The world we are living in is undergoing major changes in a stunningly short amount of time. Everything is moving, everything is changing, including all the central systems upon which all civilized societies of the world work. Education systems around the globe are also in a constant reformation, trying to keep up with the individual and collective needs of the people, with the emergence of new technologies and with the modernity in general.
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I have decided to approach the issue of the children with learning disabilities, teaching English to them, because although the science and the world have evolved rapidly in the last century, it seems that there are still aspects of the society that are left alone or who are not given sufficient credit, perhaps from ignorance, or perhaps from unknowing what to do.
Why children with learning difficulties? Because they represent a special category, which unfortunately is frequently omitted, and children with this condition are often placed in schools where there is no qualified staff to help them grow personally and professionally as they should.
For avoiding confusion over what really a learning disability means, in the first chapter of my paper I thought it will be necessary to clarify the concept, by offering the definitions of several specialists. In this same chapter I will try to develop some theoretical concepts, such as the detailed description of the term and of the behavior involved, all of which are essential for understanding a student with Learning Disabilities.
In the second chapter I aim to describe the circumstances in which English has become in recent decades the international language, and the importance and necessity of learning a foreign language in the socio-politic and economic actual context, especially for an ex-communist country in developing such the case of Romania is for over twenty years.
In the third and final chapter, I will present the various methods and techniques of teaching English as a foreign language available for the children with learning difficulties, offering examples of several worksheets collected with the support of several English teachers.
A short inroad to learning disabilities
In this first chapter of my paper I want to analyze the issue of learning disabilities based on specialized readings, to make a brief insight into the history of the field research and an analysis of the factors underlying these abnormalities, announcing the features of this problem and some of the ways by which a child with learning difficulties can be traced in time to be helped.
Children across the world live their true life adventure once they begin school. For each and every one of them it is a long awaited moment and most are able to perfectly adapt the educational environment. Still, there are some children for whom school proves to be a chore: the children who are faced with learning disabilities (LD). They represent a special category which unfortunately is often overlooked.
The approach towards children with learning disabilities is not new at all. It exists even from the invention of school, but it was not until the 1960’s that it was emphasized. The novelty in this area consists of the higher interest shown lately towards children with such a disability and finding ways throughout they can be helped to overcome the difficulties encountered while studying, or even through their whole lifetime.
The man initiating the term was Samuel Kirk (director of the Federal Office of Education’s Division of Handicapped Children between 1963 and 1964 and founding director of the Institute for research on Exceptional Children at the University of Illinois) , term which is considered to design “a neurological disorder affecting children of normal intelligence, physical intactness, emotional health and average motivation”, but who are facing troubles in using certain skills and achieving success at school and in everyday life.
Defining the term proved to be a complex process and thus, over time many variants have been proposed by doctors, teachers and other specialists of the field.
In the first edition of his research concerning the education of exceptional children in 1962, Kirk provided the following definition:
A learning disability refers to a retardation disorder, or delayed development in one or more of the process of speech, language, reading, writing, arithmetic, or other school subject resulting from a psychological handicap caused by a possible cerebral dysfunction and/ or emotional or behavioral disturbances. It is not the result of mental retardation, sensory deprivation, or cultural and instructional factors. (Kirk 263)
The definition and the term given by Kirk to design the disorder were immediately embraced by the parents in the first national conference on the subject, hold in the same year because it made it clear that there is a great difference between the mental issue and the learning one. The definition of Kirk also provided a solid foundation for further research and definitions in the field.
According to Turkington and Harris “most definitions suggest that learning disabilities are permanent, affect a range of language and mathematics functions, and are caused in part from problems within the central nervous system”, as stipulated by the Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities, an organization formed by 12 agencies within the federal gouvernment in USA in 1987:
Learning disabilities is a generic term that refers to a heterogenous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening skills, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities, or of social skills. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual and presumed to be due to the central nervous system dysfunction. Even though a learning disability may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions,[…], a learning disability is not the direct result of those conditions or influences. (ICLD 222)
Nowadays, it seems that the most widely used definition is the one included in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act from 2004 (Flanagan, Alfonso), which unlike most definitions, it refers to a specific learning disability:
The term “specific learning disability” means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological process involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, spell, or do mathematical calculations. Such a term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Such a term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; of mental retardation; of emotional disturbance; or of an environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. (IDEA, 2004, 602.30, Definitions)
The number of students who are in such a situation is much higher than one might think. In England for example 2% of the population has a learning disability according to the British Institute of Learning disabilities, which also mentions the fact that the term learning difficulty is preferred to learning disability, because the society we live in is harsh and often the issue of learning difficulties is misinterpreted and identified with mental problems. Although a learning disability can often accompany such a problem, it is not a rule as specified in the definitions given by Kirk or stated in the IDEA.
The distinction between the two terms can be seen rather at a cultural level (Americans prefer using “disability” and Europeans “difficulty”) rather to the specificity of the problem:
Learning disability- is a general term that refers to individuals who find it harder to learn, understand and communicate. Other terms that are used to describe an individual’s situation include complex needs or high support needs. Learning difficulty -is often used in educational settings and refers to individuals who have specific problems. Children and young people requiring special education needs are often described as having a learning difficulty.
Throughout the world, learning disabilities affect at least 1 in 10 children. But nowadays a learning disability isn’t considered anymore a handicap. People have learned to accept those with such conditions, and the personas from the public life had a great contribution. Apart from the classic examples of Albert Einstein who was unable to speak to the age of three, or the great Demostene who was a powerful public speaker in the ancient times, but who in his youth faced serious problems of stammering, there are also modern public figures who acknowledge freely that at a certain moment in their lives have been confronted with such a “malady”, such as actor Tom Cruise, singer Cher or director Steven Spielberg.
Causes of learning disabilities
The exact causes leading to these types of disabilities have not been clearly stated by specialists in their research. However, some reference was established for both parents and for teachers I order to use them in diagnosing children with LD.
There are several factors that could possibly be blamed for such a disorder. Among these, the most important to remember are: genetic factors, organic factors and environmental factors.
Evidence has shown that learning problems run in families. The odds that a child is learning-disabled are much higher when the in the family was previously reported at least one such case.
There are maternal factors such as the use of drugs, alcohol or tobacco during pregnancy that have negative effects; it is well-known that mothers who smoke during pregnancy for example, are more likely to bear small babies, who are at a higher risk for learning disabilities; poor prenatal medical care and nutrition and prenatal injury or delivery complications can also be responsible.
Organic factors refer to dysfunctions that may appear in the central nervous system and damage the brain known as Minimal Brain Dysfunctions.
There are several factors in the child’s environment thought to affect his abilities of learning, such as nutritional deficiencies, inadequate learning experience or environmental toxins such as mercury or dioxins released into the child’s body within his first year of life.
For example, in economic deprived families there exist the possibility the child is never given the opportunity to go to school, and so he is a “stranger” to the domain of linguistic and cognitive activities. Unfortunately, such cases are becoming more and more common, especially in poor or developing countries.
When it comes to the experience achieved in schools, researchers agree that poor quality teaching in schools may also cause a learning disability. There are cases when the use of inappropriate materials or a teaching style that does not allow the learner enough time to acquire basic skills, moving too fast can contribute to the unsuccessful activity of the student.
There are many cases when students are labeled unconsciously by their teachers or peers as being lazy or stupid, but in fact their only problem is that their brains are designed to process information differently. Myrna Orenstein thinks these children are “smart but stuck”.
So far there no treatment has been found to “cure” this condition, but children can be helped to learn successfully with the appropriate support from both parents but especially from teachers. However, it is necessary for a learning disabled child to be discovered in time.
How do we recognize a learning – disabled child?
Because types of LD vary from child to child, so do the “symptoms”. Yet, there are some peculiarities in each case which can be very useful to the parents in the process of identifying this disorder, because after all they are usually the ones who first noticed abnormalities in their children.
According to Siegel, there are some gestures and moves that a child should be able to do in the first years of life, upon which the pediatricians agree:
A one-year-old should be able to reach for objects, roll over, stand with some support, follow objects, laugh, respond to “no”, and use a crayon. By the age of two, a child should respond to other children, walk, use some words, recognize familiar persons, point, and understand some simple shapes. A three-year-old should be able to move easily and go up stairs, be understood when speaking, use scissors, and draw pictures. By the age of four, a child should be able to catch a ball, copy shapes, count, identify some colors, dress without help, and play appropriate with peers. (Siegel,28)
The first signs that parents and educators should be concerned of are:
1. Children often prefer to get isolated, they are shy, insecure, avoid playing with other children or sharing things.
2. The child has difficulties understanding and follows different instructions or memory issues, such as not remembering what he is saying.
3. He/She has difficulty distinguishing the left from the right, in identifying words or has an emphasized tendency to reverse letters, words, or numbers.
4. He/ She lack coordination while walking, in sports or much easier activities such as holding a pencil in the hand or tying his/her shoe lace.
5. Often, the child fails to understand the concept of time, is confused regarding yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Obviously, the early the disorder is discovered, the better for the child, because we all know it is better preventing than remediating further effects. But if the child has already entered school without being diagnosed with a LD, then the signs should be more obvious for those surrounding him because he usually draw attention to himself:
1. He/she might get confused and wander homework, school books and other things.
2. The appearance of disruptiveness when in school- “some LD children continuously bother, distract or in some way disrupt others-even the entire class. Their behaviour differ- some get engaged in some type of physical contact which disturbs classmates, while others make faces, talk or laugh at inappropriate times”.(Blanton 29)
3. “The child might have difficulties paying attention or staying focused, in processing, understanding, and expressing information through language.”(Siegel 29)
4. He/ She might have trouble copying or getting ideas onto paper.
5. He/ she isn’t very skilful, but it is usually creative in his/ her own way, and it is considered to be a constant source of amazement and delight by their teachers.
Although at a first view it may seem a minor problem, the misdiagnosing of a LD child, or worse, ignoring his condition can lead to catastrophic effects later in his teenager or adult life.
There are statistics which showed that juvenile delinquency can be easily associated with learning issues. Also, the child that is not being properly treated and helped and considered to be a laisser faire at school, may later abuse drugs or alcohol to pass more easily over the issue.
“When the world is as black as theirs is, anything that will allow a few hours of pleasure is welcomed. Suicide of course, is the ultimate out. But it’s rare.” (Stevens 59)
Testing for learning disabilities
Many specialists refuse to test preschoolers for such condition, considering that they should first come into contact with the school environment and achieve some sort of results, and only after this basic steps they can further determine if a child needs therapy or not.
Others, on the other hand, say otherwise, the statistics showing that a correct and careful testing may have an accuracy of 82% to 95% in determining whether a child aged five or fewer is dealing with LD. On the other hand, those who suffer from severe Attention Deficit Disorder, commonly associated with a specific learning disability can be more easily recognized even before starting kindergarten.
Indeed, it is difficult to determine if a child under school age is learning-disabled. What is certainly though is the fact that no learning- disabled child should be ignored and that he should be given the necessary support beginning his early days of school.
According to New and Cochran, another important factor standing in the way of the diagnosis of LD in children is “the fact that learning problems or developmental delays can be precursors of other cognitive, behavioral, sensory, or developmental disorders, not just a learning disability”.(New, Cochran,481)
In order to diagnose children with LD there have been conceived a series of achievement tests meant to verify the intellectual and practical skills of the children.
An achievement test represents a standardized measure of knowledge, information, or procedural learning which may asses general academic areas such as reading, writing, or mathematics, used by school systems to provide a standard measure of individual student performance, and to provide an aggregated measure of performance that enables school systems to evaluate their effectiveness. Achievement testes are also used as part of the diagnosis assessment of individuals to determine whether they have a learning disability and qualify for special education services. (Turkington and Harris 4)
Types of specific learning disabilities
There are several types of Learning Disabilities that prevent young students to lead a normal life both at school and outside, which may be related to the organization, storage and subsequent description of the information or knowledge gathered in the classroom.
1. Dyslexia – is “the first general term used to describe various learning problems. Eventually, these problems were subdivided and categorized to describe different learning disabilities.” Because of this matter, Davis and Braun referred to dyslexia as the “Mother of Learning Disabilities.” Nowadays, the term designs only the disability related to reading.
Characteristics of dyslexic students:
The main problem of a dyslexic is that he is facing troubles reading words fluently;
Dyslexics are more curious than average students;
Students may find it easier to think mainly in pictures instead of words;
Most dyslexics have a vivid imagination;
Dyslexics are highly intuitive.
Famous Dyslexics: Hans Christian Andersen, Winston Churchill, Leonardo da Vinci, Jay Leno.
2. Dyscalculia – refers to problems of arithmetic and math nature, which are considered to be caused by a visual perceptual deficit.
Characteristics of students with dyscalculia:
At an early age they have problems organizing things logically, such as separating round objects from square ones;
They have difficulties when learning to count or align numbers;
They often have problems recognizing printed numbers;
They have persistent issues in learning number facts such as multiplication tables or doing even the simplest numerical tasks;
They have difficulties dealing with time and money notions.
3. Dysgraphia – is the type of learning disability manifested through a writing disorder resulting in illegibility and of which cause is still unknown to this time.
Acccording to Maria Chivers, there are two types of dysgraphia:
a. Phonological dysgraphia- “writing word as a pure sound spelling which is incorrect” (especially seen on language learners).
b. Visual dysgraphia- “writing words, which are correctly spelt apart from some letters being reversed” (ex: brink instead of drink).
Characteristics of students who are facing dysgraphia:
At an early age they avoid writing and drawing;
They have trouble shaping the letters;
It can be observed an inconsistent spacing between their letters or words;
They often mixt cursive and print writing;
They pronounce words out loud while writing.
4. Dyspraxia – also known as the sensory integration disorder, is specific to students who have problems with motor coordination.
Characteristics of students with dyspraxia:
Young learners may have problems with picking up small items; during a sport class they may fall over for no apparent reason;
They have problems following instructions, reading maps;
They can change hand very often when writing because they are confused about whether to use their right or left;
They have problems telling the time.
5. Central auditory processing disorder- consists of a difficulty processing and remembering language-related tasks.
Characteristics of students:
They are unable to take notes in class;
They have difficulties in listening instructions and thus doing what they are being asked;
They can’t concentrate when someone is talking to follow the words in their correct order;
They face great troubles when trying to learn a foreign language.
6. Non-verbal learning disorders
The students who fall in this category are usually having troubles understanding nonverbal cues as body language or the association of pictures with words. They normally lack coordination, and thus, are being very clumsy.
7. Visual perceptual/ visual motor deficit- students have problems copying accurately, they complain about eye itching, they struggle with cutting things.
8. Language disorders, also referred to as aphasia or dysphasia are described as problems of students who are having troubles understanding and using spoken or written language.
Language disorders represent the most common type of learning disabilities.
Characteristics of students with a language-based disability:
They have troubles expressing their ideas clearly;
They may have problems learning the alphabet, new vocabulary and understanding questions;
They have difficulties writing from dictation if the teacher’s lips cannot be seen.
All of the above mentioned learning disabilities can be also included in the category of students dealing with memory disorders.
Most of the characteristics of these students can be also found among the description of the others disabilities, such as:
Inconsistency of the student when learning new information;
The inability of them to follow instructions;
The inability of delivering a correct message.
The difficulty remembering what has been said or asked from them in class.
Throughout my whole paper I aimed to draw attention on students with learning difficulties, trying to point out the key elements of this condition and what should be considered when dealing with such children. I have tried to address myself especially to future teachers, the young generation, to whom is in their power to change the mentality and traditional methods so widely used in schools at the moment and which unfortunately fail to meet the students’ needs.
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To be able to cope with a student with Learning Disabilities, informing and training the parents and teachers is essential in order to provide solutions to specific issues related to the disability, targeting especially the teaching methods, behavior management strategies, as well as elements that can lead to the development of the collaboration between the school and the family, and, if required, the medical community.
Along with behavioral intervention strategies, a coherent set of educational methods adapted to the condition are required. Also, it is recommended that this set of interventions and approaches to be backed up by individual and family counseling.
In terms of action principles and solutions for teachers, especially for the beginners, I tried to devote an entire chapter, the final one, because it was actually my goal from the very beginning to help to the development of new techniques , able to bear the special needs of a child with learning difficulties.
Andrews, J. E., Carnine, D. W., Coutinho, M. J., Edgar, E. B., Forness, S. R., Fuchs, L. S., et al.(2000). Bridging the special education divide. Remedial and Special Education, 21, 258-260, 267.
Anderson, P. L., & Meier-Hedde, R. (2001). Early case reports of dyslexia in the United States and Europe. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34, 9-21.
Anonymous. (1966). Minimal brain dysfunction in children:Terminology and identification.Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Association for Children with Learning Disabilities. (1986). ACLD definition: Specific learning disabilities. ACLD Newsbriefs, 15-16.
Barsch, R. H. (1967). Achieving perceptual-motor efficiency: A space oriented approach to learning.Seattle, WA: Special Child Publications.
Lyon, G. R. (1995a). Toward a definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 45, 3-27.
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