Teaching English as a Second Language to Students with Learning Disabilities

Room full of students talking and sitting at their desks in small groups with blue books on their desk and pens in hand.
While students with learning disabilities might struggle with language learning, we should not assume that they will underperform in relation to their peers.

Students with learning disabilities (LDs) may struggle in a language classroom, but ultimately reap the same benefits as others.
Consider viewing our discussion on the definition of a learning disability as well as methods of identification by referring to the related resources section at the bottom of this page.

According to Ann Sax Mabbott, who has provided case studies of several students with LDs, many achieve success as language learners and even become foreign language teachers.

Considerations

  • Sometimes, a student who is aware of a learning disability chooses not to bring it up because of  cultural stigma.
  • Students may have symptoms of LD or they might struggle in class, but may not be able to produce the necessary documentation for support services.
  • Students may not know that a disability is preventing their success in your course. They may have never had access to diagnostic tests or awarness of learning disabilities.
  • Students with learning disabilities may sometimes be reluctant to share their struggles. They might not know about systems for requesting accommodations.
  • Students may have learning styles that sometimes do not fit well with an instructor’s methods or the curriculum. Accessible opportunities to demonstrate gained proficiencies are sometimes not available
  • College-level expectations or studying a second language may reveal challenges that the students have never before faced. 
  • Students with learning disabilities often find strategies to compensate, but those strategies may be dependent on a student’s native language.

Solutions

Consider what measures you are willing to take for every student. List these on your syllabus (often this is just a matter of making explicit best practices that you regularly use).
Examples include untimed exams, a flexible attendance policy, use of a recorder in class, maintaining a shared set of class notes that can be accessed on line, extra review time, and opportunities for extra credit.
Offer a broad array of options for studying, test taking and learning to all of your students. This will enable you to include all learning styles for students learning a new language.

  • Create predictable lessons, for example warm-up, review, vocab, new grammar, synthesis.
  • Engage multiple learning modes including visual, aural and kinesthetic.
  • Introduce new material in familiar contexts.
  • Scaffold lessons and encourage students to complete complex tasks incrementally
  • Make lesson materials available outside of class.
  • Use contrasting colors or fonts to emphasize differences between morphology and syntax
  • Bridge skills: encourage students to link a well-developed skill with one that is not as strong.
  • Consider whether your exams must be ‘timed’. If you believe they must, can you make them shorter in order to reduce stress for everyone?
  • Encourage in-country experiences that allow the student to learn in a natural, integrative setting.

Actively engage your students in the discussion of what would help them succeed. Offer suggestions or advice. Be open to experimentation, knowing that the student may not know what will work best. Connect students to campus resources such as Peer Tutors or the Accessibility Resource Center.
Specific practices that may support a student with learning disabilities include:

  • Allowing extended time on tests and assignments.
  • Allowing the student to dictate written work to a recording device or a scribe.
  • Allowing the student to take the test on a computer, using spellcheck, or a scribe.
  • Allowing the student to define their in-class participation or to decline to read aloud in front of others. Instead, allow them to prepare input in advance.
  • Allowing alternative assignments that deemphasize skills that are undermined by a student’s disability

Quick tip: Enlisting the help of a fellow student to scribe will boost their skills and foster relationships through the target language.

Prof. Irene Konyndyk, who has spent many years teaching French to students with learning and other disabilities, recommends encouraging students to journal about their learning experience, whether in written or audio format. This will give a better idea of what they are learning, where they are struggling, and how they can be successful in your class and in others.

Conclusion

By creating a variety of opportunities for students to learn and demonstrate what they have learned, you will make your class more accessible to all students. By dialoguing with students with LD and providing accommodations, they will achieve a lifelong relationship with a foreign language.