Unit seven, task two. Teaching vocabulary and grammar. Students who have specific learning differences, such as dyslexia, may experience difficulties in a number of aspects of learning an additional language. Here we consider the challenges that are commonly encountered in developing vocabulary and grammar, and suggest teaching strategies that may be helpful in overcoming them. Some of the main causes of problems in these areas are likely to be the learner’s limited phonological awareness and difficulties with short term memory and sequencing. For both of these aspects of language development, the four key principles underpinning teaching should be an emphasis on introducing small manageable chunks of language, providing explicit instruction, and the opportunity for lots of repetition and recycling.
Multi-sensory activities should be used for both presentation and practise.
Learning new lexical items involves quite a complex process of combining information about the sound, pronunciation, meaning, and spelling, as well as pragmatic information relating to how the new items can be used in context. It’s usually best to limit the number of items to be learned– up to about 10 in any lesson is plenty– and to focus explicitly on attaching the pronunciation to the meaning before moving on to the spelling and other aspects of the item. New items should be presented in a context that’s familiar to learners whenever possible. It’s also a good idea not to teach items that are too similar in any aspect in one lesson.
For example, students may struggle with differentiating who and how, or perhaps when and where. Because of that phonological and syntactic similarities. Unfortunately, of course, in many syllabuses these items will be presented at about the same time. But it’s more helpful to dyslexic learners to focus on one at a time. And only move onto another similar item when the first is firmly established. In presenting a new item it’s useful to provide a kinesthetic or physical cue– like a mime or a gesture– as well as a visual cue to complement the pronunciation. This helps to prompt retrieval of the word later.
Visual cues might take the form of a picture or sketch and could be produced by the learners themselves to help reinforce the item in their memories.
In learning the spelling of new items, it’s useful to help learners notice any familiar patterns in the words, as well as pointing out unusual phoneme grapheme correspondences. Tracing the word using large arm motions– or what we call sky writing– and then gradually reducing the scale to tracing the letters on the page, can be useful in reinforcing the sequence of letters. And this can be backed up with mnemonics. These are little stories or rhymes that the learner can make up for him or herself, and they can use their first language if they feel that’s better for them.
Ideally there should be several opportunities for the learner to hear and produce the new items within the lesson they’re presented in, as well as in subsequent lessons. But they also need some form of practise between lessons. For this, computer games are useful as they engage young learners. But even simple techniques, such as building a pack of vocabulary cards, can be effective. The learner should write the target language items on one side, and then equivalents in the first language or pictures that remind them of the meaning on the other.
Something similar could also be done with a mobile phone or a voice recorder, where the learner reads out a list of target items with a space between them, and then plays it back checking that they can give an equivalent from their first language for each one.
When working on developing grammar, presenting the new constructions in a familiar context is crucial to ensure fundamental understanding of the appropriate use of the new structure. It should also build on what students already know. And just one small development should be presented at a time. So for example, if students have become comfortable with forming positive simple present sentences, they may be ready to progress on to forming negative simple present sentences. But forming questions in the present simple, may be a further step for another session, another time. The rules relating to the new construction need to be pointed out and made explicit along with any common exceptions.
Students may well be able to infer the rules from exposure to the language just as well as any other student could, but there’s always a risk that dyslexic students may be making different connections from those that most of us make. And therefore, they may build a slightly different set of rules resulting in nonstandard usage, which unfortunately often becomes fixed. As with any new language point, students who have a specific learning difference will need a lot of practise in order for it becomes secure. Ideally, this would be in the form of activities that allow all the sensory channels to be activated. Using colour to indicate different parts of speech is an effective way to help learners see how sentences are formed.
And using something tactile like Cuisenaire rods or LEGO bricks to build sentences adds a kinesthetic dimension. This also allows a way in to talk about the structure of the language without adding the grammatical terminology like subject, verb, noun, et cetera, which many learners find confusing. And this is really important because talking about the structure of language and developing meta-cognitive strategies that they can draw on independently is immensely helpful for language learners.
Once students have had the opportunity to practise using the new structure orally, practise activities can be added that incorporate the use of text. But ideally, these should offer a supported framework. For example, students could be asked to complete some sentences with some words missing. Or to rearrange individual word cards to make a sentence. We need to make sure that there’s not too sudden a increase in the demands of the task, such that free writing might present. Otherwise, the attention of the learner may be taken away from the grammar point under consideration to tackle more fundamental issues of letter formation or spelling. Eventually of course, tasks may be presented that do require free writing.
But even at this point the topic should be familiar, and plenty of time should be allowed for thinking through how to express the ideas.
So in conclusion, we can see that there are several challenges facing dyslexic learners when they come to develop their vocabulary and grammar in an additional language, mainly due to phonological processing, memory, and sequencing constraints. However, for every challenge we can find a solution or a strategy that will help the learners to make progress. It is important to keep in mind of course, that not all learners with specific learning differences will experience the same challenges in the same ways. For example, learners whose specific learning difference includes elements of Asperger syndrome, may find that they can quite easily remember new lexical items and follow grammatical rules without any problems.
But they may struggle more with the pragmatic usage of the phrases or the constructions and need more explicit instruction in appropriacy in different situations. For teachers the key is to offer a range of strategies, and help learners to discover which ones work best for them. Students with specific learning differences may need a little longer than their peers to develop their vocabulary and range of structures. But with the right help, they will succeed.