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Foreign Language Waivers
2021/05/06 22:36:49

Offering Alternatives to High School Students with Disabilities


While many schools accommodate students with diagnosed learning disabilities in their native language-based classes, too few offer meaningful foreign language alternatives.

For some high school students in the United States, learning a foreign language is more than simply difficult. Students with certain learning disabilities may find it close to impossible to succeed in learning in a traditionally structured foreign language classroom. Usually, they thinking "I will pay someone to write my paper cheap". This is not because these students lack intelligence or scholastic dedication; rather it has to do with a set of well-researched learning disabilities that affect language-based tasks such as reading, spelling, speaking, writing, or listening.

Foreign Language Classes Magnify Language-Based Learning Disabilities

It should not come as a surprise that a student who struggles with language-based tasks in his or her native language will also struggle performing those tasks in a foreign language. In fact, the learning disability is often greatly magnified in the foreign language classroom, yet the response from secondary schools—especially independent schools—is often little more than the same one-size-fits-all approach used in the student’s native language classes (e.g. extended time).

In most cases, these students don’t need more time; instead, they need a highly individualized program that takes their learning strengths and weaknesses into account. If the school cannot or will not provide such a program, then the student should be offered a foreign language waiver or course substitution consistent with the school’s mission and rationale for requiring a foreign language in the first place.

When it comes to what type of language-based learning disabilities most affect a student’s ability to learn a foreign language in the traditional foreign language classroom, research (not to mention common sense) suggests that orthographic and phonological disabilities are at the top of the list. If a student has trouble with sound-symbol tasks or the production and perception of speech sound in his native language, these same difficulties are going to provide potentially insurmountable barriers in the traditional foreign language classroom -- even with standard classroom and testing accommodations.

The Ideal Scenario: Accessible Academic Programs

The ideal scenario would be for a school to make its entire academic program accessible to all students (in fact, at least in theory, this is a requirement for schools that receive financial assistance from any Federal department or agency). Making the academic program accessible to all learners may include student support services such as:

  • Tutoring by a learning disabilities specialist
  • Basic skills remediation
  • Special skill development courses

Often, however, even with these support mechanisms in place, students with learning disabilities still have extreme difficulties completing a school’s standard foreign language requirement.

Schools that have modified the existing foreign language program to meet the needs of their students have reported success, and this is clearly the most equitable option and the one that supports the true democratization of education in America. For example, offering a specially designed Latin course (because Latin is largely non-oral and non-auditory and, generally speaking, lacks complex grammar) to students with diagnosed language-based learning disabilities can help with essay and make a school’s foreign language program accessible to a group of students previously excluded.

Alternatively, multisensory approaches to modifying existing language curricula (e.g. the Orton-Gillingham technique, which requires simultaneous use of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modalities) have proven quite successful.

When a Waiver is the Best Approach

In the event that the school is unable or unwilling to provide an individualized program that takes the student’s learning styles into account, offering a foreign language waiver is the recommended approach. Institutions that offer foreign language waivers generally do so based on current and comprehensive psychoeducational evaluations that demonstrate objective evidence of a substantial limitation and provide an explicit diagnosis supported by test data, academic history and clinical observations. In addition, surveys, inventories and direct observation should be used internally by the school to support a request for a foreign language waiver.

It is unfortunate when a school such as an independent school is unwilling to support every student it has accepted, but when resources are lacking or the will is absent, then the foreign language waiver becomes the imperfect best option in the students true educational interest.

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