Approaches Intended to Benefit Learning Disabled Students in Foreign Language through Phonemic Awareness

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Chapter II: Literature Review

Over the past 20 years, there has been a noted increase in the number of students labeled learning disabled (LD) applying to four-year colleges and universities (Wight, 2015). In turn, a majority of colleges have augmented their entrance requirements to comprise a minimum of two years of a foreign language. Highly competitive colleges persuade prospective students to take three, four, or potentially five years. This suggests that the students who are non-native speakers of a certain foreign language must begin their studying as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, a majority of students identified as learning disabled (LD) do not choose a foreign language as an elective in middle school or high school. Often, learning disabled students are influenced by parents and guidance counselors to “opt-out” of foreign language courses altogether. It is assumed by several educational staff, that an elective like foreign language is the most appropriate option as learning disabled students are often required to enroll in a tutorial, a resource class in their schedule, or they are persuaded to choose non-academic electives like gym, music appreciation, theater, or community service. Nonetheless, this population of student finds themselves in a dilemma when they finalize course requirements for their final year of high school.  The reality lies in the fact that foreign language courses are a necessary requirement for graduation and admission into a higher-learning institution, as well as an important facet to equitable learning of diverse cultures, as well as improving literacy in other subjects (Sparks, 2009). Consequently, many elementary level and intermediate level foreign language classes have observed raised numbers of LD students in contrast to advanced-level foreign language courses. This is usually due to a more strenuous curriculum or the lack of necessity to continue past the two-year requisite.

In addition, many educators do not feel qualified to meet the challenges of teaching growing numbers of LD students. As a consequence, LD students have routinely been overlooked in terms of having foreign language curriculum meet the guidelines of their 504 plans and individual education plans (IEPs). Time and again, LD students experience anxiety toward learning a foreign language learning which causes them to either fail or drop out altogether. Often, this result can be traced back to traditional teaching methods used by an educator that demonstrate a level of success with mainstream students but are elusive and irrelevant with LD students (Tolbert, 2017). Meeting this challenge head-on, foreign language educators have an obligation to transform this happening by making the foreign language content adaptable, comprehensible, and pertinent. In addition, LD students require unconventional strategies and assessments in order to be successful in an elementary-level foreign language course in high school and move on to pursue their ambitions out of high school and in institutions of higher education.

This chapter will refer to subject-specific writings and research as a method of presenting a historical progression of 20th-century interpretations toward foreign language aptitude in the following sequence:

  1. Innovative explorers associated with foreign language acquisition.
  2. Foreign language and its association with learning disabilities.
  3. Foreign languages and its association with multiple intelligences.
  4. Various instruction methodologies generated to teach a foreign language.
  5. An analysis of phonological and phonemic strategies that have confirmed evidence of success among learning disabled students.

Writings for this review have been collected from several peer-reviewed journals and educational databases including but not limited to, EBSCOhost, the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, and International Journal of Applied Linguistics to name but a few.

 20th Century Views on Foreign Language Learning

At the start of the twentieth-century, innovative methods on teaching foreign languages became a vigorous topic of conversation in different educational arenas. Although foreign language instruction has a deep-rooted history dating back before 1000 BC, with Sumerian and Afro-Asiatic recorded evidence (Jamison, 2008), modern-day methodologies that focus on instructional practices and the acquisition of language can be observed in early twentieth century development and research. Throughout this period and into today, educators and research theorists have endeavored to provide an opinion as to why specific students are able to perform well in a foreign language setting and others struggle to grasp basic linguistic concepts.

Researchers Richards and Rogers (2017) note that fundamentals positioned by applied linguists of this time facilitated the development of philosophies and measures for the production of teaching methods that would draw upon the developing field of linguistics itself. Language teaching of this century was characterized at different periods by the various innovative changes in teaching ideologies. Richards and Rogers (2017) contend that the push for change was brought about by the increased demand of foreign language speakers around the world. They chronicle major events such as World War II, mass migration movements, and the globalization of education as key factors in this demand for improved and innovative language instruction. Richards (2006) cited the ever-increasing need for good communication skills in the acquisition of a second language, in this case, English, as a principal measure of seizing employment, income, and cultural opportunities normally offered to those who master some degree of fluency. In essence, Richard’s view was one of many methodologies that helped to thrust a reassessment of language teaching policies and practices. Foreign language teaching was on the table for discussion and many in the field had their own perspectives on how to improve the efficacy of teaching language.

Innovative Explorers of Foreign Language Acquisition

Over the past century, evidence concerning diverse philosophies in foreign language acquisition can be traced back to noted applied linguistic researchers and practitioners like Maximillian Berlitz in the 1900s and Dr. Paul Pimsleur in the 1960s. Individuals like these were some of the first to question why a certain percentage of students absorbed foreign language information easily but others struggled to absorb the material in class (Pimsleur, 1963). It was proposed that problems stemmed from auditory disorders, not student intelligence or motivation. More precisely, the worry focused on the difficulty of connecting sounds with sound-symbol learning (Schwartz, 1997).

Delving deeper into the background of Maximilian Berlitz, researcher Lewis (1998) remarks on how this noted linguist and academic started out teaching French to Americans. Berlitz’s method of teaching involved two fundamental principles in acquiring a foreign language: 1) Directly associate perception and thought with foreign speech and sound and 2) Exclusively and continuously use the foreign language in question. Berlitz was systematic in his approach to teaching language and vehemently opposed translation methods as a method for acquiring language. This was due to Berlitz’s assertion that translation methods lent themselves to needless explanation in a student’s native language, leaving no opportunity for direct language instruction in the target language (Lewis, 1998).

However, Lewis (1998) is quick to assert that Berlitz’s methods in language acquisition through full emersion were not without opposition. Lewis provides a detailed account of one language educator, Englishman Michael Watson, who enrolled in a Berlitz course himself to see if he could acquire the skills in a foreign language through full emersion. Lewis asserts that Watson’s exposure to the Berlitz Method served two purposes: 1) To show the difficulty in having inexperienced educators instruct beginning students in full emersion due to complex grammar structures and non-cognitive vocabulary and 2) that instruction of foreign language required a “carefully conceived progression” (p.106)  that would build familiarity and confidence in the target language.

Another well-known figure in foreign language acquisition is Dr. Paul Pimsluer, a language professor who conducted research in psychology and adult second language as a means to gain knowledge on auditory teaching methods. Researcher Choe (2008) wrote a critical review of Pimsleur and his auditory teaching method that involved recalling linguistic items frequently after it was introduced and slowly decreased over time. Pimsleur referred to this concept as the graduated recall method.

It is Choe’s assertion that Pimsleur employed various techniques to strengthen his audio-based learning program. Techniques consisted of inputting dialogue between native speakers and translating the dialogue into English before being deconstructed into manageable units. Furthermore, each segmented unit would be enhanced through multiple replays with intonation and emphasis on syllabication (2008). This was to make learning more salient to learners of a language. According to Choe, “Pimsleur’s method showed major strengths in promoting noticing, awareness, and longer memory retention. As well, his claim that pronunciation should be the point of departure for second the language (L2) learning has also received supports from later empirical studies” (p.4, 2008). Yet his methods were not without scrutiny.

Choe (2008) highlights key limitations with Pimsleur and his audio-based approach to foreign language acquisition that are rooted in impoverished and self-contained dialogues that hinder learners from expressing their own thoughts or emotions. In addition, Pimsleur’s approach also fails to capture the micro details of real-life situations. Ideas of transitioning and the conversational reciprocity are replaced with static scenarios that do not lend themselves to spontaneity or automatic conversational recall (2008). Rich input is not organic but prescribed and restricted and at the control of the tutor conducting the lesson. Yet, Pimsleur’s approach to learning is still taught around the world, with 50 foreign languages offered, as well as English as a Second Language to non-native speakers in 14 countries (Choe, 2008). Pimsleur’s passion for language development not only led to the foundation of his learning programs but opened the door for other language educators to build upon him concepts as a means to develop alternative learning methods in language acquisition.

Foreign Language Acquisition and Identified Learning Disabilities

In the 1970s, scholars like Cummins (1979) mentioned problems in students’ foreign language learning resonated from student learning disabilities like dyslexia or inadequate competency levels that originated from their native language ability. A decade later, researcher-psychologists Ganschow and Sparks proposed that student foreign language learning difficulties were indeed linked to problems in their native language learning, in turn transferring to their foreign language study (Ganschow, Sparks, & Javorsky, 1998). It was theorized that foreign language difficulties stem from deficiencies in one or more linguistic procedures that could be phonological, syntactic or semantic in nature.

In the eighties, Sparks and his colleagues labeled this theory the Linguistic Coding Deficit. It was assumed that these deficiencies originated not only in their native language but could be identified in a student’s oral and written foreign language abilities as well (Sparks & Miller, 2000). Researchers have conducted studies on cognitive issues like aptitude, brain function, and the ability or inability to absorb pedagogical concepts taught (Karimi & Norouzi, 2017). Consideration has been given to differences in native language learning juxtaposed to a foreign language due to alphabetic differences, as well as the consideration of disabilities that focused on auditory, visual or emotional concerns affecting oral and written language ability. However, data gathered from one of Spark’s studies on 33 female participants studying Spanish revealed what has been hypothesized all along. Indeed weak phonological, syntactical, auditory and processing skills in a student’s native language transferred to their inability to grasp a foreign language (Sparks & Ganschow, 1993).

As the time went on, additional researchers in the field of linguistics continued to postulate about student learning styles and varied instructional approaches educators would have to employ to successfully reach their students. It was not enough to give a label to students and tell them there was no hope of learning a foreign language. Instead, revamped methods of teaching were being considered as a means to combat the issue. Fresh methodologies in multi-sensory education originally promoted by researchers like Orton and Gillingham in the 1930’s and Dunn and Dunn in the 1970’s were being considered and reformulated. Originally this model was developed to help access the diverse education modalities: auditory, kinesthetic, and visual. These modalities were viewed as some of the most important in sensory education and were now being measured in foreign language teaching (Guild & Garger, 1985).


Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences Identified

Shortly after, other researchers in the field of educational inquiry combined their efforts with the submission of theories regarding ideas of multiple intelligence/ differentiated instruction in association with individual education approaches. Prominent Harvard researcher Howard Gardner (1983) turned the educational community upside down in his computation of distinct intelligence being recognized in diverse parts of the human brain. According to Gardner’s theory, “we are all able to know the world through language, logical-mathematical analysis, spatial representation, musical thinking, and the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an understanding of other individuals, and an understanding of ourselves” (p. , 1991). From this revelation, Gardner (1991) moved further in his assertion of different intelligences, arguing that student learning outcomes could not be defined on a unilateral platform but in a non-uniform way. Researcher Lane (2000) labeled Gardner’s eight diverse learning intelligences in the following manner:

Visual-Spatial – think in terms of physical space, as do architects and sailors. Very aware of their environments. They like to draw, do jigsaw puzzles, read maps, and daydream. They can be taught through drawings, verbal and physical imagery. Tools include models, graphics, charts, photographs, drawings, 3-D modeling, video, video conferencing, television, multimedia, texts with pictures/charts/graphs.

Bodily-kinesthetic – use the body effectively, like a dancer or a surgeon. A keen sense of body awareness. They like movement, making things, touching. They communicate well through body language and be taught through physical activity, hands-on learning, and acting out, role-playing. Tools include equipment and real objects.

Musical – show sensitivity to rhythm and sound. They love music, but they are also sensitive to sounds in their environments. They may study better with music in the background. They can be taught by turning lessons into lyrics, speaking rhythmically, and tapping out time. Tools include musical instruments, music, radio, stereo, CD-ROM, multimedia.

Interpersonal – understanding, interacting with others. These students learn through interaction. They have many friends, empathy for others, street smarts. They can be taught through group activities, seminars, and dialogues. Tools include the telephone, audio conferencing, time and attention from the instructor, video conferencing, writing, computer conferencing, E-mail.

Intrapersonal – understanding one’s own interests, goals. These learners tend to shy away from others. They’re in tune with their inner feelings; they have wisdom, intuition, and motivation, as well as a strong will, confidence, and opinions. They can be taught through independent study and introspection. Tools include books, creative materials, diaries, privacy and time. They are the most independent of the learners.

Linguistic – using words effectively. These learners have highly developed auditory skills and often think in words. They like reading, playing word games, making up poetry or stories. They can be taught by encouraging them to say and see words, read books together. Tools include computers, games, multimedia, books, tape recorders, and lecture.

Logical-Mathematical – reasoning, calculating. Think conceptually, abstractly and are able to see and explore patterns and relationships. They like to experiment, solve puzzles, and ask cosmic questions. They can be taught through logic games, investigations, and mysteries. They need to learn and form concepts before they can deal with details.

Naturalist Intelligence – demonstrates expertise in the recognition and classification of numerous species – the flora and fauna – of the environment. Value is placed on these individuals who can recognize members of a species that are especially valuable or notably dangerous and can LS/MI Lane 4 appropriately categorize new and unfamiliar organisms (p.2).

From this point, developments in foreign language research started to move in terms of pinpointing student learning abilities. Simultaneously, the proposal of identifying a disability linked to foreign language acquisition became a popular method for many in education to justify waiving at-risk or learning disabled students from the foreign language altogether. Yet researchers like Sparks (2006) refuted the existence of a foreign language disability. In fact, their research findings suggest that all types of learners can find success within foreign language classes, provided educators actively incorporate appropriate stimulus and curriculum that integrates a well-defined phonics program.


The review of the literature suggests that the process of foreign language acquisition has been scrutinized more critically by those invested in the subject field than others outside the educational boundary. Language acquisition researchers and practitioners alike have identified specific learning issues like dyslexia or weak cognitive learning abilities within a learner’s native language as just some of the issues impeding successful immersion. Yet other research conducted by practitioners like Dunn, Sparks, and Ganschow, to name but a few, point to the validity of educators recognizing the idea of multiple intelligences when engaging students in a method of instruction.


The Historical Shift in Foreign Language Methodology

Over the past century, various methodologies have been developed to access the learning potential of students and their diverse learning styles. In relationship to foreign language, the same can be said with the employment of strategies like the Grammar Translation Method or the Hybrid Model. This strand will focus on a collection of popular methods that offer their pros and limitations to foreign language acquisition.

The Grammar Translation Method of the 20th Century

During the 20th century, a method of grammar rules, vocabulary and memorizing verb patterns came to be known as the Grammar Translation Method. The process of this method involved exercises where learners were expected to translate disconnected sentences from the foreign language into their native language and vice versa. Pronunciation of new words was minimal and heavy emphasis on sentence structure and grammar concepts were crucial (Mora, 2002). Interesting to note that many of the concepts garnered from this method are still a central component in today’s foreign language teaching (Kennedy, 2007) because of their efficacy. For example, in his paper on translation in a second language, Chellpan (as noted in Banjeree, 2015) cited that translation could make the student come to a firmer understanding of the target language. The student could see the points of union and separation more visibly and hone their tools of observation and analysis which would result in different thinking.

Grammar Translation Method
(n.d.). Retrieved from

Focus on this method gave way to the Reading Method. Similar in design to its traditional predecessor, it emphasized direct translation of literary works as the most important priority in learning a new language and vocabulary. In terms of grammar, this was taught on an as-needed basis in relation to reading comprehension. As researcher Kennedy (2007) acknowledges, minimal attention to conversational skills and pronunciation was given by teachers to students of this learning method.  Research data on the Grammar Translation and Reading Methods proved that there was benefit in acquiring language acquisition when concepts were explained in the native language and not the target. Though precision of grammar skills and literacy were of vital importance, fluency and the ability to communicate out loud in the target language were not (Kelly & Bruen, 2015).

The Full Immersion Method

After the Second World War, language educators and theorists began to retreat from the direct translation/ grammar approach because of students’ restricted capacities to speak in the target language. Instead, educators began to speak in the target language the entire length of the language lesson. This type of learning was utilized by the United States military to train personnel effectively in a foreign language. In the civilian sector, this was referred to as the Audio-Lingual Approach (Preservice teaching, 2010). To reach full emersion, listening and speaking drills, emphasis on pronunciation and the memorization of dialogues was critical. More precisely, specific skills were taught in a specific format: listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Another full emersion method that came about post-war was the Content-Based Instruction Method. Still in use today, the program of study generated by this method focused on specific subjects like history, art, music and such. Little emphasis was placed on vocabulary and grammar (Bowen, 2007). Supporters of this type of instruction maintained that its focus provided a broader range of discourse because it offered students the ability to utilize prior knowledge as a means to negotiate meaning and help students achieve bi-literacy. Educators could tap into this information through scenarios like collecting, consolidating, investigating, surmising, forecasting and assessing (Curtain, 1995). However, some opponents insist that this type of instruction is not conducive to high school education because of the following limitations: it inhibits understanding of abstract and complex concepts, properly trained educators in this method are difficult to find, and significant cultural differences and participant expectations in and out of the classroom interfere with learning (Abrams, 2008).

The Communicative Approach

The 1980’s observed another alteration in the teaching of foreign language and the incorporation of grammar and sound to symbol relationships. Researchers like Krashen (2014) helped to pave the way to a new methodology referred to as the Whole Language Approach. This was based on the notion that language acquisition was truly achieved when students were able to obtain coherent input. In other words, students would learn a language in the same manner as a young child. First, the students would listen to a set language and then follow-up by orally producing what they hear. After students would grasp the instructor’s illustration, they would utilize the language to express needs, wants, ideas, and feelings. Additionally, students would be put into pair or small groups to complete specified communication activities. Meanwhile, the educator would facilitate and monitor this process. At the end, feedback on the verbal presentation would be given (Bowen, 2007).

Now in the new millennium, many educators and theorists in the foreign language field have moved away from direct learning instruction partly due to Krashen’s findings. At this point, the foreign language community has been led to believe that a communicative approach holds the most validity as it makes students interact with real-life situations in the target language (Banjeree, 2015). Indeed, many supporters claim that Krashen’s methodology helps students absorb language in a natural manner without the artificial enforcement of out of context grammar rules. Yet there are certain opponents who claim that this method of learning is too centered on the educator instead of the student. Therefore, students have difficulty communicating in the target language because they do not possess the grammatical foundation necessary to diverse learning styles.

The Multi-Sensory Approach

The latter part of the century brought forth yet another approach to instruction that focused heavily on the idea of differentiated instruction. Linking these theories with researchers like Dunn and Dunn, multiple intelligences and multi-sensory modalities were at the forefront of this new movement. With the Multiple Intelligence Method, it was hypothesized that human performance could be associated with nine identified intellectual variables: Existential, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Kinesthetic, Linguistic, Mathematical, Musical, Naturalistic, and Visual (Gardner, 1983). This theory is supported by the contention that human conscious thinking, remembering, and behaving is controlled by the modular units found in the human brain’s frontal cerebral cortex (Castro & Peck, 2005). An educator using this type of method would design a class session around a specified topic of learning that would engage students in a multitude of games and activities that would resonate with multiple learning intelligences. The downfall of this method is the duration of activities and the lack of connection to real-world usefulness.

From this, another multi-sensory approach originated from the Buck Institute. Project Based Learning (PBL) honed in on the idea of real-world activities that would be meaningful to the levels of students. The argument behind this theory was that students of any learning ability will find more relevance in a foreign language setting if they can conduct real-world investigations and conduct in-depth investigations on topics of significance to them. An example of a PBL assignment could include a small group collaboration utilizing technology and other multi-disciplinary components. The educator could spear-head a current event issue that might evoke conversation because students find it relent to their existence. The problem with PBL is the time dedicated to group work and allotment dedicated to the project itself. In addition, if an educational facility has poor technological resources, the commitment to this type of learning is not conducive (Bowen, 2007). Therefore, a methodology incorporating various strategies in a fluid progression was needed. This realization among the learning community led to the idea of “hybriding” select parts of older methods to effectively teach students.

Hybrid Methodology

As foreign language teaching shifted into the 21st century, methodologies on the integration of various methods of instruction looked at how multiple intelligences, senses, and technologies could be accessed during instruction simultaneously. Students in this type of format are expected to communicate as in a traditional foreign language setting. However, aspects of lexical and grammar instruction are included as a means of providing a solid base in which students achieve. Additionally, activities, text reading, and assessment of materials are performed in a communicative way and draw a connection to real-world application.

One approach is called the Focus-On-Form Approach. According to Sheen (2002), this method strikes a balance between a traditional grammar program and a communicative program. More precisely, focus on form draws upon “students’ attention to linguistic elements as they are incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on the meaning or communication” (p. 1). Sheen asserts that focus on form is developed from a presumed level of understanding between a student’s native language and their second language. With this pre-knowledge, it is posited that this process is based on an exposure to comprehensible input that arises from organic interaction. While there is strong emphasis geared toward grammar concepts, it is a pedagogically based medium that mixes explicit techniques that are in relation to certain communicative and grammar related tasks.  However, focus on form can have more than one interpretation.

Ellis (2003) wrote that focus on form can refer to generalized orientations in language as a procedure. Second, it can be suggested that focus on form requires that learners need to attend to specific forms of linguistic instruction through the use of graphics or phonetic instantiations. Through designed grammar lessons, specific input and output processing techniques are taught so students establish awareness of grammatical rules. Furthermore, Ellis posits that focus on form requires learners to comprehend and process specific grammatical structures through the performance of a specific task. By means of methodological options that induce attention to form, context is given to the specified performance task. Indeed, the two methodological options that focus on 1) the provisions of time allotted for strategic planning and 2) corrective feedback given to the student for firmer understanding of the language concepts taught.

In relationship to foreign language acquisition, Ellis observes that educators can provide extensive input to their students with the inclusion of outside classroom resources. Ellis cites a specific study conducted on adult Japanese students learning English in Auckland, Australia. It was noted that not all learners were successful in achieving a base foundation in the target language due to the lack of opportunities for extensive, authentic learning inputs. Therefore, educators must ideally maximize their use of the target language inside a classroom, as outside environments may not always yield proper language opportunities of assimilation. As for output strategies, Ellis (2003) is quick to assert that, “it provides the learner with ‘auto-input’ (i.e. learners can attend to the ‘input’ provided by their own productions” (p.9, 2003).

An additional approach that is fairly new to the hybrid methodology is the Inter-hemispheric Foreign Language Learning Approach.  Proponents of this style of learning insist that this approach stimulates the right hemisphere of the human brain which enhances interaction between both hemispheres of the brain. According to these researchers, this is in far contrast to traditional foreign language teaching which focuses on vocabulary and grammar which works the left hemisphere only (Hassan & Fateme, 2012). Additionally, this newer approach to learning utilizes TRP and a certain rhythm of speaking along with mental visualization, partner dialogue, sketches, and role-playing. As research on the utilization of working both hemispheres of the brain becomes more evident, researchers and practitioners of foreign language are looking at how to incorporate teaching methods and activities that allow for both left-side and right-side thinking.


As the foreign language community continues to vacillate between tried and true methods and those labeled as innovative, new, or experimental, there still is discord when it comes to identifying one way to structure a foreign language curriculum. The review of articles for this strand indicates that studies cannot determine a superior method for foreign language acquisition for all learners. Though communicative methods are on the burner at the moment, there has not been enough support to show that natural methods of learning are more effective than other methods listed. However, there is evidence, as pointed out by Ganschow, Sparks, & Javorsky, 1998) that multi-sensory and direct instruction of sound to symbols in relationship to rules of grammar are beneficial to at-risk and learning disabled students in foreign language courses. The next strand of literature will reveal how educators can incorporate phonological methods within specified approaches to best serve the needs of their at-risk and learning disabled population.

Evidence of Foreign Language Aptitude Connected to Phonological Methodologies

With various methods of foreign language being offered to students in public and private sectors, educators now must consider the idea of individualized learning styles and how to connect successful literacy strategies that benefit even the at-risk or learning disabled student. This final strand acknowledges the integration of various phonics approaches with meaning methods that have a track record of success with language acquisition.

Multi-sensory Structural Language & Phonics

Looking at various methods in teaching LD students, many evocative studies concentrating on the efficacy of establishing a multi-sensory language approach in a foreign language classroom shows marked improvements in areas like native language phonological processing, verbal memory, and vocabulary (Sparks & Ganchow, 1993). In another analysis. Sparks and Miller (2000) detailed techniques that dealt with orthography, phonology, grammar, and vocabulary. The data authors provided lends positive insight as to the improved success rates of language acquisition among at-risk and on target students. Research conducted looked at three groups of at-risk students within their first year of Spanish.  The data collected from studies included both multi-sensory language initiatives juxtaposed to traditional textbook methods with marked success leaning to the MSL approaches. This is a helpful source in providing evidence regarding phonology and foreign language acquisition.

In another analysis, researchers Campbell, Helf, and Cooke (2008) discussed the use of adding multisensory components into a supplemental phonics program to help at-risk students, known as treatment resisters, with decoding. The goal was to add multisensory elements like audio listening and hand tapping activities into a systematic phonics program already in place. Study results revealed that decoding fluency of vowel-consonant and consonant-vowel-consonant words did improve with multisensory techniques. Fluency also increased with sound recognition and oral reading fluency. This study, although not rooted in foreign language acquisition for at-risk and learning disabled students, provided insight into techniques that could successfully transfer into the foreign language arena.

In Schneider’s (1999) work focusing on multi-sensory learning and foreign language acquisition for students with diagnosed dyslexia, reference to documentation recorded by neurologists studying brain structure differences pays specific attention to the theory of applying

Schneider mentions that the MSL approach, based on the work of Gillingham and Stillman (1960), is not dissimilar the nature of methodology suggested for training native language skills to special education students like dyslexic students. Schneider (1999) lists areas of concentration, like grammar, composition, and phonology necessitate being instructed through programs that underscore MSL areas such as auditory, visual, communicative and written. However, Schneider also asserts that educators face a key challenge in determining how such practices can be engaged in mainstream modern languages classroom. It is postulated that a viable option is to employ MSL systems with aggregate groups of students so that explicit teaching can be given and that students can utilize these techniques individually as a means of  retaining material taught. Schneider (1999) stresses the importance of utilizing MSL Methods so students can successfully make correlations between written features and the sounds they form.

Morphological Problem Solving and Decoding

Researchers Pacheco and Goodwin (2013) looked at school students and their use of morphological problem-solving strategies for unknown words. Researchers wanted to see if intervention strategies that focused on areas of roots, affixes, and word structures would provide students with problem-solving strategies they could use in a second language environment. The sample population involved 20 seventh and eighth-grade students from the Southeastern United States. Data was collected through 20 minute interviews that required students to use part to whole, whole to part and multiple strategy problem-solving skills for morphologically complex words.  Researchers determined that students were able to successfully problem solve complex word structures with the strategies listed. Dependent upon the student’s native language background and foundation in literacy in their language helped to determine whether or not certain morphological strategies could be transferred cross-linguistically (Bowers, 2010).

Looking at the idea of decoding in relationship to phonics instruction and the acquisition of a foreign language, researchers Min-Chin & Shu-Hui (2014) compared the effects of phonics teaching to 117 Taiwanese students learning English as a second language through decodable text instruction and without decodable text instruction. Though researchers cited evidence that supports the ability to associate visual print with letter sounds, blends and whole words in alphabetic languages like English, there is a question as to whether or not the effect of phonics plus decodable text will have positive effects on kids with a “cross-linguistic” language processing style.  Findings revealed that the phonics group with decodable text instruction did score higher on post-test reading. However, the results were not significantly higher. Researchers alluded that recognition of letter sounds and patterns was not critical to students with a native language background that is not alphabetically based. Though languages like English depend heavily on phonology, cross-linguistic languages do not. Therefore, educators must think critically as to how they will incorporate phonology into language learning in order to yield so modicum of success.


Literacy Skills

So how do instructors set about explaining the efficacy of student’s literacy in their native language in order to measure their capacity in a second language? Scholars like Cárdenas, Carlson, & Pollard-Durodola, (2007) executed a study on a population sample of pupils in order to look at the influences of initial first and second language aptitudes juxtaposed to their native language ability and their early literacy skill development and the foreign language. More precisely, their investigation looked at letter identification and sound recognition, phonological awareness, and verbal language skills in their native and second languages. Bearing in mind the phonological awareness component, researchers discovered that students with early Spanish skills could employ literacy strategies to their second language. It was considered that supplying precise training in phonological awareness could support transitioning students in their language acquisition. Nevertheless, the scholars were perceptive to call attention to the issue of student foundational literacy abilities and how they were varied so distinct levels of performance would not be indistinguishable in progress or diminution of language acquisition.

Research gathered by Saunders (2015) on the effects of literacy within an English Language Learner (ELL) classroom yielded results focused on the multi-literacy of foreign language and English foreign language in the context of conversational and computer literacy. Saunders (2015) defines multi-literacy as “the inclusion of literacy in conjunction with 21-century skills” (p. 54) such as computer aptitude, navigating the Internet, as well as incorporating other forms of technology. Saunders research focused on a mixed gender population sample of 1,224 students from 90 different countries. Age ranges were from 18-69 years. It was noted that multi-literacy approaches drew on a wide range of abilities that afforded many in the population sample to utilize prior knowledge of both written and spoken language and cultural knowledge. Utilization of diverse literacy modes such as audio, visual, linguistic, and spatial allowed these students to learn and improve their own literacy skills through a diverse set of strategies that move away from traditional reading and writing.


Judging by the research data collected from studies on multi-sensory learning, morphological problem solving and decoding it is clear that student literacy can improve with specified phonemic strategies geared to aid in foreign language instruction. By incorporating the aforementioned multisensory techniques in foreign language acquisition to help student decoding, sound recognition, and overall speaking, students will not only show improvement in their native language but be able to apply these concepts to their second language learning. As long as the foreign language teacher is mindful of his/her student population and is attentive to their strengths and weaknesses in their native language, teachers will have a firmer grasp on what phonological methods will suit his/her class.

Implications for Future Research

The acquisition of a foreign language can be a gift that bears the fruit of cultural awareness, the ability to speak and travel somewhat freely, as well as improve one’s own literacy in their native language. Yet, for many individuals, the idea of taking on another language is wrought with fear, insecurity, and dread because of the difficulty encountered in speaking, reading, writing, and memorizing. For learning disabled students living in a world that demands the acquisition of a foreign language just to enter a college or university, the pressure can feel insurmountable. Therefore, it is the mission of foreign language educators to help students labeled as LD acquire a proficient understanding of foreign language literacy by focusing on phonemic awareness within the target language.

Looking back over the past century, approaches to foreign language application and acquisition have moved from one scheme to another due to method limitations affecting student learning along with population interests. While theories on varied learning styles and multiple intelligences have been identified by researchers like Gardner, there has also been argument as to whether or not true foreign language disabilities exist or whether the underlying issues harken back to poor phonological skills in the native language. In response to meeting these critical learning needs, educators in foreign language have to look at aspects of incorporating a strong phonics program to help at- risk and learning disabled students so as to help them identify and comprehend the auditory and visual schema of a language successfully.

For those who enjoy foreign language learning and/or are looking to go on to a four-year institution, second language learning can reveal specific language learning issues that are traced back to a student’s understating of their native language. More precisely, poor understanding of phonics and phonemic awareness in their mother tongue. To combat this dilemma, research needs to be made useful for foreign language educators so they can find a phonological method to assist their field of practice. Foreign language ducators’ are trained to some degree and expected to recognize when it is necessary to help students labeled as LD acquire a proficient understanding of foreign language literacy by focusing on phonemic awareness within the target language. If specific standards can be implemented and utilized by those who work with LD students in a foreign language setting, then linking the research to classroom practices will facilitate success. Utilizing current research data as a viable resource in the classroom can lead to revisions to the scholar-practitioner’s district improvement plan and possibly set the stage for differentiated foreign language instruction for all student audiences.


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