Teaching Foreign Languages to College Students with Disabilities
– Dr. Lynn E. Snyder, University of Colorado at Boulder – October 2001

Some students who have a likelihood of being unable to complete a foreign language sequence due to a learning disability or other processing disorder CAN be taught a foreign language with the modification of teaching strategies. These students may have: a history of learning difficulties, poor performance in high school, acceptable college performance skills, and evidence of the specific difficulties often seen by students with dyslexia as well as other at-risk behaviors in foreign language classes.

It is important to determine WHO makes a good candidate for modified foreign language instruction. A few predictors Dr. Snyder and her colleagues at UC-Boulder have noted are:

  • Difficulty learning to read
  • A family history of learning disabilities
  • Specific problems with phonics
  • Problems with spelling standard English
  • Some intervention (such as remedial reading or writing if not an IEP) in elementary school
  • Difficulty learning their native language – being a slow talker or having delayed speech

Poor High School Performance

  • Poor grades in English classes, such as deficits in written and oral language skills
  • Students with LD’s that have been diagnosed before entering high school have higher grades than those diagnosed after they entered high school.
  • Avoidance of, or failure in, foreign language classes

Characteristic College Performance

  • Slow readers / poor processing skills in reading
  • Weak writing and spelling skills
  • Poor organizational skills
  • High number of withdrawals from classes
  • Difficulty with hard sciences and math due to difficulty with sequencing, processing written work, and rules/formula mastery
  • Inordinate amount of time spent studying
  • Perceives self as having good social skills and good ability to persuade others verbally

Specific Difficulties in Foreign Language Classes

  • Fear of being called on and being unable to respond
  • Class moves too quickly (too much material – too fast)
  • Difficulty understanding the instructor
  • Difficulty formulating oral responses
  • Extreme difficulty with spelling the foreign language
  • Perceives “everyone else in the class getting it”
  • Evidence of failure early in the semester despite serious effort

What does the LD documentation indicate?

  • Some aptitude noted – average to above-average intelligence but with a significant variation between verbal and performance skills
  • Measure of student functioning under timed conditions (can do work under timed or extended time limits)
  • Full written report – assessment of test scores tied to behavior observed and other tests/functioning capabilities
  • Identification of processing deficit and the impact of this deficit on functioning
  • Clear statement that there IS a learning disability

Speech Intervention / Evaluation Testing

  • The key to the success of this approach is not only a valid evaluation of a learning disability but also several types of test score results that show intellectual ability and also the lack of ability in learning a second language.
  • Scores no lower than the 20-30%ile on the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT)
  • Test scores on MLAT and other tests that relate to poor decoding, comprehension, reading rate, spelling, writing skills, and phonological processing (auditory processing)

The Modified College Foreign Language Course Sequence

  • Languages currently taught as modified foreign languages: Spanish, Latin, and Italian (others are in process stage, but outcomes not evaluated as long-term yet)
  • Class maximum: 15
  • NOT open placement: all students are tested to place in the course
  • Mandatory, free tutoring
  • Agreement for enrollment and other rules for the courses signed by the student
  • Specialized teaching strategies
  • 3 courses in the sequences (oral component not as successful to teach in a modified class, thus not currently a component and so no fourth course offered)
    Instructional Strategies
  • Multi-sensory teaching approach: videos, role-playing, hands-on, music and slide shows used in the 3 courses
  • High degree of structure in each class with a set type of activity used at approximately the same time each day
  • Explicit instruction, with indication of what is to be covered, instruction in strategies to improve learning as well as presentation of the content
  • Adjusted content pace – slower and work toward mastery before covering new material
  • Representative structure of material – e.g., not all verbs covered, but models for those which are typical as well as irregular forms
  • Frequent repetition and review reinforce the material for students who need to feel mastery of the material.
  • Attention to the affective behavior of the students – feedback, concerns
  • Use a pretest model of the exam to gauge the progress and refer to areas that are weak a few classes before the exam.
  • Use the same person to teach all three segments of the course (101, 102, 201) to build a team approach with the faculty and the class
  • Students need to go from thinking they can’t learn a language to knowing they CAN. (Remember, many have been “exempt” from language instruction their whole lives because they have been viewed as unable to learn it.)
  • Respond to all questions asked. Anticipate problems and build up the curriculum to compensate for it if there seems to be a block in the learning process.
  • Assign homework for every class and go over it or grade it for each one.
  • Students must sign an agreement to study two hours for every class hour and more before exams.
  • Do not call on students unless they raise their hand or volunteer.
  • Course length can be adjusted if necessary – do 1½ semesters’ time to do what would be 1 semester’s work. The next semester would start with the second ½ and continue through the following semester if the group really needs more time.

Of the students who have been part of the research and who have completed the three courses, an average of 12 out of 15 pass. Those who did not pass often had MLAT test scores that were less than the 10th percentile. They were given the opportunity to substitute cultural content courses for the sequence.

This model can be used to train high school students who have a foreign language requirement (such as the Regents’ diploma’s requirement for a foreign language) but formerly had been exempt from taking one. Reduced content volume, mastery of material at a slower pace, testing accommodations, and in some cases, use of assistive technology may make foreign language study possible without intruding on the rights of those who do not have a disability.

Legal Issues – See Also:

Access and support are second nature concepts for most faculty: we want to share our work with the next generation and want to ensure that our graduates are the best-prepared on the market. We have had enough experiences teaching students from many diverse backgrounds that disabilities are no longer as serious a concern as they were even 15 years ago. However, safety concerns, maintaining high graduation standards, the occasional disruptive student who monopolizes the lecture and keeps his/her peers from having the attention they need – these are our new concerns.

We are lucky to have unusual resources at our campus and a strong working relationship with those resources. Safety concerns such as the universal precautions needed to protect students who have impaired immune systems and those who may unwittingly expose others to highly communicable and serious illnesses can be met by problem-solving with the safety committee and with the staff at Weigel Health Center. The Counseling Center has designed workshops that address human needs that can interfere with the success of the student and others around them – anger management, stress and coping, grief groups, assertiveness training, etc., so that faculty can partner with certified counselors who have the expertise to empower students who need more support. Career development staff have training in helping students work through options in careers as well as finding solutions and interview opportunities that especially pertain to students with disabilities.