Specific Learning Differences and Foreign Language Teaching

As Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Differences is published this week one of the authors Judit Kormos tells us about working with students with learning difficulties.

The readers of this blog might rightfully ask what the author has to do with specific learning difficulties: she is a linguist, a second language acquisition researcher and a former language teacher and teacher trainer, not a psychologist or special education expert. The fact, however, is that if we look around in our immediate environment, in no time we can find a dozen colleagues, students, friends, and relatives who tell us that either they themselves have apparent difficulties in reading or somebody they know very well is dyslexic. This is in complete accord with European statistics according to which approximately 7-10% of the population can be characterized as having some type of learning differences, which, among others, might cause difficulties in reading, writing and in other academic domains. Dyslexia, one of the most frequent types of specific learning differences, accompanies the dyslexic person all through their lives. This means that no matter whether we teach adults enrolled in a language school or children with English as an additional language in a primary school, one in every ten students in the classroom might potentially be dyslexic.

Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Differences

Students with dyslexia might have very different ability profiles, and consequently might experience varying degrees of difficulties in language learning. It is a common misconception that language learners with dyslexia only find reading and writing in another language challenging. In fact, a large number of aspects of second language acquisition might pose difficulties for dyslexic students. For example, the memorization of words is often demanding for learners with an SpLD, and they need repeated encounters with words and conscious effort to successfully encode them in memory. Students with dyslexia also frequently mix up similar sounding words and words with similar meaning. Furthermore, language learners with dyslexia might find it difficult to understand grammatical concepts and apply grammatical knowledge in communicative situations. The reading speed of learners with dyslexia also tends to be slow and they frequently experience word recognition problems in another language. Additionally, dyslexic language learners might find it demanding to produce longer written texts because of their spelling problems and lack of sufficient vocabulary knowledge. If not handled adequately in the language classroom, these difficulties often result in loss of motivation to learn foreign languages, low self-esteem and the appearance of symptoms of foreign language anxiety.

In many cases, children are identified as dyslexic and are given assistance in acquiring literacy skills in lower primary school, long before they start learning a foreign language. In some other cases, however, children develop excellent strategies which help them cope in the lower grades, and it is possible that the difficulties caused by dyslexia only come to the surface in upper grades and in the foreign language classroom. Therefore foreign language teachers are often the first to notice that students have unexpected difficulties in learning another language and have great responsibility in ensuring that these learners receive adequate assistance and support from special educational experts. In our forthcoming book Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Differences (co-authored with Anne Margaret Smith), we explain how language teachers with little or even no prior training in special education can help dyslexic students to acquire another language. All that is needed is awareness and understanding of the nature of specific learning differences, empathy, patience, and the application of instructional techniques that might be useful for non-dyslexic students as well. We hope that our new book will be a useful resource for foreign and second language teachers, teacher trainers and trainees, educational experts and researchers in the fields of education, second language acquisition and linguistics.

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