Academic journal article Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin

Challenges in Teaching Foreign Languages to At-Risk K-12 Learners

Academic journal article Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin

Challenges in Teaching Foreign Languages to At-Risk K-12 Learners

Article excerpt

This study explores the emic perspectives and insights of effective foreign language teachers as they are confronted with the daunting challenges of inclusion of at-risk learners in the K-12 foreign language classroom. The participants interviewed in this research work in neighboring communities and have similar visions and goals. The rich data gleaned from their personal experiences underscores the importance of pertinent professional development, strong special education/parental support, and on-going collegial networking.

In recent years, education reform has had a profound impact on Kindergarten-Grade 12 (?12) foreign language teachers. In particular, one significant change focuses on the mainstreaming of at-risk learners into the foreign language classes. While most foreign language teachers have recognized this change as positive, many educators are fearful that they lack the knowledge, skills, and necessary support to be successful in the implementation of this reform measure. Specifically, foreign language teachers who have had a history of teaching only the most motivated, college-bound students are in a quandary as to how to plan meaningful instruction to engage at-risk learners.

Unfortunately, there is very little research that specifically addresses how at-risk learners acquire a second language (Hodge, 1998). Some researchers, in fact, disagree as to why students encounter difficulties when they study a language (Arries, 1999b; Ganschow, Sparks, & Javorsky, 1998; Horwitz, 2000; Sparks, Ganschow, & Javorsky, 2000). Suggested causes include phonological difficulties, anxiety, behavior issues, and varying learning styles. There is also no consensus as to how to teach foreign languages to at-risk learners (Arries, 1999b). This, therefore, poses major challenges to the classroom teacher.

Literature Review

In 1997, the National Institutes of Health reported that one in seven people has some aspect of learning disabilities (Hodge, 1998). Hodge claims that these disabilities play a direct role in hindering a student's ability to acquire a second language. There are numerous theories as to why the study of foreign language poses seemingly insurmountable difficulties to some students. The British Dyslexia Association (2000) defines at-risk foreign language learners as those who have difficulty with "I) phonological processing; 2) working memory; 3) auditory discrimination; 4) syntax; 5) auditory sequencing; 6) speed of processing information; 7) attention span; 8) automaticity [e.g. listening and deciphering meaning at the same time]" (pp. 1-2). Motivation and self-esteem are also key factors (British Dyslexia Association, 2000; Cabrai, 1997). However, to date, only a few researchers have investigated how at-risk students learn a second language (Center for Teaching & Learning, 2001; Hodge, 1998; LeLoup & Ponterio, 1997).

In 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Carroll, coauthor of the Modern Language Aptitude Test, in his analysis of foreign language aptitude determined that four factors contributed to success in foreign language: 1) phonetic coding; 2) grammatical sensitivity; 3) inductive language learning ability ["the ability to infer linguistic forms, rules, and patterns from new linguistic content" (Ganschow, Sparks, Javorsky, Pohlman, & Bishop-Marbury, 1991, p. 531)], and 4) rote memory (Ganschow et al., 1991). A student's ability in each of these areas was directly linked to student success and performance in their foreign language studies (Ganschow & Sparks, 1996; Ganschow et al, 1991; Sparks, Ganschow, Javorsky, Pohlman, & Patton, 1992; Sparks & Ganschow, 1993a; Sparks & Ganschow, 1993b).

During this same time, Dinklage presented the results from his 1971 study of Harvard students who were unsuccessful in foreign language studies. He concluded that these students fell into three categories: 1) those who had problems with oral communication because they could not hear the language; 2) those who had problems with reading and writing in general; 3) those who had memory problems with words and sounds (Ganschow et al, 1991, p. …

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