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Reflections on Foreign

Language Study for Students


with Language Learning
Problems: Research, Issues
and Challenges
1
Leonore Ganschow
1,
* and Richard L. Sparks
2
1
Department of Educational Psychology, Miami University, OH, USA
2
College of Mount St Joseph, Cincinnati, OH, USA
The study of foreign language (FL) learning for individuals who
have found learning to read and write in their first language
extremely problematic has been an under-researched area
throughout the world. Since the 1980s, Leonore Ganschow and
Richard Sparks have conducted pioneering research into the
nature of difficulties, why they are encountered and how they
can be minimized. In this paper the authors trace the
development of their research on foreign language difficulties for
students with language learning problems. They provide a
summary of their findings and suggest new questions and
directions for the field. Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons,
Ltd.
Keywords: dyslexia; learning disabilities; at-risk learners; modern foreign languages;
foreign languages; USA
INTRODUCTION
F
or over a dozen years we have conducted research on and explored
questions about the foreign language (FL) learning problems of indi-
viduals with classified learning disabilities (LD)/dyslexia and other
at-risk FL learners in the United States. We have had considerable help from
colleagues, especially educators from the FL field. Through our explorations
we have amassed a body of research and theories, and our work has
prompted others to investigate new questions and issues. In this paper we
* Correspondence to: Leonore Ganschow, 8570 East Bakely Circle, Minocqua, WI 54548,
USA. E-mail: Lganschow@aol.com
1
Portions of this paper were delivered at the International Conference on Dyslexia and
Multilingualism, sponsored by The British Dyslexia Association in co-ordination with the
International Dyslexia Association (USA) and the European Dyslexia Association.
DYSLEXIA 6: 87100 (2000) Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
L. Ganschow and R.L. Sparks
88
briefly trace the development of these explorations. First we highlight our
research and the theoretical questions we have addressed, after which we
present a synopsis and overall summary of our findings. We then describe
questions for modern FL study based on where our thinking has led us to
date, and make suggestions for new directions for the field from a cross-
linguistic, multicultural perspective. We begin our discussion with an expla-
nation of what led us initially to direct our attention to FL learning among
populations classified as learning-disabled (LD)/dyslexic or identified as
at-risk in the US.
Our interest in the topic began in the early 1980s. The first author had just
started teaching special education at Miami University (Ohio) and had been
asked to assist with initiating services for students classified as LD/dyslexic
on campus. The second author had a private diagnostic practice in addition
to a professorship at a small Catholic college in the area. Nationally, in 1975
the US government had issued Public Law 94-142 (The Education for All
Handicapped Children Act), which guarantees individuals (ages 321) with
disabilities the right to a free and appropriate public education (see IDEA
(Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), Public Law 101-476, 104 Stat.
1142, 1990 for update on the law). Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of
1973 had also had been fully implemented (see Rehabilitation Act Amend-
ments of 1992, Public Law 102-459, S 106 506, Stat. 434, 1992 for update on
the law). This law helps students classified as disabled at colleges and
universities by clarifying services that are needed. In the early 1980s most
colleges and universities were just beginning to address ways to accommo-
date students with special needs. With a few exceptions, institutions of
higher education did not have staff trained to recognize and serve students
classified as LD/dyslexic. The first author began to refer students from her
university to the second author for assessment for a suspected LD. At this
time the two of us discovered our first four cases of students who were
having difficulty passing FL courses to fulfill the FL requirement in order to
graduate from the university (Ganschow and Sparks, 1986). These case
studies provided the starting point for the research questions that were to
guide our thinking for the next dozen years.
RESEARCH QUESTIONS
Logically, our investigation began with the question of why some students
classified as LD have difficulties learning an FL (in the US the term LD
encompasses dyslexia). As we combed the research literature on LD/
dyslexia, we found allusions to FL learning problems within articles about
students classified as LD, but only one article specifically addressed FL
learning problems. In it, counsellor Kenneth Dinklage (1971) examined the
language learning problems of students at Harvard University who were
having FL learning problems. He used the term strephosymbolia to de-
scribe some of the students referred to his office. This term, which means
twisted words, had been coined by Dr Samuel Orton in the 1920s to refer
to difficulties with language, including problems in reading and spelling,
letter/symbol reversals, sound confusions and verbal memory (Orton, 1928).
Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Dyslexia 6: 87100 (2000)
Foreign Languages and At-risk Learners
89
Given our understandings from the large body of research on the native
language reading, writing and spelling problems of individuals classified as
LD, we speculated that our FL subjects would experience initial and substan-
tial difficulties with the phonological (sound) and orthographic (written
symbol) systems of both languages (for a review of research on native
language phonology/orthography, see Brady and Shankweiler, 1991). Re-
lated to but more specific than our initial research question was whether the
FL learners classified as LD would be especially weak in the phonological/
orthographic rule systems in both the native language and the FL (Gan-
schow et al., 1991; Sparks et al., 1992a).
We found one empirical study by Gajar (1987), who showed that a
population of students classified as LD performed significantly more poorly
than a non-LD population from the same university on the Modern Lan-
guage Aptitude Test (MLAT) (Carroll and Sapon, 1959). This test measures
students aptitude for learning the sound/symbol and grammatical rule
systems of a make-believe language; rote memory for language is also a
component. We also found that in the 1960s Paul Pimsleur (Pimsleur,
Sundland and MacIntyre, 1964) had described underachievers in FL study
who had difficulty dealing with sound and sound/symbol learning. Both
Pimsleur and Carroll and Sapon included tests of phonology in their test
batteries. Neither, however, had studied students to determine if they had
both native language and FL learning problems.
Exploration of 22 additional case studies (Sparks, Ganschow and Pohlman,
1989) led us to develop the Linguistic Coding Differences Hypothesis
(LCDH) (for a review of the LCDH, see Sparks, 1995). The hypothesis is
based on native language research by Vellutino and Scanlon (1986), who
showed that poor readers and writers had substantial difficulty with the
sound/symbol and syntactic rule systems of written language, but not the
semantic system. In the LCDH we proposed that skills in the native lan-
guage componentsphonological/orthographic, syntactic and semantic
provide the basic foundation for learning a FL. In the late 1980s two FL
researchers had made similar claims. Skehan (1986) said that basic (foreign)
language aptitude is a residue of first language skill. In his book on a model
of language learning, Spolsky (1989) included intact native language skills in
phonology/orthography and grammar as necessary for learning a FL. No
one, however, actually had specifically tested this hypothesis.
To test the LCDH, we carried out a series of research studies. Among them
were comparison studies between good and poor FL learners at college
(Ganschow et al., 1991) and comparable studies at the high school level
(Sparks et al., 1992a,b; Sparks and Ganschow, 1993a). We also used a
statistical procedure called factor analysis to analyze batteries of native
language and FL tests (Ganschow et al., 1992; Sparks, Ganschow and Patton,
1995; Sparks et al., 1999a).
2
Further, we and our colleagues developed
2
Factor analysis enables a researcher to identify items that correlate highly with one another
and poorly with other items. The group of items, called factors, is given an arbitrary name
by the researcher, who inspects the items in a cluster and gives the cluster a name by
deciding what it is that the items in the group have in common. In our test batteries we
have found separable language factors that we have labelled phonology/syntax, cognition/
semantics (or metacognition) and FL aptitude.
Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Dyslexia 6: 87100 (2000)
L. Ganschow and R.L. Sparks
90
surveys to examine perspectives of at-risk students, their teachers and their
parents about native language and FL learning (Ganschow and Sparks, 1991;
Javorsky, Sparks and Ganschow, 1992; Sparks, Ganschow and Javorsky,
1993; Sparks and Ganschow, 1995a, 1996). We also conducted studies on best
predictors of FL grades and FL proficiency after one and two years of study
(Sparks, Ganschow and Patton, 1995; Sparks et al., 1997c) and studies in
which we examined FL proficiency after two years of FL study (Sparks et al.,
1997a, 1998a).
By the middle 1980s service providers at colleges and universities were
finding that many of their students classified as LD were having difficulty
with the FL requirement. A few service providers had begun to utilize a
petition process that allowed at-risk FL learners to substitute literature and
culture courses for the FL requirement. Because the concept of waiving or
substituting a FL at the university level was just emerging, several of us
were interested in the question of whether universities had policies and
procedures to facilitate the FL course substitution process. Towards this end,
we conducted a survey on the petition process, which was sent to a select
group of several hundred colleges that advertised services for students
classified as LD (Ganschow, Myer and Roeger, 1989). We and other FL
educators also provided the FL and LD fields with information about how to
initiate a petition process (see e.g. Freed, 1987; Philips, Ganschow and
Anderson, 1991). Because assessing of learners was part of this process, we
developed an informal instrument for screening for FL learning problems
(Ganschow and Sparks, 1991) and described standardized tests to consider in
assessing learning difficulties in the FL (e.g. Ganschow and Sparks, 1993;
Sparks and Ganschow, 1993b).
In the early 1990s, two observations from our explorations into the FL
literature resulted in our exploring new directions. The first observation had
to do with a predominant view among FL educators that students who have
difficulties learning a FL are either overly anxious, unmotivated or lack
appropriate learning strategies (for review and discussion of affective theo-
ries, see Sparks and Ganschow, 1992, 1997; Sparks, 1995). To explore this
view, we raised the question of whether affective variables, in particular
anxiety, were caused by FL learning difficulties or were the result of the FL
learning difficulties (Sparks and Ganschow, 1992, 1999). We and our col-
leagues conducted studies at both college and high school levels that chal-
lenged the claims of FL educators (Ganschow et al., 1994; Ganschow and
Sparks, 1996; Sparks et al., 1997b).
The second observation had to do with the prevalent philosophy among
FL educators about how languages should be taught at the secondary and
post-secondary levels. Similar to the whole language movement that swept
through the US in the 1980s and well into the 1990s, FL instruction has been
dominated by the natural or communicative approach (Krashen, 1982;
Omaggio, 1986). Students are expected to acquire a FL by listening to and
conversing in the FL from the very beginning. The assumption here is that
students learn by modeling speech patterns. Our knowledge of how students
classified as dyslexic learn to read, write and spell ran contrary to this
assumption. We knew intuitively from the research on native language
instruction that these students needed structure and systematic direct
Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Dyslexia 6: 87100 (2000)
Foreign Languages and At-risk Learners
91
instruction in the rule systems of the FL. However, we had no empirical
verification. Thus in another series of research studies we set out to deter-
mine whether or not students at-risk for learning a FL would benefit from a
specialized approach to instruction, modeled after methods used to teach
reading, writing and spelling in the native language to students classified as
dyslexic, i.e. the OrtonGillingham methodologies (for a review of these
methodologies, see Henry, 1998). As most FL educators were unfamiliar
with the approach, we introduced OrtonGillingham to the field (Myer and
Ganschow, 1988; Myer et al., 1989). Likewise, most educators in the LD field
had not considered transferring the teaching methodology across languages.
We therefore introduced the concept of transferring OrtonGillingham
methodologies to FL instruction to LD/dyslexia educators as well (Sparks et
al., 1991).
Together with colleagues, we conducted pilot studies on the effectiveness
of the OrtonGillingham methodologies in several FLs. All were preliminary
studies because of limited sample sizes and the small number of instructors
trained in both FL instruction and LD/dyslexia. We conducted a series of
studies on at-risk high school students who were studying Spanish (Sparks
et al., 1992c, 1998c; Sparks and Ganschow, 1993c; Ganschow and Sparks,
1995). Another involved at-risk high school students studying Latin (Sparks
et al., 1996). A third study by a colleague involved an in-depth case study of
an at-risk university student who was struggling with German (Schneider,
1999).
Our most recent investigations have paralleled research questions now
being raised in native language research on LD/dyslexia, i.e. questions
related to problems with classification of students as LD and severity of
students learning problems (for discussions on classification and/or severity
in the native language, see e.g. Shaywitz et al., 1992; Shapiro, Accardo and
Capute, 1998). We became interested in conducting research on the issues of
classification and severity among FL learners in high school and college
when we discovered students who were not classified as LD but, neverthe-
less, were experiencing great difficulties with the FL requirement. In fact, in
our perusal of the early literature we found that a substantial percentage of
students at several universities were being classified as LD for the first time
after entering college and because of their FL learning difficulties (see e.g.
Lefebvre, 1984; Ganschow and Sparks, 1987; Pompian and Thum, 1988).
On the issue of classification, we began with a question about college
students classified as LD who had petitioned and been permitted course
substitutions for the colleges FL requirement (Sparks, Philips and Gan-
schow, 1996). Here, for example, we were interested in whether the students
met traditional criteria for classification as LD, whether they were referred
for academic assistance primarily because of FL difficulties, and whether
their test profiles would indicate native language difficulties and low FL
aptitude. In another study we compared high school students classified as
LD with at-risk FL learners not classified as LD (Sparks et al., 1998b). Both
groups were enrolled in high school Spanish. We wanted to determine
whether or not there would be group differences in native language, FL
aptitude or FL proficiency.
Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Dyslexia 6: 87100 (2000)
L. Ganschow and R.L. Sparks
92
We also raised the question of how much variation might exist within a
sizable sample of college students classified as LD who petitioned for FL
course substitutions (Sparks et al., 1999c). Here we asked whether level of
IQachievement discrepancy or discrepancy between two or more achieve-
ment measures would differentiate groups by severity within a population
classified as LD. Sparks and Javorsky (1999) replicated this study at another
university and also extended it by comparing the populations at the two
universities.
Next we wondered whether there would be cognitive, academic achieve-
ment and FL aptitude differences between students classified as LD who
received petitions to substitute courses for the college FL requirement and
students classified as LD who completed the FL requirement by passing FL
courses (Sparks et al., 1999b). We were interested here in whether test
profiles might differentiate successful students from unsuccessful students.
Most recently, several of us were interested in the question of the impact
of the FL language requirement from the viewpoint of the students them-
selves (Ganschow, Philips and Schneider, in press). We thought that the
students might have something to tell FL educators and university LD
service providers about such issues as aspects of the language that are easy
and difficult for them and what it might take to be successful in FL classes.
SUMMARY OF RESEARCH QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
We have condensed our major findings in Table 1, where we state each
research question, answer it and cite related references for individuals
interested in more details. Overall, we would summarize our findings in the
following six statements:
1. At-risk learners learning problems are primarily language-based; anxiety
might accompany the learning problem but is not likely to be the cause
of the FL learning problem.
2. At-risk learners have difficulties understanding and using the rule sys-
tems of language.
3. At-risk learners have their main difficulties at the phonological/ortho-
graphic level.
3
4. At-risk learners lack metacognitive skills, i.e. ability to reflect on lan-
guage and to use self-correction strategies without explicit instruction.
5. At-risk learners appear to benefit from direct, systematic, multisensory
instruction in the rule systems of language: phonological/orthographic;
grammatical/syntactic; semantic; and morphological (prefixes, suffixes,
roots).
6. In our studies to date, at-risk high school and college learners classified
as LD and at-risk learners not classified as LD (i.e. individuals who
have extensive difficulties learning a foreign language) have shown no
3
One inference we draw from our own research is that students with FL learning
difficulties may have problems processing the FL quickly and efficiently. Likewise, students
with native language learning difficulties have been found to have similar problems
(Denckla and Rudel, 1976; Wolf and Obregon, 1997).
Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Dyslexia 6: 87100 (2000)
Foreign Languages and At-risk Learners
93
Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Dyslexia 6: 87100 (2000)
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L. Ganschow and R.L. Sparks
94
significant differences in IQ, native language skills, FL aptitude, FL
grades and overall grade point average.
QUESTIONS AND DIRECTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
In our research we have barely scratched the surface. Heretofore, however,
no one in the US had examined the FL learning difficulties of students
classified as LD/dyslexic. We have addressed the topic of foreign languages
and learning problems from one perspective, that of the American student
who is having difficulty learning a FL in high school and/or college. From
this research we have drawn the strong inference that those who have
difficulty learning a FL by and large have varying degrees of difficulty with
the rule systems of language (for discussions of this inference, see Sparks
and Ganschow, 1993d, 1995b; Sparks, 1995). Perhaps we were simply in the
right place at the right time to initiate this line of research. There is yet so
much to be done. In particular, we are excited about the possibilities for
collaborative research on LD/dyslexia and FLs from a global, cross-cultural
perspective. We present here a few thoughts and ideas for those who
identify and serve at-risk FL learners in their countries. Readers should keep
in mind, though, that our vision has been limited to those experiences we
have from our perspective in the US, where the study of a FL is not essential
to an individuals livelihood or to graduate from high school.
We might begin with the question: What linguistic differences between
languages have their greatest impact on individuals with language learning
problems? Here we would see the need for educators to understand major
similarities and differences between the native language and FL under
consideration. An example is moving from Hebrew to English. Native
Hebrew speakers who study English must learn an entirely new alphabet
with new sounds and symbols. Kahn-Horwitz, Roffman and Teitelbaum
(1998) point out that voweled Hebrew has a highly transparent orthography
because of its one-to-one grapheme/phoneme correspondences. English,
however, has as many as eight spellings for one sound, e.g. {long a=a
(table), a-e (came), ai (rain), ay (play), ey (obey), ei (reign), eigh (eight), ea
(steak)}; many letters have several sounds for a single spelling, e.g. (/y/ =
y
6
es, happy
6
, by
6
, gy
6
m). Also, unlike English, in which a single phoneme is
usually the smallest unit of instruction, in Hebrew the smallest unit of
instruction generally includes two phonemesa consonant letter and vowel
diacritical mark. Hebrew, then, requires a different kind of metalinguistic
awareness than the English language. Linguists and dyslexia educators need
to work together to understand differences between languages in order to be
able to diagnose problem areas in both languages.
Another question for consideration is: To what extent does an individuals
ability to learn a new language depend upon that individuals native
language in relation to the FL with which s/he is having difficulty? For
example, are speakers of Eastern languages likely to find English harder to
learn than speakers of Western European languages? Are speakers of tonal
languages likely to find it easier to learn other tonal languages than non-
tonal languages? Here again we would see the necessity for collaboration
Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Dyslexia 6: 87100 (2000)
Foreign Languages and At-risk Learners
95
among linguists and dyslexia educators/researchers to analyze each lan-
guage and assess major problem areas for students with language learning
problems in both languages.
Once we are aware (metalinguistically) of similarities and differences
across languages, we confront questions about instruction: To what extent is
metalinguistic knowledge about the FL necessary for the student to acquire
the new language? Is multisensory structured language instruction more
effective for some languages than others? For example, does explicit multi-
sensory structured language instruction work well with logographic lan-
guages such as Chinese? Studies show that phonologic (and orthographic)
processing is important in Chinese (Leong, 1997; Suk-Han Ho and Bryant,
1997). This finding suggests that direct instruction in the sound and sound/
symbol system and orthographic structure of words may benefit learners of
Chinese as well. Our research findings with students in the US who have
difficulties learning a FL indicate that explicit instruction about similarities
and differences between languages is important if they are beginning the
study of a modern FL as teenagers or young adults. Native language
research on explicit multisensory structured language also supports the
importance of explicit awareness of the rule systems of ones language
(Miles, 1992; McIntyre and Pickering, 1995). Further, our research indicates
that most at-risk FL learners who receive specialized instruction on language
structure of modern FLs do learn and some can compete fairly successfully
in FL classes with students who are not at risk (Sparks and Ganschow, 1993c;
Sparks et al., 1998c). There needs to be communication among educators
from countries that speak different languages about approaches they use
that work for students with language learning problems. We need to deter-
mine whether specific methods work well across languages and whether the
same best approaches are best for all.
This question then leads to further questions having to do with time to
acquire a FL: Might learning a FL for students with language learning
problems be easier if they are exposed to the language early on? If so, how
early? Is amount of time needed to learn the language an important variable,
regardless of an individuals age? Bilingual educators struggle with these
issues as they witness young children failing to acquire adequate language
systems in either language. In his model of school learning, for example,
Carroll (1973) suggests that starting to learn a FL in adolescence might
require almost twice as much time to learn as starting a language in the early
years (see also Skehan, 1986). Researchers need to conduct longitudinal
studies on bilingual/multilingual dyslexic populations to begin to answer
these questions.
To date, instruments to assess FL performance have not been developed.
Though there are numerous formal and informal instruments in English and
some have been translated into Spanish, there are few language assessments
in other languages. Further, if we are to examine a students ongoing
performance in both the native language and the FL, we would need
comparable measures in both languages. A question for further study, then,
is: What formal and informal assessments might be developed to assess the
FL (and native language) learning problems of at-risk students? To assist in
their endeavours, researchers might consider modifying existing assessments
Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Dyslexia 6: 87100 (2000)
L. Ganschow and R.L. Sparks
96
such as the Bangor Dyslexia Test (Miles, 1992). To assess adolescents and
adults, Carroll and Sapons (1959) Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT)
might be restandardized and adapted for other languages. Also, researchers
might examine some of the new, less formal methods of ongoing assessment,
such as dynamic assessment, and apply them to different languages (for a
review of dynamic assessment procedures, see Schneider, 1999).
4
We conclude with the question: What alternatives, if any, exist for stu-
dents who have difficulty attaining appropriate reading, writing and
spelling levels in their own native language and in the FL? For example,
pressure appears to be increasing throughout the non-English-speaking
world for students to study English as a FL. In some countries (Germany
and Israel, for example), many students who fail to learn English adequately
prior to high school graduation will not have access to higher levels of
education (Schneider and Ganschow, 1997). Educators need to collaborate
across languages to discuss alternative approaches to the study of ones
native language and the FL. Educators need to find ways to enable students
with language learning problems to surmount the obstacles that might
otherwise prevent them from attaining levels of education commensurate
with their overall ability.
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