Special Needs and Language Learning: Advice for Parents

The benefits of learning a second language as a child are widely acknowledged . Becoming bilingual has been proven to increase both literacy skills and confidence in children and extend their vocabulary as a whole. In addition, learning a language enhances skills such as problem solving and critical thinking.

For parents of a child with learning difficulties or a learning disability, the prospect of their son or daughter being placed under pressure to learn a second language when they may experience difficulty with their native language can be a cause for concern. The issues for children with special needs education relate to a combination of factors. These include poor memory, difficulty with sustained concentration and a limited vocabulary. In addition, in comparison to “normal” children, they encounter challenges in basic daily learning activities such as writing, planning or organizing work.

While normal children will usually learn to speak between the ages of three to four, special needs children typically take significantly longer to become fully communicative. “Special needs” is defined as those individuals with an IQ below 70 before the age of 18. Their impairments to learning are categorized according to their IQ, whether mild, moderate, severe or profound.

Naturally, children of special needs education will take longer than children with normal abilities to learn a second language, but this does not mean second language training should be avoided. A study by Dr. Elizabeth Kay-Raining Bird reveals that the language abilities of children with Down syndrome may exceed the expectations of professionals who work with them on a regular basis.

The overriding factor affecting the rate at which all children learn language is whether or not they inhabit a “language-rich environment” or have “good speech role models” at home. Moreover, it is believed that it is the “quality and quantity” of the child’s language learning experience that affects his or her ability to learn; whether or not the child has a special needs education is not a consideration in this sense. Being in a home where more than one language is spoken has also been shown not to be a detrimental factor in a Down syndrome child’s learning ability.

Special needs children should not be treated differently when it comes to learning a second language . There are, however, certain activities that both teachers and parents can adopt to support language lessons and assist special needs children to learn languages more rapidly.

The suggestions include the following:


Gestures: Many children with a learning disability or difficulties use sign language as an additional aid to learning. To enhance their learning experience a blend of both verbal and physical gestures can reinforce parts of language learning.

Stories: Familiar stories involving the use of props and displays prove invaluable in special needs education for children in particular. Any display should be easily accessible for all children, particularly those in wheelchairs.

Music and Games: Music and games are ideal for children who lack good reading ability. All music should involve activity and some repetition, such as rhythm, to ensure memory retention. Music and games can be combined for maximum effect. For example, children can sing songs and pass objects around while describing what they are in a foreign language.

Performance: With appropriate encouragement, even the most timid children enjoy performing. It offers an all-inclusive way of improving self-confidence giving teachers the opportunity to praise children, regardless of whether or not they have a disability.

Lesson Ambience: To enhance the learning experience for children in special needs education, appropriate background music may be selected . In addition, painting and collages using maps and travel photographs will enable the children to immerse themselves in the whole experience.

Repetition and Reinforcement: All children should be supported throughout language lessons by echoing what has been taught during the lesson. The most effective methods of reinforcement are a combination of short, snappy activities, using text or “flash cards.” Teachers are also encouraged to use exaggerated expressions and movement of hands. Multi-sensory activities to reinforce the overall experience include sampling different foods from around the world. Children with special needs may be limited to what they absorb in terms of experience, especially in multi-sensory activities, as their ability to taste may be impaired by their disabilities. It is important in such cases for them to be able to either handle or smell the food.

Recognizing Achievement: All children, not simply the academically brighter children who learn quickly, should be recognized for their learning achievements. Small prizes and certificates should be presented to all children based on their individual learning abilities. Special needs children who exhibit signs of response such as being able to “sign” a few basic phrases in French should be rewarded for their progress.

Computers: Advances in technology are proving a major boost for educating special needs children. Computers which can be activated by blinking an eye to articulate human thoughts will become an increasingly essential part of teaching across all subjects, but are especially beneficial for language teaching With patience and appropriate teaching methods, learning a new language can be a positive experience for children with special needs education. The benefits are comparable to those for children who learn normally. In addition, newly gained language skills will enhance learning development, cognitive skills and vital confidence levels in all children, especially those with learning difficulties.