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Home > Reading Comprehension > Lowering the Language Barriers in Middle and Secondary School

Lowering the Language Barriers in Middle and Secondary School

by Susan Jones, M.Ed.

Content area classes in middle and secondary school present special challenges to students with learning disabilities. Often these students appear more than ready to make the transition from elementary to middle school, or from the resource room to the 'regular' classroom, but find themselves floundering. How can we anticipate the challenges? How can we help these students do more than survive -- thrive -- in the general ed. setting?

What are the langauge barriers?

  1. Language skills that aren't automatic - perhaps the most common problem. For these students, language skills aren't good enough to read to learn. These students may have been able to deal with elementary reading demands, where the text generally more predictable and has more context clues.
  2. Background knowledge and language skills deficits -- especially vocabulary
    How many students don't know what the "civil" in "civil war" or "divine" in "divine right" means?
  3. Learning Style issues -
    "Visual-kinesthetic" learners, and anyone who needs to be actively engaged to maintain attention, will have difficulty learning from either reading or lecture situations. Many of them can learn ways of actively engaging in reading and listening
  4. Quantity - students often must choose between learning from an assignment and completing that assignment. This is especially ironic if the student is relying on good classwork and homework grades because s/he consistently gets poor test grades. Slow processors may simply not have the time or cognitive energy to "cram" lots of information, and may also need daily review to keep from forgetting material.
  5. Difficulty organizing knowledge
    This makes a little bit of learning "too much" because it is treated as unrelated knowledge. Terms & concepts are learned separately and don't "help" with understanding other terms & concepts.
    Some examples: knowing that "thermometer" and "thermostat," are closely related, understanding that HCl is the same as 1HCl.
    These students may also have difficulty with classification and classification language. They may not be aware that if you're in the same city, you have to be in the same country but not vice versa. They do not intuitively realize that organisms in the same genus must also be in the same class and phylum.
    Words like example, definition, and property may also cause problems. If you're not sure what they mean, texts and test questions are hard to understand. This kind of comprehension is often taken for granted.
  6. Deficits in metacognitive skills
    The same student who has trouble making the transition from "learning to read " to "reading to learn" often has trouble making the transition from "learning to do assignments" to "doing assignments to learn. S/he will follow directions for assignments without understanding why. When s/he "defines boldface words," it's handwriting practice. This can be a carryover from elementary school, when s/he was told to "copy your spelling words five times." If that particular strategy didn't help with remembering the spelling words, it reinforces the idea that assignments are something you do because the teacher told you to, and they generally don't make sense. Some students have had a lot of reinforcement of this idea
  7. Language output problems -
    --motor problems with writing
    --problems organizing and structuring written or oral output
    -- word retrieval problems.
    See "dysgraphia" article for information on accommodations, modifications, and remediation for dysgraphia.

What can be done about language barriers to learning?

  1. Reduce the demand on reading and language skills.
  1. Use fonts and print size that are easy to read. 15 point type is not insulting but makes a difference.
  2. Format tests to reduce reading, especially multiple choice and matching.
    Make the answers in multiple choice questions short; put the shorter parts of matching questions on the right hand side. This way when the student has to read the various choices, s/he does not have to read long definitions or answers again and again. Click here for an example of a matching question so formatted.
  3. Use visual and concrete information and link it often to the langauge used to express those ideas.
  4. Use the same format/directions for similar kinds of assignments so the student can focus on content rather than figuring out how to do the assignment
  5. Use "student dictionary" kinds of definitions with concrete examples and analogies whenever possible, and
  6. Teach and monitor use of strategies for following directions (such as highlighting steps and checking them off).

Use multisensory learning.

Anchor concepts and terms with visual/concrete presentations that connect the abstract language to the visual and concrete examples.

KEEP ANCHORING THEM with assignments that have the student process the information with the visual/concrete and the words to express the content. Don't isolate the visual from the verbal; keep the flow between the two worlds.

Especially for CAPD: Provide a written version of what you say whenever possible, especially when several steps are involved.

Use word banks when appropriate.

Include pictures and graphics on tests and assignments.

Use movies

Use drama

Use and teach the use of graphic organizers. Pick a favorite or two and use them often and well -- this way the student doesn't have to keep learning the organizer, but benefits from the more visual display. Keep in mind that simply arranging a bunch of words in a more visually memorable fashion will help some students immensely -- but for other students, there will still be a lot of language with no concrete connection. Words are a "second language" to many of these visual thinkers.

3. Metacognitive strategies:

Graphic Organizers (though, again, these are just words presented more visually and don't necessarily connect with the visual and/or concrete concepts in the student's mind)

Break down essays and other complex language tasks into steps. Structure questions (specify "what are three good things and three bad things about...") and gradually increase the amount the student has to structure written assignments.

When teaching study and learning strategies (calling them "learning strategies" may be helpful), include "why." Before a student and/or teacher decide that a strategy "just doesn't work for me," keep in mind that the reason the stratey doesn't work may be that a) the student is still figuring out the strategy, so the mind is more engaged in that than in the content being learned with the strategy or b) the student still focuses on appearing to complete the assignment rather than learning the material, and may not even really know what it is to "know" the material. Try applying the strategy to something the student already knows well first, especially if the strategy involves manipulating information (such as drawing examples of something with labels, or making up examples of something).

Use study strategies that incorporate concrete and/or visual information that go along with terms and labels; avoid work that is simply repeating (or even paraphrasing) a definition, even/especially if the student is able to do this. Using drawings and concrete examples and using the verbal information to describe them involves more thought than just moving words around.

Provide many examples and have students do the same.

4. Quantity

-- reduce the amount of copying when possible, especially for the students who copy information without thinking about what it says. Some people remember what they have written down -- but others write without even reading what they're about to write.

-- reduce the amount of writing when possible. For example, instead of answering every question in complete sentences that reflect the question, have the student do this for some questions but answer the rest in phrases.

Matching Question

Here's a matching question such as you'd find in a middle or secondary school social studies quiz. The format is good -- the "heavy reading" comes first, and the student has to pick from the short answers. Note, however, that vocabulary is the key to this question. If students know vaguely that "divine" has something to do with God, and "force" has something to do with power, they'll probably get all three right,. whether or not they really understand anything about those forms of government. If a student doesn't remember those labels, even though s/he fully grasped the social dynamics when the knowledge was presented, s/he'll probably get some of these wrong.


1. People got together and decided things would work better with some kind of governmnet



Divine Right Theory


2. The most powerful ruled, and organized a governmnet



Social Contract Theory


3. God chose certain people and their sons to be rulers over others



Force Theory




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