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Teaching Students with Disabilities in a Mainstreamed ESL Classroom

written by: Anne Vize • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/11/2012

ESL students with disabilities face several challenges when it comes to learning English as a second language, and need some care and understanding. Teachers need a good understanding of their students' disability and how to adapt their teaching and assessments to their students' needs.

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    When preparing lesson plans for the mainstreamed classroom, ESL teachers will need to have a good understanding of each student's particular disability. They will need to understand the language implications of their classroom as well as their own teaching style. Then they must match the needs of the learner with the classroom structure, to ensure the ability of the learner to benefit as fully as possible from the class is maximized.

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    Students with Special Needs

    Students have a wide range of skills, abilities and requirements in a classroom. Students with special needs are no different. Some disabilities you may encounter in the mainstreamed ESL classroom are students who have one or more of the following:

    • Vision impairment - students who have no vision, or who may see some shapes and color, or light and dark. These students may use a guide dog, a cane or 'sight guiding' (holding the elbow of a support person) to move around safely.
    • Hearing impairment - students who lack the ability to hear without assistance. They may use a hearing aid, have a cochlear implant, or use sign language or lip reading.
    • Physical disability - students with a physical disability have some sort of mobility limit. They may use a wheelchair or walker, or they may walk unaided but need assistance with movement activities for other parts of their body. Examples in this category include spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis.
    • Learning Disability - these students have difficulty learning and may have problems with memory, information retention and recall and processing of information. (At times a learning disability may not be diagnosed, particularly in an ESL student.)
    • Intellectual disability - these students have a lower IQ (Intelligence Quotient) than would be expected for their age. They may find it harder than their peers to remember, understand, apply reasoning, process information and learn new skills.
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    Adapting & Modifying ESL Content

    A good way to ensure learning is maximized for each student in your class is to create a 'language plan' or 'language map' for each session you will be teaching. This means adjusting the regular lesson plan to cater specifically for the language needs of special needs students.

    For example, an extra column could be added beside the description of activities to note how language needs can be met appropriately. This could simply be a note to ensure information is written onto large text cue cards, a note about charging a laptop so a voice recognition program can be used, a reminder to face towards a hearing impaired student when speaking, or a reminder to give text based information to a teacher aide or support person prior to the class.

    ESL content may need to be adapted with modified work or worksheets that will ensure success is high, and students feel a sense of achievement. Books such as Everyday Literacy provide a range of useful adapted worksheets and activities suitable for ESL learners with disabilities.

    Assessment is a challenging area when teaching ESL students with disabilities. An ESL teacher needs a good understanding of how the disability affects not only their classroom learning but also their ability to cope in an assessment situation. Remember that students need to demonstrate competence on a number of occasions during assessment, not just once. An ESL assessment for a student with a disability may need to be modified with large print, reduced text, verbal rather than written instructions, and/or extra time.

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    Example Language Plan in Action

    Here is an example of a language plan for a class on personal presentation for a job interview with a group of 15 year old students in a mainstream ESL class setting:

    • Introduction -
      • Discuss job interviews, and write key words onto electronic white board or chalkboard.
      • Brainstorm 'personal presentation' on board, and talk about why it is important - does it matter?
      • Language plan: check Kylah has her USB memory stick with her to download intro notes onto laptop; ensure Barry is seated near front of room so he can lip read.
    • Activity 1 --
      • Break into small groups to design an outfit and image for an interviewee.
      • Language plan: put Barry with Ben and prompt Ben to speak clearly and not mumble; check chair arrangement of their group
    • Activity 2 --
      • Whole class presentation of designs
      • Ask for a volunteer from each group to present their ideas.
      • Encourage general discussion and comments.
      • Focus on idea that different jobs have different presentation requirements at interview.
      • Language plan: use gesture and eye contact to remind Barry about movement around room and encourage her to use signing to show when she wants to leave the group; check that Kylah has notes on her USB and has saved them to a named file.