NLA Discussion: Learning disabilities, literacy and policy
robin l. schwarz
rschwar at american.edu
Mon Nov 17 18:29:36 EST 1997
To Sally, Aliza and others concerned with issues of ESL and LD:
To respond to some of Aliza's questions od 11/16:
1. While citizenship teachers may not readily recognize a learning
disability, they certainly can have access ( especially if they are
helped by administrators in this respect) to a multitude of sources
ABOUT learning disabilities, not the least of which sources are on the
net ( ldonline, the ld sites of NIFL, TESL-L and many others) Any
bookstore or library has a pretty good supply of "lay" information about
learning disabiities and one thing that is well recognized by now is
that a learning disability looks the same in any language. Although
that simplifies things a bit, the idea is sound. The behaviors and
performance of LD students is the same no matter what language they are
working in--they don't learn 'normally", they require extra sensory
input to learn, they have difficulty with language, etc. Therefore,
reading about learning disabilities in general will give any teacher an
idea of what to look for. Five tests for whether a person is LD or not
1) does the problem persist over time ( for the normal language learner,
grammar will improve, spelling will improve, pronunciation and
vocabulary will improve, given normal teaching. For the LD student,
there will not be progress in some areas) 2) Does the problem decrease
with exposure to normal instruction? In other words, there may be
terrible problems with remembering vocabulary because vocabulary was not
really taught or emphasized in class. If it is thoroughly taught, does
the person learn? If so, s/he probably is not learning disabled. 3) Does
the problem interfere with some aspect of learning in a significant
way? If the person has a very hard time with grammar and cannot pass a
writing test or produce a grammatically acceptable paragraph to exit
from a class despite a lot of effort, that's a problem. Or if the
student repeatedly fails the listening/speaking portion of class because
s/he cannot take notes or cannot answer oral questions, that's a
problem. 4) Does the student expend a lot of effort and get poor
results? Is there evidence the student has studied hard and practiced
vocabulary, but cannot pass tests or produce it when asked? That's a
problem. 5) is there clear evidence of differences in strengths and
weaknesses? Is the student very good at speaking and very poor at
writing ( after instruction in that area)? Is the student very strong
at ideas and comprehension of reading, but really poor at spelling or
speaking? Is the student very good at non-verbal activities such as
art, mechanics, carpentry etc. but poor at "book-learning?" This is a
typical profile of a learning disabled student.
If there are problems in one or more of these areas, it is very likely
the student is at least mildly learning disabled. Many of the excuses
used to explain away these behaviors are more the RESULT of the person
being LD than the cause of his or her poor learning.
Also, it is known that a person can be only mildly learning disabled in
his/her first language, in fact can be highly competent, and have a
learning disability that shows up on second/foreign language learning.
This is a real flashing red light for ESL teachers of ALL levels.
The underlying weaknesses, usually in the persons phonemic skills (or
phonolgical processing ability as some call it) are based in first
language and are more prominent in a new language.
Though not enough research has been done in this area, what has already
been done clearly points to the fact that a range of language learning
difficulties can been traced to deficits in the first language.
2) At this point, to my knowledge--and I spend a lot of time searching
for such information--few tests are available in languages other than
English that will indicate a learning disability. Even the ones that
exist, as in Spanish, are often questionable because they are normed in
one dialect or version of the language ( the Spanish one in Castillian
Spanish, for example, though some adjustments have been made recently)
which automatically puts speakers of other versions at linguistic and
even cultural disadvantages and therefore skews the results. Of course,
speakers of other languages cannot be reliably tested using tests normed
on English speakers--the results are largely questionable--.
Furthermore, even the tests in English for English speakers are often
challenged by experts as giving somewhat rarefied information about the
The trend is to identifying LD in non-native speakers in a more global
way--in K-12 the tendency is to arrive at the diagnosis via a portfolio
and or team assesment. This actually works better for adults as well,
since their whole level of functioning ( as implied above inwhat they
are good at) is necessary for getting an idea of where the LD ( or if a
LD) manifests itself.
Diagnosis DOES cost hundred ( even a thousand) dollars and VERY few
diagnosticians are experienced enough to test a non-native speaker and
come up with an educated guess as to what s going on.--It's a direction
that should be avoided, if you ask me. Personally, refer my ESL
students for testing (educated guessing) ONLY when my school needs that
documentation for legal accommodation of the student.
3) Instructing an LD ESL student in a way that he or she can profit from
is somewhat difficult--I won't take up pages here discussing THAT
one.--Suffice it to say that remediation in the area of phonemic
awaremess has vbeen shown to be extremely helpful for persons having
difficulty learning a foreign language ( The next issue of the NALLDC
news letter should have an article addressing that).
There are some excellent ESL/Literacy materials that are helpful as a
way to start the person with very little or no English. Progress or
lack of it in those materials can be one step towards tentative
identification of a learning disability.
4) As for getting LD expertise into the field, that is difficult--but,
the NALLDC for example, has information and personnel to help with that
somewhat and as I said earlier, I think just getting general LD info,
especially about adults, to the teachers and others concerned with
programs,is very helpful.
b)Glenn Young's remarks concerning denial of civil rights through
programmatic neglect are very salient; or as the policeman will tell the
traffic violator, "ignorance of the law is no excuse." Hopefully
trickle-up of information to the INS, plus input from literacy experts
concerned with LD issues will help the INS become aware of the issue.
MANY. many people, in many areas of education and government want to
think this is not a very big issue and policies should not be bent for a
small minority; in fact, this is a very BIG issue --the percentages of
LD persons in literacy classes is said to be over 40% by conservative
estimates--and percentages among ESL persons are probably very high as
well. Policies should not be BENT to a minority, but reconceived with
the LD population's needs front and center. Pressure needs to be put on
the GED administrators, for example to recognize the need for
accommodation on a regular basis and the need for clear, realistic
guidelines for those accommodations. The same for the citizen ship
tests. In the meantime, it should not take law to make TEACHERS and
programs responsive to the needs of LD students. As Glenn said, the
accommodations are for the student to have the most appropriate access
to the information needed, not for a waiver from the test.
I agree wholeheartedly with Sally that ESL educators, ABE educators and
LD educators of adults, need to create a joint effort not only of
support for policy change, but also for a system of information and
support of programs wanting to make these changes.
robin l. schwarz
<rschwar at american.edu>
SGabb412 at aol.com wrote:
> Thanks to Aliza Becker for continuing thoughtful dialogue concerning ESOL
> learners and learning disabilities. As both teacher and program
> administrator, I agree that both assessment and instructional materials for
> possibly ESOL/LD learners are few and hard to find. I certainly applaud her
> urging the field to recognize the necessity for advocacy in this area given
> the immigration and welfare 'reform' legislation.
> I suggest two challenges needing consideration in this effort. Long time
> basic literacy professionals will agree that attaining accommodations for
> ABE learners for any kind of testing can be harrowing if not impossible. A
> local program here has been trying for 6 months to gain accommodations for
> the GED for a particular learner without success - she was denied at the
> national level - and probably will have little chance unless someone comes up
> with the bucks for expensive LD testing not available to most underfunded
> adult ed programs or low income adult students.
> The two barriers remain: access to adequate assessment, and support for
> both assessment and advocacy efforts.
> I agree that the issue of LD with ESOL learners is particulary complex.
> Consideration of levels of literacy, kinds of education in first language,
> as well as difficulties in transition to new language including sound and
> spelling systems are but two aspects which must be taken into consideration.
> Nevertheless, I agree with Aliza that legislative changes affecting lives
> and livelihood of low income/welfare recipipent iimmigrants makes advocacy
> efforts crucial at this time.
> Perhaps ESOL adult educators, basic literacy adult educators and learners in
> both arenas can create a joint advocacy effort for policy and support change
> based on tenets of the Americans with Disabiities Act. It seems to me that
> these issues are equally as discriminating as literacy tests for voting, and
> should be addressed as such. In adult ESOL we will be increasingly affected
> by these issues. Comments on LD accommodations for GED as parallel are
> Sally Gabb/ Prov. RI
Robin L. Schwarz. ESL/LD Specialist American University
rschwar at american.edu English Language Institute
O: 202-885-2161 Washington, DC 20016-8031
"Attitudes are the real disabilities"
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