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
SUMMARY 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.
EVALUATION 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.
REFERENCES 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, 3-16.
Vellutino, F.R. (1979) Dyslexia: Theory and Research. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
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.