Language learning difficulty or a disability


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Paper outlining the relationship between learning disability and language disability

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Language learning difficulty or a disability

  1. 1. English Language Learners and Learning Disabilities Considerations and Recommendations for Effective Remediation“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk tohim in his own language, that goes to his heart.” Nelson MandelaIn classrooms all over the world, students are learning second languages in increasingnumbers. By 2030, it is estimated that 40% of the entire school population of the UnitedStates will be English language learners (ELLs) ( McKibbin and Brice, 2005). Not onlyare the numbers increasing exponentially but students are not only learning the language(in classrooms) but are more usually “pushed in” and having to learn the language “onthe fly”, in classrooms where the content too has to be mastered.Teachers are confronted with the dual task of having to teach the curriculum and alsohaving to help students learn the language of instruction. Not an easy task for even aspecialist in English language instruction. Discrepancies in test results between ELLs andnon-ELLs have become alarming ( Goldenberg, 2008). Teachers are under a lot ofpressure and find it almost impossible to cope or keep up. The result of this situation isthe overrepresentation of ELLs in special education (Brown, 2005). Teachers andadministrators are too quick to refer ELLs to special education programs (for manyreasons – see Appendix A). This creates not only undo stress on the educational deliverysystem but also a kind of “Mathew’s Effect” (Stanovich, 1986) whereby because ofinadequate language instruction, those ELLs assigned to special education fall further andfurther behind until it is too late to catch up. On the other hand, if indeed a student does
  2. 2. have a learning disability and not a second language acquisition issue, they too can fallfurther and further behind.So we must understand more clearly the issues involved when differentiating between alearning disability and a second language acquisition issue. Both to help stem the over-referral of ELLs and also to correctly diagnose student learning disabilities. The questionis, how? Is a student who is having difficulties remembering words or writing basicsentences in English, just in need of specific English language learning attention or dothey really need special needs assessment and treatment? How do we as teachers decide?There are many important considerations that must be made.The L1 – L2 Relationship – What causes the difficulty?It is important to note “what” causes the difficulty in learning a language. This will helpus as teachers eliminate a lot of false notions when looking for the cause of an ELL’sdifficulty in our classroomThere have been a lot of causes attributed to language acquisition difficulties, mostnotably; anxiety, motivation/effort, learning habits and “low” ability. However, these aremost often just masks hiding the real problem. Dinklage (1971) studied why some greatstudents at Harvard had problems learning a language. It didn’t seem right that suchexcellent students would fail miserably at language. He found out that the cause was notthose normally assigned (effort, motivation, anxiety, access, strategies) but rather one of
  3. 3. “disability”. Dinklage’s remedy to the student’s language learning difficulty was to havethem taught in ways that worked for the learning disabled and in fact it worked.What we need to realize is that almost all people suffer from a learning disability when itcomes to learning a second language. Especially after our early years (>9). Compared toour first language (L1), our brain is clunky, our learning “stop and start”. It is no longernatural and some subconscious processes of learning are cut off. So we teachers mustthink of language learning ability along a continuum and further, fine tune our ownclassroom instruction more towards that of special education delivery (specific strategyfocus, use of supports and modifications etc…). We should assume a wider range both interms of time and content when it comes to acquiring language. One might even go sofar as to suggest that because everyone does suffer from a second language learningdisability, we should not refer any students to special education that have difficulties withlanguage acquisition. If everyone has it, we should address the problem “systemically”and not piece meal through special education. Brown alludes to this in her finally arguedwork, “Reducing the Over-referral of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students(CLD) for Language Disabilities”. She writes,“One underlying problem consistently contributes to the over-referral of CLD studentsfor language disabilities: The characteristics of second language acquisition – a languagenon-disorder – are mistaken for language disabilities. In other words, some languageaspects observed in CLD students who do not keep up with their peers are not necessarilydisorders, difficulties, or disabilities; they are simply an inherent feature of acquiring anew language” (Brown, 2005, p. 227)
  4. 4. What causes a language acquisition difficulty is not precisely known. Memory, ourexperiences and socialization, our physiology and the very nature of thought all play avital role. We might posit that how we learned our L1 (the deficits and nature of thatprocess) would effect our ability to acquire L2. Especially concerning age (1). Theyexact nature of this dynamic is unknown but what counts is that we teachers respond withinstruction that takes this into account. Further, we can say with certainty that someELLs do have a learning disability as opposed to a language non-disorder (given that upto 15% of students will (Root, 1994) and it is this issue of how to identify such, we nowmust address.Questions To Consider: 1. What is the student’s L1 literacy?This is the most important question. In a perfect world, the teacher would speak bothEnglish and the student’s mother tongue. The teacher would also have student recordsfrom their L1 school. Assessment would be much more precise and easier. Howevermost often this isn’t the case and the teacher will have to interview the parents andcaregivers to gather a more precise learner history. Students who have significantprocessing difficulties in their L1 are much more likely to experience difficulties in thesecond language classroom than not. Perhaps, there is no learning disability but rather alacking in literacy in the L1 which is transferred to the L2. This is very often the caseand before any intervention takes place, the student’s literacy needs in the L1 should be
  5. 5. addressed through sheltered and intensive instruction. Primary language instruction canprovide modest gains to most students (Goldenberg, 2008). 2. Time. How long has the student been studying English?Often, teachers don’t understand just how long it takes to become fluent in anotherlanguage. Students seem to make progress in social language and the classroom teacherassumes that because he/she understands the teacher conversationally, he/she understandsacademically. However, that is usually far from the case. It takes at least 7 years of studyto acquire the academic language needed for the classroom (Genesee, Lindholm-Leary,Saunders, Christian, 2006). Often, students need more time than the school system withits test driven nature will allow. Individual differences play a much stronger role inlanguage acquisition than any other subject. Teachers should be aware time might be afactor. It seems simplistic but too many students are wrongly referred to special educationbecause they rightly go through a “silent period” (normal for ELLs). Education shouldnot be run as a race, especially when it comes to language which is more organic anddeep than many content based disciplines. Language is of the heart, not the mind. 3. Are there any other barriers to learning?Second language learners in many cases, are experiencing significant social displacement.They arrive in a new language, without the traditional social supports. Teachers shouldask themselves whether the student is making a smooth transition and the student’slearning is not being impeded by social factors such as social estrangement, culture shock,family problems, income disparity etc… Very often, students are strongly affected by thetransition to a new country/land. Gonzalez (2001) suggests that much over referral tospecial education is because of the cultural and social differences between instructors and
  6. 6. students. Further, perhaps the student isn’t getting enough integration into the widercommunity to facilitate their language development? Given the multicultural dynamic inmany cities, this often is a factor dramatically slowing English language acquisition. 4. Have adequate formal assessments been done?Too many second language students fall through the cracks in the system. They areinadequately screened for problems and don’t receive the early intervention that isimperative for success at school. Assessment should be done through a well coordinatedteam (see Appendix B). Both formal and informal assessments should take place.Assessments should be done in a culturally sensitive and appropriate (standard) manner.If possible, they should be functional (for language is all about “function” ) and aboutwhat the students “can do” and not just what they “know of”. If possible, the goldstandard of assessment in the L1 for cognitive and psychosocial development should begiven. If not available, at least assessment for phonological awareness in their L1 shouldbe provided. Ganschow and Sparks’ Linguistic Coding Deficit Hypothesis (LCDH),states that difficulties with foreign language acquisition stem from deficiencies in one ormore of the linguistic codes in the student’s native language system (Schwarz, 1997).Thus, a possible quick way to assess for underlying language processing disability wouldbe phonological testing in the L1. 5. Has everything been done right to assist the student in learning the language?Before any decision about language disability can take place, the teacher or school mustassure that adequate instruction and opportunity (also time – see point 2 above) was given
  7. 7. the student. In terms of language acquisition, children learn in so many different manners.We should ask regarding effective classroom practices; A) Has a variety of learning styles been accounted for in the instruction? Has the instruction been clinical and strategy based? B) Has there been adequate comprehensible input provided? (often not, in the U.S. over 50% of ELLs receive all-English (according to the CREDE (Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence) in class immersive instruction and are expected to “sink or swim” in many cases) C) Has the curriculum / assessments been modified and instruction not just text or oral in nature (audio support, leveled readings, visuals etc..)? D) Has the curriculum been taught with a sensitivity to the student’s background and cultural experiences? E) Have explicit learning strategies been taught and the student / family given support in their use? F) Have the instructors and staff been given training in teaching ELLs and aware of the normal phenomena and processes that accompany learning a second language? G) Has the student been given extra instruction and support? Was the intervention intense enough and of a long enough duration? H) Has peer assisted learning been put in place (we learn language through social interaction and without this, language will be only slowly been acquired)? I) Has the school provided the resources to make both English language learning possible and for student integration into the wider culture? J) Has the student been assessed and monitored enough to suggest that the learning difficulty is not just something temporary or short term? ELLs really face a hard struggle and we should lean on the side of caution whenthinking of referral to special education. ELLs face 2 times the cognitive load in a sense –One, they must learn the content of lessons and second, they have to learn the language.This is a big task and it isn’t any surprise that many have difficulty. It is probably even
  8. 8. more surprising that the gap between ELLs and non-ELLs in testing (mentioned at thebeginning of this paper) isn’t much wider. The nature of language acquisition is still in the early stages of being discerned. Only afew decades ago we thought that learning a language was simply a matter of repeatingphrases -- how different are our assumptions nowadays! I’ve tried to suggest some waysthat teachers and all stakeholders might reflect and look into the mirror their ELLs face– how they might see the issues that mask the true nature of their language learningdifficulties. English language teaching would do well to borrow much of theinstructional focus and philosophical ground that special education has brought to thepedagogical table. I believe that if we can see all ELLs in a sense as “learning disabled”(or even defined by the term SLAAP (Second Language Acquisition – AssociatedPhenomena) which Brown (2005) uses), we’d be much better at teaching them and muchbetter at catching those with real learning disabilities and who especially need rapid andearly intervention. Part of the challenge for the future in TESL will be to more clearlydelineate the line between language learning and language disability. Doing so will muchbenefit our students and give teachers firmer ground to stand upon. NOTES(1) There is most definitely a relationship between the first language of a child (L1) andtheir acquisition of a second (L2). However, among researchers, there is no clarity. Manybelieve in an innate “language window” or “critical period hypothesis” ( Lennenberg,1967). This suggests that there is a set time for learning a language correctly and thatoutside this period, there is substantial difficulty in learning a second language, especiallyin terms of syntax. These advocates point to a biological basis for language and contentthat somehow through age, we have less and less access to our “Language AcquisitionDevice” (Chomsky, 1959), either because the brain loses plasticity or it simply shuts offcertain functions. Others contend that language can be learned well and fluently at anyage, this is known as the “Relational Frame Theory”.
  9. 9. ReferencesBrown, C.L. (2004), “Reducing the Over-Referral of Culturally and LinguisticallyDiverse Students (CLD) for Language Disabilities. NAHE Journal of Research andPractice 2 (1): 225-43., J. (1998). Reducing the Disproportionate Representation of Minority Studentsin Special Education (ERIC/OSEP Digest #E566. Arlington, VA: The ERICClearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. Roseberry-McKibbin and Alejandro Brice, (2005), What’s “Normal”, What’sNot: Aquiring English as a Second Language,, N. (1959), A Review of B.F. Skinners Verbal Behavior. Language, 35, 26-58,Reprinted in.Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, Mass:M.I.T. PressDinklage, Kenneth T. "Inability to Learn a Foreign Language" in G. Blaine & C.MacArthur(Eds.) Emotional Problems of the Student. New York, 1971: Appleton-Century-Crofts.Ganschow, Leonore, Richard Sparks & Elke Schneider. "Learning a Foreign Language:Challenges for Students with Language Learning Difficulties." Dyslexia (Journal of theBritish Dyslexia Association) 1, (1995):75-95.Genesee, F. , Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W.,and Christian, D. 2006, EducatingEnglish Language Learners. New York: Cambridge University PressGoldenberg, Claude, (2008), Teaching English Language Learners. What the researchdoes – and does not – say. American Educator, Summer., V. (2001). The role of socioeconomic and sociocultural factors in languageminority children’s development: An ecological research view. Bilingual ResearchJournal, 25 (1&2), 1-30Irujo, Suzanne, (2004), When an ELL has difficulty learning, is the problem a disabilityor the Second Language Acquisition Process?, ELL Outlook, March / April,, E. (1967), Biological foundations of language. New York: Wiley.Ortiz, A.A. (1997). Learning Disabilities occurring concomitantly with linguisticdifferences. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30, 321-32.
  10. 10. Root, Christine, (1994), A guide to learning disabilities for the ESL ClassroomPractitioner,, Robin L., (1977), Learning Disabilities and Foreign Language Learning,, Richard, & Leonore Ganschow. (1993), "The Impact of Native LanguageLearning Problems on Foreign Language Learning: Case Study Illustrations of theLinguistic Coding Deficit Hypothesis." Modern Language Journal 77,i 58-74. AppendixA. From: Brown, C.L., (2005) Reducing the Over- Referral of CLD students for Language Disabilities, pg. 225-26
  11. 11. B.