What Is a Slow Learner?

Slow learners is a term that is sometimes used for low ability students, with IQ between 70 and 85. These individuals make up approximately 14.1% of the population, larger than the group of children with learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities and autism combined.

Yet, for this extremely large and vitally important population, research is scarce and getting harder to find every year. Slow learners are rarely eligible for special education programs or community services, even though they frequently do not have the skills to be successful in school or general society. There seems to be few large scale innovative educational or mental health programs for this group of learners.

“Slow learners account for a disproportionate number of school dropouts, unwed teen mothers, illicit drug users, functionally illiterate persons, incarcerated persons, unemployed, underemployed, violent offenders, alcohol abusers, school failures, low scorers on group tests and gang and hate group members,” says Lourene Williams-Medlow in her book Turning I can’t into I can. In other words, slow learners can disproportionately account for nearly every major problem within education and society.

Characteristics of slow learners include:

  • They learned to walk and talk but seemed delayed and slower than other children
  • Having trouble academically in kindergarten, but fall further behind every year
  • May seem immature for their age
  • Like playing with other children, but prefer playing with children who are younger than them
  • They make friends, but friendships don’t seem to last
  • When they carry on a conversation, they have trouble coming to the point
  • They frequently say “off the wall” things that have nothing to do with the rest of the conversation
  • When they become teenagers they may want to be treated as adults, but think and act several years younger than their peers
  • Have short attention spans
  • Studies but can’t seem to retain what they learn
  • They have difficulty following multi-step directions
  • They score consistently low on achievement tests, however may work well with hands-on material
  • They try hard, but can’t keep up with classmates
  • Are generally weak in reading and writing
  • Often lack self-esteem
  • Need support and encouragement to maintain their interest
  • They tend to live in the present and do not have long-range goals
  • Were recommended for special education, but didn’t qualify
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Special Education services are provided for students who have a disability. Slow learners typically do not have a disability, even though they need extra support. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place: their cognitive abilities are too high to be considered for an intellectual disability, but their cognitive abilities are usually too low to be considered for a learning disability...


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