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By Nathalie Arbour, Remedial Teacher, Lanaudière Learning Support Services, and Adaptive Services Advisor, Collège de Saint-Jérôme

Without appropriate accommodations, students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may find themselves at a disadvantage. If these students are then asked to “try harder”, despite making an effort that may already be above and beyond what is expected or necessary for their peers, they may develop anxiety and low self-esteem related to their difficulty in learning.

The data and examples provided in this article on the manifestations of ADHD and its impact on learning are drawn from my private practice as a remedial teacher working with young clients.

Needs Analysis and ADHD

Depending on the needs that have been identified, some students will be able to improve their achievement with support and strategies for reading, writing, and organization. However, if the student continues to experience pronounced and persistent difficulties in meeting expectations, limiting oneself to this type of support may prevent the student from developing their autonomy.

For this reason, an adequate needs analysis is essential in order to identify the difficulties and needs of the student. Needs analyses should be performed by medical and educational professionals, in collaboration with parents. The analysis defines the student’s difficulties and identifies the best strategies to compensate for these difficulties and offer optimal support.

Certain features of assistive technology are particularly helpful in compensating for learning difficulties associated with ADHD and can support the development of autonomous learning. That being said, the use of each of these features must be taught through explicit instruction, so that students are able to demonstrate their potential and improve academic achievement.

Image of students with an Ipad

The Impact of ADHD on Learning

Learners with ADHD may experience difficulty on many levels. Difficulty with concentration, organization and working memory are common and will have a definite impact on reading, writing, and mathematics.

Based on the types of symptoms, three kinds (presentations) of ADHD may occur:

  • Predominantly Inattentive Presentation (formerly known as Attention Deficit Disorder – ADD),
  • Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Presentation, and
  • Combined Presentation: displays symptoms of both inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity.

A distinction is made between the difficulties encountered by students with predominantly inattentive ADHD and students with predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD, and this distinction becomes important when selecting appropriate adaptations.

Predominantly Inattentive ADHD

The distinguishing feature of predominantly inattentive ADHD is a deficit in attention (sustained, shared, and selective attention). In approximately 50% of cases, information is also processed more slowly (Guay, 2016). Students with predominantly inattentive ADHD often forget or lose things and are unable to complete tasks on time. For them, everything takes longer. Students with predominantly inattentive ADHD will also experience an executive function deficit (Guay, 2016), with organization, planning, inhibition, and working memory all adversely affected. It is not unusual to see pronounced difficulties that persist over time, in spite of the help that is offered.

Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive ADHD

In contrast, the central feature of predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD is a lack of inhibition. Students with predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD will often struggle with impulsivity and lack of organization. These students will often talk excessively, have trouble with turn-taking, and interrupt others frequently (Guay, 2016).

The Impact of ADHD on Reading

In reading, students with predominantly inattentive ADHD, will experience comprehension problems, caused in part by slow processing of information, slow working memory, and an inability to ignore distractions (Guay, 2016).

On the other hand, due to a lack of inhibition in students with predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD, reading difficulties are more likely to manifest as overly-rapid decoding. This may result in errors in accuracy and in skipping words or lines in a way that alters the meaning of the text and leads to difficulty with comprehension.

In both cases, the students will have difficulty remembering content and must read the same passage repeatedly in order to comprehend the meaning of the text.

The Impact of ADHD on Writing

In writing, students with predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD will have a tendency to produce shorter texts that are less well-structured. Their oral expression is less well-organized, and this will be reflected in their writing. Due to their impulsivity and lack of organization, it is not unusual for these students to produce sentences that are somewhat incoherent and text that contains a lot of errors (Guay, 2016).

Image of students studying in class

Choosing Effective AT for students with ADHD

During a needs analysis, the use of assistive technology (AT) and specific features that have been identified as helpful for students with similar learning disabilities, may be suggested. AT can be used to compensate for the student’s difficulties and to support him or her in learning tasks. AT can reduce the gap between the student’s abilities and the task to be performed.

The following features of assistive technology have been found to be useful for students with ADHD, from elementary school to post-secondary education:

  1. Word cloud generators, such as Wordle, create a visual representation of a text. Students can upload any text into the generator and a word cloud is created out of the most frequently occurring words. The more frequently a word appears in the source text, the more prominence the word will have in the word cloud. This feature assists students in identifying key words in a text; these words become indicators that can be used to identify central themes or simply to know what the author’s intention was.
  2. Text-to-speech features (Speak-It, Google Read&Write) are able to convert written text to audio and read text on screens, aloud. This can help the student to focus, learn accurate pronunciation of novel words, and prevent errors in accuracy. In addition, with the reading speed set to normal, it can increase comprehension.
  3. When writing, the feedback provided through text-to-speech features can assist students who make errors in sentence structure and/or forget words. The text-to-speech function in the software program is able to read aloud a text that the student has written. When students hear their writing read aloud, they are more likely to hear errors and make the necessary corrections.
  4. As students with ADHD often struggle to organize their thoughts into written words, assistive technology that supports ideation, or the process of generating ideas, has proven helpful. This skill can be further supported by software that allows a visual representation to be converted to an outline, such as Inspiration. This feature provides students with templates that allow them to organize their ideas in a visual format and allows students to convert these graphic organizers into a written outline. This means that students create a plan before starting to write. Conversion of a visual writing plan to a text file will enable the student to create a sequential summary of the information. In this way, the student can synthesize what he or she has read and avoid the types of transcription errors that are often seen in students who have difficulty focusing.
  5. Writing tasks involve several complex processes. For this reason, it is not unusual to find that, in spite of having a good command of the rules of spelling and grammar, students with ADHD lack the attentional control to see their errors. Spelling and grammar checkers can compensate for this difficulty by providing visual alerts to potential errors in a text.

In order to develop a student’s autonomy, the functionality of features of assistive technology must be taught through explicit instruction. Educators should wait until the student has fully mastered one feature before teaching the student how to use another feature.

For example, to support retention of information following a reading exercise, the student may use text-to-speech to focus on one paragraph at a time and identify the central idea it contains. Once the student has fully mastered this feature, he or she can be taught how to enter this information in a mind map in order to create an overview of the text.

Click here to access the article Explicit Instruction: A Teaching Strategy in Reading, Writing, and Mathematics for Students with Learning Disabilities.

Individual Needs Analysis and Collaboration

Regardless of the difficulties that are observed, it is important to remember that, even for students with the same identification, the adaptations may be different. The needs analysis must be done in collaboration with educational and medical professionals who are familiar with the student’s areas of difficulty, in order to suggest accommodations that compensate for the deficit.

Parents are also important assets when choosing and implementing assistive technology. As parents will often support their children around the use of the technology, they must be informed and trained to support their child’s integration of these tools.

Collaboration between all of the stakeholders and adequate training and follow-up for the student are essential. In this way, the student will be able to make good use of the technology, using the strategies that he or she has learned in order to develop autonomy and improve academic achievement.

Related Resources on the LD@school website

Click here to access the article, A Primer for Teaching Students with ADHD.

Click here to read the Ask the Experts question and answer on the topic of Assessments and Assistive Technology.

Click here to access the article Executive Functions and LDs.

Click here to access the article, How can I support my students with working memory difficulties?.

Additional Resources

Click here to open the canLEARN PDF, "Dispelling Myths About ADHD".

Click here to open the canLEARN PDF, "Reframing How We View ADHD".

Click here to open the Ontario Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat Research to Practice Monograph entitled, "The Educational Implications of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder".


Farrelly, G. et al (2013). CADDRA conference, Toronto. As cited on the Clinique en services de psychologie Website. Retrieved from: http://www.cliniquepsy.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/pharmaco.png

Guay, M-C. (2016). Les difficultés d’apprentissage chez les jeunes qui ont un TDA ou un TDAH. Approche neuropsychologique de l’apprentissage chez l’enfant, 28 (1).

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Photo de l'auteure- Nathalie ArbourNathalie Arbour has a Bachelor’s degree in academic and social adaptation and a minor in orthopedagogy. She also has a Bachelor of Education degree (Preschool/Primary). Twenty years of her career were dedicated to the Repentigny, Quebec school board, Commission scolaire des affluents. There, she acquired experience as a teacher in academic adaptation classrooms and regular classrooms and in orthopedagogy. During the past two years, she has worked more specifically as an educational consultant and as an orthopedagogical consultant. Since 2012, she has been a consultant in adapted services at Collège de Saint-Jérôme, specializing primarily in learning disorders, attention deficit disorder, and assistive technologies. In this capacity, she supports students presenting with disabilities; provides training on assistive technologies; and gives lectures on these topics. Nathalie also has a private practice in orthopedagogy, working with a broad spectrum of students from the primary level to the college level.