Preschool Classroom Interventions Series: Slow Learner or Difficulty with Information Processing

by Dr. Barbara Lowe

A slow learner is a child who has difficulties with:

  • Symbolic play (difficulty with substituting one object for another);
  • Comprehension or expression of language (e.g., difficulty understanding one-step directions, a late talker);
  • Emergent literacy skills (e.g., slow speed for naming colors and objects, difficulty with rhyming, minimal print awareness); and,
  • He or she might appear to take more time in processing, understanding, and remembering information.

Skill building Interventions for the Slow Learner

  • Expose the student regularly and systematically to rich and varied vocabulary, syntax, and discourse patterns.
  • Involve the student in structured and unstructured individual and group play interactions and conversations.
  • For tasks that the child typically finds difficult, use a system of modeling to teach the child new skills.
  • Provide access to and a curriculum based on print and literacy-rich materials. Find ways to expose the student to more print, in the environment, through reading with the child, and through teaching concepts of print. In dramatic play center, encourage the child to share his plans for play and then review what he did after play.
  • Ask the student to paraphrase instructions or to repeat the directions to you before beginning on a task. Repeat directions as many times as necessary Check frequently to ensure that the student understands the task.
  • Provide practice for the student through retelling events or stories. For example, read the student a short story and ask the student to repeat the events in sequential order or to identify the major story components. Provide specific instruction in vocabulary. Teach the student what various words mean.
  • While reading to the child, pause to define any unfamiliar words.
  • Read the same book more than once to the child. Encourage the child to actively participate while you read. Allow him or her to ask and answer questions and relate the new words to his or her own experiences. After reading a story, have a conversation with the child about the book.
  • Use new or interesting words many times with the child. Repeated exposure in many different contexts will help the child learn the new word.
  • To help increase phonological awareness, play games that focus on the sounds of words, such as rhyming games and songs, thinking of words that start with a particular sound, and counting the “beats”  or syllables of words.
  • Use a variety of classroom activities for promoting phonological awareness. These activities should be interactive and game-like, involving singing, rhyming, clapping and movement.
  • To promote phonological awareness, use literature that plays with language sounds. Read texts that emphasize rhyming patterns, illiteration, and the manipulation of phonemes.
  • Teach the student the difference between letter sounds and letter names.

Modifications for the Slow Learner:

  • Simplify your language; use short, concise sentences and give directions one at a time.
  • Simplify tasks. Design a plan that allows complicated tasks with 2 or 3 parts to be broken down into individual parts with individual directions. Consider also using visual cues with directions, such as picture cards that show each step of the task in order.
  • Provide predictable structure through daily routine for the child. Be sure that throughout the day, the child has adequate understanding of classroom expectations.
  • Provide materials adapted to the student’s skill level when necessary.
  • Provide extra time to practice and repeat new skills.
  • Shorten activities when attention span is an issue.
  • Develop a system cuing that the child understands. Use the cuing mode that child responds to best: auditory, visual, or touch
  • Maintain eye contact with the child while you speak with him.
  • Use a variety of reinforcers to reward what the child does well and to encourage further effort.
  • Assign special “jobs” to the child during large group activities that he can do well so that the child will feel important to the class and stay involved in the task.
  • Emphasize and teach to mastery only one or two phonological skills at a time.
  • Adjust the amount of time and instruction based upon the student’s needs.
  • Break assignments into smaller parts.
  • Provide review, repetition, and overlearning.
  • Use short, simple sentences when speaking to the student. Presentone instruction at a time. Be sure to keep verbal instructions at the student’s vocabulary level. Stand near and look directly at the student when giving directions. If needed, place a hand on the student’s arm or shoulder.
  • When presenting directions and discussing concepts, use vocabulary that is understood by the student.
  • Provide multisensory learning. Involve visual, kinesthetic, vocal, and auditory channels when appropriate. For example, have the student repeat step-by-step directions while he or she performs the task. Engage the student in demonstrations of the activity.
  • Limit the amount of material presented at one time.

Other helpful principles that could be applied

  • Be careful to not reward resistance to a task that you are teaching the student, as rewarding such behaviors may increase resistance.
  • Make sure the skills are within an attainable range for the child and then gently insist that the child learn necessary skills, using generous positive reinforcement
  • For any task or skill being taught, consider using chaining, where task are broken down into smaller tasks and are taught skill upon skill with generous rewarding one at a time.
  • When teaching a new skill, keep the language the same from day to day.

(Sources: National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 2006; Mayer, 2006, Gould and Sullivan, 1999)