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Supporting students with specific learning needs

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Student looking confusedTo celebrate the launch of Project fourth edition, Michele Daloiso, author of pedagogical OUP material for Italy and teacher at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, explores ways we can support learners with specific educational needs in our ELT classrooms.

Kevin is a preschool kid. He is very smart and creative. He likes playing with building blocks and playing with his classmates. He’s also very sociable, although when it comes to sing along or act a poem out sometimes he just cut himself off from the rest of the class, or he doesn’t seem to remember the right words. Maybe he’s just a little shy. Maybe it’s just his learning style.

Kevin is six years old now and he starts struggling with literacy. The mismatch between his classmates and him gets bigger and bigger and by the end of the second year Kevin doesn’t seem to have reached the basic learning goals for reading and writing. Some teachers say he’s slow, others say he’s just lazy and disorganized. His parents take him to a specialist and find out that Kevin is neither mentally retarded nor lazy. He has dyslexia, a learning difficulty which causes trouble in some specific tasks like spelling words, reading out loud, writing by dictation. However, the speech therapist made her point very clear: Kevin is really smart, he just needs to be supported with some specific teaching strategies.

So, what happens when kids like Kevin start learning a foreign language (FL)? Well, it can be a torture or a pleasure… it depends on the quality of the support they will receive. Accommodation is necessary because the traditional FL class can cause some learning barriers, some of which are due to a conflict between common teaching practice and these students’ preferred way of learning. So, let’s see how an FL teacher could help a kid like Kevin. Particularly, I would like to discuss the four most important strategies to remember (for more information see Schneider and Crombie, 2003; Kormos and Kontra, 2008; Nijakowska, 2008; Daloiso, 2012).

First, these students are likely to benefit from structured instruction (in fact, Kevin was said to be disorganized). This can be easily achieved by setting clear language goals for each class and make them explicit, providing lesson plan outlines, summaries and revision sheets, breaking down long activities into small steps etc. Structured instruction also implies that highly structured activities will be more effective. For instance, an oral interaction exercise which requires to promptly improvise a dialogue is very unlikely to work out for these students. The activity is just too loosely structured. On the contrary, these students would benefit from a more structured oral exercise providing not only the roles, but also an explicit interaction pattern to be followed (“first ask this”, “then say that” etc.), along with some useful key-words and phrases.

Second, we need to keep in mind that an FL teacher is not a speech therapist. Students like Kevin will keep on having trouble with some specific tasks, such as taking notes, copying from board, reading out loud, spelling words, writing by dictation. I don’t think we should insist on these tasks in the FL, especially if we cannot give them the opportunity of some individual classes to help them cope with these specific difficulties. For the same reason, teachers should not penalize them for slow and inaccurate reading or spelling mistakes. It would be like penalizing myopic students because they can’t see things well.

Here comes the third suggestion. Myopic students are allowed to wear glasses.  Similarly these students should get access to specific tools.  Technology could be of great help in many ways. For instance, using their laptops for writing compositions,  students can get access to digital dictionaries and spell checkers. If students have severe dyslexia they can use text-to-speech devices and the textbook recordings as a support for reading comprehension.

Kevin is a dyslexic student, he has a language disability. What about his abilities? What do we know about his learning style? Many dyslexic students are said to have developed a global style, so they tend to “get the whole picture” of a text rather than analyzing every single detail. Therefore, they benefit from contextualization activities preceding reading or listening (analyzing a picture, learning the key-words in advance). They are often visual learners, so they benefit from visual prompts based on pictures and videos. So, the fourth aspect to remember is: labelling students according to what they are not able to do may be a good choice for speech therapists, who need to work on language remediation, but it is unlikely to be the best choice for education.  Getting to know the student’s preferred way of learning is the best starting point.

Now let’s go back to little Kevin. Now we know that he learns best in a structured way, he is a global and visual learner, he benefits from technology to overcome some weaknesses. We probably need some more information about him, but I feel this is a good starting point to successfully include him in the FL classroom and grant him some opportunity for successful learning.

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

2 thoughts on “Supporting students with specific learning needs

  1. This is all very well and I agree with the ideas you’ve suggested, but one thing which is a must here is support from the school administration. In my experience many schools are not interested in the one at the expense of the many…

  2. Pingback: Supporting students with specific learning needs « Oxford University ... | Esl beginning literacy | Scoop.it

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