If your student is struggling with language learning, how do you know if they have a learning disability?
This has been one of my challenges teaching high school EAL. It can be very difficult to determine where a language barrier might actually be a learning disability. I have recently started a diploma program in Special Education, wanting to learn more about learning disabilities.
The Good News:
From my 4 months or so of course work, I have noticed that in most of the research and literature, solid language teaching strategies help all learners. Do you use graphic organizers? Are you organizing your lessons visually (giving an outline of the lesson on the board)? Are you concept checking instructions? Are you circulating through the classroom?
Teaching strategies like these, fundamental to language teaching, are also recommended for working with students that have a learning disability.
One of the key challenges of working with students that are English language learners and potentially also with a learning disability is finding out. It is very difficult to discern in a new language learner what their difficulties might be outside of simply learning a new language. Usually when a new language learner is tested for proficiency, they are not normed against students with exceptionalities. The tests that ELL students will take are normed against language standards, not abilities. It is recommended that students are tested 2 years after starting to learn a language for potential learning disabilities.
In the meantime, there are many strategies that are helpful to students with a learning disability, that will also support language learners. The goal is inclusivity, that all students will have success and find meaning in a lesson.
A graphic organizer helps learners to organize their ideas in a visual way. These types of organizers can also be easily adapted. Some students might use more words than others, other students might number and connect ideas to a reading text. The organizer can be used to produce something more complex like a paragraph or essay, or left as-is to show understanding of a concept. The plot diagram I have used with readings as well as with movies to demonstrate how plot works. The hamburger example is one that I have used to outline paragraph structure. Student can use either organizer with just a few words or as a template for longer writing.
Scaffolding or Chunking Lessons:
Instead of giving students a large task, break the task down into smaller tasks or chunks. Each smaller task can be completed in a shorter amount of time, and the teacher can give feedback before students move onto the next step.
In a classroom, this might look like reviewing material from a previous lesson at the start of class. You then begin by asking students to work on one section of an assignment for 15 minutes while you circulate and see how individual students are doing. After 15 minutes you can reflect and go over some parts of the assignment as a class. Once it seems like students have a good handle on the lesson objectives, they can move onto the next step. If students are having difficulty, you are then able to focus on those that need more help. To scaffold further, you might pre – teach the important vocabulary, read a text together to find the main idea or discuss the potential theme of a reading by looking at image.
For more ideas, take a look at this article from Edutopia on scaffolding.
Rubrics and Exemplars:
Exemplars are good examples of what you want students to do. Exemplars provide a model that students can use to relate the instructions of the assignment to what the finished assignment should look like. By providing an exemplar, the student has a much better idea of what their work should look like when they are finished.
A rubric gives precise information about what the teacher is looking for in an assignment, and how it will be evaluated. A rubric can act as a checklist to ensure that students are staying organized and completing the necessary tasks to finish an assignment.
Both rubrics and exemplars provide a scaffold for students to visualize and comprehend what they need to do versus simply being told to finish an assignment.
Revision and Repetition of Vocabulary:
One of the most challenging parts of academic learning is vocabulary development – especially as students move into higher grades and need to understand what precipitation or a polynomial or a stanza is. Language learners aren’t alone in this. Revising and repeating vocabulary can help all students to get a better grasp of how language works and how to use it.
A great resource for language learning is Quizlet. I have moved away from using Vocabulary journals into using Quizlet. Students can create their own vocabulary lists with ready-to-use definitions, as well as pronunciation guides. They can also test themselves or play games using the vocabulary words. Quizlet is device-friendly and can be used on a smartphone.
Good teaching is inclusive
What I have learned most of all is that an inclusive classroom is better for all students. This involves taking into consideration the needs of everyone and being both experimental and flexible to meet those needs. These strategies are just a start – for more information and ideas see the resources below.
The BC Ministry of Education also has a lot of material available for teachers to use: