Since learning difficulties are a brain-based problem, a language learner with learning difficulties is affected in many of the same ways that a native English speaker is. However, there is growing evidence from research around the world that learning difficulties may be manifested somewhat differently in different languages. Learning difficulties frequently affect language skills, so the ESOL learner who has learning difficulties will most likely have challenges in learning, using and eventually mastering the English language. In spite of that, a learner may be able to learn about content in English even if his or her mastery of English is not good. Generally speaking, problems that are evident in the first language will be present in the second; for example, the person who has spelling problems in Spanish will have similar problems in English. (Rooney, 1995, Rooney & Schwarz, 1999, Schwarz, 2000) Sometimes learning difficulties may appear to affect a learner very mildly in his or her first language but very strongly in English. This may happen for at least four reasons: firstly, the learner's first language may have very regular spelling that is close to the pronunciation of the language, making reading predictable and easy where English is not nearly as predictable. (Goswami, 1997, Spencer, 1999). Secondly, the learner's first language may have a smaller overall vocabulary than English does, assuring that words are used very frequently in reading. This repetition provides the at-risk reader with plenty of practice of familiar patterns. (Geva, 1993) Thirdly, the learner learns to use compensatory strategies in the familiar environment in which he or she learns to speak, read and write. This way he or she overcomes many of the challenges that learning difficulties may cause, but in a new language, culture and environment, the learner must start all over again. (Rooney & Ijiri, 1996, Schwarz, 2000.) Lastly, some languages do not require as much visual attention for reading and spelling as English does. (Geva & Hoseinni, 1999; Haynes & Hook, 2001; McCrory, Paulesu, Menoncello, Brunswick,
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Gallagher, Price, Frith, & Frith 1991; Stanovich & West, 1989)
Learning difficulties can manifest in visual or auditory short term or long term memory, understanding abstract concepts, understanding time concepts, writing, spelling and any other aspect of receiving and expressing information. All of these functions are needed in language learning, so impairment in any of them can make language acquisition much more difficult for the learner with learning difficulties. (Landurand & Cloud, 1991) Studies on English speaking
persons who have learning difficulties and are trying to learn foreign languages indicate that two distinct types of learners are often seen:
Those who can understand and speak the new language quite fluently and even idiomatically with good pronunciation (though their oral grammar may be weak), but find writing and reading in the new language very difficult
Those who are able to read, write and learn written grammar but cannot manage the listening and speaking aspects of language. (Ganschow & Sparks, 1993, Sparks 1995)
Identification of a learner with learning difficulties can serve several important purposes.
1. Self-esteem: Just as for English-speaking learners with learning difficulties, having the learning problem formally acknowledged can help the self-understanding and self-esteem of ESOL learners with learning difficulties in many ways. (Rooney & Schwarz, 1999; Schwarz, 2000)
2. Better instruction: Identification, or attempts at it, can yield learning difficulties information that can be important in designing instruction and program support that is most closely suited to learners' real needs. Without attempts at finding out what is affecting a learner's progress, teachers and others are likely to try to guess at what the problem may be. (Ibid)
3. Other problems may be revealed: In the identification process, other problems the learner may be having are likely to be revealed. Then proper action can be takenâ€•\for example, referral to specialists, or guidance in finding help for difficulties at work or home.
4. Understanding children with learning difficulties: Since learning difficulties are now fully recognized to run in families, it is likely that an adult ESOL learner also has a child with learning difficulties (Wood & Grigorenko, 2001). Helping the ESOL learner to understand more about learning difficulties and its effects on learning can aid the parent in understanding problems and behaviours that his or her child may be having in school.
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5. Prevention of unintended discrimination: ESOL learners with learning difficulties who are not at least tentatively identified are usually seen as needing to learn more English. Then they may get stuck in beginning level or low intermediate level English for many months or years and cannot move on to learn information such as that needed for the GED or for a drivers test because their learning problem is misunderstood. Their being unable to access learning because of a misdiagnosed problem can be seen as unintentional -but de factoâ€•\discrimination, just as it is for English speaking adults with learning difficulties who are perhaps also not identified and therefore
cannot access a program they need to gain education or work skills
Two case studies from man Adult ESL Group
In evaluating two adult learners with possible learning difficulties in my regular ESL class at a south London adult education college I thought it necessary to frame the evaluation with three screening questions which would help to distinguish between the learner with real learning difficulties and the learner who, for many reasons, is being failed by the curriculum.
1. Has the problem persisted over a long period of time?
Because learning difficulties have a neurological basis, the effects of it last over the lifetime. Therefore, ascertaining that problems such as difficulty learning to decode (read), understanding oral directions, writing coherent sentences, or mastering grammar have truly persisted is important.
2. Has the problem persisted despite normal, appropriate instruction?
The term learning difficulties denotes unusual obstacles to learning in a setting or situation where most learners learn adequately or even easily. However, adults in ESL programs are often placed according to just one skill such as speaking, which may have little to do with their ability in other language skills. As a result, the learner may be placed in an intermediate ESL class when in fact s/he has beginning level reading or writing skills, or vice versa. Therefore, the appropriateness as well as the competence of the instruction must be assured during an evaluation of a learner who is
3. Does the learner show a clear pattern of strengths and weaknesses both in and out of the classroom?
Because learning difficulties typically affect specific areas of learning rather than all learning, learners with learning difficulties are likely to have a profile of distinct strengths and weaknesses. Adult learners may appear to have almost no strengths in a classroom where only a few skills related to language are called on; therefore it is essential to learn about their lives outside the classroom, where they may show astonishing strengths never hinted at in school.
My first example is Carla. I have determined that Carla appears to have real problems reading accurately and is stalled at a low -intermediate comprehension level. Carla reports long-term difficulties with this problem, which satisfies question 1. All other skills (e.g. mastery of grammar, oral accuracy) except spelling are fairly strong. This means question # 3 can be answered with a clear "yes." After directed observation, I noticed that Carla often reads individual words
quite easily, but begins to struggle when words are longer, substituting letters or omitting syllables. I also noticed that Carla reads somewhat better when there is larger print and less clutter on a page. Wanting to be sure about question number 2, I decided to address the possibility of visual problems and so enlarges the normal reading texts quite significantly. Now Carla reads noticeably more accurately; then I had Carla cover part of the page and use a pencil to point to words while she reads. I see that under these circumstances, Carla can read almost perfectly accurately. Finally, to determine how much real comprehension difficulty there is, I presents Carla with several texts which had previously caused her problems. The texts are enlarged and reproduced on pastel paper. Carla is encouraged to use a pencil as pointer, and re-read as necessary. With these minor modifications, she makes fewer errors on basic comprehension, though there are difficulties with vocabulary. I feels that the answer to number 2 is "No". In fact, Carla has profited from previous instruction in decoding, but is lacking the necessary vocabulary to proceed to higher-level comprehensionâ€•\an expected issue for a relatively new reader in a second language. Possibly she also has not profited from direct instruction in reading comprehension skills in classes because of the problems in seeing print. Thus Carla most likely does not have learning difficulties but rather has a visual problem that needs to be addressed. Moreover, she apparently has a normal ESL lag in vocabulary needed for reading comprehension that should be addressed as well (See Cummins, 2002).
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My second example is Pierre. After a full year in low intermediate English, Pierre, who is quite fluent in English still cannot write even the simplest words accurately or legibly. Because he reports only three years of schooling in his country, I suspect low literacy, but I decided to evaluate Pierre to be sure. I learn that Pierre has never been able to learn to write, though he has been in four different adult education programs, having started as a pure beginner in the first one. He tells me he has had writing tutors and tried several handwriting programs, yet he finds even writing his
own name legibly a challenge. Moreover, I learn that he is from a French-speaking country with an education system based on the French one, where handwriting is heavily emphasized in the first years of school. Clearly the problem has persisted and has resisted normal instruction. Pierre is one of the strongest oral participants in my class and has strong phonological processing skills.
He is always prompt and leads discussions on all kinds of topics. In addition, he has a driver's license and is a licensed health care worker. The distinct strengths and weaknesses are obvious. I see that all three questions are clearly answered " Yes" and conclude that he probably has dysgraphia. (learning difficulties in the area of writing and written expression. I begin to look for ways to get a formal diagnosis and in the meantime, make efforts to allow Pierre to give oral answers instead of written ones and explore other ways to support his learning while avoiding putting him at a disadvantage because of his writing problems.
As the examples illustrate, the questions can help arrive more solidly at a decision about whether to attempt to have a learner formally diagnosed. Obtaining a formal diagnosis of learning difficulties is necessary for learners to obtain legal accommodation in educational settings, work places, and on tests. However, it can be extremely difficult and risky to do this. Many of the problems are similar to the ones that arise in efforts to screen ESOL students (Cummins, 2002) Support of ESOL learners diagnosed with learning difficulties, or strongly suspected of having learning difficulties
is substantially the same as for English--speaking learners with learning difficulties. The learning difficulties must be taken into account in every learning situation. However, the fact that the ESOL learner is also facing language and cultural challenges is equally important.
Instruction and Remediation
Methods of instruction of ESL learners with learning difficulties are substantially the same as
for any ESL learners but a few cautions are in order: multisensory instruction means using the kinesthetic (whole body, large muscle) and tactile (sense of touch, the way things feel) channels of learning as well as the visual and auditory. This does not mean that every lesson involves every
channel of learning, but rather that the same information is presented in many different ways over a period of days or weeks. In this way, the learner with learning difficulties has:
The opportunity to learn through the channel best suited to him or her;
The opportunity to strengthen channels that are not so strong;
Time to absorb the information, since learners with learning difficulties often require more time to process information than the non-challenged learners do (Leons, 1997).
Good ESL teaching with multi-sensory activities that include whole body activities and plenty of visuals can be very helpful to the learner with learning difficulties, but by themselves these
methods may not be nearly sufficient for the learner to acquire and retain information because:
The pace of instruction will probably not be slow enough to allow the learner with learning difficulties to absorb things.
The learner needs very careful explanations or demonstrations to be able to fully participate with non-learning difficulties peers, a factor that can be difficult to take into account in
an active, fast moving ESL lesson.
Some literature on foreign language learners with learning difficulties indicates that these learners have inordinate difficulty with other people's accents (Javorsky et al, 1992).
Consequently, collaborative learning situations where ESOL learners with different language backgrounds interact with each other may prove very uncomfortable for the learner with learning
difficulties because s/he cannot understand the other learners easily.
Literature indicates that many learners with learning difficulties have problems getting
information the first time and that this is problem is even more acute when they are learning foreign languages. They do better when teachers repeat, review and reteach. While learning difficulties can show up in many forms in a learner, research indicates that when learning a foreign/other language, the learner with learning difficulties most likely will have problems apparently stemming from deficits in the learner's ability to process sounds, or phonological processing deficits. Researchers have been able to show that when these deficits are explicitly addressed in teaching the foreign language, these learners can be successful. English language learners can be tested with simple tasks to determine if they can hear the sounds of English accurately or not. If learners have good perception and processing of the sounds, they may find the above-described method of
instruction of the sound system very tedious. Their difficulties may lie in other areas of language such as codingâ€•\making sense of grammarâ€•\or comprehension of abstract ideas of time, memory for vocabulary. Research on English-speaking foreign language learners also with learning difficulties indicates that a weakness in semantic skillsâ€•\ meaning and use of wordsâ€•\does not in itself affect the overall ability to acquire language.
A learner diagnosed with learning difficulties is likely to do best when a combination of remediation of weak skills, accommodation of the learning difficulties and adaptation of the learning environment is offered. Teachers and others must be careful to see that the privacy of the learner is respected when such support is offered. The first response of a program or teacher to a diagnosis of learning difficulties in a learner is to want to provide remediation of the weakness. Remediation can be effective when:
The problem is clearly defined and proper remediation is recommended in the diagnostician's report
Properly trained tutors with experience in remediating the weak skill and with experience with ESOL learners can be obtained.
Sufficient time can be devoted to remediationÂ¯recent studies indicate that intensive remediation over a short period of time is somewhat more effective than remediation offered less intensively over a longer period of time. For example, at least an hour per day, five days a week as opposed to 30 minute sessions two or three times a week.
The learner is fully informed about the time that remediation will require. Remediation of literacy skills in adults can be a very lengthy and difficult process. The learner should be aware of this and not have expectations of a quick fix.