How should SLPs help “slow learners”?

what should slps do for slow learners?

A couple years ago, I was sitting in an IEP meeting…and I thought someone was going to get bitch-slapped.

The student we were evaluating was close to failing reading and we were coming up with a plan for his IEP. He was too old to have a “developmental delay”. His cognitive scores were low, but not low enough to qualify for an intellectual disability.

Because there wasn’t a discrepancy between his ability and achievement, he didn’t qualify for “specific learning disability” either.

In other words, he fell in to what I like to call the “black hole”, otherwise known as the “slow-learner” range.

We were meeting to explain this to the child’s father.

And let me tell you, it was not going well.

As the psychologist explained that the student was achieving at a level we’d expect based on his “ability” and that his child was doing all he was capable of doing, I watched his father’s face grow redder and redder. I cowered in my chair hoping he wasn’t going to explode.

Eventually he spoke up. Angrily.

“Well…my teachers told me I would never amount to anything either!”

The whole time, we were being totally professional. We were explaining our test scores correctly and accurately. We weren’t doing anything “wrong.”  We didn’t do anything inappropriate to provoke him. We were just doing our jobs. But this parent didn’t see it that way, because no matter how we said it, this is all he heard:

Your child doesn’t have a specific learning disability. He’s just slow.”

“We don’t really know why your child is struggling. Other than the fact that he is slow.”

“We aren’t really sure how much help your child is going to get over the years. Because he’s just a little slow, and that’s just how he is.”

“Your child is going to struggle the entire time he is in school. Did we mention that he’s a little slow?”

We were at a loss and didn’t know how to soften the blow. How the heck are you supposed to tell a parent that their kid is struggling because they’re “just slow”?

There are some students who have a clear-cut diagnosis, like a specific learning disability, an intellectual disability, or a genetic condition that’s explaining why they’re not learning as easily as their same-aged peers.

These students can be challenging, but somehow we feel better about them because they’re “labeled” and at least we know they’re going to qualify for special education services throughout school.  We can sleep at night knowing they’ve been “identified”.

Then there are the “slow learners”. We aren’t always sure what to do with them, and we don’t know how to break it to parents.

Sometimes SLPs are the superheroes who swoop in and pull these students out of the ambiguous “slow learner” black hole…because many of these students legitimately meet the diagnostic criteria for a communication disorder. This was what happened in the situation I described above.

This can be helpful if language is the true root cause of the problem and if we can come up with a plan that meets the student’s needs.  Other times it can be a Band-Aid we put in place as we wait until the student qualifies for something else.

But we can’t afford to wait for a clear-cut diagnosis.

Because if we wait for someone to save us with another disability label, we may be waiting forever.

And in the meantime, we have hundreds of “slow learners” limping along, hating school, thinking they’re stupid, just waiting for us to save them from years of frustration.

So what are we supposed to do?

The simple answer?

We help them learn, the best we can, with the time and resources we have.

We find their deficits, prioritize the most impactful ones, and chip away at them.

We teach them just one new strategy or new word they didn’t already know. And when they finally get it, teach them another. Then another. Repeat.

We help them pay attention to words, so they start to learn new words on their own.

We help them understand what techniques they can use to help themselves learn, so they don’t feel so overwhelmed.

We show them that if they pay attention to the subtle rules of language like grammar and syntax, they will get better at using them.

We focus on key curricular vocabulary and concepts, and do our best to hit the most important ones.

We show them that they can learn, and that they aren’t stupid.

If we do these things we might remediate the problem early and prevent some students from needing special education for the long haul.

We reduce the struggle for those students who never qualify for any other disability other than “speech”, even if they still need some support the entire time they are in school

We lay the foundation for students while we “wait for another diagnosis”, so we teach them useful skills in the meantime.

Most importantly, we have a plan in place, so we don’t ever have to tell a parent that there isn’t an answer because their kid is “just a little slow.”


I’d like to share this free training with you because it’s been the essential first step for me in fighting the “slow learner curse”. You can click the button in the image below to get it.

tier 2 vocabulary; school speech therapy; language therapy techniques


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