Learning difficulties and ESL

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Tina Vršnik Perše

Students with learning difficulties are at a greater risk for ESL than their peers since they are disproportionately more likely to experience other risk factors for ESL at the individual, family, school, community and/or system levels. Multiple and individualised approaches should be used by the system and educators to reduce the influence of these factors.

Keywords : early school leaving 

All across Europe, young people who leave school early are more likely to come from disadvantaged groups. These include young people with a disability, special needs or physical and mental health problems (NESSE, 2010). Students with learning difficulties are considered one of the disadvantaged groups even though there is no single interpretation or agreed definition of the term ’learning difficulty’. To better understand the background of learning difficulties and its relationship with ESL, a basic overview of the terminology is introduced in the paper. Regardless of the particular definition, students with learning difficulties are affected by several factors that influence their tendency for ESL even more than their peers, such as personal attitudes, family and community, and especially the teachers, the education system and also others. Students with learning difficulties indicate they do not feel engaged and connected to the school since the traditional programmes and teachers fail to meet their needs (Palladino, Poli, Masi, & Marcheschi, 2000).

Interventions to combat ESL therefore need to be based on an understanding of its complex determinants and the factors that operate in individual cases. The goal should be to promote a whole-school approach including teachers’ professional development since teachers’ improved social and emotional competencies and didactical approaches would offer a great supportive factor for students with learning difficulties in the ESL prevention context.

Some programmes have already proven to be successful for preventing ESL for students with learning difficulties, such as Cognitive Behavioural Interventions, the Check and Connect programme, and Shema Broadening Instruction. Therefore, further development of prevention programmes could be based on experiences with them.


Learning difficulties have constituted very diverse and extensive phenomena in education research ever since reading and maths literacy were recognised as key skills for mastering everyday life with education institutions being considered responsible for developing those skills and others. In the present century, the extent and problem of educating students with learning difficulties is more and more recognised although it is impossible to exactly determine the extent of the phenomenon since there is no consensus on the definition and diagnosis of learning difficulties. Even the terminology is not abundantly clear since learning difficulties, learning disabilities and learning disorders are often used as synonyms. In addition, the term special educational needs includes similar descriptions.

Depending on various definitions, some authors (Geary, 2006; Mercer & Pullen, 2005) claim that there is a 4%–8% prevalence of learning difficulties among students. Other authors indicate quite different proportions of students with learning difficulties or learning disabilities. Taanila, Yliherva, Kaakinen, Moilanen & Ebeling (2011) reported that in Finland approximately 21% of children had learning difficulties. As explained, the terminology is a great issue while attempting to determine the precise prevalence of students with learning difficulties.

The complexity of the phenomena is even more evident when the relationship between learning difficulties and ESL is being established. Nevertheless, it is evident that the prevalence of ESLrs among students with learning difficulties is much bigger than the prevalence among their peers (Wagner, 1991). It is therefore necessary to understand the features of the phenomena in detail in order to develop efficient interventions.
Thus, the aim of this article is to outline the terminology of learning difficulties/disorders/disabilities and to explain the relationship with ESL as well as possible implications and approaches for teachers and other educators working with students with learning difficulties.


We conducted a review of the literature by searching in the ERIC (EBSCOhost), SpringerLink, Wiley, Sage, Proquest, and Science Direct search engines for information about learning difficulties, learning disabilities and their relationship with ESL. We included three types of documents in the search: scientific papers, scientific monographs explaining the theoretical background, along with EU documents and reports on the subject matter.

The research on learning difficulties and learning disabilities is a highly targeted issue since, for example, the EBSCOhost Information Services reports about 6,000 papers and books on learning difficulties and more than 30,000 academic papers and books on learning disabilities. However, relatively few papers examine the direct relationship between learning difficulties/disabilities and ESL. Therefore, several papers were considered that explain the relationship between ESL and different factors related to ESL. Only a few included learning difficulties as an explanatory factor for ESL although several papers indicate that the proportion of students with learning difficulties among ESLrs is much greater than the proportion among their peers.

Defining learning difficulties

In both the research and literature many different terms are used to describe special educational needs specifically related to learning. Since the definitions and terminology vary widely, it is necessary to first introduce the relationship between the definitions and terms in order to allow us to subsequently indicate the relationship with ESL.

The Oxford English Dictionary (b.d.) defines learning difficulties as difficulties in acquiring knowledge and skills at the normal level expected of those of the same age, especially due to mental disability or cognitive disorder covering the range from Down’s syndrome to conditions such as dyslexia. It also (ibid.) defines a learning disability as a condition giving rise to learning difficulties, especially when not associated with a physical disability.

Although the Oxford English Dictionary is one of the most referred to dictionaries, its definition is not explicit enough to be adopted by different authors and countries. In country-specific contexts, several definitions have been adopted.

In English-speaking countries, different terms especially “learning disability”, “learning difficulty” as well as “learning dysfunction”, “learning disorder”, “learning deficit” and “learning delay” are used (Taanila et al., 2011) and the meanings are not monolithic. The definition of students with learning disabilities or students with learning difficulties varies in different countries, underlining the complexity of the issue.

In the UK, the terms “learning difficulty” and “learning disability” are often used interchangeably, which is confusing. The Children and Families Act (2014) states that a child or young person has special educational needs if they have a learning difficulty or disability which calls for special educational provision to be made for him or her. A child or young person has a learning difficulty or disability if they:

  • have significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age; or
  • have a disability which prevents or hinders them from making use of facilities of a kind generally provided for others of the same age in mainstream schools or mainstream post-16 institutions.

The Equality Act (2010) defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that has a “substantial” and “long-term” negative effect on one’s ability to perform normal daily activities. It explains that, unlike learning disability, a learning difficulty does not affect general intelligence but is described as specific problems in processing certain forms of information. While this was one attempt to distinguish “difficulties” from “disabilities”, in the UK today the understanding that “learning difficulties” also include a general impairment of intelligence is still present.

In the USA, the term “learning disability” has a different meaning. Learning disability is used there to cover several specific learning disorders particularly in relation to reading, writing and maths, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. The terms “intellectual disabilities” and “mental retardation” are commonly used as labels to describe what in the UK would be understood as learning disabilities (Hardie & Tilly, 2012).

In France, Law no. 2005-102 of 11 February 2005 (Art. L. 114 of the Social Action and Families Code) defines disability in the following manner: "What constitutes a disability, in the present law’s meaning, is any limitation of a person’s activity or limitation of participation in social life in their environment because of a substantial, lasting or definitive alteration of one or several physical, sensory, mental, cognitive or psychological functions, a multi-disability or debilitating health problem" (Eurydice, n.d.). Regarding the definitions presented above, this is a much broader description since it includes the entire scope of impairments and is considered in such a way that includes all different special (educational) needs.

In Germany, predominantly the term “learning disabilities” is described. Despite the literal translation of the term “learning disabilities” and the significant historical German-European contributions to the American concept of learning disabilities, Lernbehinderung has little in common with the American concept of learning disability. In describing the German school population with Lernbehinderung, four special education populations are emerging: (a) students having school achievement problems with different causes, including poor teaching; (b) deficits in cognitive functions (low IQ); © specific learning disabilities (perception-processing disorders); and (d) sociocultural or socioeconomic deprivation (Opp, 1992). Also in the German context, Büttner and Hasselhorn (2011) state that students with difficulties in specific cognitive processes and academic achievement with otherwise normal levels of intellectual functioning are classified as having a learning disability. This indicates that more contemporary definitions at least partly exclude the above-mentioned deficits in cognitive functions.

Regarding the definitions described above, it is evident that it is difficult to recognise the same sample of students in different national contexts when considering the terms used in the analyses. Nevertheless, some resemblance has emerged such as distinguishing between students with average intellectual functioning and those with impairments to their intellectual functioning.

In response to all these diverse interpretations, the OECD adopted three cross-national categories for a group of students who are provided with additional resources to help with their studies: students with disabilities, difficulties and disadvantages (OECD, 2007). Students with disabilities or impairments are viewed in medical terms as organic disorders attributable to organic pathologies (e.g. in relation to sensory, motor or neurological defects). Students with difficulties are defined as students with behavioural or emotional disorders, or specific difficulties with learning. Students with disadvantages are defined as arising primarily from socio-economic, cultural and/or linguistic factors (ibid.).

However, the conceptualisation and definition of learning difficulties remains a big issue to be tackled in the future. Considering all the definitions presented above for the purpose of this paper, the term ’learning difficulties’ will be used to signify the broadest understanding of students who have any kind of difficulties related to learning regardless of their origin and severity since analyses of the relationship between learning difficulties and ESL most often do not include a precise definition of the terminology to enable us to distinguish between different backgrounds of the phenomena. Although there is no universal definition of students with learning difficulties, authors (European Agency, 2016; Korhonen, Linnanmäki, & Aunio, 2014; Kortering & Braziel, 1998; NESF, 2001) agree that this group of students belongs to “vulnerable groups” that are at high risk of low achievement and ESL – as already indicated in the introduction.

Learning difficulties and ESL

As described, there is no single ‘cause’ of ESL. Instead, multiple risk factors have been recognised that interact with each other and operate at various levels of young people’s ecologies. Factors relate to individual characteristics, family background, schools, education systems and wider social and economic conditions (European Agency, 2016). Related to these factors, ESL is largely characterised by a lack of academic success and low motivation for school work (Lan & Lanthier, 2003) which are also among the main characteristics of students with learning difficulties (Filippatou & Kaldi, 2010). In fact, all students with special educational needs (SEN) are more likely to have lower attainments in school, poorer relationships and emotional and behavioural difficulties and to be at greater risk of ESL than their peers (Hakkarainen, Holopainen, & Savolainen, 2016). It has been widely analysed and proven that, overall, young people with any kind of special educational needs achieve less than their peers and are more likely to truant and be excluded from school and therefore to be ESLrs than their peers (Rogers, 2016).

Wagner and Davis (2006) show that students with learning disabilities and students with emotional and behavioural disorders experience disproportionately higher drop-out rates than other students with special needs. Also among adults of working age, those with a disability are roughly half as likely to have degree-level qualifications than those without disabilities (EHRC, 2011). The drop-out rate for all students in the USA, for example, is 7%; for students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) it is 21.1%; while for the subset of students served under the IDEA with emotional disturbance the drop-out rate climbs to 38.7% (Child Mind Institute, 2016).

The prevalence of ESL among students with learning difficulties indicates there is a strong connection between the two phenomena but that other factors are also significantly related to ESL, and it is evident that learning difficulty by itself does not explain the reasons for ESL more than the other factors.

Special educational needs (SEN) or disability status may not offer an explanation for ESL over and above that provided by other risk factors, but nonetheless it is closely associated with those factors. In other words, students identified as having SEN are disproportionately more likely to experience factors that increase the risk for ESL (European Agency, 2016). Students with SEN are more likely than their peers to experience low levels of engagement, or to experience rapid decreases in engagement, and hence to leave school (Janosz, Archambault, Morizot, & Pagani, 2008). These are related both to students’ individual characteristics and their family characteristics (socio-economic status, support provided by the family to the student etc.)

Among the risk factors for ESL the school context is also regarded as important, especially when considering students with learning difficulties. Several students with learning difficulties indicated they did not feel engaged and connected to the school since the traditional programmes and teachers had failed to meet their needs (Palladino et al., 2000). It has been stated that students are less likely to drop out of schools where the relationships between teachers and students are consistently positive (Lee & Burkam, 2001). The relations between teachers and students have an especially strong effect on students with learning difficulties, their learning outcomes and their motivation to stay in school (Shaddock, 2007). It may matter less in which setting students are included than whether they find that setting supportive (European Agency, 2016). Therefore, it is very important to establish provisions that would empower teachers and other educators with competencies to meet different students’ needs.

Accordingly, one could argue that there are both learning difficulties by definition that are hindering these students from performing well or staying engaged in schools as well as the education system that does not support them in meeting their needs. Thus, there is a great need to act accordingly and take action to enable these students to reach their potential. The question remains of whether education facilities are able to make appropriate provisions for every student with different learning difficulties, disabilities and special educational needs to succeed. Actions regarding the prevention of ESL for students with learning difficulties would need to focus on several different issues in order to cope with the multiple factors leading to ESL, including their individual needs and motivation.

How to support students with learning difficulties to prevent ESL

Research-based considerations

The European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (2016) suggests that many types of interventions to reduce ESL are likely to work if introduced with sufficient quality and sufficient attention to local and individual circumstances. However, single-strand interventions are not the most effective way forward. There is a need for a broad range of actions focused on students, their schools and their families and the opportunity structures which shape their choices.

Efforts to reduce ESL among students with learning difficulties or even special educational needs students in general should therefore focus on offering an individually designed high level of support and different opportunities regarding all circumstances related to the individual student’s educational experiences and motivation, including both the student’s individual needs and characteristics, their background and also the teachers’ and education system’s characteristics.

Combatting the risks for ESL among young people identified as having SEN and/or a disability involves ensuring that:

  • these young people have an appropriately high level of support;
  • their transitions are planned carefully;
  • their families are involved; and
  • there actually are appropriate high-quality education opportunities available to them (European Agency, 2016).

Regarding this, some approaches should include careful monitoring of the students and recognising those in risk followed by early individualised interventions based on the specific needs of each student with learning difficulties. The European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (2016) suggests that individualised academic support together with social, emotional and behavioural interventions should be implemented.

Several of the actions listed below can be considered while discussing the probability of reducing ESL among the learning difficulties population. As already indicated, these measures are welcomed for preventing ESL in general. But they are considerably more important for students with learning difficulties since by definition they are each more likely to experience more risk factors for ESL than their peers without learning difficulties.

A significant reduction of ESL requires fundamental changes in curriculum design processes, workflow design, and staff training; it demands creative use of technology and the development of partnerships with key stakeholders. ESL prevention needs to be built into existing programmes and newly created programmes also need to be designed (Smink & Schargel, 2004) for students with learning difficulties and for teachers’ educational and professional development. There are several issues that must be considered when planning new approaches for the education of students with learning difficulties in order to reduce their ESL prevalence.

Drop-out and ESL rates have been linked to the characteristics of the curriculum and instruction. Typically, the focus has been on an adapted curriculum and upgrading teachers’ skills by providing training in student-centred, active pedagogy/instruction. Less often, the curriculum content itself is challenged. The lesson that has been learned is that adapting a curriculum which is not relevant or is not teaching functional skills in the first place does little to motivate students to stay in school (Peters, 2007).

Since the importance of individualised academic support has already been highlighted, it is evident that educators should also consider adapting the curriculum especially for an individualised education plan for students with learning difficulties in order to include more topics that are interesting and motivating for them. As the changes in the workflow design (where the school coordinates the information flow, services and systems to support the prevention of ESL) are also suggested as an important approach for reducing ESL, the importance of the contemporary suggestions of educators’ professional development approaches regarding learning difficulties which propose a whole-school approach is obvious.

The whole-school approach has been emerging as the approach that is the most presentable for inclusive education in general and the most supportive for students with learning difficulties. Basic principles of whole-school approaches include participation and collaboration (Peters, 2007). In this approach, the entire school community (school leaders, teaching and non-teaching staff, learners, parents and families) engages in a cohesive, collective and collaborative action to tackle ESL, with strong cooperation with external stakeholders and the community at large (European Commission, 2015).

Attitudes to learning difficulties in general and to teaching students with learning difficulties also constitute a critical challenge in the struggle to reduce ESL among students with learning difficulties. Traditional approaches focus on teacher attitudes in classrooms. But contemporary training programmes are also beginning to target other groups such as students with learning difficulties themselves, their peers and their parents (Peters, 2007). The whole-school approach covering teachers’ professional development, the students with learning difficulties, their peers and other stakeholders thus seems to hold most potential for cutting ESL. Some best practices are presented below.

Good practices

Several approaches/good practices have been recognised as successful in preventing ESL among students with learning difficulties.

One of these approaches is called Cognitive Behavioural Interventions. This was recognised as an effective approach to help students with disabilities stay in school by reducing aggressive behaviours of students and it has shown its effectiveness across different educational environments, disability types, ethnicities and genders. With this approach, students learn strategies that promote self-regulation, increase positive behaviour and reduce inappropriate behaviour, and it simultaneously provides educators with information to assist in implementing those strategies. Using cognitive-behavioural interventions can substantively lessen the kinds of problem behaviours that frequently result in school suspensions and/or expulsions that subsequently lead to ESL (Riccomini, Bost, Katsiyannis, & Zhang, 2005; Cobb, Sample, Alwell, & Johns, 2005).

A prevention programme called “Check and Connect” is a comprehensive prevention programme designed to enhance students’ engagement at school and has also been successful among students with disabilities and learning difficulties. The “Check” component uses consistent monitoring of students at risk of dropout (e.g. course failures, tardiness, missed classes, absenteeism, detention and suspension) and then the “Connect” component involves programme staff giving individualised attention to students in partnership with other school staff, family members and the community through academic support, in-depth problem-solving, and coordination with community services (Institute of Education Sciences, 2015).

Some interventions also tackle approaches for specific learning difficulties. For example, based on their findings Korhonen et al. (2014) suggest interventions for students with learning difficulties in mathematics that target both skills and the academic self-concept of students. Such an approach is Schema Broadening Instruction (i.e. Fuchs et al., 2009) which incorporates elements (praise, feedback) that aim to enhance the specific or general academic self-concept of students. Instruction based on schema theory encourages students to develop a schema for each problem type but also teachers need to be shown how to formulate such instruction.

Analyses of these approaches also confirm that students with learning difficulties are in need of receiving additional and specific academic support and simultaneously the support that tackles their self-concept (both general and academic) and motivation. Many forms of interventions are likely to be effective, although the quality of implementation and sensitivity to specific individual (or local) circumstances are important


Students with special educational needs and learning difficulties are more likely than their peers without learning difficulties to experience low levels of engagement, or to experience rapid decreases in engagement (Janosz et al., 2008), they are more likely to have lower achievements (Hakkarainen et al., 2016) and therefore are more at risk for ESL (European Agency, 2016). But ESL is a complex phenomenon and other factors are also interrelated, such as family, socio-economic status (SES), ethnicity, school support etc., which should all be considered when planning an intervention for a student with learning difficulties at risk of ESL with an emphasis on influencing the above-mentioned features.

In order not to put students at further risk of ESL, schools should be identifying and supporting at-risk children with prevention programmes. A widely deployed, integrated system of evidence-supported, school-based mental health and preventive services is needed (Child Mind Institute, 2016) so as to reduce the probability of poor achievements, low levels of engagement and related to that also ESL. It was determined that the relationship of students with their teachers and the whole-school approach are especially important when discussing students with learning difficulties in terms of preventing ESL. By definition, learning difficulties hinder their learning process (that in turn leads to low academic performance and ESL) but also the system and methods used do not enable these students to reach their potential. Therefore, not only should the empowerment of teachers and other educators through professional development be considered but other stakeholders are also an important issue to focus on while planning changes in systematic approaches for reducing ESL levels among students with learning difficulties.

Several intervention programmes and approaches have proven to be effective regarding preventing students with learning difficulties from leaving school early, such as Cognitive Behavioural Interventions concentrating on reducing students’ problem behaviour (Riccomini et al., 2005; Cobb et al., 2005), the Check and Connect intervention focusing on monitoring and providing timely support (Institute of Education Sciences, 2015) and Schema Broadening Instruction focusing on improving students’ problem-solving approaches and self-concept (Fuchs et al., 2009). These and other best practices can be used to establish a programme that would be effective in particular local and individual circumstances for reducing the risk factors for students with learning difficulties becoming ESLrs.

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