George Mason University
TEACHING FOREIGN LANGUAGE (L2) TO STUDENTS WITH LEARNING DIFFICULTIES
More often than before educators, including foreign language teachers, face increasing numbers of students with diverse, special learning needs. Needless to say the first assumption is that students labeled as having learning disability, cannot learn foreign language (L2). However, for those immigrating into English-speaking country learning the language is not a preference but a necessary survival skill. As noted by Sparks, the common problems occurring in L2 learning are even more complicated for English learners as written English uses a deep (opaque) orthography in which sounds (phonemes) often have multiple spellings. For example, the phoneme /k/ can be spelled several ways: cat, kite, back, and character [Sparks 2009: 3].
The debate in the literature exists about the onset of learning difficulties in foreign language learning. Some researchers insist on the existence of the unique disability – foreign language learning disability (FLLD; [Grigorekno 2002; Hu 2003; Reed & Stansfield 2004]), while others suggest that even students without any identified learning disability may fail foreign language courses [Sparks, Humbach, & Javorsky 2008; Sparks, Philips, & Javorsky 2002). Thus, L2 learning “occurs along a continuum of very strong or very weak learners” [Sparks 2009: 8]. Unfortunately, some students exhibit inordinate difficulty with and may fail language courses. Thus special attention to developing effective teaching methods is required for these students.
Regardless of the term usage, many researchers and practitioners tackle the problem of lacking effective instructional methodologies aimed to provide necessary accommodations and supports for students at-risk for having challenges in L2 learning. The strong relationship between skill proficiency in native language (L1) and foreign language has been demonstrated in the literature [Koda 2005; Verhoeven 2000]. Interestingly, it is suggested that students learning more regular, transparent alphabets (e.g., Greek, Russian, German) are able to reach L2 proficiency faster than students learning less regular, opaque alphabets (e.g., English, French; [Wolf 2007]). Thus, cross-linguistic transfer or overlap between languages knowledge and skills needs to be taken into consideration when developing effective teaching methods. Multisensory structured language (MSL) approach incorporates direct teaching of L2 with the development of skills in the students’ native language such as phonology and grammar [Sparks, Schneider, & Ganschow 2002].
An MSL approach to teaching L2 uses “the direct and explicit teaching of the phonology/orthography (spelling–sound relationships), grammar (syntax) and morphology (meaning units) systems of the foreign language. The MSL approach includes the simultaneous use of students’ visual, auditory, and tactile–kinesthetic skills. Students’ motor skills are engaged by pronouncing sounds and syllables and by writing on paper or on a blackboard. Generally, lessons are taught in both the native language” and in L2 ( p. 127). MSL activities for daily learning include: 1) oral warm-up drills targeting new and previously learned sounds and vocabulary; 2) blackboard/writing drills aiming phonology/orthography learning by simultaneously writing (in the notebook, at the blackboard, in the sand, rice, or air) and saying aloud graphemes, phonemes, words, etc. (possibly in front of the mirror); 3) grammar instruction first taught and modeled in native and only then in foreign language and multisensory drills, e.g., by pointing to color-coded examples (possibly using different color sticky notes or shape manipulatives) and responding orally to help visualize the connections; 4) vocabulary and dialogue drills incorporating hearing, seeing, reading, and saying words and/or phrases; 5) reading/communicative activities in L2 listening to the reading while looking at the text as well as talking simulating real life scenarios [Sparks & Miller 2000].
The good example of the multisensory aspect of MSL approach can be demonstrated when children learn about the silent final e sound in English language (for example in the word ‘tape’). After the teacher explicitly explains that final e assures that each preceding single vowel just says its name, the students are offered the image of the final e as an “alphabet nurse” that stands at the end of the word silently and politely with an invisible injection needle. The nurse reaches to the left over the consonant and gives the preceding single vowel all its power to make a long sound” [Schneider & Evers 2009: 62]. By acting out this procedure (with plastic injection needles), students learn such an abstract concept through concrete kinesthetic experience allowing for longer retention of the rule. Teachers can prepare tongue twisters, riddles, or songs that would elucidate the newly learned information (e.g., Tom Lehrer “Silent E” song available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TKDcHEcE8Q).
Cross-linguistic understanding adds invaluable component to MSL when introducing foreign language to struggling students. It emphasizes the necessity to explain and explore why and how English is different from students’ native languages. Thus, while teaching pronunciation English as Second Language (ESL) teachers should focus students’ attention on sounds that L1 and L2 share and sounds that are unique for each of the languages. It is imperative to compare and contrast commonalities and differences between print systems and spelling patterns in both languages. Students may collect all new L2 vocabulary words and patterns in a graphic organizer leaving some space for illustrations and comments about how words match up to the words in the native language. Discussing idiomatic expressions and verb phrases in L1 and L2 will help make a transfer to a new skill (e.g., Russian proverb “trouble never comes alone” and its English equivalent “when it rains, it pours”). Different languages allocate different places in a sentence for certain parts of speech. That is also an important topic to cover in order for remediation of any possible language difficulties [Schneider & Evers 2009].
In addition to cognitive abilities, affect also plays a significant role in learning L2. Language anxiety may impede language acquisition process [Horwitz 1986]. According to MacIntyre and Gardner, language anxiety is the trait or moment-to-moment “feeling of tension and apprehension specifically associated with second language (L2) contexts, including speaking, listening, and learning” [MacIntyre & Gardner 1994: 284]. Furthermore, researchers differentiate facilitative and debilitative anxiety. Facilitative anxiety causes better language learning since it is characterized by an “increase in drive level which results in improved performance” [Young 1986: 440]. Debilitative anxiety is accompanied by fears and insecurity leading to poor language performance and withdrawal [MacIntyre & Gardner 1991]. Five factors are related to debilitative anxiety: 1) behavioral patterns – students coming to class unprepared; 2) cognitive abilities for language aptitude and study habits – overstudying; 3) psycholinguistic factors – low performance, forgetting words; 4) physical symptoms – sweaty hands, exaggerated laughing; and 5) sociolinguistic factors – cultural issues impeding classroom interaction [Marcos-Llinas & Garau 2009]. It is estimated that half the students taking language courses experience debilitative language anxiety [Young 1991]. Thus, instructors need to make an effort to create positive classroom environments especially for students experiencing difficulties in L2 learning. Atmosphere where learners feel successful and supported can do the magic.
Indeed, pedagogical and methodological literature knows many examples demonstrating correlation between stimulation of students’ self-esteem and improved achievement. For example, this concept can be seen in video self-modeling teaching techniques. Video self-modeling method was first used in 1970s [Creer & Miklich 1970] and has received much attention and application, especially in recent years. The rationale for the effectiveness of self-modeling is based on observational learning [Bandura 1986], where an observer learns new behaviors by watching somebody else perform them. Video self-modeling facilitates self-efficacy and the behavior change by repeatedly viewing oneself performing the exemplar behaviors [Bray & Kehle 1998; Dowrick & Dove 1980]. Thus, Japanese students learned not only English but also socialization by watching themselves in a video recorded in the ESL classroom [Kobayashi 2006].
For students with learning difficulties, self-modeling requires extensive video editing to display the skills being completed on the advanced level. Two techniques are commonly used in video self-modeling. The first, positive self-review, involves removing all the errors, thus entitling a person to view only positive performances [Buggey et al. 1999; Dowrick 1999]. This can be achieved by asking students to read cue cards or repeat verbal prompts. Greenberg, Buggey and Bond  chose a goal passage for each student, videotaped students reading the passage, and edited any help given by the researcher, so that the final product depicted students fluently reading the passage. Based on timed oral fluency probes, video self-modeling was effective for improving oral reading fluency for all three at-risk participants. The second technique is feedforwarding. This technique consists of a video recording that portrays a person performing a skill that has not been achieved yet. In this case, subskills are usually videotaped and combined into a complete task [Dowrick 1999]. Hitchcock, Prater, and Dowrick  utilized the video self-modeling technique within video segments to promote reading fluency and comprehension by English-speaking students with reading difficulties. Using one videotape showing a student reading a book fluently and another showing a student successfully answering comprehension questions accompanied by a community partner, tutoring increased reading fluency and reading comprehension skills for all students.
These days, educators may encounter students having difficulties with planning, focusing and paying attention, organizing and completing the task. These students may struggle with tasks that require both long-term and short-term working memory [Barkley 1997]. All these cognitive areas are imperative for foreign language learning. While it is quite complicated, L2 teachers need to identify the best match between the curriculum and the learner providing students with “do-able” tasks and opportunities to succeed [McColl 2005: 107]. Understanding the difficulties that learners may have will prevent educators from creating additional barriers to effective language learning resulting in yet increased and unnecessary anxiety. Such understanding inspires the development of new alternative methodologies for L2 teaching.
Based on rigorous research conducted over four semesters with L2 students with learning difficulties, Leons, Herbert, and Gobbo  recommended the following practices determined to be the most useful to instructors and the most helpful to learners:
Pace the instruction so that all students have enough time to master required information. Follow the principle “slow and steady wins the race.”
Build in supports for students with weak language processing. Following ideas of universal design for learning, other students will also benefit from these supports.
Engage students in multimodal activities allowing for language processing via multiple channels. The same information presented through visual, auditory, tactile/kinesthetic pathways are more likely to be retained by students.
Create opportunities for all students to be successful and witness their learning. Be aware of the typical areas of breakdown and provide minor adjustments to the activity. For example, if a student is anxious about speaking in class, provide other instructional contexts such as reading in class until that student is ready to progress to speaking.
Use instructional and assistive technology. Students with learning difficulties respond to computer-based practice greatly. It provides immediate feedback, the self-pace ability, increased opportunity to repeated language practice.
Provide direct instruction on what to do with the learning materials. Simulating learning strategies that learners need to employ will help them develop metacognitive skills.
Use one-on-one individual instruction and develop the effective tutoring system.
Create a supportive in-class environment and make language learning fun.
More detailed recommendations include: a) structure all class activities relying greatly on routines; b) organize classroom environment providing a detailed syllabus, course calendar, daily agenda, and assignment checklists; c) start instruction at the student’s point of readiness; and d) offer varied means of assessment. The majority of students with learning difficulties cited the use of visuals and continuous repetitions as strategies they found to be beneficial for their L2 learning. One-on-one teaching and multimodal strategy were also very popular among the learners [Leons, Herbert, & Gobbo 2009].
Overall, many factors such as weak language processing abilities, self-efficacy, motivation, attitude, foreign language learner attributions, gender, personality, cognitive and metacognitive strategies can compound the difficulty in L2 learning. However, everyone is capable of learning a foreign language and it is our job as L2 teachers to provide our students with necessary supports and opportunities to be successful.