Slow Learner

What is a Slow Learner?

A slow learner is typically defined as a student with an IQ profile that falls between 70-85. Looking at the Bell Curve below, a student with a composite IQ in the "Low" and "Low Average" ranges would fall into the category of "Slow Learner".  

As you see, these students exhibit IQ that falls below the Average range. I characterize this as having mild cognitive delay or being a "slow learner".    

A slow learner is a student that exhibits the ability to learn necessary academic skills, however, at a rate and depth below that of typical peers.  They progress through the curriculum at a slightly slower rate and may struggle to keep up with concepts, despite working hard.  
Slow learners typically have the most difficulty learning new academic material, especially tasks that require much more cognitive energy, such as problem solving, reasoning and comprehension.  They struggle to possess the depth of general knowledge to enhance new learning.  

In addition to academic struggles, slow learners also share these common characteristics:

1) immature and poor social skills
2) "live in the moment" and exhibit poor long term planning
3) have low self esteem as they are aware of their academic struggles
4) work on tasks more slowly and methodically
5) may have a short attention span
6) difficulty understanding directions/novel concepts
7) difficulty generalizing learned material

Why Not Special Education?

So if slow learners struggle so much, why don't they qualify for special education?  Let's talk about that...

In order to qualify for special education due to low cognitive functioning or IQ, a student needs to exhibit an IQ composite that falls below 70 (deficient category).  Since a slow learner's IQ falls between 70-85, they do not meet this criterion.

So what about specific learning disability (SLD)?

Typically students with a SLD exhibit cognitive functioning that falls within the Average range or above OR have a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in their cognitive profile.  Slow learners exhibit IQ composites that fall below the Average range and do not have a pattern of strengths and weaknesses.  A slow learner will have all of their cognitive and academic scores falling within the "low average" and "low" categories.  

What about Response to Intervention model of identifying SLD?

So wouldn't most slow learners qualify under the RTI model?  I have had much discussion with school staff about this question.  At first glance, it would make sense that many of these students would qualify under this model, as they do exhibit underachievement and a slower rate of growth than typical peers.  It should be easy to document their poor "response to intervention", right?.  

The answer to that question is NO.  In my experience, the difficulty with qualifying slow learners with this model is that they typically do not exhibit a significant enough skill gap in any specific academic area.  Remember that most slow learners exhibit academic skills that fall mildly below the Average range.  In addition, their rate of skill acquisition is not slow enough to be described as failing to "respond to intervention".  Slow learners do respond to intervention, just a slightly slower rate than typical peers.  This is in contrast to students with SLD,  who exhibit severe academic weaknesses and whose rate of progress in these areas are severely delayed.  

So What Do We Do?

Ok.  So now that we know that most slow learners are not eligible for special education services, what do we do to help them?   Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that question.   In many ways, educating a slow learner may be more challenging than a student on an IEP.  To serve these students takes patience, perseverance and time.  

Here are some of my most common recommendations:

1).  The most important recommendation slow learners benefit from is repetition.  They typically require at least 5X's as much repetition than typical peers, especially for novel concepts.  Ensuring that the slow learner is set up with as much tutoring experiences as possible will be one way to obtain the repetition they need.  

2).  Slow learners benefit from having multi-step tasks to be broken down into smaller steps.  They may need information to be rephrased at times.  When asked to perform independent work, you may need to check in on a slow learner more often to ensure they understand directions/tasks.

3).  Curriculum choices should be carefully made to ensure the most educational success.  This may mean pursuing a more vocational educational track, which will lead to more opportunities for hands-on learning experiences.  

4).  Focus on teaching content, not the process.  Remember that slow learners have difficulty generalizing information.

5).  Teacher good study and time management skills.  Learning in smaller increments over a longer period of time is more efficient than attempting cram before the test, especially for a slow learner.  

6).  Provide assignments that are short and concise.  Avoid using abstract language or ideas.  Keep things concrete.