Helping teachers support students with learning differences worldwide

As a new fifth-grade teacher, Mary Ann Wolf had a young boy named Riley in her classroom. Despite being bright, Riley could not read. He was unable to piece letter sounds together to make a word in reading class.

“When a student struggles, the question is not what’s wrong with the student or what’s wrong with the teacher. The question is what’s wrong with the system?”

– Learning Ally

In addition, Riley was starting to lose faith in himself, and Mary Ann found that repeating traditional teaching approaches was proving fruitless. Concerned, she committed herself to finding a way to help him. “Riley had a phenomenal memory, so I thought maybe he could just memorise whole words visually, instead of struggling with trying to sound out new words,” she said. Mary Ann made a pact with Riley – she would give him ten new words a day on small cards that he could attach to a binder ring and he would practice memorising these words. With this approach, he soon added 800 new words to his reading vocabulary. Later that year, Mary Ann was thrilled to hear Riley’s classmates complain that he was not letting others read aloud because he wanted to keep doing so!

By reaching out to Riley, Mary Ann realised that not all children learn in the same way, and that teachers can use varied instructional approaches to reach all learners. Indeed, Riley’s story gives a clear example of how people learn to read using different capacities and can improve the ways they learn by harnessing their strengths. “Each person has a different combination of learning strengths and challenges, interests, knowledge and skills,” explained Dana Brinson from Oak’s Learning Differences Programme. “Some children find it easier to match sounds with symbols than others, and for them it may be easy to learn to read, regardless of the instructional approach used. Others, such as children identified as having dyslexia, may benefit from specific instructional approaches that unfortunately are not always taught to the teachers themselves.”

There is a growing awareness that conventional classroom teaching methods do not generally take into account the different ways children learn. Children with learning differences such as dyslexia can reach the same standards as their peers, but teachers need the skills to understand their students and use approaches that work for a wider variety of learners. If teachers are not prepared to help children achieve to their fullest potential, the result is a colossal waste of unrecognised human potential. In addition, when children with learning differences do not receive effective instruction and encouragement, it can have significant negative impacts on their learning and life outcomes.

Often, children recognise when they are struggling and their peers are not. As in Riley’s case above, this can have a deep impact on self-esteem, confidence and children’s engagement with learning. It can also lead young people with learning differences to develop feelings of frustration, disengage from school, and engage in negative behaviour patterns that lead to lower rates of graduation, higher unemployment, and as young adults, a disproportionate level of involvement with the justice system.

Oak believes that typical classrooms, as they have been designed, do not serve children well in terms of helping them to reach their full potential. Only when teachers are supported in understanding individual learners and trained to match instructional methods to the learners in their classrooms can education systems serve all children more effectively, avoiding the negative life outcomes that result when children’s potential is wasted.

Training teachers

Second only to parents, teachers are the most influential agents of change in children’s lives. However, teacher preparation programmes provide limited training on how to teach students with learning differences such as dyslexia, and students with learning differences who have been identified for special education in the US still spend more than 80 per cent of their days in general classrooms. Typically, school systems do not provide the orientation and coaching necessary to help teachers work confidently with diverse learners – classrooms and curricula are not designed to be accessible to a wider range of learners.

Teachers constantly report that they face the same challenge that Mary Ann did – they do not have the skills they need to teach students with learning differences. “Riley was only one student in my class,” Mary Ann said. “As a teacher alone in my classroom, I couldn’t figure out how to do that for every student.”

Oak believes it is crucial to support teachers’ professional development in order to improve the academic and life outcomes of children with learning differences. Ongoing, in-classroom coaching is the only approach found to help teachers change their day-to-day practice in classrooms.1 Coaching provides opportunities for teachers to: try new approaches; receive supportive feedback on how to strengthen their work; and see the impact on their own students. Oak therefore supports teachers in reaching diverse types of students through grants, including the following: New Teacher Center, Teach For All, the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation and the Fana Association for Individuals with Learning & Communication Difficulties.

New Teacher Center

New Teacher Center (NTC) is a US based not-for-profit organisation that works to increase teacher effectiveness by providing new teachers with experienced mentor-coaches during their first year. “Traditional methods of instruction are largely used in teacher preparation programmes,” explained Ellen Moir, Founder and CEO of NTC. “This is despite the fact that these methods do not prepare teachers to help children with learning differences reach their full potential.”

“If we expect teachers to personalise learning for students, shouldn’t we personalise learning for teachers?”

– Ellen Moir, Founder and CEO of New Teacher Center

NTC is training its coaches to provide new teachers with the skills they need to serve diverse learners in their classrooms. The initial steps of this training include: helping new teachers to understand themselves as learners; and enabling teachers to see that how they learn impacts how they teach. “There is a movement toward greater personalisation for students,” said Ellen Moir. “If we expect teachers to personalise learning for students, shouldn’t we personalise learning for teachers?”

Teach For All

Oak supports teacher coaching, not only in the US, but around the globe. Indeed, the quality of education varies enormously around the world. For children with learning differences, especially in developing countries, the challenges of accessing high-quality education are even greater.

Teach For All is a global network of more than 30 independent partner organisations which share a vision for expanding educational opportunities. Each partner recruits and develops graduates and professionals who commit to two-year teaching opportunities in high-need classrooms in their own countries. Rachel Brody of Teach For America worked with two teachers from Teach For Lebanon who spent hours crafting teaching aids and writing songs to teach new skills to their primary school students. One little boy, Mohammed, later said that those two teachers were the first to believe in him and support his learning.

“The more that I collaborate with and learn from my international colleagues, the better I become as an educator, problem-solver and global thinker,” explained Rachel. “I have seen that classroom complexities cross borders, and that we must work together, globally, to support students with learning differences.”

Teach For All has developed a fellowship programme that trains 15 coaches around the world on how to understand and support different learners. The goal is to promote cross-country collaboration in training teachers to support the education of students with learning differences.

These coaches will: disseminate what they have learned throughout their own regions; train other educators to recognise students with learning differences; and identify and use instructional methods and approaches to best support each student’s success.

The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation

The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University has launched a Massive Open Online Course for Educators (MOOC-Ed) on Learning Differences. The course will support NTC, Teach for All and other educators around the world to understand and support the academic and social development of youth with learning differences.

Mary Ann Wolf, who as a new teacher worked diligently to help Riley learn how to read by using his strengths, is now – 15 years later – leading the design team for the Learning Differences MOOC-Ed. Mary Ann is committed to helping other teachers understand the strengths and challenges different learners bring to the classroom, and to identify resources and approaches that support students’ learning. Mary Ann has led her team to design a course that teachers can tailor to their own learning goals and then follow a personalised pathway through the course, while connecting with other teachers to share their own experiences in helping students with learning differences experience success in the classroom. The Learning Differences MOOC-Ed is available worldwide and free-ofcharge to teachers. The course provides additional modules that prepare teacher coaches to develop other teachers’ skills in supporting the effective learning of all children in their classrooms.

“We are using technology to reach teachers anywhere in the world, wherever they are on their teaching journey,” said Mary Ann. “The MOOC-Ed for Learning Differences connects teachers with resources and colleagues so that they can build important skills and develop habits of mind to help students in their classrooms right now. We hope that, together, we can change the way students with learning differences experience school so that they can enjoy learning and feel confident, just like Riley did when he was finally a successful and confident reader.”

Fana Association

To date the Learning Differences Programme has focused most of its funding on organisations in the United States and the United Kingdom, where dyslexia and other learning disabilities, though still somewhat misunderstood, are routinely recognised as legitimate learning challenges.

However, we know that in many other countries, teachers have not been trained to identify or support the education of children with learning differences.

Abebayehu Messele Mekonnen realised this was the case in Ethiopia, Africa. Along with a group of academics and practitioners who believe that learning differences should not hold children back from achieving their potential, Abebayehu founded the Fana Association for Individuals with Learning and Communication Difficulties (FAILCD).

“There is a huge need to raise awareness about learning and communication difficulties.”

- Abebayehu Mekonnen, FAILCD

In a small pilot study, FAILCD found that of 36 teachers in 9 schools in Ethiopia, 34 said they did not know much, or at all, about learning differences. “There is a huge need to raise awareness about learning and communication difficulties,” said Abebayehu.

FAILCD provides teacher training, parent support and direct clinical services to children with learning and communication differences such as dyslexia. It hopes to improve the quality of life of children living with learning differences by working, together with schools and communities, to raise awareness on learning and communication difficulties.

“Our hope is that by raising awareness in families and training teachers, we can improve the lives of thousands of Ethiopian children,” said Abebayehu. Oak has provided FAILCD with a core support grant. ©

Oak Foundation Annual Report
Learning Differences
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Training enables teachers to support children with learning differences such as dyslexia.


The photographs have been provided by LDP grantees and illustrate diverse teaching practices and learning environments around the world.

From left: © Teach For the Philippines; © New Classrooms; © Teach For China