Teachers love a challenge.  Precocious students challenge us to see how far we can take them as we meet their needs through differentiation, in particular, enrichments.  Students with disabilities give a similar challenge – finding the cause of the child’s underachiement and closing that gap between their potential and their achievement.  Teachers know well how to address those two extremes.  Slower learners offer a different challenge.

Slower learners are not underachieving.  In fact, they are achieving up to their level of ability.  They make you work; they challenge your patience.  You measure their progress in baby steps.  They are at once the most misunderstood population and the ones who will cause you to become better at your craft in ways you didn’t imagine.  Who are these slower learners, and what can you do to help them?

Who Are Slower Learners?

The term “slower learner” is not a diagnostic category, but rather a term used to describe students with a specific set of learning characteristics.  These children generally have the ability to learn academic skills, but at a rate and depth below their typical peers.  Reasoning skills in particular (i.e., higher order thinking) are typically delayed, making new concepts more difficult to learn and critical thinking a real challenge.

Before we take a closer look at who these children are, it’s time to clear up some common misconceptions:

  • Myth:  Slower learners are reluctant learners.  Slower learners can’t learn as fast as their peers; reluctant learners don’t want to.
  • Myth:  Slower learners have marked strengths and weaknesses.  Slower learners struggle across all areas.  They have no significant strengths or weaknesses in their profile.
  • Myth:  Slower learners will eventually qualify for special education.  Slower learners usually do not qualify for special education services.  Special education services are provided for students who have a disability.  However – this does not mean that slower learners do not require extra support.
  • All children can learn.  This is NOT a myth, but the learning curve of slower learners is more shallow than the learning curve of a student of average ability.

Learning Curve, K-12

A slower learner will typically only achieve at an 8th grade level by the end of 12th grade.


Slower learners usually inhabit the 70-89 IQ range.  If you recall the normal curve, this means we’re talking about approximately 22% of the school age population.  After taking out students in that IQ range who do have a disability, that leaves 15-17% of students in your classroom who will potentially fit the description.

Otherwise, slower learners are difficult to pigeon-hole.  They may display some or all of the following traits.  It is important to note that many of these traits are part of their intellectual impairment, and are not generally outgrown:

  • immature for their age
  • typically naive and gullible
  • concrete thinking
  • trouble generalizing information
  • mental gears shift slowly
  • takes 2-3 times longer to complete assignments and tests
  • trouble following directions
  • lack of “common sense” (cause and effect reasoning, need help to fully understand their options)

What Can We Do To Help?

As mentioned above, slower learners generally have the ability to learn, just not at the same rate or depth as most of the class.  This means they need more time and more repetition.  Research points to the effectiveness of multi-sensory teaching techniques, so your best bet is to use a variety of teaching methods.  Break down directions into smaller, more manageable steps.

You might be thinking that if you slow down and give these students more time, they are never going to cover the curriculum you’ve been told to address.  I didn’t say it was going to be easy.

New skills that you teach them must be built on skills that are already mastered.  Unfortunately, with the pace that some teachers feel they must maintain to “cover” all the grade-level standards creates holes in slower learners’ knowledge.  This effect tends to snowball as their schooling progresses.  Choose what you want these student to know strategically.  For slower learners, selection is the key.  Find the 20% of the content that will give them 80% of the benefit.  Then give them the time, instruction, and practice to master it.

Slower learners can be helped by peer tutors, but also they often make good tutors for younger children.  Keep in mind that they know that they struggle.  Without appropriate differentiation and modifications to their education, they will be susceptible to low self-esteem and “feeling stupid.”

Beyond these recommendations, use your school’s data teams.  Each child is an individual, and so the differentiation you provide to your slower learners will be much more effective for them if you customize your plan for them.  Actually, this is good advice for your whole class.  As Jane Wardrop once said, “A lesson plan is perfect – until the children arrive.”


Slower learners are the most misunderstood students in your class, but they can be the most rewarding students you will ever work with.  They often are the students who will remember the one teacher who really made a difference in their lives.  For those who aren’t lucky enough to have that kind of a teacher, it’s estimated that slower learners account for half of all dropouts in the United States.  Those who are lucky, have you as a teacher.