Seven Ways To Assist A Struggling Learner (Without Increasing Your Workload)


© Richard Whitehead, 2008 – 2021. World rights reserved. For permission to reproduce this article, email

Primary teachers are busy people. They already apply to their work all of the time, energy and creativity that they possibly could.

The following simple ideas, drawn from our experience at helping struggling learners to succeed, are offered here in all humility. They have been specifically devised so that their application should not increase your overall workload.

1. Get Him To Try Less Hard


Telling an under-motivated learner to try harder may be the right thing to do.

Telling a struggling learner to try harder is not.

He actually needs to try less hard.


Because concentration and mental effort diminish your intelligence. They force you to narrow your focus and lose the “bigger picture”. Information learnt through mental effort and tension is rarely retained long-term.

So instead, teach your learners to relax. How about asking your students, “Are you comfortable and relaxed?” before you teach something new?

Just these magic words alone have the potential to transform your students’ learning ability and capacity. And what’s more, your students will realise you are interested in their well-being while learning, which will increase their respect and trust in you.

2. Create a Culture of Metacognition

Metacognition is the name given to approaches that make people more aware of how they think.


The optimal mental state for learning is a relaxed alertness. The mental states most detrimental to learning are confusion, tension and negative emotions such as anxiety.

Your students can take more responsibility for their learning if they know how to manage their internal state.

Creating such a culture of metacognition in your class is not difficult. One way of doing so is to adopt a ritual for “getting present”:

At the beginning of every lesson, when changing activities within a lesson, or whenever you need the class to pay particular attention, have your pupils stand up, stretch, sit, and then take a deep breath. Ask the class if they feel “present” and teach them that this relaxed state is the ideal state for learning – if they lose this feeling, to take another deep breath and get the feeling back.


3. Spot the signs of confusion

When people are confused, they look different. You will know these signs already – rubbing the back of the neck, frowning, looking “glazed”, jigging a leg. When someone is in this state, they are engaged mentally on solving a problem and are no better able to take in information than if they were daydreaming.

Reacting to these signs in a large class of pupils is not easy. But if you have a classroom assistant working with specific pupils, consider training him/her to react to these signs.

One can react to these signs in a variety of ways. The learner can be asked to take a deep breath, relax and apply whatever metacognition tools the class is using to “get present”. You can arrange a “secret sign” with these learners that tells them to apply their tools when you spot them looking confused or distracted. Or one can have the whole class apply the tools, so that no attention is drawn to an individual learner.

Keep in mind that, when a learner is distracted or confused, any material you are presenting to them is not going in. The plain truth is that their learning will only re-start if and when they become “present” again.

4. Become More Visual-Spatial

Most struggling learners are visual-spatial thinkers. Much traditional teaching is auditory-sequential.

Auditory-sequential methods tend to focus on memorising information in words or sounds. Typical examples are the alphabet “song” and memorised times tables.

Visual-spatial methods tend to focus on meaning and understanding. Sequences (such as the spelling of a word) tend to be mastered as a visual “layout” rather than through verbal repetition.

Here are some simple ideas to try out that can make our teaching more visual-spatial:


  • When explaining a difficult concept, see if you can find a metaphor or everyday example that illustrates it.

  • Use the whiteboard, smartboard or other visual media to draw – not just to write. You don’t need to be a talented artist; even a very basic diagrammatic representation of what you are trying to explain can sometimes be the magic missing ingredient.

  • If you teach spellings, keep in mind that your struggling learners are unlikely to be able to master phonic “rules”. Allow them to master each word individually, and focus instead on what letters are in the word and on the quality of this learning experience. In a relaxed and fun environment, practise spelling words from right to left as well as left to right. This reinforces a student’s visual-spatial relationship with the “layout” of the word.

  • In reading, if phonic approaches are not working for your student, shift your focus to the sequence of letters in a word rather than phonic decoding.


5. Look for Opportunities for Experiential Learning

Experiential learning using explorative media will always deliver longer-lasting results than “chalk and talk”. Primary teaching is already using lots of explorative media, so this will not come as “news”.

If you are teaching time zones and the international date line, why not issue globes and torches to pairs of students and have them explore the effects of the rotation of the earth in front of a stationary sun?

But primary teachers are busy people, and primary schools operate on tight budgets. Therefore, simple media that are always at the ready and can be used for a variety of purposes will be more practical than a complex, expensive kit that is designed just for one specific purpose.

For example: real-world manipulatives such as beads, stones or balls of plasticine can be used for teaching adding and subtracting. The same media can then be used in multiplication to explore why the times tables are true. Arrange the items in three rows of nine and your student can “prove” that 9 x 3 = 27. Take the same 27 items and share them equally between three groups, and you have division.

Every word has a meaning. When mastering a word’s spelling, to create greater ownership of the word, why not have your students use artistic media to create a representation of its meaning, then append the letters of the word as its “label”?

Struggling learners often learn on a “seeing is believing” basis. Typically, they will have a poor memory for facts but a good long-term memory for things they’ve experienced. Converting facts into experience is a neat way to access this strength.

Experiential learning tasks sometimes take longer to set up, but require less teacher effort and input while they are happening. They may take up more time than “chalk and talk”, but can save time later by reducing the need for repetition and reinforcement.

6. We Don’t Need To Change What We’re Teaching; We May Need To Change The Order In Which We Teach It

There is an “ecosystem” of skills.

Every skill consists of sub-skills that you need to master that skill.

Some of those sub-skills have their own sub-sub-skills, and so on.

For example, as a visual-spatial thinker, to be able to master spelling you need to be able to visualise groups of letters in sequence. To be able to do this, you need to be able to visualise individual letters clearly. And to be able to do this, you need to feel confident about each letter: what it looks like, what it is called and what it is for.

As another example: multiplication is a process of adding in groups. To be able to do this, you need to be confident at addition. To be confident at addition, you need to be able to count, and to understand place value. To be able to count, you need to understand the fact that numerals are symbols for quantities.

Or: when mastering a word in a foreign language, you need to know what it means, how it is spelt and how it is pronounced. To master how it is pronounced, you need to be able to pronounce each individual phoneme of that language confidently. And so on.

When we try to teach a skill to someone who is missing a sub-skill, this can cause learning difficulty and distress. When we teach each necessary skill step by step, learning takes place much more easily and, ultimately, much faster.

7. Emphasise Mastery over Memorisation

A colleague of mine interviewed a child who proudly stated that he knew that the word “elephant” is spelt “B-E-C-A-U-S-E”.

The spelling of “because” is sometimes taught as “Big Elephants Cannot Always Use Small Entrances”.

But do we need to teach through “memory tricks” when there is a fascinating and valuable experience we can deliver around the true meaning of something?

The meaning of the word “because” is rooted in the law of cause and effect. A valuable session could be created around “things that happen because of other things that happened before (fun could be had here with some role-playing around banana-skins…) The spelling of the word could then be mastered around the student’s own artistic representation of its meaning.

by Richard Whitehead,

MA MPhil (Oxon), PGCE, Dip. RSA (SpLD), SpLD APC (Patoss)
Licensed Davis Dyslexia Programme Specialist

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