Konyndky’s Foreign Languages for Everyone
Donna Villareal, Ashland University
Last winter, Leah Darkes, a member of the OFLA listserv associated with Cleveland State University wrote to the group:
“I’ve spoken to a few people about the value of foreign language learning for ALL students, including those with learning/emotional disabilities, the topic has really peaked my interest. I met a teacher from a private school in Wisconsin who is upset that the school will no longer require students with learning/emotional disabilities to study a foreign language. The decision was based on the belief that if students have difficulty mastering content area subjects, learning a foreign language is taking away valuable time they could be spending getting extra help. Since I am a student teacher I have not had much experience teaching students with disabilities. For those of you that have, I would love to hear your experiences, thoughts, and reactions.
-Do you think learning a foreign language takes valuable time away from focusing on content areas for students with learning/emotional disabilities?
-Do you think not requiring students with learning/emotional disabilities unfairly denies them an opportunity they deserve to have?
-Have you discovered any stand-out strategies for helping students with learning/emotional disabilities to communicate (read, write, speak) in the target language?”
Not long afterwards, I came across the work of Irene Brouwer Konyndyk and remembered Leah’s post. Konyndyk is a widely recognized professor and French teacher whose research focuses upon effective instructional strategies to include students with learning disabilities and other challenges in the foreign language classroom. She has presented her work widely and was among the speakers highlighted at the 2013 ACTFL conference in Philadelphia. As a parent of a child with a learning disability, Dr. Konyndyk conveys an understanding sharpened by the lens of personal experience with families, students and teachers. I believe her work contains information to address the important questions Leah posed to the OFLA community.
Konyndyk’s book, Foreign Languages for Everyone: How I Learned to Teach Second Languages to Students with Learning Disabilities, delivers practical teaching strategies based upon theoretical research in the areas of intervention and second language instruction. Dr. Konyndyk’s focus is not upon specific disabilities of students, but rather, the abilities of teachers to use effective instructional strategies to address the learning needs of students who are still often denied access and opportunity to foreign language instruction. In some 160 pages–8 topical chapters–she offers principles of instruction to help the novice and veteran teacher alike emerge from the frustration of well-intentioned, but unsuccessful efforts to teach second language competencies to students with language challenges.
Dr. Konyndyk describes why and which explicit teaching strategies help students with language learning disabilities develop abilities to improve receptive and/or expressive language skills. For example, she describes her lesson planning process that begins with the establishment of clear, simple concepts linked to memorable activities. Recognizing that students with language learning disabilities are diverse, she describes sound classroom activities that are useful not only for target students, but are likely to benefit all, such as the use of multisensory stimuli when presenting new material. Furthermore, Konyndyk plans lessons and units that include deliberately revisiting key concepts throughout the season and the school year. She describes her planning as creating a “spiral” of instruction that incorporates intentional review of key ideas while using basic behavioral principles to enhance students’ memory of key instructional concepts.
Along with academic challenges of learning a second or foreign language are behavioral ones. Students with language learning disabilities and other challenges often fall behind in completing assignments on time. Completing assignments as directed is a problematic area that that can contribute to negative interactions with the student. The inability to catch up with assignments and the subsequent low or failing grades may trigger the end of a students’ engagement with formal language studies. Kononydyk suggests preventative strategies for maintaining positive student engagement with interventions such as Grace Slips. Grace slips are ways for students to develop self-management skills by giving them opportunities to turn in assignments late with minimal penalty. The grace slips are a concrete way for students to monitor their behaviors turn in assignments on time, and also serve to bring the teacher into conversation with the student about increases or decreases in the skill of meeting deadlines.
Aligning with her goal, to help foreign and second language teachers understand what is needed to help students with learning disabilities succeed in the classroom, Konyndyk addresses teachers in a style that is both accessible and encouraging. Her book may be used as a reference text, but readers would be well-advised to take advantage of her ongoing online work that note that includes videoclips and blogs where teachers may discuss ways to support students with learning challenges in the foreign language classroom. Dr. Konyndyk’s website of resources and supplemental tools to use with the strategies she describes in the book are available to help all foreign language teachers plan, assess and implement effective instruction for a range of learners (http://www.foreignlanguagesforeveryone.com/).
In the text below, Dr. Irene Konyndyk encourages fellow teachers to continue on the journey of working to provide foreign language skills to all students, including those with disabilities.
“Changes in foreign-language teaching methods have also made things more difficult for at-risk students, whose needs are finally being recognized. The current approach—the “natural” or “communicative” method—generally works well for traditional students. But it’s not very effective for struggling learners (see reference). If you were taught to teach using natural-language methods, please don’t assume that you would have a difficult time switching to an alternative pedagogy. I made the switch, and you can too. The key is understanding how at-risk students learn.”
There is a great need to address the foreign language learning challenges of students who have been mainstreamed into regular classrooms in K-12 schools, colleges, and foreign-language classrooms. This includes individuals on the autism spectrum, such as students with Asperger’s syndrome. As more schools embrace the importance of introducing children to foreign languages at a young age, and as many states change the high school graduation requirements to include several years of foreign-language study, anxiety grows about how at-risk students will fare. Parents understandably worry even as intervention specialists may know little about how foreign languages are taught. Poor collaboration between interventionists and the foreign-language community ends up hurting students with special needs.
It is worth noting that Dr. Konyndyk will continue to offer professional development in the Ohio region. She will be the featured speaker at a day-long early childhood conference in Indianapolis, Indiana on Saturday, October 4, 2014. On October 23, 2014 she will present “Celebrating World Languages: Engaging Students with Learning Disabilities through Direct and Explicit Instruction” for the Michigan World Language Association (MIWLA) conference in Lansing, Michigan.