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Learning disability or Language Acquisition Problem?

Learning disability or Language Acquisition Problem?



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Published by: EFL Classroom 2.0 on Dec 13, 2009
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English Language Learners and Learning Disabilities
Considerations and Recommendations for Effective RemediationD. Deubelbeiss
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk tohim in his own language, that goes to his heart.” Nelson MandelaIn classrooms all over the world, students are learning second languages in increasingnumbers. By 2030, it is estimated that 40% of the entire school population of the UnitedStates will be English language learners (ELLs) ( McKibbin and Brice, 2005). Not onlyare the numbers increasing exponentially but students are not only learning the language(in classrooms) but are more usually “pushed in” and having to learn the language “onthe fly”, in classrooms where the content too has to be mastered.Teachers are confronted with the dual task of having to teach the curriculum and alsohaving to help students learn the language of instruction. Not an easy task for even aspecialist in English language instruction. Discrepancies in test results between ELLs andnon-ELLs have become alarming ( Goldenberg, 2008). Teachers are under a lot of  pressure and find it almost impossible to cope or keep up. The result of this situation isthe overrepresentation of ELLs in special education (Brown, 2005). Teachers andadministrators are too quick to refer ELLs to special education programs (for manyreasons – see Appendix A). This creates not only undo stress on the educational deliverysystem but also a kind of “Mathew’s Effect” (Stanovich, 1986) whereby because of inadequate language instruction, those ELLs assigned to special education fall further and
further behind until it is too late to catch up. On the other hand, if indeed a student doeshave a learning disability and not a second language acquisition issue, they too can fallfurther and further behind.So we must understand more clearly the issues involved when differentiating between alearning disability and a second language acquisition issue. Both to help stem the over-referral of ELLs and also to correctly diagnose student learning disabilities. The questionis, how? Is a student who is having difficulties remembering words or writing basicsentences in English, just in need of specific English language learning attention or dothey really need special needs assessment and treatment? How do we as teachers decide?There are many important considerations that must be made.
The L1 – L2 Relationship – What causes the difficulty?
It is important to note “what” causes the difficulty in learning a language. This will helpus as teachers eliminate a lot of false notions when looking for the cause of an ELL’sdifficulty in our classroomThere have been a lot of causes attributed to language acquisition difficulties, mostnotably; anxiety, motivation/effort, learning habits and “low” ability. However, these aremost often just masks hiding the real problem. Dinklage (1971) studied why some greatstudents at Harvard had problems learning a language. It didn’t seem right that suchexcellent students would fail miserably at language. He found out that the cause was notthose normally assigned (effort, motivation, anxiety, access, strategies) but rather one of 
“disability”. Dinklage’s remedy to the student’s language learning difficulty was to havethem taught in ways that worked for the learning disabled and in fact it worked.What we need to realize is that almost all people suffer from a learning disability when itcomes to learning a second language. Especially after our early years (>9). Compared toour first language (L1), our brain is clunky, our learning “stop and start”. It is no longer natural and some subconscious processes of learning are cut off. So we teachers mustthink of language learning ability along a continuum and further, fine tune our ownclassroom instruction more towards that of special education delivery (specific strategyfocus, use of supports and modifications etc…). We should assume a wider range both interms of time and content when it comes to acquiring language. One might even go sofar as to suggest that because everyone does suffer from a second language learningdisability, we should not refer any students to special education that have difficulties withlanguage acquisition. If everyone has it, we should address the problem “systemically”and not piece meal through special education. Brown alludes to this in her finally arguedwork, “Reducing the Over-referral of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students(CLD) for Language Disabilities”. She writes,“One underlying problem consistently contributes to the over-referral of CLD studentsfor language disabilities: The characteristics of second language acquisition – a languagenon-disorder – are mistaken for language disabilities. In other words, some languageaspects observed in CLD students who do not keep up with their peers are not necessarilydisorders, difficulties, or disabilities; they are simply an inherent feature of acquiring anew language” (Brown, 2005, p. 227)

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