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Review: Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Differences

Teaching Languages to Students with Specific
Learning Differences (2024) (2nd edition)
MM Textbooks
By Judit Kormos and Anne Margaret Smith
ISBN: 978-1-80041-860-8

For most people, language learning comes easily and effortlessly; for many others wishing to acquire an additional language, however, it is a constant struggle. Until quite recently, the latter were politely described as deficient and perhaps as having a disability, while less sensitive terms included ‘educationally sub-normal’. The authors of this enlightening title encourage us to perceive students with specific Learning differences (SpLD) as just, well, ‘different’.

The preface alone is worth reading in detail, as here the authors explain that around 10% of students exhibit learning differences. Considering this statistic, in every group of twenty students we are likely to find at least two learners who have a SpLD. These include autism – with which learners have issues interacting socially – ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia (comprehending texts), dyscalculia (comprehending numbers) and dyspraxia (the coordination of movement).

Early chapters cover discourses of disability, particularly in relation to dyslexia, a term coined in the 1880s by Rudolph Berlin, a German ophthalmologist, which comes from the Greek words for ‘difficulty’ and ‘word’. While the medical discourse expresses disability as an abnormality which requires intervention of a medical nature, the legal discourse attempts to improve the rights of disadvantaged individuals. With the current advent of a more inclusive discourse and the acknowledgement of what is now termed ‘neurodiversity’, thankfully, long gone are incidents where learners are likely to receive a smack around the head for inadvertently not keeping up with the lesson.

Later chapters are also enlightening as they review the debates around definitions of SpLDs and give an overview of their recent classifications. They then list features that identify ADHD and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), both of which can have a huge impact on the process of L2 learning. If – as a busy language teacher interested in this area but with limited time – I suggest you look at the lists on pages 23 to 26. Reflecting on my own many classes of language learners down the years, I can now more easily identify how some struggled to cope; unfortunately, at the time I did not have the relevant knowledge to deal with their angst.

The section devoted to ASD on page 23 provides illuminating details such as how due to modern-day awareness, one child in every hundred now meets the criteria for the diagnosis of ASD, whereas in 1981 this figure was 1 or 2 in every 1,000. And, according to research, ASD also occurs approximately four times more frequently in males than females and is largely genetic. Learners with ASD tend to exhibit resistance towards changes in daily routine, and demonstrate hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as being often disturbed by even slight noise or mild smells. Previously, such persons would be labelled ‘fussy’, or ‘awkward’, but providing routine activities that encourage quiet cooperation instead of the hustle and bustle of competition are suggested as therapy for language learners with ASD.

There is a wealth of information in this title, one which would surely encourage those with an interest to pursue research into the area. Readers will come away with a much greater understanding of not only how SpLD may reveal themselves in learners’ behaviour, but also a clearer notion of how they may be managed and, in many cases, overcome. I would recommend tutors on all entry-level courses encourage participants to read at least the first two chapters.

Image courtesy of Library
Wayne Trotman
Wayne Trotman
Wayne is a teacher educator at Izmir Katip Celebi University in Izmir, Turkey. Wayne has been involved in language teaching both in the UK and overseas since 1981. He holds an MSc in TESOL from Aston University and a PhD in ELT and Applied Linguistics from the University of Warwick.
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