As it is usually said, languages are like bridges that help connect people and cultures. It brings us all a bit closer to each other. But before we start building the language bridge, we need to make sure we have all the right elements: content; learning resources; methodology; practice. But what happens when the construction field does not match our blueprints and, suddenly, we find a huge wall standing right in the middle of where the language bridge should be?
This is exactly how students with learning disabilities- those who are blocked to achieve due to their disabilities and not due to lack of intelligence – feel. They feel as if a massive wall was standing in between their path to success in the language learning process.
This is where the dilemma begins: what to do with the wall. Should we break it? Are we strong enough to take it down? If so, how will we do it? Or should we climb the wall instead? And if none of those questions can be answered, how do we turn the wall into an advantage instead of a disadvantage? How do we make it less intimidating and more encouraging?
Before we take any steps further, we must admit that there is, in fact, a wall. A wall which is made up of bricks of difficulties that we need to acknowledge them one by one. This process of recognition will show us that we need something different to assess the situation. We need a different attitude; a different type of learning strategy.
Let me illustrate this with an example. Once I was explaining an assignment to a small group of students in a summer school. They were all staring at me. No one understood what I wanted them to do. So, I implemented my own strategy. I resorted to a more practical approach. I went from one student to another and explained, showed, demonstrated in their notebooks what I expected from that particular assignment. And within 10 minutes all 15 students finished their assignment.
That very day I realized how students with ADD behave when presented with a new task. They look and stare at you but your words do not “sink in”. They don’t hear you, not because they don’t want to, but because they need a different teaching approach that would appeal to them better. If you move around, and show them individually what you wanted them to do , they will do it easily and instantly!
Hence, it became very clear to me that one key feature of my methodology should be practical and active work, even a practical and active explanation! The second key feature that I incorporated was small steps of explanations and very small steps of implementation. This is of vital importance. The less abstract, the better. The smaller the assignments, the better. Very small steps will lead to better and meaningful understanding and to long term memory development.
For a student with learning disabilities, games that involve logics are extremely important and play a key role in engaging them in the learning process. For them, the more logical the teaching approach is, the more order they find the better they learn. The better they learn the better results they achieve. Disorder is tackled by implementing logic and order. Disorder is solved by order.
Throughout the years I have identified that one of the crucial problems that students face when learning a new language is the word order of the sentence. This constitutes a crucial brick in the impairing wall. Right next to this brick we can find other two which render the whole structure even more difficult to tear apart: vocabulary and grammar. These three intertwined factors must be tackled by the student if he wants to succeed in the language learning process. This is when the third key feature of my methodology is put into practice. The grammatical approach of the language is taught through patterns of grammar in addition to lots of varied repetitive practice. By not separating the grammar from the vocabulary, we make the student produce a whole sentence from the very beginning, achieving the integration of all the factors of the language in order to make one complete sentence. Through our exercises the student is encouraged to build, construct the whole sentence based on the introduced patterns and the new vocabulary provided within the context of the exercise, as if he was putting everything together with Lego bricks. All the required information is presented to the student in a simple, structured way so that he can resort to it and assemble the words into a coherent string of thought.
Instead of tearing the wall apart or climbing it we are reconceptualizing every brick that constitutes the wall so that the student can approach it as a tool rather than as an obstacle. This strategy fosters independent learning and helps the student grow his or her confidence and self-esteem regarding the learning process. The methodology is intended to develop, through employing logics, the student’s intelligence in order for him to construct sentences.
As we mentioned before, the language learning process requires that the student acknowledges the obstacles that he or she might have to face along the way. And it is our duty as language facilitators to introduce the students with new learning strategies, different from the ones they know, and to encourage them to address those obstacles in the best possible way they can. We must show them that a different approach to language learning is possible and that if they incorporate this new tool into their set of skills for building the language bride, there is no wall tall enough or thick enough that could stand in their way of succeeding and mastering a second language.