Making the study of foreign languages as accessible and inclusive as possible is one of the challenges facing schools today. How can teachers develop language learning pathways for students with learning disabilities?
Identifying learning disabilities
Learning disabilities, also known as Specific Learning Disabilities, are a complex set of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of skills in reading, writing, or computation.
According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, it is important to distinguish learning disabilities from other learning difficulties resulting from physical impairments (relating, for example, to vision or hearing) or from disadvantaged environmental and social contexts that hinder a student’s ability to learn. As the LDA noted:
“Generally speaking, people with learning disabilities are of average or above average intelligence. There often appears to be a gap between the individual’s potential and actual achievement. This is why learning disabilities are referred to as “hidden disabilities”: the person looks perfectly “normal” and seems to be a very bright and intelligent person, yet may be unable to demonstrate the skill level expected from someone of a similar age”.
As mentioned above, the Specific Learning Disorder may affect the ability to reading, writing, or mathematical reasoning and calculation skills. However, in this article, we will focus on the most prevalent learning disabilities that can affect a student’s foreign language learning performance, that is:
- Dysgraphia: this difficulty concerns the reproduction of alphabetical and numerical signs with uncertain, irregular tracing. Dysgraphia affects the writing but not the content.
- Dyslexia: it is defined as the inability to read as fluently as expected for age, level of intelligence, and level of education received. The problem may relate to: speed (very slow and stunted reading); comprehension (the students encounter difficulties in understanding the meaning of the text is reading); correctness (reading characterized by frequent errors).
- Disortography: this disability is manifested by difficulty in spelling words using all the alphabetic signs and placing them in the right order, as well as complying with the rules of spelling (accents, apostrophes, etc.).
The presence of these learning disabilities may cause the student to face additional difficulties, in addition to the inherent complexity of learning a new idiom. The correct application of grammar rules, listening comprehension and spoken production skills can become extremely burdensome tasks for a student with learning disabilities.
Does this mean that students with these issues should be exempt from learning a foreign language? Definitely not. Giving up on developing accessible language learning strategies for all would mean depriving students of fundamental skills to explore the diversity of the world and its cultures.
Making language learning accessible to all: a challenge that can be met
An important principle to keep in mind when setting up language teaching strategies for students with learning disabilities is this: students with these types of disorders may have a different way of learning, but they still learn.
This means that the possible diagnosis of the presence of one or more students with learning disabilities should not deter language teachers from developing a learning environment appropriate to the different educational needs of the students.
Creating a learning environment that is receptive to diversity and inclusion is the first step in helping students with learning disabilities achieve strong foreign language skills.
Rather than focusing on the presence of disabilities in the learner, an approach that risks labeling students more for what they cannot do instead for what they can do, it is essential that teachers focus their work on understanding how students with learning disabilities learn and adopting consistent teaching strategies.
Using educational technology to increase accessibility of language learning
Schools that have used educational technology (EdTech) as a basis for developing accessible learning pathways for students with disabilities report satisfactory results. The great advantage provided by EdTech solutions is that they provide teachers with a learning environment that can be “furnished” according to the needs of each student while maintaining an overview of the progress of the entire class.
In short, the flexibility and high level of customization provided by EdTech platforms are important elements within inclusive and accessible learning paths. As it has been efficiently summarized:
“Personalization is one of the greatest keywords of today’s educational technology: there is a device or app for every need and you can customize your tech just the way you like it. Assistive technology is one of the fields that need personalization the most: not only there are several conditions that can affect different areas of learning, but the same disability can manifest in different ways. No two students are the same and a solution that works for one may not be ideal for another.”
So, how can EdTech products help students with specific learning needs to reach their maximum potential in language learning?
First of all, language software offers students with disabilities a customized and engaging learning setting. Students can use the virtual classroom as a space where they dictate the speed of learning. Specialist products for language educators and learners like Sanako Connect also allow teachers to use a highly flexible range of different teaching methods and learning content.
There is also the option to let students choose the type of language learning activities they want to engage with. In the digital education space, then, students can also set schedules and priorities. For students with disabilities, this form of empowerment is very important, both because it allows them to work further, outside of class time, on their learning gaps, and because it provides a safe, private space in which to do so, relieving the pressure of feeling like they are not keeping up with the rest of the class.
Secondly, language software can exploit the power of multimedia content to level the playing field of language learning. Language software provides teachers with the ability to create learning activities based on videos, texts, recordings, infographics, images, etc. The use of captioned video or speech-to-text applications can assist students with speech disabilities or who generally have difficulty communicating.
In conclusion, EdTech solutions can help language teachers create language learning activities that are not one-size-fits-all and that can engage students with learning disabilities as well. Upstream, however, teachers need to be prepared to recognize and value the different ways in which students with learning disabilities learn.
We at Sanako are on a mission to make language education as inclusive and accessible as possible. You can read more about this on our another blog post “How technology improves language learning and makes it accessible for all?“. You will find details about our concrete actions on what this means in terms of developing language teaching and learning software tools for schools and universities.
If you would like to find out more about how Sanako can enable your language educators to deliver more accessible language teaching strategies, then contact us now to book a FREE remote demo.