Whole life practice – building relationships of trust

The Whole Life Project | The Soul of the Project | Understanding Learning Disabilities | Advocacy | Building Relationships of Trust | Tools

What is “intake?”

Intake is a process of welcoming a new adult learner into your program. This is often the first opportunity to get to know learners and to weave together their learning histories, learning needs and goals. This is also the time to begin to screen for learning disabilities. Learning disabilities are common in adult literacy settings and the presence of a learning disability should be explored during intake and beyond. This happens through the ongoing work of screening, and constructing learning portraits.

What is “screening”?

“Screening” is what we do when we ask questions, observe, and discuss learning histories and learning strategies with learners, to work out whether s/he may have a learning disability: “What works?”, “What is difficult?”, “What happens when you…?” We can do this as part of the practice of teaching and learning.

A screen is not a diagnosis. A diagnostic assessment is a standardized psychological test, or set of tests, that can identify the presence and nature of a learning disability. Ideally, a screen would indicate the possibility of a learning disability, which would be confirmed by a learning specialist through a formal diagnostic assessment.

However, formal assessments are expensive and inaccessible to most adult learners in British Columbia.

Benefits and drawbacks of screening tools

Screening tools can provide us with important information to help us meet learners’ needs and develop awareness about learning needs and strategies. They are relatively easy to use, but they do have some limitations.
For example:

  • Some screening tools cannot differentiate between a learning disability and an intellectual disability;
  • Some focus on identifying deficits (all the things learners have difficulty with) but not strengths, which are a key to determining the kind of disability that may be present, and to identifying promising learning strategies.
  • Adults develop strategies that allow them to perform in everyday settings. These compensatory strategies can mask areas of difficulty, which are not picked up by screening or assessment tools.
  • Finally, it is unlikely that a learning disability such as dyslexia will present in the same way for all learners, and a single screening or assessment tool will thus not provide an accurate diagnosis.

Focus not on the cause of LD, but on the response

Adults may have difficulties reading and writing for a variety of reasons that may or may not be related to a learning disability (McCormick, 1999). Siegel and Smythe (2006) argue that what matters is not the cause of these difficulties, but how they are addressed.

The criteria for having a learning disability should be in accordance with the current most acceptable definition of a learning disability which is:

“Difficulty in the acquisition of reading, writing and number concepts.” (Siegel & Smythe, 2006, p. 73).

Deciding how to respond to learning difficulties in the classroom is helped along by a number of strategies. One is to develop with learners a “learning portrait”.

Learning Portraits

A learning portrait is a life history, through the lens of learning, which is constructed with the learner during intake, through formal and informal screening, conversations, and formal and informal assessments. The work of constructing learning portraits continues for as long as a learner is in your program. The first step in constructing a portrait is to explore the learners’ learning history.

Why learning portraits?

Learning portraits highlight the kinds of learning that people find rewarding and enjoyable and the times when they feel confident and successful. These are areas to build upon and can suggest the kinds of learning strengths and difficulties that are at play.

Learning portraits integrate various kinds of information, drawing upon learners’ own insights as well as those of their teachers and possibly other available friends and staff.

Importantly, the learning portrait can inform the development of an individual learning plan, against which learning progress can be measured.

Steps in constructing a learning portrait

Learning history

Learning portraits involve directed conversations, and student reading and writing if possible, about topics such as schooling history, childhood experiences, feelings toward school and learning, any illnesses or diagnoses in the past, employment, family and community life roles.

The language of learning: Talking about learning

Learning portraits also involve conversations about teaching and learning. They help to get at the meta-cognitive aspects of learning (how a learner learns), and the strengths that people bring to learning.

Here is an example of a conversation that builds on learners’ strengths to get at how they learn (meta-cognition).

Instructor: I notice that you have great spelling skills, you spell words accurately almost all the time. What is it that helps you spell so well?

Learner: I have a very good memory. I see what the word should look like and I write that.

Instructor: So you get a picture of the word in your mind?

Learner: Yes, I see each word in my mind.

Instructor. When you read, I notice that you stop often and need to go back and start again. Is that because you are paying attention to what each word looks like?

Learner: Yes, I can remember words very well but I often forget what I have read.

Instructor: We know that you have a good visual memory. This means that you remember what words and things look like. So maybe what we can do is use that memory to focus on the ideas of what you read, as well as the words themselves.

Note: The difficulty this learner has with reading comprehension does not necessarily indicate a learning disability. It could be an artifact of how the student was taught to read, or perhaps she needs more practice reading different kinds of texts. However, this information is integrated with information from screening tools, observations in the classroom and other conversations with learners about their learning to provide a more detailed picture of the learning difficulties that might be at play.

Keeping in mind that…

Not all learners will be in a position to account for their life experiences, learning preferences and difficulties in a single sitting. This is why a learning portrait is constructed over time, using diverse information-gathering strategies that include dialogue, analysis of students’ reading and writing, observation and an invitation for learners to participate in decisions about their own learning.

More resources on intake, screening, and learning portraits

Fowler, Judith Anne. Learning disabilities training: a new approach. London, ON: Literacy Link South Central, 2003. http://www.nald.ca/library/research/ldtrain/cover.htm (also available in print)

This manual covers common LD topics including screening tools, creation of learning profiles, learner-centred resources and accommodations, transitional learning plans and advocacy.

Check out the learning disabilities resources at Literacy BC for more resources on intake, screening and learning portraits.


McCormick, S. (1999). Instructing students who have literacy problems (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Siegel, L.S. & Smythe, I.S. (2006). Supporting dyslexic adults—a need for clarity (and more research): a critical review of the rice report ‘Developmental dyslexia in adults: a research review’. Dyslexia 12(1), 68-79.