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Fresh from her presentation to an English UK ‘Inclusive Classrooms’ event on special needs, expert Anne Margaret Smith gives us the lowdown on how to spot ‘specific learning differences’ in English language learners.

Specific Learning Differences (SpLDs) is an umbrella term for some common developmental differences in the way the brain works, including dyslexia, dyspraxia, AD(H)D and autism, as well as dyscalculia and dysgraphia. They often co-occur and can present additional challenges for language learners if they are not identified and accommodated.

But how we can identify learners with SpLDs? Language learners experience difficulties for many different reasons, so before assuming that a student has an SpLD, we need to rule out other factors such as medical conditions or social/emotional issues. On the other hand, it is better to find out as early as possible how best to work with that learner. Evaluating the cognitive function of multilingual people is a complex process, and there are several things we need to consider.

1. The student’s background
We need to find out as much as we can about the learner’s previous educational experiences, family situation and preferred ways of working. To do this we can:

  • Observe their behaviour and coping strategies in class and in other contexts. (An observation record sheet enables several members of staff to share their perceptions, and patterns can be more easily spotted.)
  • Send out questionnaires to gather background information from the student,
    the teacher(s) and if possible, the parents/carers/family.
  • Have an informal conversation with the student to find out more information about their education, health and home life.


2. Literacy practices
If the learner has had the opportunity to access education in his/her first language, it is worth evaluating first-language literacy:

  • Ask the learner to write for 10 minutes in his/her first (strongest) language about any topic and observe how confidently the task is completed. (Even if you can’t read what s/he has written you can evaluate the consistency of the handwriting and overall layout.).
  • Observe how fluently s/he can read a short unfamiliar text written in this language.
  • If the learner has not had the opportunity to develop literacy in the first language, it would be worth exploring the skills that underpin literacy development, independent of their linguistic profile. There are tasks in the Cognitive Assessments for Multilingual Learners (CAML) suites (see references below) that allow teachers to do this.


3. Short term and working memory
Memory is very important for language learning, and a weaker short-term or working memory span could be an indicator of an SpLD. We can check this by:

  • Asking the learner to repeat a lengthening sequence of names of people they know. (Ask him/her to nominate the names to be used to make sure that pronunciation is not a problem.)
  • Showing a growing selection of coloured shapes, covering them, and getting him/her to indicate which shapes were shown.


4. Phonological awareness


Although it is not easy to evaluate the phonological systems of somebody with whom we don’t share a first language, there are a couple of things to check:

  • Perception of rhythm – ask the learner to clap back a simple rhythm.
  • Phonemic manipulation skills – ask the learner to say a very familiar word but with the first phoneme missing. If this is easy, move on to asking him/her to remove the final sound, or a medial sound.

5. Speed
Many neurodiverse learners process information more slowly, or less accurately, than their peers. We can evaluate this by:

  • Asking the learner to name a series of pictures of objects as fast as possible – using the first language if desired.
  • Asking the learner to say the months of the year as fast as possible forwards, and then backwards (in the first language). Listen carefully for hesitation, or self-correction, or even missing months.


6. Interpreting the results

Once we have observed the learner performing these kinds of tasks, we might decide whether the pattern of difficulties indicate an SpLD – when considered in the light of the background information we have. If we can account for the difficulties any other way then an SpLD becomes less likely.

Make the classroom accessible for all

Regardless of the cause of any individual learner’s issues, we still need to accommodate their difficulties. There are many simple things that can be done to make the classroom more accessible for everybody:

Provide opportunities for recapping and reviewing

  • Help students to develop better memory strategies.
  • If visual memory is stronger, encourage the use of memory pictures, mind-maps and visualisation techniques, such as ‘The Roman Room’.
  • If auditory memory is stronger, strategies such as repeating words with varying volumes, singing example sentences, or clapping rhythms may be more helpful.

Break large tasks / words into manageable chunks

  • Guide students to plan writing step by step, and to develop pre-reading techniques that help them explore texts in sections.
  • Encourage them to plan their time using a diary or calendar, so that they spread their work over the available time.

Give really clear instructions and explicit feedback.

  • Do not assume that students will be able to infer your meaning – spell it out.
  • Explain and demonstrate how language patterns work, rather than leaving students to make their own assumptions.

Offer multisensory and multimodal activities.

  • Suggest additional activities that allow learners to use all sensory channels at once; acting out dialogues, using tokens to represent sentence or narrative structure and talking through writing tasks all add extra dimensions.
  • Using technology allows learners to alter the presentation and layout of a page to suit them. Nurture self-awareness and self-esteem.
  • Help students to reflect on how they are learning, what is going well and what needs more attention.
  • Take every opportunity to catch a student doing something good, and praise him/her for it. Share this with their peers, family and other tutors, if possible.
  • Build a culture of collaboration and mutual respect in your classroom.

Further Reading:

  • Smith A.M. (2015) Cognitive Assessments for Multilingual Learners. Available from www.ELTwell.com 
  • Smith, A.M. (2017) Including Dyslexic Language Learners. Lancaster: ELT well [available from www.ELTwell.com] 
  • Smith, A.M. (2017) Raising Awareness of SpLDs. Morecambe: ELT well [available from www.ELTwell.com]


Dr Anne Margaret Smith runs ELT Well – an organisation which offers CPD, materials and resources for teachers as well as holistic
assessments and tuition for neurodiverse learners. eltwell.com.