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ESL Instruction for Learning Disabled Adults
Robin Schwarz, The American University, Washington DC
The lack of success some adults experience in learning may be due to learning disabilities (Lowry, 1990; Osher & Webb, 1994). An Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities identifies persons of average or above average intelligence who encounter significant difficulties with listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities or with social skills as learning disabled (Langner, 1993, Osher & Webb, 1994). Little is known about how these disabilities affect adults studying English as a second language (ESL).
This digest looks at what is known about learning disabilities and adult ESL learners, and addresses the following questions: How do learning disabilities affect the progress of adults learning English? How can learning disabled adults be identified and assessed? What kinds of instructional methods work best with this population? What kind of preparation is needed for teachers who work with them?
The process of identifying anyone‹adult, child, native English speaker, or ESL learner‹as learning disabled can be stigmatizing (McCormick, 1991). Therefore, educators stress weighing the advantages of identifying adults as learning disabled (making them eligible for special instruction, resources, and services) against the possible stigma of the label (Lowry, 1990).
€ The interference of a learner's native language may complicate the process of learning English. (For example, the spelling problems of an Arab student might be explained by the change in alphabet from Arabic to English; his slow reading by the change of direction in reading.) In fact, some of the problems of learning disabled language learners may be similar to those of all students beginning to learn a second language. However, with the non-disabled learner, these problems should lessen over time.
€ External problems with work, health, and family may account for lack of progress in the second language classroom.
Assessing the Learner
€ Phonological tests (that could include auditory discrimination exercises assessing the learner's ability to distinguish between vowel sounds or between nonsense words) may suggest difficulties the learner could experience with sound-related aspects of the language (Ganschow & Sparks, 1993).
€ Visual screening and routine hearing tests may prove that what appear to be reading or listening and speaking disabilities may be due, in part, to correctable auditory or visual problems (McCormick, 1991).
€ Include opportunities to use several senses and learning strategies.
€ Provide constant structure and multisensory review.
€ Recognize and build on learners' strengths and prior knowledge.
€ Simplify language but not content; emphasize content words and make concepts accessible through the use of pictures, charts, maps, timelines, and diagrams.
€ Reinforce main ideas and concepts through rephrasing rather than through verbatim repetition.
Technology can help adult learners with learning disabilities to acquire a second language, but its use is not well documented. Raskind and Scott (1993) discuss the use of electronic aids for this population. Devices such as personal computers, hand-held translators and dictionaries, personal data keepers, and cassette recorders are useful as are more sophisticated learning tools such as speech synthesizers and reading machines that allow learners to hear as well as see what is displayed on the computer. Also recommended are televisions with closed-caption capabilities and VCR decoding devices that transcribe and project spoken dialogue on the screen. (See Parks, 1994, for discussion of the use of VCR decoding devices with adult ESL learners.)
€ The Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) in Minneapolis, in a project funded by the Minnesota Department of Education and Medtronics, Inc., used a combination of measures at the Lehmann ABE center to assess adult ESL learners who were suspected of having learning disabilities. The assessment included some standardized tests‹the Basic English Skills Test (BEST), the Learning Styles Inventory, a phonics inventory, and the Test of Non-verbal Intelligence-R (Toni-R)‹ as well as some alternative assessment‹learner observations by teachers and learning disabilities specialists, and native language writing samples and interviews. Project findings suggest that learning disabled adult ESL students benefit most when learning disabilities specialists and ESL teachers work together to plan instruction that is individualized, multisensory, phonics-based, and delivered in an environment where the learner is comfortable‹generally the regular classroom (LDA, 1994).
For an updated look at this topic, see ESL Instruction and Adults with Learning Disabilities (Robin Schwarz and Lynda Terrill, 2000)
Baca, L. & Cervantes, H.T. (1991). Bilingual Special Education. ERIC Digest. Reston, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. (ERIC No. ED 333 618)
Ganschow, L., & Sparks, R. (1993). Foreign language and learning disabilities: Issues, research and teaching implications. In S.A. Vogel & P.B. Adelman (Eds.), Success for college students with learning disabilities (pp. 283-322). New York: Springer-Verlag.
Langner, W. (1993, October). New directions for teaching adults with learning disabilities. A.L.L. Points Bulletin, pp. 1-3. (Available from the Division of Adult Education and Literacy, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC 20202-7240)
Learning Disabilities Association. (1994). Learning disabilities and the acquisition of English language skills in the adult ESL population: A demonstration project. Minneapolis, MN: Author.
Lowry, C.M. (1990). Teaching adults with learning disabilities. ERIC Digest. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education. (ERIC No. ED 321 156)
McCormick, K. (1991, April). Myth #14: All literacy problems are the result of learning disabilities. The Literacy Beat, pp. 1-4. (ERIC No. ED 333 116)
Osher D., & Webb, L. (1994). Adult literacy, learning disabilities, and social context: Conceptual foundations for a learner-centered approach. Washington, DC: Pelavin Associates. (Available from the Division of Adult Education and Literacy, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC 20202-7240)
Parks, C. (1994). Closed captioned TV: A resource for ESL literacy education. ERIC Digest.Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education.
Raskind, M.H., & Scott, N.G. (1993). Technology for post secondary students with learning disabilities. In S.A. Vogel & P.B. Adelman (Eds.), Success for college students with learning disabilities (pp. 240-279). New York: Springer-Verlag.
Wrigley, H.S. (1992). Learner assessment in adult ESL literacy. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (ERIC No. ED 353 863)
This document was produced at the Center for Applied Linguistics (4646 40th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20016 202-362-0700) with funding from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), Office of Educational Research and Improvement, under contract no. RI 93002010. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or ED. This document is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.