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Supporting students with specific learning needs

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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Correcting dyslexic spelling

Teacher helping two young studentsIn this guest post, Joanna Nijakowska, author of Dyslexia in the Foreign Language Classroom (2010), explores the difficulty of spelling among dyslexic learners of English, and how the use of the red pen only enforces incorrect spelling.

Spelling mistakes constitute a notorious feature of dyslexic writing. Teachers often highlight or circle the mistakes (especially with a red pen) bringing them to the surface of the text but in that way students focus their attention on and consolidate the erroneous forms instead of learning the correct spelling.

In similar vein, writing the words on the blackboard and asking students to compare them with their own spelling attempts does not work very well with learners with dyslexia.

The occurrence of mistakes is sometimes indicated on the margin in a given line of the text; however, if we do not specify where exactly the mistake is, we make the correcting task much harder for our students with dyslexia.

Another technique is to simply count down the mistakes and give the total at the bottom of the text, often with no indication of the exact position of the mistakes. Unfortunately, even very careful looking at words and searching for mistakes cannot guarantee identifying the misspelled ones, just the opposite, it happens that perfectly well-spelled words get ‘corrected’ mistakenly.

It proves much more effective and less time-consuming to cross the misspelled word and write the correct spelling above or next to it. In that way it is the correct form which is made visible and, hopefully, integrated.

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