Assisting Students with Foreign Language Learning Difficulties in School

By: Leonore Ganschow and Elke Schneider

The question of why some students seem to learn a foreign language with ease while others struggle has plagued both foreign language and special educators, especially in recent years.

Prior to the 1970's, primarily college-bound students studied foreign languages in our schools in most states. Today, however, the study of another language in school is often a requirement for high school graduation, and an increasing number of colleges and universities require a minimum of two years of a foreign language prior to graduation, particularly for students who have majors in Arts & Science programs (Brod & Welles, 2000). According to the Guidelines of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), the study of a foreign language is a recommendation for all students at all ability levels (ACTFL, 2000). Yet students with moderate to severe difficulties with English may find the completion of a foreign language requirement seemingly impossible. Often these students are classified as having dyslexia or language learning disabilities; sometimes they are not classified but nevertheless struggle considerably to meet the foreign language requirement.

Students who appear to have the most difficulty are those who have experienced moderate to severe reading and spelling difficulties in their native language in their early schooling and now are required to study another language in school. Others without histories of difficulties also may find the study of a foreign language challenging. All of these students are likely to benefit from the adaptations described below. In this article, we address the following questions related to foreign language learning:

  • Who may have difficulty successfully fulfilling a foreign language requirement in school?
  • What do research findings indicate about foreign language study and at-risk students?
  • Which instructional methods are beneficial for at-risk foreign language learners?
  • What additional adaptations might students with moderate to severe language learning difficulties need?
  • What challenges exist for students with moderate to severe foreign language learning difficulties?
  • What challenges exist for teachers of students with moderate to severe foreign language learning difficulties?
  • What can administrators and foreign language departments do to facilitate foreign language learning for all their students?
  • Are there circumstances under which a student is exempt from the study of a foreign language?
  • What recommendations do the experts make for the study of a foreign language?

Who may have difficulty successfully fulfilling a foreign language requirement in school?

Students who have difficulties in one or more of the language systems — reading, writing (especially spelling and grammar), listening, speaking — may experience problems learning a foreign language in school. The degree of difficulty a student is likely to experience depends, to a large extent, on the nature and severity of his/her language problems in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Students who have moderate to severe difficulties in most or all of these language systems in the native language are likely to experience the most problems learning a foreign language, particularly in language classrooms that emphasize an oral communication approach. Language problems can range on a continuum from mild to moderate to severe. Students who have difficulties learning a foreign language are sometimes referred to as "at-risk" because of their struggles in the regular foreign language classroom. Some of these students may have been classified by the school as having language learning disabilities or dyslexia.

What do research findings indicate about foreign language study and at-risk students?

Research findings on students in the U.S. suggest that at-risk students who have difficulty with foreign language learning generally have experienced overt or subtle problems with the oral and/or written aspects of their native language. These problems can occur in any combination and at different levels of severity in three areas of language: (1) the phonological/ orthographic area (sounds and sound-symbol relationships, letter combinations), (2) the syntactic area (grammar, how words connect in sentences), and (3) the semantic area (meaning of words and word parts). For example, students who had difficulties with the phonological/ orthographic component of English in elementary school may have had difficulty learning and remembering the sounds of the consonants and distinguishing the different sounds of vowels. Later, as they study a foreign language, they may have difficulty learning to pronounce, read, and spell words.

Students who had problems with the syntactic component of the native language may have experienced problems with subject-verb agreement and use of plurals, possessives, and parts of speech in the native language. In their writing, they did not use complete sentences and sometimes used incorrect verb tenses. Later, in the study of a foreign language, they may struggle to conjugate verbs (that is, selecting the correct ending for a verb related to the subject of the sentence). They may have difficulty matching the correct masculine or feminine pronoun with a noun or placing the adjective in the proper order in a spoken or written sentence.

Students who had both weak grammar and semantics (meaning) skills in the native language may have had difficulty comprehending the meaning of what was said to them in the native language when listening to others speak, or problems comprehending what they read. Later, in the study of a foreign language, they may do well in the first semester or year of foreign language learning because sentence structures are relatively simple and vocabulary concentrates on concrete, life-related topics. In advanced level courses, however, the amount and complexity of listening, speaking, reading, and writing tasks increases. Students' difficulties increase as language complexity increases.

Second, research findings also show that the primary difficulty for at-risk foreign language learners most likely originates in the phonological/orthographic (sound-symbol), and sometimes, syntactic, areas of language rather than the semantic area. Their difficulties often become apparent in the first semester of a foreign language course. Students with low levels of sound-symbol and grammatical skills tend to have problems with most aspects of foreign language learning — listening, speaking, pronunciation, reading, and writing. (For reviews on foreign language and at-risk students, see, e.g., Ganschow & Sparks, 2001, 2000; Sparks, 1995. For a review of native language phonological/orthographic processes, see Shankweiler & Fowler, 2004.)

Third, research across languages illustrates that languages differ on a number of dimensions, and the differences between one's native language and the foreign language of study can pose problems for students with language difficulties. For example, one dimension on which languages differ has to do with the regularity of the language's sound-letter correspondences. This regularity can range from languages that are highly regular, where a single sound is represented by a single letter (for example, Italian) to languages that are highly complex, where one letter can represent several sounds and a sound can be represented by several different letters (for example, English).

Another dimension on which languages differ is in their morphological complexity. Some languages allow for numerous additions of words or parts of words, and word endings change depending upon their place in the sentence. For languages with complex morphologies, for example, students may have to break down long words of many syllables into their parts to determine meaning, or they may have to add one or more "affixes" or word parts to the word to produce grammatically and semantically meaningful information.

Other dimensions on which languages differ are grammatical rules and special markings on letters. The arrangement of word order in sentences, agreement between subject and verb, and how clauses are linked are examples of grammatical rules. Some languages have a great variety of diacritical markings, which may denote a particular pronunciation, an accent, or even grammatical information necessary for obtaining meaning. In short, there is no "simple" foreign language, as all have "dimensions" that could pose difficulty for students with language processing difficulties (see, Grigorenko, 2002).

To date, research findings indicate that it is not clear who will and who will not be able to master the study of a foreign language in school. For example, some students classified as having learning disabilities have been found to be successful in their study of a foreign language (Sparks, Philips, & Javorsky, 2003). Thus, it is important to look at instructional practices that can foster success in foreign language learning for at-risk foreign language learners.

Which instructional methods are beneficial for at-risk foreign language learners?

Research findings indicate that studentsat-risk for failing to learn a foreignlanguage can benefit from multisensorystructured, explicit language instruction(Ganschow & Sparks, 2005a,b; Schneider,1999; Schneider & Crombie, 2003;Sparks, Artzer, et al., 1998). A multisensorystructured language (MSL) approachin the foreign language is similar toinstruction in English. (For a discussion ofMSL principles in English, see Birsch,2005.) Below are a few specific suggestionsfor foreign language teachers, basedon eight MSL principles. The suggestionsare versatile strategies that can be effectivein inclusive foreign language classrooms(see Ganschow & Sparks,2005a,b; Schneider & Crombie, 2003).


  • Teach the language using multiple input/output strategies — visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic.
  • Use several learning channels simultaneously (listening, speaking, reading, writing, and mnemonic devices for memory). Research findings suggest that hearing, seeing, and saying a word (concept) simultaneously enhances memory.
  • When teaching new sounds and symbols, teach only one or two at a time. In teaching a new or unfamiliar sound, ask the student to imitate the teacher's modeling of mouth movements and to trace the letter pattern while saying and spelling the sound. (For a comprehensive description of the approach, see Sparks, Ganschow, Kenneweg, & Miller, 1991; Sparks & Miller, 2000.)
  • Use visual aids when appropriate. Examples are picture clues for words, hand and mouth movements to illustrate a sound, or color coded endings to illustrate gender and subject/verb agreement.


  • Provide opportunities for the student to practice and review a concept frequently to assure automaticity. Examples might include practicing forming letters correctly, spelling non-phonetic words, and reviewing spelling patterns.
  • Provide guided pair work activities to practice and reinforce a concept, pairing a strong student with a weaker student.
  • For reinforcement, provide ample time to discover, practice, and use meaningful mnemonic devices, such as songs with specified grammatical sentence structures or special rhythms; reinforce concepts by using acronyms (for example, USA = United States of America), drawings, and gestures.


  • Teach language concepts in a logical progression and help the student categorize concepts.
  • Provide structured, explicit overviews of the material covered. Examples include study guides of the day's activities, summary sheets, graphic representations, and semantic maps.
  • Directly and explicitly teach grammatical, syntactic, and morphological patterns engaging all learning channels for maximum outcomes.


  • Organize language concepts from simple to complex. For example, consonant+vowel+consonant patterns with three letters should be taught before using blends or digraphs for four- and five-letter words.


  • Directly teach the student the sounds of the language and the letter(s) those sounds/sound sequences represent. Progress from most frequently to least frequently appearing letter-sound patterns so that students can experience success as quickly as possible.


  • Directly teach the student the sounds of the language and the letter(s) those sounds/sound sequences represent. Progress from most frequently to least frequently appearing letter-sound patterns so that students can experience success as quickly as possible.


  • Help the student think about the language concept to be learned and to explain the concept in his/her own words. This process helps the student understand why certain rules or procedures occur in the language of study. Knowing why assists the student in learning to develop self-confidence in identifying and correcting his/her own errors.


  • Show the student how to break apart words, especially words with more than one syllable, and then show him/her how to put the parts back together again. This approach will help students self-correct and improve their decoding and spelling.

Oftentimes the MSL principles are combined. The following example includes structured, sequential and metacognitive MSL principles.

  • Conduct a task analysis of the concept to be learned. Break the concept or skill into small working steps and model for the student how to think through a concept. Repeat this procedure as often as necessary.

What additional adaptations might students with moderate to severe language learning difficulties need?

Students who have moderate to severe language learning difficulties may need more intensive instruction than that provided in the general foreign language classroom. This instruction might include one-to-one or small group tutoring, extra time and practice to master a language concept, a reduced course load to enable the student to focus on the foreign language, and, in some cases, instruction in special classroom settings (See, e.g., Downey & Snyder, 2001; Sparks, et al., 1998; Sparks & Miller, 2000).

What challenges exist for students with moderate to severe foreign language learning difficulties?

One challenge for students might be finding the appropriate learning environment for their particular needs. Sometimes students need extra time to learn a foreign language concept, a slower pace of instruction, and special attention to specific aspects of the foreign language, such as the sounds and special symbols of the language and grammatical rules. Sometimes students need extra tutoring in the language. They may need a distraction- free learning environment and explicit guidance about language concepts. These accommodations may not be available.

Another challenge might be the need for students to recognize and acknowledge their own unique learning difficulties. This may necessitate putting in considerable extra effort to complete the foreign language requirement successfully, asking for support from various resources (teachers, tutors, peers), and frequently requesting the additional explanations they may need to understand a concept.

What challenges exist for teachers of students with moderate to severe foreign language learning difficulties?

Traditionally, foreign language teacher education has prepared teachers for the ideal learner who can thrive in whole-language instructional settings without explicit attention to the underlying linguistic patterns of the foreign language. By and large, students are expected to become proficient in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and pronunciation through exposure and practice. Teachers, therefore, may need training in methods of addressing the special needs of some students in their classrooms. They may require additional time and resources to establish a classroom appropriate for students with diverse needs and abilities. They may need to work together with a student with learning difficulties to determine what accommodations might be most beneficial for that student.

What can administrators and foreign language departments do to facilitate foreign language learning for all their students?

The ACTFL Guidelines recommend that foreign language study be available for all our nation's students. By definition, this includes individuals classified as having specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. Administrators and foreign language departments may need to demonstrate flexibility in setting criteria for foreign language study in school settings (see Schneider, 1999; Schneider & Crombie, 2003). Examples include release time for teachers to provide small group tutoring, funding for specialized additional tutors for after school support, curriculum schedules that allow for slowing the pace of foreign language content instruction and planning of ways to re-integrate students back into the regular classes in the second/third year, and developing and implementing an alternative foreign language instructional program for students at-risk foreign language learners.

Are there circumstances under which a student is exempt from the study of a foreign language?

In some cases, despite considerable time and effort, a student may not experience success in a foreign language classroom. Some high schools and colleges and universities provide an option for students to petition to take course substitutions for the foreign language requirement. To qualify for course substitutions, generally, students must provide documentation of testing and a diagnosis of a learning disability. Sometimes students must demonstrate a history of failure to learn the language despite special assistance. Schools that offer course waivers or substitutions sometimes include a statement in the school's governance document, and the student is required to meet with the school's learning assistance specialist to determine eligibility. (For further information on course substitution procedures, see Philips, Ganschow, & Anderson, 1991; Shaw, 1999; Simon, 2001.)

What recommendations do the experts make for the study of a foreign language?

To date, there is evidence that students with language learning difficulties can succeed in their study of a foreign language, especially if they have appropriate instructional modifications. A small body of research evidence suggests, for example, that at-risk students can experience success in classrooms that provide direct, explicit instruction on language structure and extra time to master the subject matter (see, e.g., Downey & Snyder, 2001; Sparks & Miller, 2000). Some experts therefore encourage students to expose themselves to the study of a language of their choice early in their schooling, talk to their instructor about their language needs, and seek additional help as soon as it is needed. They recommend that students recognize that the study of a foreign language may take extra effort on their part, but that it will provide them with an experience in linguistic and cultural diversity that is desirable today in our global society. Sometimes struggling students may need to take fewer courses or focus specifically on foreign language study. It is helpful in this situation to provide letters of support from foreign language instructors as well as documentation of effort. Under the right circumstances, then, the study of a foreign language can be a positive and culturally broadening experience.

About the authors

Leonore Ganschow, Ed.D., retired in 1998 from a professorship at Miami University (OH), where she taught courses in educational psychology, learning disabilities and gifted education for 17 years. After retirement she was Acting Editor of Annals of Dyslexia for two years and editor of a newsletter for the International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities (IARLD) for six years. Her research interests are in the areas of language disabilities (native, foreign, oral and written). She has published over 60 book chapters and articles and serves as editorial consultant for several journals in her field.Currently she has developed an ad hoc literacy task force to set up MSL training for volunteers in her community.

Elke Schneider received her Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics in 1997 from the University of Eichstäett, Germany where she specialized in foreign/second language learning and learning disabilities. Over the past 15 years, she has published, presented, and taught on these topics as an instructor of special education and literacy education courses. She also provides teacher training on multisensory structured language instruction to native, foreign and second language learners in public and private schools, both nationally and internationally. She has over ten years of experience integrating multisensory structured language instruction into undergraduate and graduate teacher education programs, and is currently Assistant Professor at Winthrop University, Rock Hill, South Carolina, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in Special Ed., English Literacy Education, and English as a Second Language in R.W. Riley College of Education.



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