Special educational needs and technology in language learning

Article (PDF Available)inELT Journal 70(3):ccw033 · March 2016with 283 Reads
DOI: 10.1093/elt/ccw033
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Abstract
In this series, we explore technology-related themes and topics. The series aims to discuss and demystify what may be new areas for some readers and to consider their relevance to English language teachers.
© The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
technology for the language teacher
Special educational needs and
technology in language learning
Nicky Hockly
In this series, we explore technology-related themes and topics. The series
aims to discuss and demystify what may be new areas for some readers and to
consider their relevance to English language teachers.
This article considers research into special educational needs (SEN) and
technology, focusing on how technology may be able assist SEN students
learning English. The term ‘special education’ accommodates a very
wide range of needs, from learners with mild dyslexia or mild intellectual
disability, through to severe learning difficulties and autism. It includes
learners with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), visual or
hearing impairments, and mobility issues, restricted movement and
motor-skills challenges. Clearly, SEN learners can have very different
needs and require differing levels of support with learning.
There have been two main approaches to dealing with SEN learners in
education: what might be termed a ‘medical’ approach, and a ‘social’
approach (Daloiso forthcoming). The medical approach
sees the student as someone who has a problem which can be
diagnosed, labeled and treated. […] In this model, we try to fix the learner
and develop programmes to help them fit into society. We often have
two separate school systems, with special schools for students with SEN.
(ibid.)
On the other hand, the social approach
believes that as a society we all have a responsibility to understand and
include people with SEN. The student is valued as a person, who is unique,
has their own strengths and is not seen as ‘faulty’. […] Specialists help
schools and teachers to develop successful strategies for inclusion. (ibid.)
In this second approach, often referred to as ‘inclusive’, learners with
disabilities such as dyslexia, ADHD, and mild to moderate intellectual
disabilities are integrated into mainstream schooling. However, the inclusive
approach to SEN can pose challenges for teachers. Unless specially trained,
teachers are often unsure of how to meet their SEN learners’ emotional,
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functional, and academic needs (Mueller, Singer, and Carranza 2006). One
particular challenge when organizing SEN learning in ‘inclusive’ settings
is that limited English proficiency can in some cases be wrongly diagnosed
as limited learning ability, particularly in primary and secondary school
immersion contexts (such as the United Kingdom or United States), where
students study all their school subjects in English and teachers are unable to
communicate with these students in their first languages. This may result
in students being placed in special education classes instead of receiving the
language support they need (Lightbown 2014).
Although SEN has received a significant amount of attention in general
education, far fewer studies have been carried out with SEN English
language learners (ELLs). There are a number of possible reasons for
this. Firstly, it can be challenging to identify language learners with SEN.
Areport examining how US states deal with identifying and supporting
ELLs with disabilities found that ‘no proven method exists for identifying
an English-learner student who has a learning disability and then placing
the student in the most appropriate instructional program’ (Burr, Haas,
and Ferriere 2015: 1). Secondly, as we saw above, teachers frequently feel
that they are insufficiently qualified or lack the knowledge needed to work
effectively with SEN learners (Mueller etal. ibid.), and this may deter
many from carrying out classroom-based research with their language
learners. Finally, the novelty of some technologies (such as tablet devices)
means that research into their potential to support SEN language learners
is still in its infancy (Cumming and Draper Rodriguez 2013).
Within special needs general education, technology has long been seen
as potentially beneficial, and as technology generally has developed, so
too have the learning technologies used with SEN learners. Self-operating
prompting systems are one such example. These systems deliver visual or
audio prompts to learners to help them understand or produce language,
either in the classroom or out in the wider world. Prompts were originally
provided to SEN learners through static images, but with the advent of
tape recorders, audio prompts became an option; later, audio prompts
could be delivered through MP3 players. Additionally, personal computers
enabled video prompts and models to be delivered to SEN learners, as did
portable DVD players. Most recently, mobile devices such as iPods and
iPads have been used to deliver multimedia prompts to SEN learners (for
example Alberto, Sharpton, Briggs, and Stright 1986; Mechling, Gast,
and Seid 2010). The potential for supporting SEN language learners
via mobile self-operating prompting systems is clear: language can be
delivered to the learner at the point of need, for example by providing a list
of useful phrases or vocabulary in situ, with audio/video examples.
Consequently, mobile devices, and especially tablet computers, have been
enthusiastically taken up by many SEN educators. These devices include
a range of assistive features that can benefit SEN language learners. For
example, dyslexic learners can choose to listen to, rather than read, an
English text by activating audio capabilities. Closed captions and subtitles
can be activated for video content, and the font and size of these subtitles
increased, so that learners with hearing impairments can choose to read
audio content. In addition, tablets include a mono option in the sound
Assistive
technologies
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settings for students who may have better hearing in one ear, and hearing
aids can be connected to some tablets via Bluetooth. For learners with
motor-skills challenges, tactile screen settings can be changed from swipe
movements to tapping movements, which are easier to control; in addition,
the screen display on mobile devices can be locked into one position so that
screen movement is reduced. Finally, assistive touch on some tablets enables
teachers to guide students around the screen as they read, which can be
particularly challenging for SEN students in a second or foreign language.
Apart from the built-in assistive features of tablets, there is also a wide
range of educational apps available for SEN learners, including those
learning a language. For example, for dyslexic learners, there are writing
apps that can help them learn to spell letters by tracing them on a touch
screen. SEN learners who find writing challenging can use text-to-speech
apps that deliver written texts in audio format. Similarly, learners with
hearing disabilities can use speech-to-text apps that can provide written
transcripts of audio texts. SEN learners with autism or behavioural
challenges can benefit from more sophisticated apps that enable teachers
to create video scenarios in order to help these students develop empathy
and social skills. There are also organizations that provide documentation
and lesson plans to help teachers working with SEN students in the
language classroom, for example Languages without Limits (http://www.
languageswithoutlimits.co.uk), or the Times Educational Supplement
in the United Kingdom (https://www.tes.com/teaching-resources/hub/
special-educational-needs/).
Initial research results into the potential of mobile devices to improve
access and support learning for people with a range of disabilities
within general education are generally positive. For example, it has been
found that text messaging can benefit people with hearing impairments
(Voosloo 2012), and the tactile interface and immediate sensory feedback
of tablets can improve communication for autistic students in the
classroom (Johnson, Adams, and Cummins 2012). In Australia, a study
by Oakley, Howitt, Garwood, and Durack (2013) found that multimodal
texts created for tablets and laptops were successful in supporting the
literacy development of two autistic children, aged five and eight. Thus,
in general, research seems to suggest that the multimodal and tactile
assistive qualities of tablet devices have the potential to increase SEN
learners’ engagement, develop their academic and communicative skills,
and improve social interaction (Kárpáti 2009; Campigotto, McEwen, and
Demmans Epp 2013).
In the field of English language learning, much of the research into
the potential of technologies to support SEN learners to date has taken
place in the United States. For example, Demski (2011) describes how
learners used iPads in two US schools as portable dictionaries to aid
communication both in and outside the classroom, as well as how the
students used voice recording apps to record themselves reading aloud
in English, with teachers able to access these recordings later. It appears
that this approach particularly suited shy students who were able to create
recordings at home rather than be forced to read aloud inclass.
SEN and technology
studies in general
education
SEN and technology
studies in English
language learning
Nicky Hockly Page 3 of 7
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Despite this, and as Cumming and Draper Rodriguez (op.cit.) point out,
although there is plenty of hype in the popular press about the potential
of mobile technologies to support SEN learners, there is still a dearth of
rigorous research studies to support these claims. In an attempt to address
this gap, Cumming and Draper Rodriguez (op.cit.) carried out a six-week
study to determine the impact of using tablet technology (in this case, iPads)
on four SEN learners’ academic engagement in language arts lessons in
a US elementary school. The study also measured the satisfaction of the
teachers and learners in using the tablet technology, which was used with
a preloaded application. The app provided the SEN students with picture
and voice prompts in order to create sentences with new words. The results
showed that the SEN students learnt new vocabulary using the app, and that
the learners’ academic engagement increased at first, and a major advantage
reported by the teachers in this study was that it enabled the SEN students
to work independently. However, the students’ engagement decreased
towards the end of the study; the researchers suggest that this may have
been because the novelty of using the iPad had worn off, and the task set by
the app was fairly repetitive. They also suggested that the lack of feedback in
the app may not have reinforced the content enough for the students, and
that the students may have been bored as they became more proficient with
the task of formulating sentences. As suggested by the researchers, a longer
time period for a study such as this, involving more students and a variety
of apps in different subject areas, would provide a fruitful basis for further
research.
Vocabulary acquisition is also considered a key skill for children in
learning to read, and in achieving academic success; it is a skill that is
often challenging for ELLs to master, and doubly so for SEN learners
who are also ELLs, and dealing not just with acquiring basic literacy, but
doing so in a second or foreign language. Shared storybook readings
(also known as ‘read aloud’) with pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and
primary-aged learners has been found to be especially beneficial in aiding
vocabulary acquisition and literacy for students from diverse backgrounds,
including with moderate to severe intellectual and developmental
disabilities. Shared storybook readings involve an adult reading aloud to
a child, engaging the child in discussions about words and pictures in the
story, and encouraging him or her to make personal connections with the
text. Read-aloud texts that include multimedia can also have a beneficial
effect on learning. For example, Silverman and Hines (2009) carried out
a study in the United States with 85 pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first-,
and second-grade students, with a total of 27 ELLs, and the rest English-
only speakers. They found that ELLs acquired more vocabulary in shared
readings supported with multimedia, as opposed to traditional print-based
shared readings, with positive gains in bothmodes.
The extent to which multimedia support aids learning for SEN learners
has been investigated only in a handful of studies to date. For example,
Spooner, Rivera, Browder, Baker, and Salas (2009) examined how shared
storybook readings enhanced with multimedia impacted on a single
Hispanic ELL with moderate intellectual disability, and found positive
gains in her acquisition of literacy skills. This study also found that the
Technology
and academic
engagement
Developing
vocabulary
acquisition and
literacy skills
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use of the student’s first language (Spanish) seemed to positively affect
her acquisition of skills. Research supports the notion that instruction
in the first language positively affects literacy in the second language,
especially in language contexts like the United States, where English is
widely spoken (Lightbown op.cit.).
However, it does seem to be the case that the characteristics of individual
SEN learners will impact on learning outcomes. For example, a research
study was carried out with two Hispanic primary ELLs, both in fifth grade
and studying in the same public school in the United States (Rivera,
Spooner, Wood, and Hicks 2013). Both learners had moderate intellectual
disabilities. The study sought to examine and compare the effects of
shared storybook readings with multimedia in both Spanish and English,
and to evaluate the comparative effects on vocabulary acquisition and
retention for these two SEN learners. Both learners made gains in English
vocabulary acquisition, but interestingly one of the student’s results
showed greater gains in English instruction over Spanish instruction,
while the other student showed the opposite; her data suggested that
Spanish instruction was more effective than English instruction. The
researchers concluded that although both students were bilingual,
there may have been differences in the extent of their bilingualism that
accounted for the difference in language effect.
From these studies, it would appear that a multimodal and/or multimedia
approach to literacy and vocabulary acquisition frequently results
in positive gains for ELLs, including those with SEN; however, the
effects of the language of instruction appears to depend on individual
characteristics, such as the extent of bilingualism, as well as on the
instructional formats used. Simply introducing technology into the mix
does not guarantee positive outcomes.
Much of the research into the potential of assistive technologies to
support SEN learners that has taken place in general education appears
to be applicable to English language learning; the results of research in
both fields is generally promising. Tablet computers in particular are
perceived positively by teachers working with SEN learners, due to their
multimodal and tactile assistive qualities, as well as their portability and
the growing range of educational apps available for SEN students. Tablets
have been found to support literacy development in autistic children,
as well as increase SEN students’ engagement with learning materials,
improve their social interaction skills, and develop their academic and
communicative skills. Nevertheless, as Bouck, Satsangi, Bartlett, and
Weng (2012) point out, research should not only focus on the newest
technologies. Lower cost technologies (such as audio recorders) are also
worth continued investigation for their potential role in supporting the
independence of students with intellectual disabilities.
On the whole, research into the effectiveness of assistive technologies
for SEN students who are also ELLs appears to support these findings.
The research reviewed above suggests that depending on the learning
materials or apps used, and on task design, learners’ engagement with
language learning materials can increase, and that English language
Conclusion
Nicky Hockly Page 5 of 7
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