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What are special needs?

Each student has specific needs. Learning a foreign language presents everyone with a challenge. However, some students are learning in atypical circumstances. They have special needs.
For example, some have particular difficulty hearing, seeing, speaking or moving. They are learning outside of typical sensory parameters. Other students have particular difficulty concentrating, comprehending, decoding or assimilating, which in turn affects the capacity to read or write. These are students outside of typical cognitive parameters. Others again experience specific emotional, psychological or cultural circumstances, which may, in turn, influence behaviourial or social parameters. Some learners may experience a combination of these situations.
It is worth observing that special needs students include gifted learners, who because they are brilliant also fall outside of curricular targets. Learners with special needs will disengage if ignored.

An impossible situation?

Many educators will be quick to spot a child who is experiencing difficulties. Unfortunately the buck may stop there. Specialist diagnosis, support and follow-up can be in very short supply. Thus years may go by without anything being done. In some situations, parents themselves may only be discovering that special support is necessary as the child gets older. This can be a very difficult process in itself, requiring a great deal of understanding and sensitivity from the educators. Others again may be fully aware that their child needs a lot of help from the get-go. They can feel abandoned by school systems and like every school term is a gargantuan struggle for support and inclusion.
Unfortunately, everything can be down to the initiative of one over-worked, over-stressed class teacher with twenty-five other children, to insist on pushing a process through for a child.

Successful Intervention

As early intervention can make a huge difference, it is crucial that a protocol for action and support be in place at schools. This requires excellent coordination between direction, class teachers, language teachers and specialist teachers, and, of course, families and learners... It also requires that all the professionals involved have a certain amount of training.
Last but not least, the policy makers controling the funding and resources must be committed to providing equitative education, that is funding and resources. In recent years we have seen a tendency to the contrary, increased class sizes, reduction in the numbers of specialist teachers allocated for support.
On the plus side, most university programmes now include special needs education as part of of the general obligatory programme for all trainee teachers.


Standards and standardised testing may do more to hinder than to help many special needs students, who will often fall outside the expected stages. In the happiest of circumstances, students with sensory difficulties may compensate and, in fact, show themselves to be exceptionally gifted. Many others trapped in a system ill-suited to their needs, and will fall ‘behind’. It can be helpful to bear in mind that standards, levels and indeed expectations are abstract constructs. They are helpful if they do and not if they are not.

How we can help special needs students to learn?

The first thing we can do is arm ourselves with information and ideas. Many online communities provide specific support, suggestions and resources. Almost all of the above mentioned situations are being researched. And there are many technological developments, techniques and strategies to help people in each situation.
The next thing we can do is work out how much individual attention is appropriate and how that can be provided.
Group learning is not always the best option for the learner, although it usually is. Small groups typical of extra curricular clases are best. At school, there are specialist teachers, specialized in special needs or English, not normally both. At school, teachers don’t always feel free to adapt the curriculum. In extra curricular clases, teachers, although not usually trained in special needs, can do what it is best for students for individual students with more liberty, and do not need to rigidly adhere to a curricular or exam demands. In this instance the best is to be as open as possible about circumstances to give the educator a chance to adapt classes, techniques and method.
In language learning groups outside of formal education settings it is much easier to adapt to the rhythm and needs of the participants.

Physical Challenges

Motorsensory difficulties encompass a wide range of students including people who are wholly or partially deaf, blind, unable to speak and/or paralysed. It includes learners with dyspraxia.
People in all of those circumstances can certainly learn second and third languages, they need to use the sensory channels that are effective for them. For example, a student with hearing difficulty may rely more on visual stimulus. By contrast, a student with impairment of sight will rely more on audio stimulus.
Although sometimes less immediately obvious, cognitive difficulties perhaps present greater challenges in terms of foreign language learning.

Cognitive Challenges

Just as people grow physically at different rates, the mental processes that involve perception, reasoning, ordering, planning, memorizing, processing, knowledge, may all develop at different rates. Once again in education there are parameters that are deemed typical at certain age groups. For example, by the time they are seven at primary level many students will be reading.

Understanding Cognitive Needs

Students with cognitive difficulties may include those with dyslexia or attention deficit. There is no one-size fits all label for these learning situations. A student with dyslexia, who may have great difficulty processing lexical input, may also be highly intelligent and be way 'ahead' of other students understanding concepts or thinking laterally. In this case audio input will be optimum.
Equally, a student with dyslexia may also have serious difficulties assimilating information, which can lead to disconnecting and disengagement.
As before, open communication may help the language teacher to present material in a schematic, clutter-free way, using bullet points, spaces which can all help the student.
Beyond inherent difficulties with processing, students with cognitive difficulties can also suffer from low self-esteem, after years of systematically failing everything. Encouragement and praise are vital in this situation. Negative student self-belief can be far more limiting than a processing disability.
For example, three-tiered lesson planning, including a simple task that most or all can achieve easily, a task that is doable with support for the majority of the group and a more challenging task for faster students is a habit of work. It means that everybody can feel good at some point. A little advance planning at the beginning of the year for extra, appropriate material can go a very long way. Simply having the right material handy is an important step for the educators.

Emotional and Behavioural Challenges

People may have social, familial or developmental circumstance that affect their capacity to integrate in a class. Those factors can cause physical, mental or emotional difficulties that in turn affect a student’s ability to socialize, adapt or respect social norms. In short learning can be affected by tension, by worry, by misuderstanding, by lack of confidence. This may include students on the autism spectrum. Or it may include students from other cultures or students who are clinically depressed. Can such students learn another language? The answer is definitely yes if educators can adapt to what they need.

Adapting to Emotional Needs

A simple gesture such as giving a child his/her own seat or establishing very clear signals to initiate or end an activity can give an autistic student a sense of security and routine, which may in turn facilitate his/her well-being within a group and ultimately learning. Or in a completely different instance, conflicting cultural values at home and at school can render some students mute. English class can provide a neutral space where all cultures are on an equal footing, if the educator can take advantage of its potential to do so.
To take a third, utterly different situation, disruptive behaviour can be a cry for attention. Allowing some student choice and control can help calm situations.
Sensitive pairing of students can often help students with emotional difficulty. It is crucial that everyone feels an equal part of the group. There are many techniques and methods that are helpful. However, adapting to special emotional needs of is more a willingness to include, a capacity to empathize or a frame of mind, than any one magic technique.

Is it really possible for people with special needs to learn a second language?

Many countries have serious initiatives and policies to help special needs learners, such as No Child Left Behind or Attention to Diversity in Spain, gradually we see greater social understanding and acceptance of special needs learners. However, in recent years austerity policies have had a devastating effect on the situation for special needs learners in state systems. Extra-curricular language learning, currently provides a context which can be beneficial to people who need method, material and approach that are outside of the box.



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