LBS Practitioner Training

Professional development support for Literacy and Basic Skills educators in Ontario

3.4 Finding the Right Strategy

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The big "if only..."

“If only I could find the magic technique for teaching adults with learning disabilities!”

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a handy, dandy LD Guide that could give us the perfect strategy for every LD barrier? We wish! Selecting and applying the best possible strategy is certainly the challenge of the day for LBS instructors.

To do this, instructors need to know:

  • what will work, as well as what will not.
  • what to try, and what to avoid.

It’s a both/and kind of skill.
It’s also a skill that matures over time.  

Pat Hatt, well-known author and consultant for learning disabilities, recently made this comment during a workshop.  

“In working with learning disabilities, it’s a matter of doing what you already know how to do, but choosing the right thing to do with the right person. Doing the wrong thing makes a huge difference, and doing the right thing makes a huge difference.”  

There are three things that can help the instructor approach this challenge with confidence:

  1. Instructors can be knowledgeable - have a basic understanding of particular disabilities so that when they are deciding how they will teach something, their choice is an informed one.
  2. Instructors can be equipped - have a bank of alternative strategies that they can draw upon when learners cannot work on a task, or solve a problem in the way other learners can.
  3. Instructors can be flexible - be ready to discard approaches that are not working and move on to something else.

In this unit, we look at:

  • the nature of learning disabilities and how it prohibits a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching;
  • general strategies for LD learners- building on strengths and working around problems;
  • proactive choices- strategies to put in place right at the start, at the planning stage of the program, for learners who may have visual, auditory and organizational learning disabilities;
  • responsive choices- strategies to try when LD learners encounter problems in reading, writing, speaking and listening and math.

No magic answer!

Read No Magic Fix to see why experts in the field say there is no quick and easy solution for working with groups of LD learners.

JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?

After reading "No Magic Fix", what did you recognize as being characteristic of your particular group of learners? Did reading this document elicit a feeling response in you? If so, what was that feeling, and what does that suggest to you in terms of what you need to/want to get from this training?


The link, What I Do Differently is another excerpt from the Learning Disabilities Initiative report by Donna Zener.  It contains an interesting chart on how working with LD learners differs from working with non-LD learners.

JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?

After reading that excerpt, how would you describe the difference between working with LD learners and non-LD learners? What, in your mind, is the bottom line?


Developing strategies - the instructor’s challenge

What do you mean by “strategies”?
A strategy is a carefully planned way to manage a task; it’s the “how-you-will-go-about-solving-the-problem” part of doing something. The instructor’s job is to introduce learners to effective strategies so that learners develop successful ways of solving literacy-related problems, on their own, wherever they are.

How do you choose the best strategies? Where do you start?

Should you...

  1. figure out the learner’s preferred learning style and design training based on those strengths?
  2. identify what possible learning disabilities are present and see what the research can tell us about what works or doesn’t work in each case?
  3. learn from the learner and be guided by what works or what doesn’t work for the individual?
  4. do each of the above?

Instructors who have a lot of experience in this would say the answer is,”do each of the above.” Here are some of their reasons:

1)   You have to start somewhere. If you suspect a learner may have a learning disability but you haven’t worked with the learner long enough to gather enough evidence about that, doing a preferred learning-style inventory is a good way to start. It will quickly let you see how the learner likes to learn (which is probably because it’s how the learner does learn).  

2)   Research is helpful in giving you guidance about what you can expect to find with particular leaning disabilities. It will generalize about what usually works and what probably will not. This kind of information can inform and shape your general teaching strategy so that it will have the most effective impact possible right from the ”get-go”.

3)   Learning the learner is time consuming, but, in the end, the most important thing we can do. Even though there’s plenty of good research out there about learning disabilities, LD learners each have their own unique combination of disability manifestations and trouble spots.  It’s not likely that you will find their particular, individual, and best ways of learning in any manual.

To recap, the “bottom-line” advice is:

  • be proactive by starting with, and building on, what you know about the learner’s strengths,
  • be responsive by being ready and able to suggest another way when the learner encounters a barrier.

JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?

How would you rate your current ability to use strategies that specifically respond to LD issues in your class? Which instructional strategies in the previous lists do you use on a regular basis as accommodations for possible learning disabilities?

Proactive choices: building on the learner’s strengths and using what we already know about learning disabilities

The learner’s strengths:

In order to work with an LD learner’s strengths, the instructor will want to consider:

  • the learner’s preferred learning style,
  • other strategies the learner has discovered over the years that help her work around her learning disability.

As the instructor plans ahead for lessons and prepares learning materials, he also thinks about what he can do to reinforce these already successful strategies so that learning can happen in the most positive and efficient way.

He or she might work through a mental checklist like this one:

  • What’s the best way to introduce this new information?
  • What would make it even more vivid for learners who pick things up quickly by watching? What would make it more emphatic for those who learn best through listening?
  • What would make it more tangible for kinaesthetic learners?
  • What learning activities would be most meaningful and most effective for each of these kinds of learners?
  • What kind of demonstration would most accurately allow each kind of learner to show what they have learned?

While the learner’s preferred learning style (PLS) may be a good place to start when planning how to deliver training, teaching to a particular learning style on its own is not enough to meet the learning needs of a learning-disabled person. The instructor must also work to discover what additional and unique approaches and strategies the learner requires.


Teaching to preferred learning styles is an approach we recommend for all LBS learners, and there is more about that in other modules. See Module 2: Approaches to Adult Learners and Adult Learning (look in unit 5), and Module 5, Training Delivery – Helping Adults Learn. In this module, we will focus more on choosing strategies that will work for particular problems and particular learning disabilities. If you want to find some preferred learning style inventories to use with learners, go to About PLS

What we already know about LD: other useful starting points for working with particular learning disabilities:

When deciding how to go about teaching something new, you can increase your chances of success by considering right from the start what minimizes the effects of particular learning disabilities for learners.
The following four links contain valuable information from a number of sources. Read each of these links, and look for things the instructor can do and things the learner can do to circumvent problems in visual perception, auditory perception, organization and memory.

  1. Tips for Visual LD
  2. Tips for Auditory LD
  3. Tips for Organization LD
  4. Tips for Memory LD

If you would like to check out where we found some of this material, visit:

Responsive choices– ways to work around the learner’s barriers using our knowledge of good teaching practice

Unfortunately, instructors cannot always anticipate and prepare ahead for how a learning disability will affect an individual’s ability to read, or write, or do math on any given day. For the most part, instructors just have to be ready to respond to problems as they occur. Sometimes, they find themselves scrambling to think of ways to help. When learners struggle, instructors want to have a number of strategies “at the tips of their fingers” that just might do the trick.

Strategies to try for particular problems in reading, writing, speaking and listening and math:

Of course, learners can have problems in reading, writing, speaking and listening or in math, whether they have a learning disability or not, and most instructors already have a number of strategies they like to use whenever these problems come up. When it comes to helping LD learners, however, instructors can be surprised to find that many favourite, tried and true strategies simply do not work.  For example, if a learner has a learning disability in the area of auditory memory, it does no good to tell the learner, “Keep on saying the times tables over and over again to yourself and eventually you’ll remember them.”

It’s not so much that LD learners have problems in reading, writing and math that are different from the problems of non-LD learners; it’s that the solutions to the problems may have to be different. To rephrase Pat Hatt’s comment, it’s matching up the right strategy with right learning disability that’s the key.

The following two sets of links contain information about matching up strategies for problems in reading, writing and math when working with learning disabilities in visual or auditory perception, or in organization.

First, open all seven links and skim through each one to see what they contain. You will see that the two sets of links have similar information but in different formats. Next, choose, and read more carefully, the links that best suit your interests and purposes.

The first set comes from the Learning Disabilities Initiative project. It contains suggestions and advice from instructors in the field, as well as links to good online sources for specific help with teaching reading, writing, and math.

The next set of links contains ideas gathered from a variety of sources. There are some useful charts to have “at the tips of your fingers” for:

  • responding to specific LD learner problems in reading, writing, speaking and listening and math,
  • identifying which strategy may be most effective for a visual, auditory or organizational learning disability.

Go to:

Here’s a thought! Check to see if your LD learners have had their eyesight and hearing tested recently. You don’t want to devote a lot of time and energy to working on strategies for solving LD problems that aren’t there.


Specific Learning Disabilities

Moving Towards Self-Advocacy

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