Learning languages with specific learning difficulties in the 21st century: Perspectives of identification, achievement, assessment and teacher education (Language Learning Roundtable)


A large proportion of people find second language learning and acquiring literacy skills in another language challenging, and within this group of individuals are those who have specific learning difficulties (SpLDs). In order to ensure that SpLDs do not hinder access to education, the job-market and relevant daily activities, they need to be supported in acquiring additional languages and second language (L2) literacy. Therefore, putting research on how individuals with SpLDs acquire additional languages and L2 literacy on the agenda of applied linguistics is an important social and moral responsibility. For the design of effective instructional programs, we also need to uncover what barriers the educational context presents to them and how these could be overcome with the help of teacher education. Furthermore, it is crucial to investigate how one can reliably identify SpLDs in multilingual speakers and what evidence there is for the beneficial effects of access arrangements in the assessment of L2 proficiency. This colloquium showcases four key areas of investigation around learning and using languages with SpLDs in different geographical and educational contexts. The first presentation of the colloquium focusses on issues of identification of language impairment of multilingual children in Canada. The second presentation informs language teaching pedagogy for children with SpLDs by examining the cognitive, motivational and linguistic predictors of success in learning English as an L2 in the Netherlands. In the third talk, the potential benefits of special arrangements for test-takers with SpLDs are discussed in the context of Slovenia and Hungary. The last talk elaborates lessons for teacher education gained through an analysis of barriers to inclusive language teaching and a study of teacher attitudes towards dyslexia and inclusive practices in India and Sri Lanka. After the presentation of the empirical research findings, each contribution will outline a detailed action plan for future research. Presenters will also offer an in-depth discussion of the implications of their research findings for multilingual pedagogies and educational policies in their geographic contexts.

Late-emerging language impairment in English language learners and their monolingual peers
Esther Geva & Fataneh Farnia, University of Toronto

Research involving monolinguals has demonstrated that language impairment can be noticed in the early years, and tends to persist into adolescence. More recently, research has begun to address the challenges of identifying and treating language impairment (LI) in second-language learners. In this study, we hypothesized that the language difficulties of a subgroup of English Language Learners (ELL) is not detected early probably because their difficulties are attributed to their ELL status. Nevertheless, their language difficulties become more pronounced in later years, hence “late-emerging LI”.

In this longitudinal study we examined (a) the existence of late-emerging LI in Grades 4-6 in English-speaking monolinguals and ELLs, and (b) the Grade 1 and 3 cognitive, language, and reading profiles that could predict late-emerging LI. The study involved monolinguals (n=149) and ELLs (n=402) coming from different home language backgrounds who began their schooling in an English environment when they were 5-6 years old.  The ELL and monolinguals were recruited from the same schools. Cognitive (working memory, phonological short-term memory processing speed), language (vocabulary and syntax), and word reading skills of the monolinguals and ELLs were assessed annually from grades 1 to 6.  Separate parallel analyses in the monolingual and ELL samples, indicated that late-emerging LI exists and its incidence is similar in the monolingual and ELLs groups.  Results also showed that late-emerging LI can be identified as early as Grade 1 on the basis of cognitive processes such as phonological awareness and processing speed.

Findings of the current study are in line with the theoretical conceptualization offered by Ullman and Pierpont (2005) and the distinction between declarative knowledge (such as vocabulary) and procedural knowledge and the application of rules (syntactic knowledge). Children with late-emerging LI do not demonstrate difficulties with word-specific declarative knowledge of vocabulary but do with later emerging syntactic skills. Instead, early and later difficulties with phonological awareness are associated with late-emerging LI.  Following the description of the results we will consider implications for classroom ELL teachers, speech and language pathologists and school psychologists in terms attention to warning signs, awareness of potentially misleading attributions, and classroom teaching practice.

Why some children succeed and others fail in learning English as a foreign language
Nihayra Leona, Margreet van Koert, Judith Rispens, Jurgen Tijms, Maurits van der Molen & Patrick Snellings, University of Amsterdam

Children with Specific Learning Differences (SpLDs) might not only experience difficulties in learning the majority language of the country they live in but also when learning English as a Foreign Language (EFL) at school. Becoming proficient in reading and writing in EFL, due to its opaque orthography, is particularly challenging for children with weak literacy skills in their first language. To better understand and ultimately prevent problems in EFL for students with SpLDs, we need to determine which cognitive, motivational and linguistic factors contribute to success in EFL. The present study focused on predicting individual differences in English word and sentence reading and word spelling in Dutch primary school children learning EFL. A total of 279 10-11-year-old Dutch children participated in our research. For most children Dutch was their first language, for others their second, and they all had received at least half a year of formal English teaching. All children performed tasks that are known to be challenging for children with reading problems in their first language: (1) Dutch timed pseudo(word) reading, rapid naming and phonological awareness. In addition, (2) a non-verbal intelligence task (RAVEN), and verbal short-term and working memory tasks (WISC) were administered. Children furthermore (3) filled in questionnaires tapping motivation and extramural exposure to English. Number of years of formal English teaching and number of languages spoken at home (4) were also reported. We used hierarchical linear regressions for each dependent variable (English word spelling; English sentence reading, and English word reading) to examine the contribution of the variables reported in (1) – (4) above. Results show that individual differences in English spelling for Dutch children were predicted by their spelling abilities in Dutch and the exposure to extramural English. Both word and sentence reading in English was significantly associated with Dutch word reading, phonological awareness and extramural exposure to English. We will discuss how the current findings enable teachers of English as an L2 to take  individual differences into account and how they can improve their support for children with SpLD. We will also outline how ongoing and future research can develop computerized tools for teachers that make this individualized instruction feasible.

The benefits of special arrangements for test-takers with specific learning difficulties
Judit Kormos, Lancaster University

One of the key issues that language testers face when designing and administering a test is how to ensure fairness for test-takers with specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) so that they do not compromise the validity of the test.  One type of special arrangement that is often provided for test-takers with SpLDs is extended time for completing the assessment tasks. Currently very few studies have systematically investigated how second language (L2) learners with SpLDs benefit from time-extension in L2 reading assessment. Research in this area is needed to uncover whether time-extension offers meaningful assistance for L2 users with SpLDs.

In this presentation I discuss the findings of a study that examined the impact extended time on the L2 reading performance of young Hungarian learners of English. In a counter-balanced research design, 100 students aged 13-14 took a standard and an extended-time version (+25% time) of the Aptis for Teens Reading test of the British Council with each intact group starting with either the standard or the extended version. L1 reading comprehension was assessed using a Hungarian national literacy test and word-level L1 skills were measured with the help of the 3DM-H software tool (Vaessen, Bertrand, Tóth, Csépe, Faísca, Reis & Blomert, 2010). The study showed that neither students who had below average L1 literacy skills, which can be indicative of SpLDs, or participants whose L1 skills were in the average or above average range gained from time extension. This result might be due to the inclusive design of the test (cf. Fairbairn & Spiby, 2019). It also confirms previous findings in the area of L1 literacy assessment that offered limited evidence for the differential boost of time extension for students with SpLDs. Implications of the results for inclusive language assessment will be discussed and directions for future research that examines how language tests can be made accessible for candidates with SpLDs will be outlined.

Attitudes and knowledge of dyslexia among ELT professionals and challenges to introducing inclusive practices in South Asia
Bimali Indrarathne, University of York, United Kingdom

As it is estimated that 10% of the world population has dyslexia or related specific learning difficulties, it is vital that language teachers aim for creating an inclusive classroom environment. However, one of the main obstacles in implementing inclusive practices at classroom level is lack of teacher awareness on dyslexia (Nijakowska, 2019). Research evidence shows that teacher training can increase teachers’ knowledge of dyslexia and inclusion, inculcate positive attitudes among them on inclusion and increase their self-efficacy beliefs (e.g. Kormos & Nijakowska, 2017). Based on a teacher training programme conducted in India and Sri Lanka with the participation of 398 English language teaching professionals, this paper discusses teacher attitudes towards dyslexia and inclusive practices, their knowledge of dyslexia and the challenges they face in implementing inclusive classroom practices in the South Asian context. The questionnaire and interview data collected in the programme revealed that the majority of participants had relatively negative attitudes or misconceptions of dyslexia. However, the teacher training programme was successful in changing these negative attitudes, increase participants’ knowledge of dyslexia and inclusive practices and enhance teachers’ their readiness to implement inclusive classroom techniques. The findings also revealed that institutional barriers such as a rigid examination system and lack of flexibility in the curriculum may hinder how inclusive practices are implemented. In addition, aspects of socio-cultural ideology and practical classroom challenges also acted as barriers to inclusion. Based on these findings, the talk will highlight how teacher training programmes should be shaped in order to increase teacher knowledge on inclusive education. Future research directions on society’s contribution to creating inclusive school environments will also be discussed.