of a three-part series on inclusion in TESOL, William Bradridge, Director of Studies at Global English TESOL, suggests recognising why some ESL learners struggle more than others can help us become better teachers.



As English language teachers, it’s helpful to have an understanding of why students have specific learning issues, and how these affect general learning processes and the mechanisms of second language acquisition.

Not only do we need to be aware that these issues exist, but also to recognise the signs of special learning difficulties and have an idea of how we can support these learners when they come to our classrooms.

In this blog we’ll look generally at some of the issues our ESL learners can present with. But first...


Recognise each student as unique

Sometimes, as teachers, we have been conditioned to treat all students the same. Or perhaps we think that we have one lesson plan, and we assume one way of teaching it is right for everyone in the classroom. 

But it isn't, and this blog will help you discover why. Let’s begin by defining some terms.


What is SEND?

In the UK mainstream schooling, the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) that a student may have are divided into four categories. Each one represents a category of needs and difficulties that a learner may present with in your classroom.

Let’s look at the categories first.

  1. Social and mental health - this might include areas such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, attachment disorders, eating disorders etc.
  2. Communication and interaction – covering a wide range of areas, such as mutism (or selective mutism) and potentially things like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) etc.   
  3. Cognition and learning - these can include learning disabilities (ranging from mild to severe) as well as things such as dyslexia and dyspraxia.
  4. Sensory and physical, including things such as hearing impairments, vision impairments, use of a wheelchair etc.

While some of these may be more obvious, some may still be undetected.

It’s important to remember that we are not just thinking about younger learners here. SEND can impact on all ages at any time – children with autism, for example, grow up to become adults with autism. For example, it could be that the problems or issues adults experience with reading or writing are related to undiagnosed conditions that they have suffered for several years.

Let’s look at some examples of these categories.  


Characteristics of learners with a SEND

There are a number of different difficulties that our learners can present with.

We have summarised a few of these below as they serve to help our understanding of how students might present in the classroom:

  • writing and reading difficulties
  • problems in organising learning
  • issues with memorisation
  • visual or auditory processing
  • speed and time management difficulties
  • sensory distraction or overload

A student can have more than one of these and the categories can not only overlap, but exhibit in a variety of ways. So, someone with ASD may mean they struggle with their everyday communication and interaction, both in and out of the classroom. However, as well as communication and interaction problems, their ASD may also impact on them in a sensory and physical way, through sensory overload, for example.

Another student with ASD might be affected through sensory and physical issues, but also have problems with cognition and learning. However, they may have no specific difficulty with communication.


In our second article in this series, we will look in more detail at the conditions ADHD, ASD, dyslexia and dyspraxia, before going on to examine how we can best help our learners in these situations in our final article.


On the Global English 250 hr TESOL Professional course we have a module on Inclusion in TESOL, where we focus on the most common challenges you are likely to come across when your students present with a SEND. It's also included in our 80 hour TESOL Re-equip course for experienced teachers looking to update their training.

  • Author: William Bradridge
  • Date: 18/01/2023

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