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Communication Strategies for All Classrooms: Focusing on English Language Learners and Students with Learning Disabilities

By: Dale S. Brown, Karen Ford
Concrete suggestions for teachers who want to communicate well with all of their students, especially English language learners and students with learning disabilities.

Students with learning disabilities (LD) often have difficulty with language. This difficulty takes many forms. They might have trouble understanding what you say. This could be the result of auditory problems (difficulty processing sounds) or receptive language difficulties (trouble understanding the words and turning them into action or pictures). Students with LD may also have difficulty speaking due to trouble forming their thoughts, attaching words to concepts, putting words in the right order, and many other reasons.

These language–based difficulties are compounded when students with learning disabilities are English language learners. This article will make some suggestions for making your classroom more inviting for all students who have difficulties with language.

Here are the suggestions:

  • Speak slowly, clearly, and naturally. If your pace tends to be fast, focus on ensuring that each syllable is clear, rather than trying to speak slowly. Try using shorter sentences. Ask your students to signal you if you are speaking too quickly.
  • Face your students and avoid putting your hand in front of your face. People sometimes want to see the face and lips of person they are struggling to understand.
  • Where practical, turn off machines that create background noise. For example, if one of your neon lights is making a loud buzz, ask maintenance to fix it. Ask administrators to avoid placing classrooms with students with learning disabilities next to noisy classrooms such as the gym.
  • Be careful when you use idioms such as "caught with your pants down" or "back seat driver." Students with LD, especially those who are English language learners, may not understand these expressions or may take them literally. ELL students may also have reactions to these phrases that are specific to their culture.
  • Tone of voice, facial expression and gestures may be misunderstood by students with learning disabilities (LD). Students with LD often have difficulty processing these signals. Those who are English language learners also come from different cultures, so a gesture might have a different meaning for them. While it is important to speak naturally, recognize that if you are sarcastic, some students in your class may not understand your intended meaning. Use words to reinforce your body language when you need the class to know how you feel.
  • When you ask a person with a learning disability a question, they will often hesitate before they answer the question because they need to make sure they heard the words in order, and they need to translate the words into concepts. In addition, they may need time to form their thoughts and turn them into words. Allow a silent period between your question and their answer. Do not give hints or answer the question for them until they show or say that they need help.
  • Supplement language in your classes with pictures, manipulative objects, kinesthetic activities, and other ways of teaching that use all of the senses.
  • Tell your students when something is particularly important. You might want to say something like "A key point is..." Use the same (or at least similar) phrase, tone of voice and gesture every time.
  • Allow and encourage students to tape–record your classes. Many students with language difficulties listen to the words several times and review the tape for main points.
  • If possible, provide a written outline of your talk. This will help any student with language problems prepare for class and know where to place their listening focus.

Some teachers are afraid that following these suggestions will make them sound dull. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, by taking the time to incorporate these strategies into your teaching, you will help many more students become engaged, active participants. This includes not only students with LD, but other students as well. For example, all English language learners, even those without learning disabilities, will benefit from strategies that focus on making language clearer and more comprehensible.

Although incorporating these suggestions may take some extra effort, you will find that practice will make it easier. You may have to plan ahead more, but using these strategies will enable students to learn from you who once were not able to understand you. Some students who were excluded from your class will be included. And that is what good teaching is all about.

References

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These tips were written exclusively for LD OnLine by Dale S. Brown and Karen Ford. Dale S. Brown is an expert on learning disabilities who has written four books on the subject. Dr. Karen Ford is a lecturer in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction and Special Education in the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education and works with the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) project at U.Va.

Brown, Dale S. and Ford, Karen. (2007, September).

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