What is a “LD-friendly” learning setting?
A “LD-friendly” learning setting uses accommodations, strategies and resources that are helpful for all learners whether or not they have a diagnosed learning disability. Another term from “LD-friendly” learning is Universal Design, an approach to designing learning settings that responds to diverse learning styles, accommodates learning difficulties and encourages multiple modes of expression.

Why create a “LD-friendly” learning setting?
The main idea guiding a “LD friendly setting” is that designing instruction for adults with learning disabilities can benefit all learners.

Chances are that you will meet learners in adult literacy classes who have learning disabilities. Since at least 15% of the general population has a learning disability, and this is much higher in adult literacy settings, we should consider learning disabilities to be a common, integral part of education practice. Moreover, feelings of fear, anxiety or stress often “walk beside” learning disabilities. Adult educators find themselves creating learning settings in which people with many different kinds of difficulties can learn. This is sometimes called universal design, or differentiated instruction, or “LD-friendly”.

What does a “ LD-Friendly” learning setting look like?
Here are a few general principles of inclusive learning environments:

Provide accommodations that give learners choice and support in how they learn.
Take advantage of available assistive technologies.
Use multi-sensory learning strategies that combine kinesthetic (movement) auditory, visual and oral strategies for learning and so allows students to learn the same material in many different ways.
Use multi-modal learning strategies that are not only multi-sensory (as above), but also value and integrate images, art, drama, spoken word, music and so on. By creating many ways to express what people know, we also work through and around areas of difficulty.
Focus on meaning, and outside-classroom application.
Pay attention to the social and learning issues that “walk-beside” learning difficulties.

What are learning accommodations?
Accommodations are modifications to instruction that remove barriers to learning. The most common accommodations that schools, colleges and universities should offer include:

Providing note takers for those with difficulties writing.
Offering alternative testing arrangements (e.g. oral exams, dictating material, demonstrating learning in alternate formats).
Extending time allowed for assignments.
Minimizing distractions.
Oral exams.
Finding the right accommodations involves learners and tutors reflecting together on learning strategies that are and are not helpful. Here, it is important but sometimes difficult to encourage learners to find the language to describe their learning, and to ask for what they need. For example, after a few months in an Adult Basic Education program, Calvin observed: “I prefer to talk about a story first, and then read it slowly on my own, before being asked to read it to someone else.”

Assistive Technologies
Assistive technologies are accommodations that rely on digital (computer) or conventional tools to assist learning. These may be “low-tech” as in a colour screen to highlight text, or manipulatives to teach math concepts, to “high-tech” tools such as speech to text software, portable laptops, keyboard modifications and so on. In fact, assistive technologies are part of our everyday lives, and so should be part of adult literacy settings.

Engstrom (2005) points out that assistive technologies, when used alongside sound instructional strategies and accommodations, can allow learners to reach levels of academic success that would otherwise be out of reach.

Here is an example that Engstrom (2005) provides for how these features come together in a process she calls “active reading”:

Active reading steps include pre-reading, reading, highlighting, margin note taking, chunking sections of text and summarizing the text. By strategically combining a text decoder with a visual organizer and a word processor, the student achieves active reading by eliminating the need for word-by-word decoding, freeing the active working memory for comprehension.

Students have the benefit of:

a) Seeing and hearing their texts;

b) Visually organizing concepts within a concept map

c) Transferring those visual maps into other written/visual forms. (Engstrom, 2005, p. 32)

Rather than thinking of assistive technologies as “shortcuts” or “cheating”, Engstrom says that these technologies should be seen as a central part of an inclusive learning program.

Internet resources on assistive technologies and learning:
Low-tech tools on the market:


Tech tools for adults with learning disabilities:


Tools that work: Assistive technologies in the classroom:


Transferring learning to everyday life: “Skills integrity”

Educator and advocate Pat Hatt (2001) argues that a key indicator of a successful LD strategy is whether learners are aware of, and able to apply the learning skills and accommodations they use in the classroom to their lives outside of school. She calls this “skills integrity”:

‘Skills ‘integrity’ relates to the need to ensure that even if we provide a learner with accommodations, the learner is independently able to use that skill and or to use it to learn a more complex skill. A skill lacks integrity when it does not allow a learner to do either of these two things. An instructor may believe that they can ‘accommodate’ a learner who can’t spell, by giving the learner the correct spelling or by correcting the learner’s work. This is not an appropriate accommodation since when the instructor is not present the learner is unable to produce a correctly spelled passage. However, if the instructor teaches the learner how to use a hand held spell checker, or a computer spell checker, and ensures that the learner has sufficient knowledge of grammar, spelling rules, spelling tricks and other strategies to work out how a word is spelled, the learner is then independent. While the learner still has significant spelling problems they can produce independently a correctly spelled piece of work. The integrity of the skill is then said to remain intact. (Hatt, 2001, p. 7)

Multi-sensory Teaching Approaches (MTA)
Successful strategies in addressing LD in adult literacy settings often feature “MTA” (Multi-sensory Teaching Approaches), also known as the Simultaneous Multi-sensory Teaching method (S.M.T). “MTAs” are designed to tap into auditory, visual and kinaesthetic sensory pathways, as in the example of “active reading” above.

The goal is to provide learners with lots of opportunities to practice new skills by working with similar material in different ways.

Exercising the brain
Another way to think about multi-sensory learning is to think of the brain as a muscle. In fact, research in neuroplasticity suggests that our brains continue to change and grow throughout our lives.

For example, Crouse, on LDinfo.com suggests that someone with difficulties processing visual information can benefit from two strategies:

1. Create detours around the disability by using auditory and other learning modes.

2. Strengthen visual processing weakness by doing games and activities that encourage the use of visual information.

Here are some examples:

Doing jigsaw puzzles.
Drawing and painting.
Plugging one’s ears while watching TV and trying to figure out what is going on.
Look at a picture, take it away, and try to remember everything you saw.
See Crouse’s (2001) Self – advocacy manual for people with learning disabilities for more ideas on how to “work on” auditory, sequencing, conceptual and speed processing difficulties.

See also:

Brain exercises for ideas and information on working with the ideas of neuroplasticity (or brain plasticity).


Lebeau, M. (2004). Vision: Seeing the possibilities beyond. Exploring the use of Structure of Intellect (SOI) and sensori-motor integration exercises within literacy programs.

Multimodal and digital learning
The goal of effective instruction in any program is to support learners to understand and make meaning with many kinds of texts, including visual and digital (computer) texts.

Multimodal learning is multi-sensory, but also takes place across modes, or means of expression. A person skilled in arts, drawing, or building in 3D can learn new material visually first, and use this as a resource for learning new skills related to reading and writing print. Digital learning on the web such as blogging, emailing. podcasting and digital story telling are examples of learning that “mixes-modes” using computers.

Kh4>Resources for integrating multi-modal literacies in to your learning setting:

Computer literacies:


Web 2.0 Tools in the Classroom:


Digital storytelling cookbook:

Digital Storytelling is the modern expression of the ancient art of storytelling. Digital stories derive their power by weaving images, music, narrative and voice together, thereby giving deep dimension and vivid color to characters, situations, experiences, and insights.
–Leslie Rule, Digital Storytelling Association

Systematic, sequential and structured learning
Research suggests that some students with learning difficulties benefit from instruction that is systematic, meaning that learning is framed by well-defined learning goals (“why am I doing this?”), and interactions between learners and instructors are planned to contribute to those learning goals. Sequential learning links new material and skills with what learners already know, and skills they have already learned. The learning structure enables lots of practice, and monitoring of the achievement of learning goals.

Many instructors model these strategies in their everyday practice. There are also structured programs that provide training and curricula (usually for a fee) in systematic, sequential and structured learning. Here are some examples:


Structure of Intellect (SOI):

Balance between direct and systematic instruction and critical pedagogy
Campbell (2003) in Teaching Reading to Adults: A Balanced Approach confirms the promise of direct and systematic instruction but also reminds educators that “balance” not only refers to a balance between structured language and “whole text” methods (also known as “whole language” methodologies), but also a balance between “reading the word” and “reading the world” (Freire, 1970).

In fact, critical pedagogy may be particularly useful in “LD-friendly” classrooms. Critical pedagogy invites learners to discuss how power and privilege operate in their everyday lives, and what actions can be taken to promote advocacy and change in their lives and in society.

What does critical pedagogy look like in a classroom setting?
It is here that curriculum and instruction connect to the social context for learning. For adults with learning disabilities, this context is often shaped by issues that walk closely beside LD. Attending to issues that “walk beside” LD is part of a “whole-life” approach to learning disabilities.

See also: Changing how the world thinks about LD

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