It is unsurprising that students who face academic challenges may feel overwhelmed in world language classrooms, which require all learners to leave their comfort zones and embrace something new. Those who grapple with processing issues or memory weaknesses require additional assistance in order to successfully acquire a new language. However, this additional assistance should not mean resorting to English—it is possible to maintain the target language while meeting all students’ needs.
As the Virginia Department of Education outlines in the informative guide Supporting World Language Learning for Students With Disabilities, it is critical to note that “students who underperform in a classroom often experience challenges handling information at one of three stages of the process—perception, processing, expression—or any combination of the three” (p. 17; I’ll refer to this guide several times below, providing page numbers for ease of reference since it’s 91 pages long).
In the context of world language courses, perception taps into reading and listening comprehension. Students who encounter difficulties with perception often struggle to “assign meaning to audio and visual stimuli” (p. 19). Processing involves all four communicative domains: speaking, writing, listening, and reading. Students with recall or memory issues often struggle with processing, as they are unable to “decipher, organize, and store previous and current stimuli” (p. 20). Processing difficulties often lead to challenges with expression, and a student who struggles with processing the language might also have difficulty expressing themselves in oral or written form.
I’d like to share some ways that I use research-based strategies to assist students who struggle with the perception, processing, or expression of the target language. Each of these strategies encourages and promotes maximum use of the target language.
Supporting Struggling Students
1. Incorporate images: Images aid comprehension because they “allow students to expand their language skills by attaching the word to a more concrete representation” (p. 35). In my Spanish classes, I provide an abundance of pictures of real people, places, or items, which allows me to infuse the target culture and is more engaging for students than working solely with texts.
For example, when teaching about foods, I include images of open-air markets in Spanish-speaking countries and point out and name different fruits, meats, fish, and vegetables, which exposes students to the target culture. And when presenting new vocabulary, I always display images to accompany the new words, aiding students’ ability to grasp the meaning of the word without using English.
Allowing students to draw out words on paper or digitally is another fun way to include images, and it gives students the reins to express themselves as they learn. Students can demonstrate their comprehension of an audio or text by drawing a detailed image, and then tell what they drew aloud or in writing.
2. Provide sentence starters or a word wall: Asking and answering questions in the target language requires repeated practice—and builds confidence. Often times, starting off a sentence for students in the target language when you ask them to speak or write is just what they need, especially if they struggle with their oral or written expression in the target language.
Creating a word wall with sentence starters to help with common questions such as, “May I use the bathroom / go for a drink?” or “How do I say this word in Spanish?” or “Repeat, please!” is another way to incorporate sentence starters. You can display posters to create a word wall with the sentence starters you feel are most relevant to your class. The Virginia Department of Education guide suggests focusing on a particular sentence starter for several days to give students repeated practice.
3. Follow routines: Repetition is necessary for students to successfully acquire a language. For those who struggle with perception, processing, or expression in the language, a set daily routine helps to maintain consistency and aids comprehension. The Virginia guide says, “For students to really integrate a word/expression into their own language, it is generally accepted that the student needs to be exposed to the term at least 30 times” (p. 37), and that’s easier to track if you have set routines. Routines give students practice as they perceive, process, and express themselves in the new language.
Each day, I follow the same routine with my Spanish I courses. Our daily warm-up activity consists of writing out and reciting the date and weather in Spanish, along with another review-based task (typically practicing on Quizlet or answering open-ended questions). This ensures that students are thinking in the target language and using it from the moment they step into the classroom. Repeating the date, weather, and some basic questions each day also helps build confidence over time. Students are never confused or lost when they walk in because they know what to expect.
4. Act it out: Rather than drilling students on new chunks of vocabulary, make language learning more active by incorporating gestures. When teaching about hobbies or interests, for example, act them out—when reciting the verb “to run” or “to draw” aloud, perform those actions. Allow students to make gestures along with you.
Implementing physical response strategies serves as additional reinforcement to build students’ comprehension of oral or written language. Try playing charades, with one student acting out a word or phrase and the others guessing what it is in the target language.
5. Consider wait time: Students may need more time than you may think to formulate responses. Allow them to process a piece information first by waiting for several seconds before asking for answers: “Generally, students learning a foreign language need between 18 and 30 seconds (or more) to process the target language before being called on to respond to questions in class or in writing” (p. 34). Waiting for up to 30 seconds before calling on students will give everyone a chance to feel successful and participate. Likewise, posing a question and allowing students to turn and talk before speaking to the whole class will assist them in building the confidence they need.