Michael Farrell considers provision for pupils with moderate learning difficulties (MLD)Definitions

Pupils with MLD ‘will have attainments significantly below expected levels in most areas of the curriculum, despite appropriate interventions’ and their needs will not be met by ‘normal differentiation and the flexibilities of the National Curriculum’. They ‘have much greater difficulty than peers in acquiring basic literacy and numeracy skills and in understanding concepts’ and may experience ‘speech and language delay, low self-esteem, low levels of concentration and underdeveloped social skills’ (DfES, 2005, p3). MLD corresponds in IQ range (50/55 to 70) to ‘mild mental retardation’ in the USA but functional assessment is also important.


The curriculum involves ‘younger’ content adapted to chronological age and tends to be subject based. Communication, literacy, numeracy and personal and social development are allocated more time and embedded in other subjects through cross-curricular planning. Information is presented step-by-step building conceptual understanding from basic practical experiences. Complex topics and procedures are broken into simpler components taking care that what pupils learn is still coherent. Concepts, revisited in different contexts, are related to everyday experience. Assessment uses steps small enough to ensure achievements are recognised.

Language, literacy and numeracy

Sustained direct experience helps language development. So, when taking about for example, fruit, having real fruits to see, smell, handle and taste is important. When discussing more challenging concepts, such as ‘safety’, real visual examples of ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ items and situations will assist. Among effective literacy approaches is ‘reading intervention’ (Hatcher, 2000) using a combination of phonological training and reading (Brooks, 2002, pp38-9, 110). Pupils are helped isolate phonemes within words to recognise that sounds can be common between words and that certain letters can represent specific sounds. In mathematics, concrete and visual apparatus is helpful including real liquids to measure, real objects to classify and real money to spend. From such structured experiences, the pupil is gradually enabled to think concretely by visualising items.

Concrete objects

Difficulty with abstract concepts is reduced if the teacher and others use concrete objects and examples. Mathematical concepts will be illustrated by concrete examples well beyond the chronological age when this might be necessary for typically developing pupils. Notions of time in history may be graphically indicated by time lines. The rain cycle might be demonstrated using steam and precipitation. The regularity and intensity likely to be required for pupils with MLD is greater than for other pupils.


The context and choice of classroom tasks may help the self-regulation of pupils with MLD. Small-group will facilitate children’s active monitoring better than teacher-directed instruction. The pupil may be shown self monitoring skills and practice these using role-play before being supported to use them elsewhere. Some pupils may have difficulty developing social relationships partly because of deficiencies in skills relating to emotional regulation Language can help guide self-regulation, with inner talk helping self-reflection and inhibiting certain responses.

Slower but stimulating pace

A pupil with MLD may respond best to a slower pace of learning allowing time to consolidate learning, over learn, and ensure understanding. Lesson momentum can be maintained by using a mixture of open and closed questions or by balancing new and familiar material. Also, if the lesson is well structured and progresses from the practical to the more abstract and from familiar to novel, it is likely that an engaging pace will be sustainable.

Relevance and generalisation

Carefully planned and explicitly made connections linked to the pupil’s own experiences help make learning more relevant. In making a moving toy, the teacher can ensure that the pupils: talk about their own toys or toys they had when younger; watch others play with moving toys; and examine other moving toys and dismantle one to see how it works. Links with other subjects could include English and mathematics. Emphasising relevance helps generalising because learning can be related to daily experiences. Also, repeated opportunities help the pupil develop and apply new skills and knowledge.

Therapy, organisation and resources

Where a pupil with MLD also has communication difficulties, depending on their severity and complexity, speech and language therapist support may be necessary. Where pupils also have conduct disorders approaches may include for example for adolescents aged 10 to 17 years with disruptive behaviour disorders, family-based interventions; combination packages of adolescent-focused interventions; and school-based interventions. For pupils with concurrent mood disorders approaches may include cognitive-behavioural programmes for general anxiety disorder. Classroom organisation emphasises small groups with a high adult-pupil ratio allowing more individual attention while resources support the extensive use of concrete examples.


  • Brooks, G (2002) What Works for reading Difficulties? The Effectiveness of Intervention Schemes London, DfES.
  • DfES (2005) (2nd edition) Data Collection by Special Educational Need London, DfES.
  • Hatcher, P (2000) ‘Sound Links in Reading and Spelling with Discrepancy Defined Dyslexics and Children with Moderate Learning Difficulties’ Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 13, 257-272.

Dr Michael Farrell

writes about special education and undertakes a wide range of SEN consultancy work