Teaching English to learners with Special Educational Needs (SENs) – Myths and realities

In this article, Marie Delaney explores some of the myths surrounding teaching students with Special Educational Needs (SENs) and offers advice and tips.

Teacher sitting at desk working with young learners
Marie Delaney

‘I know I have children with special educational needs in my class, I want to help them and we are supposed to promote inclusion, but I really am not sure how to do this’

Vera, primary teacher from Spain

‘Some of the children in my class are really badly behaved, they can’t sit still, don’t finish their work and are always calling out. I think they might have a learning difficulty, but I don’t know what to do’

Kris, secondary teacher from Poland

Do you feel like these teachers? Do you think that you have learners with SENs in your class and you are not sure how to support them? Many countries across the world are now following policies of social and educational inclusion for learners with SENs. This means that more and more learners with SENs are in mainstream classrooms. Many teachers do not feel that their teacher training has prepared them for including learners with SENs in their classrooms. In my experience, there are some common myths and misconceptions around the teaching of learners with SENs.

Myth 1 – You have to be a specialist psychologist or specially trained teacher to know how to teach these learners

No, you don’t. It will of course help you to learn more about SENs and to get advice from specialists in the area, but learners with SENs benefit from good teaching practice, particularly in the area of classroom management, planning and setting of tasks. For example, learners with SENs needs clear, consistent rules and instructions, they need short do-able tasks which give a sense of achievement, they need to feel the teacher cares about them and understands them as a person and they need multi-sensory presentation and practice of material. Good teachers do all of these things without specialist knowledge of SENs.

Myth 2 – other learners in the class make less progress when they are taught with learners with SENs

No, this is not necessarily the case. Children with SENs can teach other children to have empathy, understanding of difference and other important social and learning skills. Children naturally understand that some learners need more help. Adults need to understand this and work with it. Having an inclusive classroom experience can benefit learners and enrich their learning experience.

Myth 3 – learners with SENs cannot learn languages

No, this does not have to be true. Learning English gives many children with SENs opportunities to learn important skills such as listening, taking turns, working with others, waiting for attention, noticing things about other people, understanding social language and expressing opinions. These are skills which are often practised in English language learning activities and can be done in a fun, non-threatening way. Reading and writing stories can give learners opportunities to explore issues in a safe, creative way. Learning English in this way can give a different experience of the classroom to learners with SENs.

Myth 4 – it takes a lot of extra time and planning

No. All teachers are short of time but including learners with SENs in your class should not involve a lot of extra planning. It will involve planning for different learning styles, thinking about the interests and strengths of your learners, including some variations of task type and careful presentation of the work. However, this type of planning will improve the learning of all the learners in your class. I can actually save you time if more learners engage in the work at an earlier stage and with better results.

Myth 5 – a teacher can’t ‘fix’ the learner’s problem so there is nothing I can do

Definitely not true. The learner does not need ‘fixing’. This type of thinking views the learner’s difficulty in a medical way, assuming the learner is somehow ‘broken’ and needs fixing. In order to have an inclusive society, we all need to learn more about the difficulties and differences of others. Teachers can learn a lot from learners with SENs and schools need to learn to adapt their teaching and mindset to promote inclusion. For example, instead of looking for a specialist to work with the child, the specialist could help with training for teachers to better understand ways to work with the child.

Some tips for an inclusive classroom

1. See the learner and not the label. Learners with SENs are people with personality. Every person with dyslexia, for example, is not the same. The learner might be introvert, extrovert, creative, not creative, humorous, not humorous, musical, not musical etc. Get to know the learner.

2. Encourage and use activities which develop empathy and understanding in your classroom at all times. For example, many activities in ELT involve guessing or remembering something about your partner, finding things you have in common or which are different. Exploit this type of language activity.

3. Create a learning contract where the inclusive ethos is clear. For example, set rules which clearly state the underlying values of your classroom such as

  • We help each other
  • We listen to each other
  • We understand everyone is unique

4. Give opportunities for learners to present and practice language in different ways and in different senses.

5. Develop a peer mentoring or buddy system, where learners help each other and share skills.

6. Think carefully about how you give instructions. Make them clear, concise, give them on a step-by-step basis. Give them in the order you want them done and very simply. Avoid sequencers. For example, say ‘look at the board, open your books’ and not ‘before you open your books, look at the board.’ Check by giving an example and getting an example from the learners.

7. Use positive classroom language. Say what you want learners to do, not what you don’t want them to do. For example say 'Look at the board’ rather than 'Don’t keep turning round’

8. Use visuals to reinforce rules and routines. Have a set of pictures showing different parts of your lesson – listening (ear), speaking (mouth), writing (pen) reading (book) and put these on the board at the start of the lesson to show the order for the day.

9. Think about your learners needs and have a seating plan. For example, hearing impaired learners will need to sit near the teacher, learners with ADHD need to sit away from distractions such as windows and radiators.

10. And don’t be afraid to ask other people, the parents/carers, other professionals and above all, the learner. They will know what works.

Make it a collaborative learning journey rather than a fearful one.


Submitted by Aleksandra Totic on Thu, 10/20/2022 - 18:45


I must say, this is a very useful article, even for me as SEN teacher with classes of English language incorporate in school program. When English lessons ten years ago became mandatory part of school programs, even for SENs students, I thought that it was insane. But nowadays I realize, and I´m positively sure that SENs students have a great benefit and joy, of learning English as a second language. We are usually singing a simple songs, naming objects around us, parts of the body, numbers or colors. Almost every child enjoy activities like watching cartoons or movies, or playing video games, and most of that material is in English language, so they recognize some words or sentences we were learning about.
My favorite approach when teaching, is to participate and get myself involved in activity that was a child´s choice, and after that try to build something like lessons. Teaching SENs students is challenging, but very often it´s a beautiful process.

Submitted by S.Kuli on Mon, 11/20/2017 - 16:35


Your advice and tips are really good. Nowadays there are more and more learners with SEN's, it is rather difficult working with them, but also it's a great challenge. I noticed that these learners like watching videos that improves listening and speaking skills, doing tasks on different sheets of paper that aren't in their activity books, and also doing creative tasks like making houses from paper and etc.

Submitted by vilm_andoy03@y… on Sat, 04/22/2017 - 11:46


To gain my attention when my grandson wants to share to me what he is reading, he either puts the book right in front of my face or move my face in his direction. Of course, I have to listen to him. Is there a way for him to stop doing but still continue the routine to share what he has read?

Submitted by gani05 on Thu, 12/29/2016 - 17:30


Dear All, I am teaching a boy of ten who has both behavioral and intellectual disorders. All the books say there must be a way, but so far i have failed to find a way. he refuses to work, or listen to any videos if there are females on it. He does not go to classes if the teacher is a female. he does not like colours like pink or purple. Nothing motivates him. I am trying to teach him English and other subjects. I really want to help him, but he does not see to be motivated. He only likes computer games. I often try to negotiate with him, finish this and then play this much of computer games, but he never keeps his promise. I have divided the work in small chunks - does not work. I have tried many things, but i still believe there must be a way. Can you help?

Submitted by marianamarquez60 on Wed, 09/24/2014 - 14:41


I have one student in one of my classes with SENs. Most of the time he´s working alone in the classroom because I give him easier or shorter activities in comparison with his partners. I hadn´t realize that I was not doing a good thing with this kind of disposition in the classroom. He´s actually learning English and I was so happy! but the thing is he is not happy at all! He wants to work with his partners! I have started to include him in some of the activities but it´s very difficult for me (!) to do this!!! I can´t find activities for them to work all together!

Submitted by Aya2014 on Wed, 01/08/2014 - 15:14


What if the learners with SENs learn the lessons a lot slower than the rest of the learners in the class? so he/she will have different lessons from others. How can we manage to teach the others learners and these learner with SENs? This happens in my class, and I am confused what to do. I've tried as best as I can to facilitate these learners with SENs, but it isn't always easy to manage.

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