Learning Disabilities in Children: How to Help Them Learn a Second Language

How to Help Children with Learning Disabilities Learn a Second Language

Specific Learning Disabilities, or SLDs, can make it challenging for children to keep up with the general curriculum and acquisition goals for language learning. SLDs include brain injuries, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Children may also have ADHD, visual processing impairments, or memory issues that make it difficult to decode languages, whether they are monolingual or multilingual.

However, these children can learn as many languages as they’d like with the appropriate accommodations, teaching techniques, and support.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines an SLD as a “disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.”

A Personalized Approach

While education programs and governing bodies want to see all students succeed under the general curriculum, the truth is that every student benefits from personalized instruction. Students with or without learning disabilities have individual needs and learning preferences.

Guardians can support language acquisition by finding a tutor or online learning program. Students can receive personalized instruction to learn Chinese, English, Spanish, and other languages through flexible virtual classes. With a class size of one student, these teachers can curate their curriculum and activities around your child’s needs. Students can focus on their progress without comparing themselves to peers or trying to meet statewide standards.

Teachers in traditional classrooms can’t have one-on-one sessions with every student, but they can implement some of the best practices listed below to help their students with learning disabilities thrive. Guardians can also familiarize themselves with these tools to practice the target language at home.

Build Community

Learning an unfamiliar language can be intimidating for any student. Inevitably, every learner will make mistakes when practicing the target language. Feelings of embarrassment or inadequacy may accompany these mistakes. These feelings might be compounded in students with learning disabilities who may experience discomfort around peers and teachers due to their learning needs.

You can have hundreds of teaching tricks up your sleeve, but the first step in helping your students thrive is making the classroom supportive. The more comfortable your students feel, the more confident they will be in themselves when learning and using the target language. Use getting-to-know-you activities to build community. During your lessons, highlight that all people possess strengths and weaknesses and that each person brings something unique and valuable to the table.

Make Physical Accommodations

The classroom and home study space can either increase or minimize distractions. For example, seating arrangements can make or break a focused learning environment; students can easily distract one another. You can rearrange the seating to keep students that antagonize or distract each other in different groups. You can also provide an intake sheet to learn your students’ preferences. Some will benefit from sitting closer to their instructor for more consistent support and guidance.

There are plenty of physical aids to use in the classroom or an at-home study space. Students might like wobble chairs, pencil grips, and graph paper for a better kinesthetic and visual experience. You can also supply them with material organizers and privacy boards to limit external stimuli while encouraging focus.

Make Lessons Meaningful

Some SLA curricula and teaching methods promote rote learning, which only serves short-term memorization and does not consider learning disabilities. You can make lessons meaningful by making connections between the target language and culture and your students’ experiences. Students will be intrinsically motivated to learn and connect the new information to existing neural pathways, promoting long-term retention.

Fast Blast: Teaching Techniques

Listed below are tried and true methods for supporting second language acquisition for your student with learning disabilities:

  • Allow more time on assignments.
  • Provide oral and visual directions.
  • Allow students to record lessons and take pictures of materials.
  • Encourage self-correction, summarization, and reflection.
  • Implement routines to establish consistency in the classroom and at home.
  • Teach organizational and memorization strategies, such as color-coding and mnemonic devices.
  • Break down large projects into manageable checkpoints, giving feedback at each stage.
  • Encourage students to ask you questions before and after class. Many will prefer to speak to you one-on-one rather than voice their questions to a group.


Students with learning disabilities are more than capable of becoming multilingual. Educators and guardians must understand the common challenges these children face and implement personalized tools and teaching methods to foster their progress.

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