ERIC Identifier: ED379966
Publication Date: 1995-01-00
Author: Schwarz, Robin - Burt, Miriam
Source: Adjunct ERIC
Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC., National Clearinghouse
for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC.
ESL Instruction for Learning Disabled Adults. ERIC Digest.
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
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?
LEARNING DISABILITIES AND SECOND LANGUAGE LEARNING
disabilities can affect every aspect of learning. They may impair multiple
skills and abilities or they may impair only one. For example, difficulties with
spelling may affect learners' writing skills, but not their reading skills.
Learners may show learning disabilities in their second language yet not in
their first. Often a subtle learning disability in the first language is masked
by an individual's compensatory strategies (e.g., getting general information
about what is said or written through the overall context when specific words or
concepts are not understood or substituting known words for words that cause
difficulty). However, these strategies may not be available to the learner in
the new language (Ganschow & Sparks, 1993; Lowry, 1990).
IDENTIFYING ESL ADULTS WITH LEARNING DISABILITIES
difficult to determine how many adult ESL learners have learning disabilities.
Estimates of the total U.S. adult population who are learning disabled range
from as low as 3% to as high as 80% (Langner, 1993; Lowry, 1990; McCormick,
1991; Osher & Webb, 1994). The percentage of learning disabled students in
adult education classes may exceed that of the population as a whole (Lowry,
1990). It is not known, however, if this is true in adult ESL classes.
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).
Before identifying an adult as learning disabled, other reasons for lack of
expected progress should be considered.
Limited previous educational experience may hinder progress in learning, that
is, lack of exposure to classroom behaviors (using a pencil, repeating after a
teacher, "reading" from a chalkboard, etc.) may be new and difficult for the
learner with little or no prior schooling.
The lack of effective study habits may cause problems in learning.
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.
A mismatch between the instructor's teaching style and the learner's
expectations of how the class will be conducted may slow progress in learning
External problems with work, health, and family may account for lack of progress
in the second language classroom.
ASSESSING THE LEARNER
Using standardized tests to identify
learning disabilities presents problems: First, instruments designed to diagnose
learning disabilities are usually normed on native English speakers. Therefore,
the results cannot be reliably used with learners whose first language is not
English. Portions of some tests can give a clear idea of a learner's strengths
and weaknesses, but simple scores based on a whole test are not always reliable.
Because the concepts and language being tested may have no direct translation,
the validity of tests translated into the native language is questionable.
Second, the tests are primarily designed for and normed on "younger" students
and may not be suitable for adults (Lowry, 1990). Finally, since no single
assessment technique is sufficient to diagnose a learning disability, multiple
assessment measures (including the following) are necessary.
An interview in the native language can provide invaluable information about the
learner's previous educational experience in English and in the native language,
it can alert programs to learner expectations for classroom instruction, and it
can provide insight into the learner's functioning in the first language
(Ganschow & Sparks, 1993; Learning Disabilities Association, 1994).
Portfolio assessment--in which measurements of learner progress in reading and
writing are considered along with attendance data, writing samples,
autobiographical information, and work on class assignments--is favored in many
programs because its variety of input provides a broad picture of the learner's
performance (Wrigley, 1992).
Phonological tests (that could include auditory discrimination exercises
assessing the learners 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).
INSTRUCTIONAL METHODS AND MATERIALS
affect learning in any language and must therefore be a guiding factor in
designing instruction for adult learners with disabilities. Educators of
learning disabled children and adults (Baca & Cervantes, 1991; Ganschow
& Sparks, 1993; Lowry, 1990) give the following suggestions for providing
Be highly structured and predictable.
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
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.)
TEACHER TRAINING FOR INSTRUCTION AND ASSESSMENT
elementary and secondary level ESL programs, the need for teachers trained in
both ESL and special education has been recognized for some time, and various
teacher training models team ESL instructors and special education instructors
(Baca & Cervantes, 1991). In adult basic education and adult ESL, where less
time and money are available for program capacity building through research and
teacher training, there are fewer models to look to. However, two programs have
been funded to do research on adult ESL learners with learning disabilities.
The Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP) has received a grant from
the Virginia Adult Educators Research Network to explore ways teachers can
assist adult ESL students who may be learning disabled to acquire and retain
basic literacy in a learner-centered classroom or computer lab. Through the use
of a combination of standardized assessment tools, portfolio assessment, and
narrative case studies of students who do not make expected progress, REEP hopes
to find a few specific techniques that benefit not only students with learning
disabilities, but all students in the program (L. Terrill, personal
communication, January 3, 1995).
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).
As the extent of learning disabilities in the
adult ESL population becomes more evident, training in issues and instructional
methods related to learning disabilities will need to be part of professional
development for all adult ESL educators. Research leading to the development of
guidelines for assessment and instruction must be funded. Broader cooperation
among the fields of ESL, adult education, and special education should ensure
that the instructional needs of learning disabled ESL adults are being met.
Baca, L. & Cervantes, H.T. (1991).
"Bilingual Special Education." ERIC Digest. Reston, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Disabilities and Gifted Education. (ED 333 618)
Ganschow, L., & Sparks, R. (1993). Foreign language and learning
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(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
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McCormick, K. (1991, April). Myth #14: All literacy problems are the result
of learning disabilities. "The Literacy Beat", pp. 1-4. (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 Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy
Education. (ED 372 662)
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
Wrigley, H.S. (1992). "Learner assessment in adult ESL literacy." ERIC
Digest. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education. (ED
"Special thanks to Jeffrey Schwartz, COMSIS, Silver Spring, MD."