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Review of  Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Differences

Reviewer: James Rock
Book Title: Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Differences
Book Author: Judith Kormos Anne Margaret Smith
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.3662

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AUTHORS: Judit Kormos & Anne Margaret Smith
TITLE: Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Differences
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2012

James Rock, Department of Foreign Languages and Literature, Università Cattolica
del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy

In modern society, knowing a second language is increasingly becoming a basic
prerequisite in order to find employment in many sectors of the economy.
Consequently, it is no longer deemed advantageous for those with language
learning difficulties to be exempted from foreign language classes, as was so
common in the past. In this book, the authors emphatically stress that we should
refrain from viewing such learners as in some way linguistically disabled and,
thus, incapable of second language instruction, and instead focus on their
specific learning differences (SpLD).

There are nine chapters, with chapters one to four primarily addressing
differing views of disability in education, the characteristics of dyslexia,
dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD, and Asperger’s syndrome, and the effects that they
can each have on language learning. The remainder of the book focuses on the
typical journey a language learner with an SpLD may experience throughout
his/her formal education. The book is intended for both experienced and novice
language teachers.

In Chapter One, “Views of Disability in Education”, the authors consider the
terminology relating to disabled learners. A variety of discourses are
discussed, with specific attention given to how disabilities are defined
differently within the traditional medical discourse model and the more recent
socially-constructed discourse model. The authors claim that although a more
socio-cultural view of disability is increasing in popularity, it is still quite
common to hear medical terminology used to describe language learning
difficulties, such as dyslexia. Attention is then given to exploring the type of
discourse used in educational settings. The authors stress that inclusion is
often misinterpreted by many educational institutions as simply meaning
integration, rather than full inclusion. As a result, disabled students are
often solely allowed the possibility to share physical facilities, but are not
given the opportunity to interact meaningfully with the wider student
population. Financial considerations are often given as the reason for
institutions being unable to provide a genuine inclusive educational policy,
which leads the authors to question whether a truly inclusive ethos can be achieved.

In Chapter Two, ''What is Dyslexia'', a brief overview of research is provided,
including difficulties in defining dyslexia. Early definitions were based on
discrepancies between reading difficulties and general intellectual abilities.
Such discrepancy-based definitions were, however, heavily criticised for
under-identifying students with dyslexia and for the biased nature of IQ tests
towards certain ethnic and socials groups. A more recent definition by the
International Dyslexic Association encouragingly attempts to integrate
behavioural, cognitive, biological and environmental descriptions. Nevertheless,
the authors still argue that this definition is incomplete, as it emphasises the
behavioural manifestations of dyslexia and fails to provide sufficient insight
into the nature of the neurological characteristics of dyslexic children.

A good overview of the basic cognitive mechanisms involved in learning is then
provided. The features of both short-term and long-term memory are described,
with specific attention also given to the importance of phonological short-term
memory capacity in the acquisition of literacy skills, and to describing the
various stages involved in word-recognition. The point is made that children
with dyslexia find it particularly difficult to segment word forms into letters,
convert letters into sounds and combine them to form the phonological form of
the word. This is due to difficulties in phonological processing, which could be
ameliorated with more explicit instruction. The authors also argue that due to
impairments in short-term memory, many dyslexic learners could experience speech
delay, a slower rate of speech, and a smaller receptive and expressive
vocabulary range.

The chapter moves on to discuss the Phonological Deficit Hypothesis (Vellutino,
1979). Research has demonstrated that dyslexic people perform significantly
worse in tasks requiring phonological awareness. The chapter concludes with the
authors briefly describing the Automaticity Deficit Hypothesis (Nicolson &
Fawcett, 1990), which advocates that problems in the automatisation of new
skills are at the core of the difficulties dyslexic children experience.

In Chapter Three, ''Associated Learning Differences'', the authors provide an
overview of several learning differences, other than dyslexia. These include
Specific Language Impairment (SLI), Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia, Attention Deficit
and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Asperger’s Syndrome. Some of the main
characteristics learners with these kinds of specific learning differences might
have in common are described, as well as the challenges that learners with these
types of SpLD’s face in everyday life.

Chapter Four, ''Cognitive and Emotional Aspects of Language Learning”,
investigates how cognitive and affective correlates of SpLD’s may affect the
language learning process. The chapter begins with differentiating between
cognitive and affective abilities in language learning. The suggestion is made
that language learners with dyslexia can very easily get caught up in a vicious
circle due to cognitive problems in language learning. They may subsequently
lose motivation, which may result in further failures. Attention is then given
to language learning difficulties of students with an SpLD. The authors
reiterate that there are great differences in the degree of impairment of
phonological processing skills and phonological short-term memory amongst
dyslexic learners. As a result, dyslexic learners cannot be regarded as a
homogeneous group, and their individual cognitive profiles must be considered
carefully. An interesting point is made that languages with transparent
orthographies might be easier to learn for students with an SpLD. The chapter
concludes with an exploration of some of the difficulties learners with an SpLD
experience in all major areas of language learning.

In Chapter Five, ''Identification and Disclosure'', the authors deal with the
difficult process of identifying whether a learner’s difficulties with language
learning are the result of an SpLD or a general difficulty with a particular
language. The point is made that many language teachers do not feel experienced
enough to identify whether a student has an SpLD, or not. This is claimed to be
due to the pervasiveness of the medical discourse model in many countries. The
authors subsequently outline three stages in the process of identification --
observation; screening; and formal identification -- followed by detailed
discussion of how assessors and learners might go about disclosing the results
of a formal assessment. They argue that the results ought to be shared with the
student immediately, and an attempt should be made to help the student develop
an understanding of his or her strengths and weaknesses and to explore
connections to general daily difficulties. Further discussion is subsequently
given to addressing how results should be best passed on to educational
institutions, teachers, family, and peers. It is suggested that although some
students may be reluctant to pass on information about their SpLD, for fear of
attracting unwanted attention, other learners may be keen to disclose that they
have an SpLD in order to help them in their course and to strengthen their
relationship with their tutors.

Chapter Six, ''Accommodating Differences'', deals with several modifications that
educational institutions can make to develop a truly inclusive learning
environment that can benefit language learners with an SpLD. A range of
environmental adaptations that can be implemented in the classroom are
discussed. These include adjustments to light and temperature, the way furniture
is arranged, the types of equipment used in class, and the way materials can be
modified and presented in a more appropriate way to students with learning
differences. This is followed by some recommendations as to ways of improving
the presentation and organisation of the language curriculum by the teacher. The
defining feature is that learners with an SpLD should be given ample
opportunities and extra time to allow for additional practice and repetition
since it takes them longer to assimilate new information and transfer it to
long-term memory. The authors stress the importance of clear communication when
providing feedback and instructions to learners, and also that teachers should
avoid placing learners with an SpLD in uncomfortable situations that might
negatively affect self-esteem. The chapter concludes with an analysis of some of
the effective study skills and metacognitive techniques that learners can use to
improve their language learning performance.

In Chapter Seven, ''Techniques for Language Teaching'', the reader is presented
with some teaching methods that can be used when teaching learners with an SpLD.
The authors emphasise that the teacher is best viewed as a facilitator who
provides assistance and guidance to the learners not only to learn the language,
but also to learn about how the language works and to learn through using the
language. The first method addressed is the multi-sensory structured learning
approach (MSL) (Sparks et al. 1991). This approach teaches elements of the L2
through the activation of auditory, visual, tactile and kinaesthetic pathways.
It also stresses the use of language learning strategies and the importance of
practicing different aspects of the L2 until they become automatic, through the
use of a range of multi-sensory teaching and learning tasks. A distinctive
characteristic of the MSL is its focus on explicit teaching of L2 grammar rules
and drills, very different from communicative pedagogies. The chapter moves on
to ways in which the multi-sensory structured learning approach can be applied
to the teaching of the sound and spelling systems of the L2, as well as the
teaching of vocabulary, grammar, reading, listening, speaking, and writing.

In Chapter Eight, ''Assessment'', the focus is on how students with an SpLD can be
accommodated in second language assessment. The authors report that learners
with specific differences were largely ignored in the past and only recently
have examination boards begun questioning the validity and fairness of their
proficiency examinations. They briefly describe the difference between
assessment and testing, followed by a more detailed account of the notions of
testing validity and fairness. It is suggested that bias is often a problem, as
certain response formats pose difficulties for learners with an SpLD. As a
result, tests should be adjusted to accommodate such learners, followed by a
description of some possible accommodations which do not affect the validity of
the construct being tested. The chapter concludes with some discussion on the
evaluation procedures employed in the language classroom.

In the final chapter, Transition and Progression”, the authors address the
emotionally demanding task of making transitions within the educational system.
This is particularly difficult for learners with an SpLD, and the role of the
teacher in facilitating transition is extremely important. Discussion is
initially given to exploring some of the factors that cause stress in transition
for learners with an SpLD. The chapter then describes steps that students and
their families can take to help with smooth transitions, as well as the kinds of
strategies that an educational institution can implement. This is followed by an
analysis of the procedures that the receiving institution can put into place
order to alleviate the difficulties of transition. The chapter concludes with
some consideration given to the world of work. The authors note that the kinds
of adaptations that have been implemented in educational institutions for
learners with an SpLD have not been carried through into the world of work.
Thus, people with an SpLD are often afraid of disclosing information to
prospective or current employers about their learning difference, as this may be
a reason for not being offered the job or even being dismissed by their
employers. Consequently, it appears that the advantages of disclosure in the
workplace are not as clearly evident as in education.

This book is of obvious benefit to anybody interested in literacy issues. From
the perspective of foreign language learning, it is warmly greeted, as specific
learning differences are highly pertinent today. The book is accessible to all
types of language teachers, from the most experienced to the novice. Readers are
thankfully not overloaded with technical linguistic jargon, even when cognitive
processes are being described. This is particularly evident in Chapters Two and
Four when the learning mechanisms involved in language are discussed.

The book is extremely well organised with short even-length chapters, which deal
with a specific topic and follow a logical sequence. As a result, many chapters
could easily be studied independently within a teacher training workshop.
Moreover, the decision to clearly differentiate between early chapters that deal
with theoretical and linguistic issues, and those in the second part of the book
that focus on the methods to ensure that language learners are not left behind
is applauded. Another useful attribute of the book is the ubiquitous collection
of activities and summary points found at the end of each chapter. This helps
ensure that readers can quickly access the most relevant points and they can
also actively test their knowledge of the information found in each chapter.

Another positive feature is the wide range of themes that are explored. The
authors state that many of these topics are rarely covered elsewhere, and this
is, indeed, true. Of particular interest is the discussion on the difficulties
learners may face in disclosing information about an SpLD to educational
institutions and in the workplace. This is often not discussed; however, some
information about how westernised cultures differ in their treatment of learners
with an SpLD would have been welcome. Chapter Six was also useful, as the
classroom environment is often an area that is ignored by teachers. The useful
suggestions made as to how the language classroom could be set up more
effectively, and teaching materials organised in such a way as to ensure greater
clarity were most appreciated. The authors make a valid point, however, that
many of their recommendations, although specifically focused towards
accommodating learners with an SpLD, would also benefit language classrooms
without such learners. A minor criticism concerning the models of disability
reflected in discourse found in Chapter One, is that this could have been tied
together more cohesively, as this reader was left a little confused as to how
the various discourses were related.

As regards how effective the authors are in persuading teachers that a truly
inclusive ethos is practical, in reality, is very subjective. Some teachers may
be encouraged to alter their teaching methodologies and fully include learners
with an SpLD, rather than simply allow such learners to attend classes without
any accommodation. Other teachers may still feel that providing a fully
inclusive teaching environment is utopian and practically impossible in their
current environment. Nonetheless, what the authors have successfully achieved is
to present a genuine step in the right direction. They have provided the
know-how as to how a truly inclusive ethos could potentially become the norm in
the future. It is now up to educational institutions to start putting their
ideas into practice.

This is a thought-provoking book that will hopefully stimulate further research.
It is, thus, highly recommended for foreign language teachers and anybody
interested in literacy issues, test designers and program administrators.

Nicolson, R.I. & Fawcett, A.J. (2008) Dyslexia, Learning, and the Brain.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sparks, R.L. & Ganschow, L. (1991) Foreign language learning differences:
Affective or native language aptitude differences? Modern Language Journal, 75,

Vellutino, F.R. (1979) Dyslexia: Theory and Research. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

James Rock is a lecturer in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy. He teaches both undergraduate and postgraduate courses. His current research interests include second language acquisition, vocabulary learning strategies, and the use of Q-methodology in learner strategy research.

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