Students with learning disabilities can successfully learn additional languages!

Learning an additional language is a process that requires a lot of work, patience and time. Research shows us that there is no “typical” student and that everyone learns differently and at different speeds. A learning disability in its most basic terms is a condition that makes difficult to learn a new skill. However, there are many children with learning disabilities who grow into adulthood and do great things. Individuals such as Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, Justin Timberlake, Whoopi Goldberg and Michael Phelps are well-known for their accomplishments and have learned how to cope with their condition in learning process.

However, there are many children with learning disabilities who grow into adulthood and do great things.

Disabilities range from mild to severe. To illustrate an example, “Your fingerprint is unlike anyone else’s and your fingerprint represents how different everyone is and how differently everyone learns”, mentions Professor Rosa Dene David, from the Foreign Languages and Cultures Department. Oftentimes, young language learners have some of the same issues acquiring a language as a person with a disability. For learning specialists and educators this is hard to diagnose and distinguish between what is a difficulty and what is a disability.

Let’s talk about ways to support all learners who are having difficulties learning a language. According to David, these strategies are design with young learners in mind but will also help teenagers and adults learn a language.


All students will benefit from being introduced to new vocabulary and grammar prior to a listening activity. The more explicit the teacher is about the content and language objectives of the listening activity; the more successful students will be. Listening activities should be introduced in small chunks (two minutes), with reinforcement about what was important from the listeners perspective. Also, there are many sounds that are similar in English and words that have similar meanings. These sounds and words should be introduced separately so that young learners do not get confused between the sounds and definitions of the words.


Learners with disabilities often have issues on the phonological order of sounds. This means that even if they can recognize the word, they may have issues saying the word because they may confuse the order of the sounds when they are speaking. Students may also have a shorter working memory, which means that they may have a hard time retrieving words. Allow students to preform speaking activities that do not require long utterances and allow them to work in small groups. David recommends breaking the speaking activity into pieces and allow students to focus on one goal at a time.


Students with learning disabilities have a hard time with sentence structure and spelling. It is hard for them to take notes or copy things from the board. When you introduce information on the board, use the same colors to sentence structure so that they can see the patterns. For example, a verb is always going to be red and a noun is always going to be written in blue. Make sure that students have all the information that they are going to need to write in front of them, so that they won’t forget to use key information. Make word list and verb lists for them to use. Finally, try to incorporate fun writing activities into everyday activities that kids think are fun, like writing a grocery list, sending notes in class or writing letters to people they care about.


Learning to read is a skill that takes time because students must learn to recognize the words on a page. Introduce new vocabulary and grammar prior to the reading and revisit this information after the reading exercise. Students benefit from learning about what they are going to read, before they do it. Help students brainstorm what they are going to need to know about the reading, before they begin. Reading is best taught after they have been talking for a while, because they are no longer nervous. Finally, the length of the text should increase gradually starting with short paragraphs and moving towards short stories.