Barriers to Learning: A teacher's guide

Allaa Gawish

How can we best identify barriers to learning in the classroom and how can we make the curriculum more accessible (to everyone)?

What are barriers to Learning?

Barriers to learning are considered as the lack of access to the classroom environment and the lesson goal. The learner may be struggling with one or more types of learning barriers, therefore the teacher should be dealing with the pupil according to their individual differences to ensure an effective learning process. Students who have a learning disability may be facing many different types of learning barriers. They will need interventions according to their needs to ensure that they are reaching their maximum potential. Barriers to learning can be intrinsic barriers such as mental health disorder, dyslexia, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, or extrinsic barriers as cultural barriers, emotional factors as an example; feeling neglect or poverty. 

In this article, we will explore why a student might have difficulty accessing the curriculum. We will also look at different tools for students that scaffold the learning process. In every classroom, different types of learners will have access issues. We will also use this opportunity to frame the idea of 'inclusive by design'. This is the idea that learning experiences can be designed to be inclusive for everyone by using classroom concepts that we can all utilise. 

How can we identify barriers to learning?

To acknowledge barriers to learning and reduce learning challenges, it is vital to identify the barrier to learning as soon as possible, even before the child reaches school age. An important factor to be taken into consideration while identifying the barrier to a student in the learning environment is to use different ways of identification. Here are ways to identify a barrier to learning:

  • Students' schoolwork: Keep tracking the learner's classwork, homework, projects, oral, written, and, practical level. Focusing on the outcomes of the pupils' thinking and learning instead of the abilities of pupils. 
  • Assessments of pupils: School's assessment result, that is done in various ways not only written forms but also orally, practical forms. Assessments of outside agencies e.g: psychologist or occupational therapist. 
  • Observations: Observing the learner's behaviour (e.g: attention and concentration), the learner's learning styles, learner's emotional and social engagement, how does the pupil react to the situations. 
  • Interviews: Communication with parents, teachers, other practitioners. Learners are the prime ones to speak about their personal barriers, so it is important to speak with the pupil.

Strategies for overcoming barriers to learning
Strategies for overcoming barriers to learning


Where do we encounter barriers to learning?

The environment around us plays an important role in reducing or increasing the common learning barriers. In the following area we can face barriers to learning: 

  • Barriers to learning at school: Although schools now are using different teaching methods and embracing different ways of learning, schools are still facing learning difficulties.
  • Barriers to learning at work: Employees also may be facing learning difficulties in their workplace. Common workplace challenges like lack of motivation, not offering training courses, these examples affect the employee as an adult learner. 
  • A barrier to a student at home: The recent pandemic that led to school closures and online learning showed us that in some homes there are limited tools for students. For some populations, academic barriers, emotional learning barriers and social skills barriers were increased during this online learning time.


Creating inclusive classrooms
Creating inclusive classrooms

How to break down barriers to learning

Classroom teachers are presented with complex problems on a daily basis. Quite often, these barriers are linked and it takes careful unpicking to understand how they affect one another. At Structural Learning, we regularly run training sessions that encourage this diagnostic practice. On a recent training course, we facilitated a session that involved linking classroom problems. This helps educators reframe the issues and eventually arrive at the essence of the need. Obviously, time pressures can hinder these types of activities but the following ideas should help your school examine access issues.

  • Motivation: Motivation is an important factor in learning. Lack of motivation will lead to learning difficulties. As a result, teachers need to motivate the learners to learn by using rewards, learning games, and creating an exciting learning environment and experience. If you are concerned about motivation you might be interested to use the Leuven scale to monitor classroom engagement.
  • Base knowledge: Many of the learning barriers in literacy and numeracy are because of knowledge gaps as these two subjects are dependent on building up skills systematically. To overcome this obstacle teachers need to define the learning sequences and pre-requested background knowledge for the learning goal.
  • Learning challenges: Learners may find it difficult to access learning materials. This may be because it's text-heavy and the grammar is difficult to understand. Teachers should ensure that the learning goals and teaching methods are accessible to all learners. Teachers need to use different teaching styles such as oracy or multisensory learning to be aware of the needs of pupils and the ways to remove obstacles that affect pupil engagement in learning. As an example, pupils with ADHD may need to be provided with additional time on tests and break time between tasks. Teachers need to use various strategies according to the pupils need to reduce learning challenges. 
  • Emotional factors: emotions play an important role in barriers to learning, when learners have a fear of failure, negative learning experience in the past, fear of change all these emotions may lead to learning difficulty. To overcome these factors, teachers and parents need to reward the learner's effort and celebrate their success even for a simple achievement, to help the learner to gain their confidence and overcome the negative emotions.

Overcoming barriers to learning with simple tools
Overcoming barriers to learning with simple tools

What learning strategies can help children access the curriculum?

Identifying a barrier to student engagement is only the starting point. Classroom practitioners need practical strategies and resources to enable all types of learners to access the curriculum. Pending on the age of the student, a pupil might need a combination of the strategies below.

  • Think time or wait time: This is a strategy that enhances critical thinking. Teachers ask questions and give learners time to think about the answer. This strategy will help learners with ADHD as it will give them time to think. Also, learners with slow processing speed will have time to understand the instructions and think about answers.
  • Multisensory instruction: This is a teaching method that involves different use of senses at one time (hands, eyes, hearing, movements). This way may help dyslexic learners, for example, teachers may ask them to draw the sound 'a' in the air or dyscalculia learners by using hands-on activities as an example using blocks to explore number concepts.
  • Modelling: Using techniques like ‘my turn, your turn / we do, you do’ most learners will need to show them the steps of the activity, so they need to understand the concept and feel secure with it to be able to work it out independently.
  • One-to-one support and small group instruction:  Dyslexia learners may benefit from being in a small group of reading, as teachers can focus on a specific skill. Learners with executive functions issues need one-to-one given instructions and to limit distractions.
  • Graphic organizers: This is a visual technique to show the connections and links between ideas. Helping the learners to organize their thoughts and plan their tasks. Dyscalculia learners may use the graphic organizers to break down the maths problem into short chunks.

Graphic organisers can reduce barriers to literacy
Graphic organisers can reduce barriers to literacy

  • Universal design for learning (UDL) strategies: providing learners with different and flexible ways of learning. Allow the learners to access and engage with concepts using various resources. As an example, different ways of assessment, provide flexible learning environments (small and large group work, individual work, quiet place). Given regular feedback, provide printed, digital, and audio resources. ADHD learners may benefit from using UDL by using headphones to listen to given instructions or explanations.
  • Writer's BlockThis practical toolkit enables learners to break down abstract concepts into a physical format. The brightly coloured blocks are used to organise and connect a students thought process. If you are interested in this approach and can see how it could be used in your school, we run a range of training courses for teachers.
  • Universal Thinking FrameworkThis taxonomy has been used to design and deliver curriculum content in an inclusive manner. The learning and teaching actions enable a child to understand how to move their thinking forward. Over the last year, we have seen how teachers have used this concept to scaffold whole-class teaching.

If you are interested in any of the concepts that have been mentioned in this article please do get in touch to discuss any requirements you may have. We have a range of resources and training options available to schools that are interested in revisiting their inclusion policies.