Welcome to Language Latte: a conversation about teaching world languages. This is Becky Morales from Kid World Citizen, and I am your host. Today we are talking about teaching languages to students with learning disabilities. Treat yourself to a latte, and settle in, so we can start our chat!
I have to read aloud one of the reviews I recently got for this podcast, because it just made my day. KatlynPennayy wrote
“I am so glad that I came across your podcast on Pinterest while browsing. I just graduated with my Bachelors in Spanish and English language education. While I had a practicum course, it was at the college and high school level and didn’t give me as much experience as I needed to teach at the elementary level that I am currently teaching. I have this pool of information that I learned in school but I am struggling to swim. I enjoy your podcast because it has given me water wings to better tread in the water. I feel that I have already left the fantasy teacher phase and now I’m looking for a way out of the survival mode that I was standing in at the end of last semester. I want to be an effective and efficient teacher with the subject that I am so passionate about. Thank you for helping me towards achieving that!”
This is what this is all about- thank you Katlyn! This completely made my day! If you’d like to leave a review, head to Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to our show. We also talk about language teaching 24/7 in our Language Latte facebook group- where we have a supportive group of new and veteran teachers. You can ask questions, help out a colleague, share your favorite activities, or read what others are sharing. I love the camaraderie and all of the great ideas.
In this episode we are looking at how teachers strive to meet the needs of all students: teaching languages to students with learning disabilities. I have heard parents and teachers says kids with learning difficulties should not be in world language classes (gasp). What do research findings indicate about world language study and students with dyslexia for example? Which strategies, instructional methods, and adaptations can we employ as language teachers to help all students reach their goals and achieve competence? After an introduction to current research, I speak with Dr. Irene Konyndyk, author of Foreign Languages for Everyone, who shares 8 really effective approaches for world language teachers to boost language learning for kids with learning differences.
I recently saw a meme on twitter that was really impactful:
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines “specific learning disability” as: “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.”
There are not very clear statistics on exactly how many students have learning differences, partially because there are many who are undiagnosed or who are not receiving services. For the school year 2015–16, the number of students ages 3-21 receiving special education services was about 13 percent of total public school enrollment in the US: and this includes autism, speech impairments, intellectual disabilities and more. That’s 13%. About 5% of students in US public schools are classified as having specific learning disabilities (which is often abbreviated as SLD). That is what we are talking about today. You can be sure that as a teacher, you will come across students with learning disabilities.
The most common learning difference is dyslexia. We know that between 15-20% of the population has dyslexia. And that includes one of my own kids.
The British National Health Service (NHS) defines dyslexia as a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing, and spelling. The NHS also lists a number of problems that people with dyslexia have: they read and write very slowly, confuse the letters of words, put letters the wrong way round, have poor or inconsistent spelling, and have difficulty with information that is written down, etc.
Dyslexia is linked to neurocognitive factors that are inherited. Passed on from a parent, this impairment makes it difficult to process the sounds of language. For kids with dyslexia, it’s hard to learn to decode written words accurately and fluently so that they can make sense of them and understand written text. This means that children born with the genetic profile that is linked to dyslexia will have difficulty learning to read whether they are bilingual or monolingual. In fact, they will have the same problems decoding both languages.
Other common learning and attention issues that we might see in our world language classes (and this is not an exhaustive list): ADD and ADHD, other reading issues, such as visual processing issues, writing issues such as dysgraphia, memory issues like Auditory Processing Disorder, social anxiety issues, and many others.
Myths about Kids with Learning Disabilities
There are some misconceptions about learning disabilities we need to dispel.
- First, there is no counseling or magic pill that can treat a learning disability.
- Second, learning disabilities are not caused by lack of parental involvement or poor diet or too much screen time.
- Third, learning disabilities are not correlated with intelligence.
- Finally, learning disabilities are not the result of being lazy.
There are more boys identified than girls, which might mean that girls aren’t getting the help they need. In many schools, there’s an overrepresentation of black and Hispanic students identified as having SLDs. All kids with SLDs are at higher risk for discipline issues and dropping out of school.
Whether students have a specifically labeled diagnosis, or not, our job as teachers is to figure out which strategies will engage and accommodate student challenges, developmental levels, interests, gifts, and physical needs. This leads to authentic inclusion for all students: looking at your classes as groups of individuals instead of a unit, and realizing that fair does not mean equal.
Our goal for students in our classes is to achieve their own highest level of success. To support them and give them tools to overcome obstacles, and to learn to their fullest potential. I want students to enjoy learning Spanish and English in my classes. I want them to be optimistic, motivated, and confident as we share in discovering the cultures and languages I am teaching.
Teaching Languages to Students with Learning Disabilities: Accommodations
In your teaching toolkit, you’ve saved lots of ways that you can empower kids. Teaching languages to students with learning disabilities requires some special strategies. I’m going to share a list of accommodations that teachers can use in world language classes that have been shown through research to boost learning in kids with SLDs.
First: We have spoken a lot about community building in class- there’s a whole episode dedicated to this with John Bracey- to help foster students’ confidence in speaking the target language- but it is also important to appreciate all of our students’ unique attributes. Using getting to know you activities is a great way to discover common interests and hobbies among peers, and making sure that all students- no matter their abilities- are included and feel welcome. Teachers can model and encourage cooperative, respectful, and active listening during these conversations. We should emphasize that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. (Here are some speaking activities that help students get to know each other in Spanish, in English, in French, and in German).
Second: Make physical accommodations for the class by assigning seats to the students who need to be close to the teacher or away from distracting students. I had a student one time ask me privately to sit him in the front row away from his friends because with free seating, he felt pressured to sit in the back with them, and he really wanted to pay attention. You can also give your students an intake information sheet- I’ll link to a free one in the show notes- where you could ask for their input on seating preferences.
Third: We’ve talked a lot about this in the episode on motivating students- research shows that learning happens when the lesson is seen as relevant by the students. Embed the lessons in class with student interests and real-world connections so we are linking the learning to existing neural networks where it can be processed with less practice and less rehearsal.
Fourth: Teach your students organizational strategies. For many students with LDs, school bombards them with too much information, and they can easily feel overwhelmed. Break big tasks into smaller steps, and frequently remind them about upcoming homework and projects.
Fifth: Talking to them about learning. Metacognition is thinking and monitoring your own understanding and thinking. Using reflective journals or personal learning logs allows students to choose how they connect the information, immediately after the lesson. If you give homework in class- and many teachers do not, but if you do, have students start the homework or report or project in class. Make sure the instructions are exceptionally clear, to build a structure that students can build on at home. It even helps if you ask students explicitly to take out their agendas at a certain time and write down what is expected of them.
8 Adaptations for Participation in Class
I’m calling this the 5th strategy to empower students, but it’s a complete package of 8 quick tips. So my last strategy is to make adaptations for participation for students, geared to each individual’s level of ability at that time. We are teaching languages, and so while a lot of these procedures and approaches apply to all subjects, we are unique because we are teaching kids to communicate and exchange ideas and absorb language, and a lot of SLDs make reading and speaking a challenge. So there are some easy ways to really engage student participation. I have all of these in the show notes on my web site, so no need to stop your work out or cooking or pull over in traffic to jot these down:
- Always have a clear syllabus of the expectations, an outline of the course, and plenty of advance notice on big projects and tests.
- Start the lesson by reviewing what was taught last class, and then giving a summary of what will be covered today. This will ground students and give them a look at the big picture.
- Keep communication open, and speak with students privately. Be available before and after class to answer questions. SLDs often are accompanied with social anxiety.
- Students with dyslexia often have a difficult time listening to a teacher while writing down notes or even just writing down the homework. Please, allow students to record lessons or take a picture of the board.
- Minimize copying down from the board. Students with dyslexia or dysgraphia may need a hand-out of the notes already typed out. Some IEPs ask for only certain words missing for the students to fill in, other students require the complete notes, which they can highlight as they follow along. This allows them to focus on what you are saying.
- Organizing information and time management can be difficult for students with LDs. Break up large projects into manageable tasks by creating stages or check points.
- In reading assignments, look for audio-books for students with reading challenges.
- Students are motivated when they have suitable challenges within their comfort zones and development levels. Find out what they do best, and give them a way to shine! Maybe they are great at oral presentations- let them show you what they know in a way they feel confident.
- Other common accommodations to use when teaching languages to students with learning disabilities: having the test read aloud, allowing extra time for tasks and tests, don’t deduct points for incorrect spelling, reducing homework, provide speech-recognition software. I am linking to an excellent article with even more accommodations for students.
What makes teachers true educators is their acknowledgment, appreciation, and respect of students’ differences. Students’ diverse intelligences, talents, skills, interests, and backgrounds enrich our schools and our lives as teachers. Many of today’s classrooms are more diverse than ever, including as they do students with LD.
Interview with Dr Konyndyk
Dr. Irene Konyndyk is Assistant Professor of French Emerita at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she developed a Multisensory Structured French sequence for students with learning disabilities, the only such program in French in the nation. Her teaching experience includes several languages (German, Dutch, and French) and many levels (college, high school, elementary school FLEX, and adult learners).
She shares her expertise through workshops and conference presentations around the world. Her passion for helping instructors meet the needs of struggling students resulted in the publication of her book: Foreign Languages for Everyone, which continues to serve as a resource for teachers of all languages and at all levels of instruction.
1) Which languages do you speak and where did you learn them?
2) Dr. Konyndyk, you have written a book called Foreign Languages for Everyone. In it, you lists examples and strategies for reaching all learners- regardless of learning disabilities. Can you give us an overview of the pedagogical approach that you developed to teach kids who are struggling in our language classes?
- Multisensory: using as many of the senses in learning as possible
- Structure: in the classroom environment, in how homework is assigned, in setting boundaries
- Meta-cognitive piece: teaching kids how their brain learns and acquires language and knowledge.
- in-take questionnaire she mentions
- student self-reflective journals
- connecting: what kinds of learners are they, and how do they learn best?
- Direct and explicit instruction for kids with learning differences
- Best practices
- lots of repetition and review
- considering affective issues like anxiety
- cooperative activities
- confirming comprehension
- incorporating culture
- varying activity types
- Helping to equip students to take responsibility for their learning
- Teaching students to self-correct
- Helping students become more organized
3) Students who have challenges in learning often times thrive when we offer certain accommodations. What are some specific strategies for teaching languages to students with learning disabilities?
Writing everything down, making everything visual in addition to saying them.
Having students hand-write notes instead of using a computer
4) There are many people who unfortunately say that students with learning disabilities should not be in language classes. Obviously when students hear this, they believe it. How can teachers change their minds about themselves as learners, and give them the confidence in language classes?
5) Do you have any recommendations to implement differentiation in language classes- whether through technology tools or other methods?
6) Where can listeners find you if they’d like to ask some follow up questions?
If you take away one idea from this podcast, it is that there is evidence that students with language learning difficulties can succeed in their study of a foreign language, if they have appropriate instructional modifications.
I really hope that you’ve walked away from this podcast with concrete examples of accommodations you can use tomorrow in your classes, teaching languages to students with learning disabilities. Let’s all go out with empathy and patience, and use structure, repetition, multi-sensory lessons to empower our kids with learning difficulties.
If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your friends and colleagues. Also, I love reading the reviews at the itunes store. Every time we get a review, Language Latte will come up higher in the search for more teachers. Finally, if you have more questions, or if you have great ideas that work in the classroom, we talk about language teaching 24/7, in our Language Latte facebook group.
I love to chat about questions or hear feedback you have about this episode, and to gather your ideas for future shows. Tell us what you’re doing in your language classroom!
To never miss an episode, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Language Latte is made possible by OneWorldTrek.com: language and cultural immersion travel for teachers in Mexico. It was so nice to meet you all. I look forward to chatting next time, and hopefully collaborating in the future! Until then, ciao!
Works Cited and Additional Resources
McCardle, P. Mele-McCarthy, J. Cutting, L. Leos, K. D’Emilio, T. (2005). “Learning Disabilities in English Language Learners: Identifying the Issues.” Learning Disabilities, Research and Practice. Volume 20, Issue 1. February.
Assisting Students with Foreign Language Learning Difficulties in School by Leonore Ganschow and Elke Schneider on LD Online.
Brain-Friendly Strategies for the Inclusion Classroom by Judy Willis on ASCD.
Interview of Dr. J. Richard Gentry conducted by François Grosjean. Dyslexia, Bilingualism, and Learning a Second Language. Psychology Today.
Supporting High School Students with Dyslexia on ThoughtCo.com
Dyslexia, Bilingualism, and Learning a Second Language on Psychology Today.
ADHD Linked to Profound Creativity on The Intellectualist