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Help with Learning a Foreign Language for Children with ADHD

parenting kids with adhd

Many ADHD kids struggle to speak, read, and write in their native languages. Why would learning a foreign one be any different? When grammar-based methods fall short, some foreign language teachers are modifying the curriculum to better suit at-risk learners.

The challenge ADHD kids face when studying a foreign language doesn't come from the language's unfamiliarity. It comes from the child's innate difficulty with learning any language, even his own.

Researchers have for decades believed that language learning requires certain skills. The conditions--mostly age and environment--under which kids acquire language change. But the skills they need don't.

A three-year-old picks up the English words her parents, siblings, and friends speak and so acquires her native language. When she turns ten, she will call upon those same skills to learn fifth-grade Spanish. If those skills came naturally at first, she is likely to learn Spanish as easily as English.

The same principle is true for an ADHD child--but the outcome is negative. Early problems, such as forming sounds, identifying letter combinations, using correct verb tense, and applying grammar rules, reappear when the child studies a foreign language in school.

That inborn language deficiency isn't helped by another core symptom of ADHD: attention-deficit. ADHD kids can't focus on a task with the kind of attention it takes to achieve understanding. Without the ability to pay attention, they can't follow instructions, listen, and memorize to a level that allows them to become proficient in a foreign language.

boy with book

This language learning dilemma, characteristic of ADHD kids, was summed up in a research review by learning disabilities expert Sally Scott: 'Problems in the native language will still be present, if not magnified, in the process of learning a second language system.'

Help Comes with (Early) Intervention

Understanding the language link is the first step for ADHD parents hoping to prepare their kids to satisfy foreign language requirements in high school and college. The next step is to spot certain warning signs before adolescence.

Some questions parents can ask themselves are:

  • Did my child show delay in learning to speak?
  • Did my child have speech therapy before and during the elementary school years?
  • Does my child's family have a history of language and learning problems?
  • Did my child struggle with reading and, particularly, with phonics?
  • Did my child find spelling and grammar to be challenging?

Children who faced such problems with language-based tasks in grade school will likely have those problems reappear and intensify by time they reach junior high. That's when foreign language becomes a more important part of the school curriculum.

To prepare children for success, ADHD experts urge parents to intervene when kids are young. One way is by suggesting that teachers and school administrators modify the foreign language instruction.

students in spanish class with computer

Simple Modifications Can Level the Playing Field

Modifications to foreign language instruction don't have to be elaborate. They can be as straightforward as strategies recommended for teaching ADHD students in any subject. Although some strategies have been created with the intention of teaching children with dyslexia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends them for ADHD learners.

Schools in Boulder, Colorado, for example, follow a Modified Foreign Language Program. The district holds workshops where teachers learn how to plan lessons described as 'low pressure' and 'interactive.' It's a curriculum suited to ADHD learners because it awards achievement rather than punishes failure.

Typical of Boulder's program is a language and learning quiz. Students read a small passage in Spanish and must fill in the blank to complete some of the sentences. But they are given only two choices and both choices appear underneath the blank.

The teacher's copy of the quiz explains how it helps to lower the cognitive load for students who find foreign languages so challenging:

  • Choosing between two words means less pressure than selecting from a word bank of twenty.
  • The quiz cautions teachers not to give the quiz to students who haven't demonstrated certain skills.
  • When grading the quiz, teachers give partial credit to students who chose the correct verb and full credit if they could conjugate it.

Another part of the modified curriculum are mini-presentations by students. Speaking for five minutes on a topic they find interesting allows ADHD kids to interact in a foreign language. And though students must speak in front of the class, they can use notes. Pass/fail grades are based only on whether they participated in and prepared for the exercise.

The Multisensory Model

A more structured foreign language curriculum follows the theory that ADHD students learn best by seeing, hearing, and feeling. The Multisensory Structured Language (MSL) method, recommended by the International Dyslexia Association, requires that teachers adapt lessons to a student's learning style.

Think back to when your child learned what the word 'rain' meant. Chances are, she heard someone say the word and then saw a picture of rain either on TV or in a book. Going outside into the rain allowed her to feel it.

Those senses of hearing, seeing, and feeling that help children learn their native tongue are worked into the MSL program. For example, a teacher introduces new vocabulary words in layers: first by displaying them on the board, then by sounding each one out, and finally by showing pictures of them. She then uses hand gestures and facial expressions to act out the words before inviting students to do the same.

teacher with students

There are other student-centered characteristics of MSL that support ADHD learners:

  • Interactive study puts kids into small groups so they can mingle with peers.
  • Structure comes from teachers preparing grammar and vocabulary guides with worksheets for students to apply concepts.
  • Direct teaching offers guidance, with teachers modeling pronunciation, spelling, and speaking before expecting students to do so.
  • It's diagnostic because teachers don't just cover material. They make sure students have mastered simple concepts before advancing to others.

Starting with a Story

As Spanish teacher Miriam Pallant discussed in her school's blog, when her students showed more enthusiasm by speaking the language than memorizing vocabulary lists, she tossed aside her grammar-based lesson plans. Pallant instead adopted a technique invented by another Spanish teacher, Blaine Ray, who wanted to help kids ease into a second language.

For Ray, that meant storytelling. And the technique he developed 'Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling,' or TPRS, immerses kids in whatever language they're studying. When used to teach foreign languages, TPRS has kids speaking the language first and memorizing verb conjugations later.

Here's how Pallant used storytelling to teach a foreign language:

  1. New vocabulary was introduced in the context of a story.
  2. Students were shown slides with images depicting the new words.
  3. Students used the new vocabulary in games.
  4. Homework reinforced classroom instruction by requiring students to answer questions as they referred to a printed version of the story.

The success of TPRS, says Pallant, comes from the sense of accomplishment students feel when they find themselves speaking in a foreign tongue. It's like taking home an object they made in woodworking class or tasting food they prepared during a cooking lesson.

By Michele Vrouvas
February 2017
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