Teaching children with additional educational needs

This article is about teaching English to children who may have learning difficulties or other additional educational needs.

Gail Ellis, Head of the Young Learners Centre, British Council, Paris and Special Lecturer in the School of Education, University of Nottingham

It deals with the rationale behind teaching English to such children and provides teaching strategies for the institution and the classroom.

  • English as a foreign language for children with additional educational needs
  • Diverse needs
  • A school policy
  • Methodological approaches
  • Supporting the learner
  • Organising classes

English as a foreign language for children with additional educational needs
It is often thought that foreign language learning for a child with additional educational needs can waste valuable time that could be spent more profitably on teaching 'more relevant' skills and that it may confuse children who already have problems mastering their mother tongue. However, it is important to provide every opportunity to expand and enhance the range of learning experiences available for these children by including them in a wide range of activities throughout life. One of these activities is foreign language learning. This article builds on the principles of inclusion and is written in the ethos that children with additional educational needs should have the same right as other children to experience and enjoy foreign language learning, and in the belief that they have the potential to benefit and to progress linguistically, psychologically, cognitively, socially and culturally.

Diverse needs
Children with additional educational needs may have physical and conceptual difficulties, mild and moderate learning difficulties, severe learning difficulties and emotional and behavioural difficulties, and will usually require some sort of extra support. This article will address the needs of children with mild and moderate learning difficulties, which can include short attention spans and a lack of concentration, memory problems - both short and long term, poor generalisation skills, auditory discrimination problems, visual discrimination problems, a lack of imaginative thinking and poor eye-hand co-ordination. Their needs are diverse and, when deciding what to teach and how to teach, foreign language programmes should aim to start with the needs of each individual child in order to build on their strengths.

A school policy
In order to cater as effectively as possible for the diverse learning needs of such pupils, a school should agree its policy and implement it as a team. This will include decision-making concerning methodological approaches, assessment procedures, ways of supporting the learner, and how best to organise classes depending on the context in which you work.

Methodological approaches
As we can see above, some of the special needs described are not so very different from those of our 'regular' pupils, and many of the familiar principles which underlie good educational practice, as used by foreign language teachers of young learners, are appropriate. These include effective teaching strategies and techniques, selection of materials, task design, including differentiation, and classroom management skills.

  • Teaching strategies and techniques
    Good teaching strategies and techniques include the planning and stating of carefully balanced, varied learning sequences with clear achievable objectives, so children know what is expected from them. They will also include using the mother tongue, as appropriate, to contextualise and support learning, so children can relate something new to something familiar and thereby develop a sense of security; providing clear, meaningful, concrete contexts in which to present language; providing plenty of repetition, recycling and reviewing; using plenty of mime, signs, gestures, expressions to convey and support meaning; involving children actively in the learning process as much as possible through the use of action rhymes and songs, stories, colouring, making things, dancing, drawing, total physical response activities and games; stimulating childrens' senses as much as possible through multi-sensory aids.
  • Assessment procedures
    Children need to be clear about the learning objectives, which could accommodate the graded objective principles and the Council of Europe statements: for example, I can understand and use familiar everyday expressions. Once these are established, and with systematic post-activity reviewing, children will be able to perceive their progress. In many cases, this will be small-step progression, and needs to be established by the school and team of teachers as part of their overall policy.
  • Materials selection
    Materials need to be varied, accessible and clear and provide plenty of visual stimulus and support in the form of pictures, objects, puppets, realia, storybooks, videos, ICT, etc.
  • Task design
    Tasks should provide a reasonable degree of effort or challenge within the linguistic and cognitive abilities of each child, and have short-term goals and clearly identified steps leading to successful completion, as well as purposeful outcomes allowing immediate feedback and positive reinforcement. In order to design tasks, teachers need to be able to judge whether the level of demands made on each child is appropriate and also to identify the types of demand made. These relate to concepts and notions of language, such as shape, size, colour, location, cause and effect, and language functions, such as describing, classifying, sequencing, predicting etc. Teachers also need to be aware of the kinds of concepts which their pupils can cope with at specific stages of their development. Furthermore, each learner possesses their own learning styles and intelligences and some tasks may only be suitable for specific learning styles or intelligences, making them difficult for learners who do not possess these or have low levels of specific types of intelligence. Differentiation of tasks is also central to successful methodology and needs to be done in a way that the areas of experience, for example, a topic or theme, will be the same for each child but the depth in which it will be covered will be different.
  • Classroom management skills
    A well-managed classroom will be one where routines are established, the teacher is firm but fair and establishes a secure, non-threatening learning environment. He or she will explain methodological approaches to avoid a mis-match of expectations and to establish clear ways of working, and will praise all effort, however small. Classroom dynamics will be analysed and seating arrangements planned accordingly. Teacher talk will be analysed in order to keep this clear and simple for instructions and demonstrations, to be sensitive to the level of challenge different questions imply and to pitch them appropriately for individual children, and to avoid excessive teacher talk, which can be confusing. Pupils' attention will be focussed so they keep on task and teachers will be aware of the behavioural effect of activities which settle or stir, occupy or involve, and sequence these appropriately.

Supporting the learner
In addition to the methodological approaches described above which support the learner, the school may decide that the help of a support teacher or teaching assistant is required. Their help may be requested on a full-time, part-time or sessional basis and they may work with individual pupils, several pupils or a whole class or department. In whatever setting a support teacher may work, he or she can help the pupil's learning by having a clearly defined role in the classes, time to share the planning and evaluation of lessons, adequate resources. In addition, the importance of their role in the staff team must be recognised.

Organising classes
From a Vygotskian viewpoint, a child with special needs who is integrated into a regular class would be able, through co-operation and interaction with classmates, to develop their knowledge, language and thinking. In a primary EFL context classes tend to emphasise oral communication, especially in the initial stages. Thus, one of the main weaknesses of the child with additional needs, that is, writing, is avoided. This can be beneficial in that he or she starts out on an even footing with his academically more able counterparts.

Many of the responses required are whole-class ones so a child is rarely singled out and can learn to communicate in a foreign language without fear of failure. Integration may require the presence of a support teacher to deal with possible unpredictable behaviour which may disrupt classmates and incite general bad behaviour; to explain to classmates a child's particular needs so they can understand and respect these differences and respect the additional effort such a child may have to make in the learning process, to diffuse any potential peer ridicule through such explanation as above, to help with activities that may require cutting, pasting, writing, to help explain the teacher's methodology and to reinforce the classroom code of conduct and to liaise with parents as required. Once basic oral/aural skills have been acquired and other pupils progress perhaps at a faster rate, a school may feel that separate specialised classes may be more appropriate to meet the children's needs, although these classes would be integrated within the framework of the regular school.

The teaching of foreign languages to children with additional educational needs is complex and each school needs to decide on a policy that is best for their context. A great deal of support can be found through CILT who publish an annual Languages and Special Educational Needs Bulletin and have a discussion forum to generate ideas and mutual support for all those who are involved in teaching modern foreign languages to pupils with special educational needs in both special schools and mainstream classes.

Vygotsky, L. 1978. Mind in Society: Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press


Submitted by joe on Wed, 03/26/2008 - 11:47


Helen, Japan
This is an important issue for children whose parents are working abroad, since there may not be any appropriate educational facilities where their first language is used. I remember seeing a news item about a small school organised for such children in Japan, where English was used as the common language. This was thought to be the best solution, at least for children whose first language shared roots with English, especially since it was possible that there parents might relocate to yet another foreign country in the future. (The only alternatives were international schools - German or English - with no facilities for these children?? - or the Japanese system, with facilities, but with teaching all in Japanese).

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