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Learning Disabilities in Adult ESL: Case Studies and Directions

Dorothy Almanza
Kate Singleton
Lynda Terrill
Arlington Education and Employment Program

Like others teachers in adult ESL, teachers at REEP (Arlington Education and Employment Program) have been searching for ways to help adults who don't make expected progress in class. The three of us had taught many of the same students who didn't seem to make progress from year to year. We decided to use the auspices of the Virginia Adult Educators Research Network to look for some answers, or at least to give us the impetus to ask good questions. For our year-long project, we defined a problem and asked questions:

The teachers at REEP have worried about effective ways to help adult ESL students in our program who may be "learning disabled". We've decided that it is not helpful to our students to actually expend time and resources to define exactly who is "learning disabled" and in what ways. We decided that focusing on educational jargon would not further the goals of our students, even if we felt we were able to make judgements. We also felt that, without resorting to labels teachers could easily identify students who do not make expected progress in the classroom or the computer lab We wonder how we can give appropriate and specific attention to such students in our learner-centered program. This is our general topic: "How can teachers assist adult ESL students who may be "learning disabled" to acquire and retain basic literacy in a learner-centered classroom or computer lab?" Within this we asked several more specific questions:

  1. Do we find students with special needs clustered in certain classes or in the computer lab?
  2. How do these students perceive themselves as related to their fellow students and to school in general?
  3. How can we help students to express needs, goals, and frustrations related to their difficulties?
  4. Can we, or should we, try to distinguish between "learning disabilities" and language learning difficulties or cultural/social concerns?
  5. How and to what extent can we use the freedom of the cooperative, multilevel, learner-centered classroom to assist students to learn?
  6. Can certain discrete techniques and/or software help students to acquire and retain basic literacy with greater success and less frustration than previously?

We knew that we had posed a large question and we hoped to pursue answers in many ways. We hoped to collect several types of data: teacher interviews/surveys, classroom and computer lab observations of students who do not make expected progress, interviews with students, teacher/researcher logs and before/after measurements on the various techniques and software which we try. We also planned on collecting samples of student work throughout the project. This would include examples from students who make expected progress and those who don't make expected progress to provide a continuum of work and provide for comparison.

After an initial period of gathering and reading materials on learning disabilities, reviewing other projects, and asking for input from REEP teachers, we learned several things which directed the subsequent progress of our action research:

  • When we actually began to search the population of our program for students who fit our general criteria of not making "expected progress", there seemed to be only a handful in our program. However each one of this handful, turned out be a student we knew and which teachers had spoken about together—sharing ideas, opinions, and techniques.
  • There is a bewildering amount of information about learning disabilities in children, adults, and, increasingly, ESL adults. There seem to be no easy answers, especially in the arena of ESL, partly because there probably will never be any amount of "learning disabilities" money available for the adult ESL population.
  • Methods and strategies which are promising for children appear to be also promising for ESL adults.
  • While various technologies sound tantalizing for use with adult ESL learners who don't make expected progress, without added funding, word-processing offers learners some autonomy.
  • Interviewing students is a productive way to find out what approaches might be successful. The interviewing process also helps the student to be an equal partner in his/her learning.

Given the above observations, the three of us decided that a "no frills" approach to the action research project was likely to be as productive as any other. We decided on interviewing, one-on-one interactions, even greater than usual sharing with colleagues, and a narrative approach to sharing our experience with other adult ESL practioners in Virgina.

The three of us have had varying results with the students we've worked with, but each has found at least a small measure of success and gained greater insights into our particular students, other students who have not shown expected progress, and ESL adult students in general. Three individual narratives will give some account of this.

Dorothy's narrative: Over the course of several months, I observed a student, Ismael. Ismael had studied as a refugee for 9 months in our General ESL classes. He was one of the students who never seemed to advance at the same pace as the other students. He had remained at our l00 level (literacy) class for 2 three month cycles and had just advanced to the 150 level.

My class was an intensive 8 hours a week, five-week course open free of charge to refugees with low literacy skills. Ismael was in a multi-level class of 6 students. Attendance was very sporadic, as many of the refugees were busy in the afternoons with doctor's appointments, finding housing, and other immediate concerns.

Because of the class size, I was able to give him the attention he needed and to learn more about his personal background and how it applied to the educational challenges he was facing.

Ismael is a 68 year old man from Somalia with no formal education. His oral skills were much higher than his literacy skills. He was a clan leader and successful farmer in Somalia, but he lost everything to the war. During the war, Ismael had been shot 5 times and was victim of a bomb blast. As a result, Ismael suffered traumatic brain injury, and injury to his eyes from shrapnel. He also had trouble walking from because his legs had been severely broken. In spite of all this, Ismael attended class every day and demonstrated a great eagerness to learn.

In a large class situation, Ismael had trouble filtering the background noise. He could not focus on one voice. He said it was sometimes like "cars on the road. Too loud." He felt that too many people were distracting. He liked working one on one with a teacher, or in small groups. Because of his eye injuries, he was very sensitive to light. He preferred to have the lights low in the room. He also said that he often got headaches reading, writing, and reading from a whiteboard in the classroom. However, reading from the a blackboard did not produce this effect.

Often, I had 1 or 2 students in the class, and I was able to take them to the Adult Learning Center, a computer lab then housed at Wilson Adult Center. Ismael enjoyed the intense focus that computer learning provided. In this lab, I was also more able to control the noise and light in the environment to better suit Ismael's personal needs. We used a program called Eye Relief with great success. Eye Relief is a word processor with adjustable sizing and screen color. We were able to work with the background and lettering colors until we came up with a combination that was most comfortable for Ismael. I used the Language Experience Approach to utilize Ismael's oral skills in aid of his reading. I also typed stories from our reading text into Eye Relief which enabled him to read with greater ease an to keep up with his fellow students.

We also used English Express on CD-rom for vocabulary building. With the program, Ismael would hear a word, see a picture of it, and was able to repeat the word and compare his recording to the computer's and mine.

Ismael studied with me for 3 five-week cycles. During that time we were able to explore many learning alternatives. He was open and willing to try anything new and was never discouraged. The other students looked up to him for inspiration in their studies even though his skills were somewhat lower than theirs. This attitude combined with a class situation that afforded this exploration allowed Ismael to continue to make some progress at his own pace.

Lynda's narrative: Kim has studied in our program for at least 7 years. Kim came from Korea a long, but unspecified, time ago. She has two grown sons who live in Korea. She says she had no formal education, and she is probably in her early 60's. Kim's inability to progress through our program was one of the nagging frustrations which pushed me into this action research. I met Kim after she had spent a year studying at our Adult Learning Center. Kim worked in the kitchen at a local hotel and stuided through a workplace grant. I remember when Kim began to study in my literacy class how excited the ALC teachers were that it was time for Kim to move on into class. Kim remains in that class now.

Of course, when I first met Kim I did not see anything unusual. She was shy, uncommunicative, easily confused, and very devoted to the "teacher"—me. This was a literacy class, and it often takes students time to feel comfortable, to communicate, and to understand classroom culture. It's common for literacy students to show great respect for teachers. I began to take special note of Kim when she showed some signs of emotional stress in class. When I saw that Kim was upset, I tried to help her to communicate. Whether it's actually acknowledged or not, one of the great purposes of an adult ESL class is to give students the words and the venue to express important things.

I know that I am rambling here, but what happened in class many years ago seems central to the almost unsolvable problems in helping Kim to progress. The class was doing a circle dialogue about feelings. We were learning "feeling" adjectives: happy, sad, angry, tired, etc. "How do you feel?" "I feel happy." The activity was always successful, and the class got a lot of mileage out of angry/hungry. When I taught "angry", I usually demonstrated by banging the chalkboard or kicking a garbage can and students always understood. When the class went around the circle and got to Kim, she said when was angry and she began to cry. Later, I tried to help Kim to express her feelings, a thing I was not sure she did in any language. Kim gave some information about a man in authority make improper advances to her at work. I tried to give Kim language to stop the problem: "no", "stop it", etc. The class tried to give her ways to solve the problem at work. Maybe Kim solved her problem, or maybe she has the problem even now; she still works in the same kitchen. When I stopped teaching literacy in the evening program, I felt that Kim was making some small headway, yet she remains in that class now.

The reasons for Kim's lack of progress seem to be so complex, that all the teachers and volunteers who have worked with Kim do not seem to be able to find a key. Age, culture, sex, education, personality, job, family, and relationships to authority figures play some part in Kim's almost dogged lack of progress.

One of the best things that happened to Kim's life in our school was when a wonderful volunteer, Steve Lutgen, agreed to work with Kim this year. Steve's respect, patience, kindness, and open-eyed intelligence made the teachers feel like we finally might get closer to finding a key. Steve conferred with Kim's teacher and with me and he wrote extensive notes:

26Jan 95 Work Session with Kim:
Although this rank order is tentative, it was fairly clear that her visual and verbal skills are somewhat more developed than her writing/analytical skills. Rationale and specifics are given below. Simple conversation starters did not work well. Questions like "How are you?", "What did you do today?", "How was work?" and "How is class?" resulted in one or two word answers. Following her answers to this type question, her body language indicated an attitude of "well, now what?".

More complex questions elicited longer, more complex responses. The most fruitful question concerned the Korean War. Before I could communicate my question, the term "war" had to be defined. This was done with a couple mimes. She quickly understood mimes of machine guns, aircraft and bombs.

She does not appear to understand the phrases "What does this word mean?" or "What is this?" She also refers to the Korean language as "Korean English". To me, this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of the words, "English", "Korean" and "language". She claims to know only very little Korean. I could not establish if she was referring to spoken or written Korean.

Exercises and conversations should be oriented toward increasing self confidence.

Some exercises should be vigorous, drawing on her formal disposition. Because vocabulary is a grave challenge, perhaps picture labeling exercises, followed up (next week) with a formal, picture flash-card test, would be beneficial. This would also communicate the need to take responsibility for and interact in language learning.

Draw on verbal skills to increase confidence. Informal conversation on interesting subjects (not necessarily "safe" topics) may help. It may stimulate a desire to learn more vocabulary for better and easier communication.

Rigorous repetition of letters and phonics would add structure to the lesson and, in any case, is probably necessary to help build a stronger base in English.

Final Comments 26 JULY 95:
Kim's case was not as successful as [another student Steve worked with for this project]. Our work together was cut short when she decided to leave the school for several months. Although we had made some progress, mostly in practicing conversation, there was no major (or any noticeable) advancements at all. It is unfortunate that because of my absences and her early withdrawal, we were never able to work in conjunction with a native Korean speaker. This would have helped us to at least understand her a little better, I believe. In the end, I still believe that she could not, or would not, accept or understand that learning is not a passive exercise. She just never participated or showed any eagerness to participate. I had hope because she clearly remembered what we had worked on, and especially remembered the few small successes we had. I still believe there is hope. But I only think that progress will come from better understanding of her personality, from consistent work with a native language teacher, and consistent one-on-one work. An assessment from an experienced LD analyst may also be helpful. Because of her good memory, and from the uncertainty imposed by age and cultural differences, I'm not yet convinced that she is LD. Unfortunately, that is all I can say about this case.

Kim and her teachers have had a confusing and, perhaps, ambiguous relationship. At many points we have thought that Kim was making progress, or to be on the verge of making progress, and yet Steve's July, 1995 comments sound a lot like my thoughts in 1989. While I remain somewhat frustrated (and I assume Kim does also) I feel less so than before. Through our action research we have done the following: gathered and read a variety of materials related to "learning disabilities", respectfully addressed the problem by soliciting comments from Kim in a formal interviews and in many informal conversations, consulted with colleagues about perspectives and techniques and shared our "Kim" stories, arranged for Kim to work with a perceptive, creative, and kind tutor who employed various techniques (from phonics to catharsis), and learned that it is not easy to change a person's life even with many good intentions.

What about Kim's life and education? She works and continues to come to our school where we seem to offer her some benefit. I often recall the benefits Kim's given me: carrying my son on her back at the county fair, a birthday party for me which she organized, and a Christmas decoration from Nordstrom's which was eminently correct. While we've not help Kim to progress in educational ways as much as we've wished, we've learned more about the complexity of human nature, and we've learned again that education is a two-way street.

Kate's narrative: I'll call the student I worked with for this project Marguerite. Marguerite's story differs from the other cases in that I was working with her not to try to find solutions to current learning problems, but rather to look back on her learning experience in our program to see what helped her progress from a very frustrated reader and writer to the more confident and independent reader and writer she is today.

Several people asked that I observe Marguerite for this project. Some felt strongly that she is "learning disabled", while others suspected that she is not. After having worked with her, I am no closer to making this assessment, nor am I at all clear as to what the benefit would be in her case. I can, however, say that she has made great progress toward her study goals for improving her reading and writing, and I can pinpoint some of the factors that helped her to make that progress.

I'll start by giving some background information about Marguerite. She is now 44 years old. She had been travelling as a nanny for diplomatic families since she was 16 years old. In her native country she had 4 years of education, and this was interrupted by bouts of serious migraine that kept her out of school for long periods of time. Incidentally, Marguerite doesn't know the cause of these migraines, but says that they have diminished in frequency and severity over time.

Marguerite came to our program in 1989. When she arrived, she had fairly strong oral skills, but her reading and writing lagged behind. She took regular English classes for about 2 years. Her oral ability and a lot of effort in reading and writing helped her to progress from the basic literacy level to a high intermediate level. When she got to this point, however, her limited literacy skills prevented her from progressing to a higher level. At this time it was recommended that she switch from the classes to our program's Adult Learning Center, where she would be able to study independently and concentrate specifically on reading and writing. It was during her time in the learning center that Marguerite first started to display confidence and independence in practicing reading and writing. I asked Marguerite about her difficulties in the classroom and she cited several problems. One, she says, is that other languages in the classroom "confused" her. Noise in general greatly distracts her. "I am always listening when I hear noise," she says. No doubt this sensitivity to noise would pose considerable difficulties with concentration for her in a class a of 20-30 students.

Marguerite also told me that she needs a lot of time and reflection to grasp new vocabulary and concepts. She says she tries hard to remember things at school, but they don't make sense a lot of the time, so when she is walking home from school (3 miles distance!), she tries to think them through until, in her words, they "fall in place in my brain." When she gets home she writes and rewrites what she has been working on so she won't lose it. Considering her need for reflection, repetition, reinforcement and order, it is easy to understand even more how a rapidly moving intermediate level class would give her too much input to comfortably handle in one sitting.

When Marguerite switched to independent study in the learning center, she wrote as her study goal that she wanted "to improve my read and write to have better future." She usually worked one on one with a volunteer tutor or teacher, her preferred method of instruction. She worked on a wide variety of skill areas, but the emphasis was always on reading and writing. She felt comfortable with the direct, immediate feedback and explanations from her tutors, and from the computers. And she enjoyed the peaceful environment that allowed her to concentrate.

Over time in the learning center, Marguerite has achieved several personal goals. She has written letters to her friends and relations overseas in English, opened a checking account, and written stories and poems about her homeland. She has made her own dictionary of new words in which she writes down definition and recopies the words for spelling practice. She has kept a dialog journal with one of the teachers and a log of stories that she has read. Recently, with a volunteer's help she was able to write an essay about herself for an application to a nanny placement service. Soon she will be moving to Australia, and she is bravely promising to write letters to all of her friends from the learning center.

Marguerite still needs assistance and direction in reading and writing, but in the learning center she has become much more comfortable and independent in practicing reading and writing. Recently she completed a new-self-evaluation for the learning center, and this how she described herself:

I've come a long way through the darkness to the
light. I'll practice more often reading. I'll
won't give up what I've learned with others.

Marguerites's progress has required a lot of teacher assistance and monitoring. Our program is very lucky to have the option of the independent study lab and to have teachers and volunteers to staff it. These factors were only partly responsible for her success, however Perhaps more important were Marguerite's motivation to learn and her disciplined approach to her studies.

These narratives give a fair representation of the challenges, techniques, and outcomes we've experienced while working with students who don't make expected progress at REEP. There were no "easy answers", but some encouraging glimmers. The three of us found that quiet and focused one-on-one interactions in the lab or with a volunteer seemed to be more comfortable and productive for the students than the classroom was. Physical and/or emotional concerns (in some cases from an unspecified time in the past) may play a role in the lack of progress. Through interviews and informal conversations most of the students we worked with were able to give helpful insights and advice about how they could learn best. Through this project the teachers of REEP, who have always shared challenges, techniques, and stories with one another began to do so more formally, by note and by sharing student work. A major question which drove this project was "how and to what extent can we use the freedom of cooperative, multilevel, learner-centered classroom to assist students to learn?" We found that this environment allowed our students to express their needs for different ways and places to learn, and we were able to try to help them.


  • Don't wait until you understand "learning disabilities" before you start working with students. Get started and learn as you go.
  • Three quick sources to get you started are: the ERIC Digest ESL Instruction for Learning Disabled Adults (January 1995, EDO-LE-94-08 by Robin Schwarz and Miriam Burt; the National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center,* 1875 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., 20009, (202) 884-8185; and various information from the TESL-L and TESLIT-L** listservs.
  • Talk to your colleagues; share your information about students and share your useful techniques.
  • There are no magic answers, but there are many small steps. Action research projects are good ways to plan those steps.
Good luck and share what you learn.

March 12, 1996

*Note (May, 2000) While funding for the National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center (NALLD) did not continue after 1999, its website is still accessible. It was last updated June 1999.

**Note (May, 2000) TESLIT-L listserv is no longer in existence. However, the National Institute for Literacy does sponsor an adult literacy and learning disabilities listserv, NIFL-LD.