EFL for learners with special needs

Dealing with special needs
How many of your students wear spectacles (glasses)? Are they less or more intelligent than the other students? Are they better or worse at reading comprehension? Are they better or worse at listening? Are they better or worse at grammar? Are they better or worse at vocabulary? We recognise and accept that some learners need special help, in the form of spectacles, but in all other ways, they are the same as other students.
Dyslexia
Dyslexia is the name given to various forms of learning difficulty. It may be difficulty in reading, writing, spelling or concentration. In all parts of the world, many learners have to cope with this learning difficulty. Many successful and famous people were dyslexic including Winston Churchill, Michelangelo Buonarotti, Bob Marley and many others. They were all “slow” at school but were very successful in their adult lives.
There are many different forms of dyslexia, just as one learner’s spectacles will not help another learner. Dyslexia may be manifested in different ways; poor spelling, illegible handwriting, difficulty with short-term memory, difficulty in reading aloud, or many other ways.
It is almost certain that you have some dyslexics in your classes.
Teaching for these special needs
To be a successful teacher, we need to match our teaching style to the learning styles of our learners. Some learners learn best through looking at or drawing pictures. Others learn best by listening and repeating. Others by miming actions and acting out situations. Others by listening, repeating and singing. Some learn best through examining and solving problems. Some learn best by linking an emotional feeling to the language they are learning. We all use all of these learning techniques, but we will each prefer some techniques more than others.
If we are to be successful teachers, we need to give our learners all these different learning opportunities. If, in our lesson plans, we plan to include all these different approaches to learning, we will maximise our students’ opportunities to learn.
Multisensory teaching
Imagine that we are teaching the word “car”. We can look at and draw pictures of cars. We can make the noises that cars make. We can think about whether a car is hard or soft, heavy or light, slow or fast. We can sing songs about cars and repeat the names of the different brands of car. We can ask our classmates about their cars and find out which is the most popular. We can read about different kinds of car and write about our favourite car. We can think about the experience of driving a car, or travelling in a car.
In each of these activities, we are building a different kind of connection between the real object and the word “car”. In this way, we are helping the learners to build up multiple connections with the word and maximising the opportunities to learn.
It would be foolish to suggest that we can include all these activities for every new word in a lesson, but we should think about all these different types of connection and try to include them in our lesson.
Learning styles
The author, Herbert Puchta, described the human brain as the world’s most powerful computer, which arrives without an instruction manual teaching us how to use it. Learners who are new to foreign language learning, do not know how to learn. They need to discover their personal learning style. If we use this multisensory teaching style, learners will be able to discover which learning styles are most effective for them. Different learners will prefer different approaches but from our multisensory approach, learners will be able to make their choice.
Teaching styles
Each teacher has her/his own style of teaching. It may be copied from the way she/he was taught or it may be an extension of her/his personality. The teacher may use a lot of pictures. Another may prefer frequent repetition. Another may prefer mime, drama activities or role play. Another may like repeated copying and writing.
Unfortunately, her/his teaching style may not match the different learning styles of the learners. The most effective teachers that we remember from school, were those whose teaching style matched with our learning style. We liked those teachers and learnt a lot from them.
Teachers need to expand their teaching styles so that they can match the learning styles of all their learners.
Stress
Learners learn best when they feel comfortable and feel they are not going to be humiliated or embarrassed in front of their classmates. They don’t like exercises which are too easy. They enjoy a challenge, but only if the challenge is treated as an adventure, an exploration, a discovery. Learners like to feel that they are successful and their success is appreciated by the teacher.
Time
Learners with learning difficulties like dyslexia often need more time than other learners. They can easily become stressed, if they are not given the time to complete a task. They may be perfectly capable of completing the task, but they need more time to do it.
Time-stress makes the learner feel uncomfortable and makes learning more difficult. Teachers need to give the learners the extra time they need. Learners want to be successful but they can often feel stressed when they are not given the time they need to complete the work.
All learners need to learn how to work faster, but we should be careful that we do not alienate the learners by demanding too much speed. Unfortunately, lessons start and finish at specific times and time stress can affect the teacher’s teaching style. We cannot and should not teach faster than our students can learn.
Accuracy
All learners make mistakes, but these mistakes are just learning steps towards perfection and accuracy. Teachers should recognise these mistakes as a natural part of the learning process. They are not crimes, but opportunities to learn the correct form. When we correct mistakes, we should always thank the learner for the contribution before correcting the mistake. Ask the learner to repeat the corrected form and praise the student for repeating the correction.
Fear of making mistakes creates stress for learners. If the teacher demands too much accuracy and makes the learners feel embarrassed about their mistakes, this will create stress for the learners and reduce their learning potential.
Reading and Writing
When young learners start to learn English, teachers usually start with an aural/oral approach which concentrates on memorising and reproducing the sounds of words. These learners, who have already gained some competence in reading and writing their mother tongue [L1], will often try to write English words using letters of their L1 alphabet and the sound values of those L1 letters. (A French speaking learner might write “okay” as “au quai.”)
When the teacher starts introducing the English alphabet, learners will discover that, in the English alphabet, the same sounds be written by many different letters or combinations of letters. [The letter ‘c’ sometimes sounds /s/ [once] and sometimes /k/ [cat]. Learners, whose L1 alphabet is consistently phonological (such as Russian, Arabic or Italian), will find the English alphabet very difficult and confusing.
All learners will find spelling in the English alphabet difficult. Learners with different types of dyslexia will have even more difficulty. Some dyslexic learners have problems in remembering word sounds, others have problems in remembering word pictures (spellings). A multisensory teaching approach maximises the gateways to learning.
Labels
Labels are very dangerous in education. Once we put a label on a child, we tend to treat that child differently. Labels can often be self-fulfilling. If we label a child as “naughty”, that child will be naughty, because we treat that child as a naughty child. It is good that we have now identified dyslexia, but we should be careful if we start having lower expectations of their work, compared with the work of other children. Dyslexia should not be confused with lack of intelligence. Dyslexic learners are equally as intelligent as other learners. Like the learner who needs spectacles, they learn strategies to cope with their dyslexia. They can expect to achieve as much success as any other learner.
200 years ago, females were labelled (by men) as being only suitable for sewing, cooking and producing children. Little money was spent on their education because it was thought that this money would be wasted. Today, we all know that this idea incorrect and foolish.
We must be careful that the labels “dyslexic” or “special needs” are not used as an excuse for expecting less from these learners. Multisensory teaching and stress-free learning will benefit all the learners.
Many interpreters who work at the United Nations are blind. Because of their blindness, language (including foreign language) has been very important in their lives. They are expert listeners. This helps them to be highly skilled foreign language interpreters.
Being left-handed
The world is designed for right-handed people. Books, clothes, can openers and scissors are designed for the convenience of right-handed people. We could say that a left-handed learner was a learner with “special needs”. Left-handed children learn to cope with the right-handed world and are capable of achieving as much success as anyone else.
Left-handed people are “different”, but they are only different because most people are right-handed.
Inclusive education
As teachers, our classes will contain learners with spectacles, left-handed learners, dyslexic learners, females and males. Our teaching, exercises and tasks should be appropriate for all these learners.
Nick Dawson 2013

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