A survivor’s guide to Languages and the National Curriculum
What are Modern Foreign Languages?
Modern foreign languages are currently only statutory in state schools at Key Stage 3. The National Curriculum is not compulsory in academies and free schools although these schools are required to offer a broad and balanced curriculum.
The Government has decided to make modern foreign languages or classical languages a compulsory subject within the National Curriculum at Key Stage 2 from September 2014. Primary schools will be required to teach one of French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish, Latin or Ancient Greek at Key Stage 2 with the option of teaching one or more additional languages.
The Department of Education’s Programmes of Study (2013:5) states that at Key Stage 3:
“Teaching may be of any modern foreign language and should build on the foundations laid at Key Stage 2. It should focus on developing the breadth and depth of pupils’ competence in listening, speaking, reading and writing, based on the sound foundation of core grammar and vocabulary.”
Dyslexic students have difficulty with their native language and are therefore likely to find it difficult to learn a second or additional language. On the other hand, the benefits of knowing a foreign language are often underestimated.
Is it possible for someone who is dyslexic to learn a foreign language?
Dyslexia specialists generally agree that dyslexic children should be given an opportunity to learn a foreign language. It is likely that many dyslexic children will enjoy an active learning opportunity which focuses on multisensory language learning and involves a lot of role play, games, singing and other group activities. While it is acknowledged that some dyslexic children are only likely to achieve limited competence in a foreign language, it is important to acknowledge that the opportunity to participate in communicative activities brings additional benefits such as enhanced social development. The language classroom will inevitably broaden students’ horizons as their awareness of other cultures and communities develops.
Dyslexic pupils learning a foreign language have to be aware that it may be a longer process for them than for others. It is also important to consider the suitability of different languages.
Choosing a Foreign Language.
Many schools only offer French as an option. Unfortunately, French, like English, is a relatively opaque language. This means that it does not have clear letter-sound correspondence and has more irregularities than a language such as Spanish or Italian. Opaque languages can be very problematic for dyslexic learners.
Spanish, Italian and German, on the other hand, are much more transparent languages with clear letter-sound correspondence. This facilitates spelling and pronunciation. German has the additional advantage of having a sound system (especially if you are Scottish) that is very close to that of English. German and English also share a large number of words (such as ‘Bank’, ‘Hand’, ‘Park’ and ‘Arm’). However, dyslexic learners may struggle with other aspects of German such as cases, gender of nouns, multiple consonant combinations, long multisyllabic words and unfamiliar word order.
Latin may be a good choice for those dyslexic pupils who anticipate difficulty around learning to speak a new language as the focus tends to be on reading. Latin pronunciation is consistent and the meaning of words can be deduced by breaking them into morphemes (smallest units of meaning) and analysing them. If they are encouraged to apply this skill to English, they may be able to improve their reading comprehension skills. Latin has a fairly small lexicon and many words may be familiar as a large proportion of technical, scientific and abstract words in English are derived from Latin.
Although transparent languages have obvious advantages over opaque languages, it should be recognised that, whichever language is chosen, dyslexic learners are likely to experience difficulties in a range of areas including speed of information processing, word retrieval and short term memory. Successful language learning is likely to be dependent as much on the teacher’s personality and teaching methods and on the perceived relevance of the language as on the actual choice of language.
Does a dyslexic pupil have to take a foreign language?
Even though learning a foreign language is part of the National Curriculum, it is possible to ‘disapply’ where a pupil has significant dyslexic difficulties and is struggling with their own language. This means that the student does not have to take classes or exams in that subject. Disapplication will usually be relevant at Key Stage 4, that is years 10 and 11, when the GCSE course is imminent.
For a full outline of the procedure see the Department of Education publication: Disapplication of the National Curriculum. Disapplication is normally limited to pupils with a Statement of Special Educational Need.
If a dyslexic child does not have a Statement but is becoming distressed at being required to learn a foreign language, it may be possible to ask the GP to write to the school requesting that the language be disallowed in the interests of the child’s health.
How can study skills help in learning a foreign language?
Study skills and language learning strategies will both be useful. Study skills are general learning skills such as organisation, planning, comprehending, revision techniques and exam strategies. The school or SENCO will be able to give further advice on this.
Language learning strategies are specific to Modern Foreign Languages, and will help tackle some of the difficulties that may be encountered.
Use flash cards (3 x 5 is a good size) to help memorise vocabulary. It will be useful to add pictures, colours and anything else that aids memory.
Colour-coding grammatical devices will help the student to remember: In Dyslexia and Foreign Language Learning (2003), Elke Schneider and Margaret Crombie suggest using different shades of the same colour to distinguish between masculine and feminine nouns and using other colours to represent different parts of speech.
To help with remembering word order, put the words onto card, cut up the card into separate phrases, mix them up and practice putting them back together again.
Use multi-sensory learning In order to remember vocabulary: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
If pronunciation is a source of difficulty, ask the teacher to record some of the words onto an MP3 file, mobile phone or tablet so that practice at home is possible. .
If listening is difficult, ask the teacher to record some practice exercises that can be practised at home.
Many people find it easier to remember a word if they associate it with a visual image or picture. Try putting pictures next to the words, and the picture may be recalled faster than the actual word.
The key here is to find out what works for the individual. Then it is possible to explore these methods further.
Dyslexic strengths can also be deployed as an effective strategy to support learning of foreign languages combined with a multi-sensory and a learning-by-doing approach. Please refer to the pdf link: Children with Dyslexia and Foreign Language Learning.
An important dyslexic strength is the ability to see the overall picture. It is a good idea for the teacher to provide an overall plan of the term’s lessons as well as an overview of the day’s lesson. Mind mapping may be a useful tool for doing this. In this way, the student can gain a better understanding of the structure of the learning and its ultimate goals.
Is it possible to stay motivated?
Learning a foreign language is hard work, especially for dyslexic learners, and therefore it may take more determination to succeed. But a foreign language is a useful skill, even if it is only to a low level of competence. Employers do look more favourably upon those applicants who can speak a second language.
Motivation is difficult even for the most able students, especially in a foreign language. The key is breaking down what has to be learnt into small, achievable chunks. Small successes lead to overall success. For example, if there is a long list of vocabulary to learn, it can be done by breaking it down into five words a day. These can be practised by speaking, reading and writing, and even listening if the words are recorded onto an MP3 file, a mobile phone or tablet. When this is achieved, the next set of five can be learnt.
Is extra time allowed in MFL exams?
Accommodations such as extra time may be allowed in Modern Foreign Languages exams. For more information, see our information sheet, Access Arrangements in Assessment and Examinations.
Many dyslexic students could have a history of hearing difficulties, which might entitle them to additional arrangements for the listening part of the exam.
For further information on exam considerations, see JCQ Access Arrangements.
Have a look at the Dyslang course which has a lot of useful information about dyslexia and language learning. Although its primary focus is on multilingual students, many of the suggestions and tips are equally applicable to monolingual students.
Activities and Games.
Jouex en Francais and Jeux Francais by Ams Educational.
Jouex en Francais is series of activity sheets to help learn basic French vocabulary, and Jeux Français, a series of games to help learn and reinforce basic French vocabulary. Also in CD Rom format.
Chantez Plus Fort published by Brilliant Publications, book and CD containing 20 easy to learn French songs written specifically to help children to learn French. For 11-14 year olds.
Penfriend XL. from Penfriend Ltd. now comes in many European language versions designed for dyslexic and physically disabled learners.
Star French from Fisher-Marriott.For 11-16 yrs, designed to support the GCSE syllabus.
It caters for all levels of ability and has tasks designed to help with pronunciation, word order, spelling and key phrases using native speakers.
Foreign dictionaries. It is possible to add extra language dictionaries and foreign keyboards to MS Office if needed.
Dyslexia and Foreign Language Learning by Elke Schneider and Margaret Crombie, 2003.
Amazon list a number of useful titles to support foreign language learning.
Deutsch, kein Problem. Strategies and resources for special needs.
Available from Amazon.
GCSE Revision Guides.
CGP provide a number of language revision guides.
The BBC’s Bitesize programme covers French, German and Spanish, from basic levels to GCSE and beyond with forums, practice pages for reading and writing, and even speaking and listening in German. It is worth looking at the grammar section and the vocabulary help. There are links to other helpful web pages to help with reading in the language.
It is also worth looking at the BBC Education Languages section for other useful sites.
GCSE POD for French, German and Spanish. Podcasts for computer, iPod or mobile phone, enhanced with text and graphics.