English Language Teaching, or ELT, in a Special Needs class can be a drastically different experience from an English Teacher’s regular classes. Trying to communicate with someone in a foreign language whilst also being sensitive and aware of any other issues they may have is a challenge that I worried about a lot before my first “Special Class”.

I was overjoyed to discover how much fun my special needs classes turned out to be.

Activity Time

When concocting lesson plans for a Special Needs class it’s important to lather on the fun. In Japan these students are rarely put under pressure to study; the focus is more on encouraging them to do their best. Bearing this in mind I found it most effective to structure a Junior High Special Needs lesson in a similar way to an Elementary School one; a series of light-hearted games interspersed with joyful presentations and casual tomfoolery. However, I rarely made use of the more active activities that young Elementary kids enjoy so much. This was for two reasons; firstly, some Special Needs students are physically incapable keeping up with their peers and secondly, there are some students who can get over-excited to the point where they become a danger to themselves and others.

In the past I’ve used activities such as Bingos, Word Searches (this is a really great site from Discovery Education for making a bunch of such puzzles), card games, guessing games, and even things as simple as dot-to-dot puzzles. The key with any of these activities is to give each student plenty of one-to-one time. Go up to each student individually and help them with what they’re doing, chat casually, introduce and practice new English words gently and with a warm smile. I’ve never taught a Special Needs class with more than six students so there’s plenty of time to give each of them extra attention.

PRO TIP: Craft is king. Making and creating stuff is fun for all ages and applicable to any language ability level. One of my fondest memories of teaching at Junior High School was when me and a Special Needs class spent two lessons making a Christmas display using colourful card, paper, glitter and other flashy bits and pieces. Throughout the lessons I gave them simple instructions in English whilst also introducing Christmas vocabulary. It was so fun and when I left that school the students presented me with a photo album of that day. Yeh, I cried. So sweet.

Be Aware

Special Needs kids are not stupid. I’ve met some who clearly possessed a knowledge of English beyond that of their regular-classed peers. As well as them there are those who struggle in grasping concepts or recalling vocabulary. So, although the class sizes are small, there can be tremendous variance in skill level. To combat this it’s good to get to know the students as soon as possible so that lesson plans and activities can be targeted to challenge everyone appropriately.

As well as being aware of how the class studies best it’s also important to be conscious of more personal issues or sensitivities. For example, I’ve taught a couple of students who didn’t like being touched so I had to make sure I didn’t upset them with excessive “HI FIVE!”s or shoulder tapping.


I’ve observed how the various school levels in Japan take different approaches with their Special Needs students. In general, Japanese society favours a policy of inclusion; everyone crosses the finish line. In Elementary School struggling or awkward students are usually placed in regular classes. Sometimes they have an assistant teacher who hovers nearby to help out when necessary, otherwise it’s up to the home-room teacher to monitor and assist.

Junior High School is where I’ve had the most contact with Special Needs kids – most schools having a specific class and associated classroom for them. The classrooms are always filled with various projects and assignments completed by the students. However there are still cases when teachers or parents choose to include a student in a regular class. I’ve found that these students can stick out due to intense shyness, occasionally abrasive outbursts or a general problem with attention. Dyslexia is not well-understood here, particularly in the more rural areas and it’s my opinion that many of these students probably suffer from some stage of this .

Special Needs students in a regular class can be disruptive to the overall atmosphere or make certain activities difficult to run. For example, a performance or presentation activity would be very stressful for anyone with socially anxiety. Only experience can really prepare one for how to handle those classes but the one piece of advice I can offer is this: Be gentle. I’ve found that trying to control or force a difficult classroom situation into something more productive just makes everything worse.

ELT In A Special Needs Class

Whether doing ELT in a Special Needs class or even teaching those students within a regular class the fundamental requirement is to bring a positive, joyous atmosphere into the room. Having a strict, hard workin’ environment just brings everyone down, even the teachers. Students will make mistakes, as we all do at one time or another, and it’s up to the ESL teacher to gently guide them back towards the correct path.

Have you taught ELT in a Special Needs class? What activities have you found effective?

Looking for ESL activities? Check these out.


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