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  • Writer's pictureJenny Tebbutt

What are underpinning weaknesses?As an educator do I need to know about them?

Many students fit the mainstream/second wave underachieving group. These students are usually between 6 months and two years below their chronological age. They have barriers to learning that have impacted achievement. These barriers may include, health challenges, attendance, family transience, emotional difficulties, teaching methods not suited to needs, family background difficulties etc. The premise here is that we can and do identify and address barriers to learning and student achievement results in at-age, or close-to-age achievement. We have some great support/remediation programmes and great specialist RTLB/RTLit/ LSC and SENCOs who address these challenges well. We also have great teacher aides who support these students to success.


The difference between a second wave and third wave learner is that in addition to barriers to learning third wave learners also have underpinning cognitive weaknesses that prevent them from accessing the curriculum programme. There are 6 primary underpinning weaknesses that we need to consider.


1/ Visual processing problems. You can have perfect vision but if your brain doesn’t process what you see perfectly you will have a visual processing problem that impacts your learning. There are many kinds of visual processing problems (a topic for another day) and up to 70% of children with a learning difficulty have some kind of visual problem.


2/ Auditory processing difficulties. Just as with vision, you can have perfect hearing but if your brain doesn’t process what it hears well this impacts your learning. 5% of children are believed to have auditory processing difficulties.


3/ Phonological weakness - Almost every student with learning difficulties has phonemic and phonological weaknesses. This is the reason for the research behind the science of reading and the move to structured literacy.



4/Short-term and working memory – Everybody to be a good learner needs a good short-term and working memory. When third wave learners are assessed this is often identified as a weakness.


5/ Gross and fine motor skills – Often people ask if this is necessary for learning. People with poor gross and fine motor skills have poor left/right brain integration. Having poor left/right brain integration is also an indicator of learning difficulties and impacts achievement so this needs to be identified and addressed for children with learning difficulties


6/ Processing delays Students with learning difficulties take longer to process information and complete tasks and this impacts learning and achievement.


Third wave learners have underpinning cognitive weaknesses that prevent them from being able to access the curriculum. We have been taught that if a child has a reading, writing spelling or maths problem we should use remediation programmes in these areas. It might be a different programme and with different specialists. We are now finding out that unless we identify and address underpinning weaknesses, we do not get outcomes with third wave learners.


Historically and currently teachers have not been trained in understanding, identifying and addressing underpinning weaknesses. To get good outcomes for third-wave learners it will be necessary to provide every teacher to have additional training for at-risk student groups.

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