Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Students with Learning Disabilities in the Foreign Language Learning Environment and the Practice of Exemption

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Students with Learning Disabilities in the Foreign Language Learning Environment and the Practice of Exemption

Article excerpt

Abstract: This examination of the literature on foreign, or second, language learning by native English-speaking students with disabilities addresses the benefits of language learning, the practices and policies of language exemption, the perceptions of students and educators regarding those practices, and available resources for supporting students with special needs. It aims to question the policy of granting foreign language exemptions while additionally providing insights for educators into the development of inclusive foreign language learning environments.

Key words: foreign languages, inclusive education, language exemption, learning disabilities, special education

Learning another language presents an opportunity that differs in many respects from learning opportunities in other subject areas. It provides students with the chance to investigate their own native language and culture, compare them with additional languages and cultures, acquire communication skills in another language, critically think about the world they live in, and develop acceptance of others. However, numerous students with disabilities,1 both within the United States as well as in other English-speaking countries, are exempted from foreign language study solely because they have been diagnosed as having special learning needs. This means that many students with disabilities do not benefit from this educational opportunity, which would seem contradictory to inclusive beliefs. Sparks (2009) called for advocates for students with disabilities to be "consistent with their inclusion philosophy and insist that students classified as [learning disabled] be enrolled in foreign language courses and provided with appropriate teaching methods and instruction accommodations so that they can be successful in these classes" (p. 18).

Enacting such changes is sometimes difficult because administrators, instructors of other subject areas, parents, and even learners may believe that foreign language study is somehow less essential than other curricular subjects and thus students with disabilities can be exempted from graduation requirements. However,

[w]e cannot deny that every child has the right to become a literate adult. This precept applies as much to L2 [the second language] as to L1 [the first language]. We know that literacy is required for an individual to continue accruing information and to continue developing intellectually.(Bacon, 1998, p. 318)

Furthermore, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA, 2004) in the United States guarantees free and appropriate public education to all students with disabilities (Section 601, d), which in today's global environment must include the study of other languages and cultures. Although "people often see students with special needs through a black-and-white lens: either they are special education and limited, or they are regular education and competent. The reality of the situation is of course far more complex" (Evarrs & Knotek, 2006, p. 117). Those with special education needs are, under IDEA, guaranteed the right to an appropriate education, which must include foreign language study. The ACTFL, on behalf of its members, echoed this commitment to "developing and maintaining a teaching and learning environment that reflects the broad diversity of American society..." when stating "We believe that all children should have the opportunity to learn other languages and support full access for all students to language programs" (ACTFL, 2012, para. 1). This position statement makes it clear that all students should have the opportunity to become biliterate and bicultural and charges language educators to create rich and appropriate learning environments for all students.

Researchers around the world have called for an investigation into "the barriers at every level of the education system that are inhibiting the spread of language learning and teaching" (Brecht et al. …

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