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Staša Krapež, MA Ed (Applied Linguistics): Second Language Comprehension and Acquisition in Mentally Disabled Children – Illusion or Reality

natisni E-pošta


The paper discusses some aspects and outcomes of English language teaching and learning in mentally disabled children on the basis of data collected from classroom observations in two Slovenian schools with adapted programmes, and from interviews and questionnaires sent to teachers teaching the English language in schools with adapted programmes in Slovenia.

Firstly, some issues regarding English as a dominant global language and the importance of FLL (foreign language learning) are addressed. Secondly, a brief account of special needs education within the education system in Slovenia is given. Next, English language teaching and learning within special needs education is discussed. Finally, as the intention of the research is to explore the issues of FLL in mentally disabled children, analyses of the research procedures are undertaken and the findings are presented.

The main area of research interest is oral foreign language performance and development in mentally disabled children. The research data might provide a useful insight into some chances of either success or failure of FLL.



English as a dominant global language is of great importance for our small nation which belongs, according to Kachru (2001), to the expanding circle within which it is widely studied for various purposes. In a globalised world, being able to speak English is becoming a sine qua non; not being able to speak languages other than the mother tongue could be considered a form of illiteracy (Rondal, 2000).

On the other hand, it should be noted that the English language also represents a threat to our mother tongue, as argued by Pennycook (2001: 79) with reference to the spread of English. A large number of words are disappearing from our vocabulary being substituted by their English counterparts. This is particularly evident in a number of expressions adopted from English and used by a younger generation to express their feelings, opinion, etc. This process is also evident in a verbal repertoire of mentally disabled children. It is significant that they are well aware of when and how to use such expressions; they understand them.

Discussions about second/FLL (foreign language learning) have been going on for centuries. Let me just mention St Augustine (around 400 AD), who advocated an inductive approach to learning a foreign language and supported what we would now call intrinsic motivation (Littlewood, 2004: 501). Many studies have focused on first language acquisition in mentally disabled children (Rondal, 2000), but the issues of FLL in mentally disabled children have not been much explored to date. Learners differ greatly in how they master and how successful they are in both first and second/foreign language acquisition. But taking into account the fact that the majority of mentally disabled children have lexical and grammatical difficulties even in their mother tongue, it seems reasonable enough to ask questions such as whether it is sensible to teach them a foreign language, and what benefits they can get from it, if any at all.

Before presenting my research project, let us consider some aspects of FLL. The involvement in FLL helps learners to develop as social beings (Roberts and Breen 2001), and likewise contributes to the development of other skills, as asserted by Breen and Candlin (2001). Both aspects play a crucial role in FLL, since it is almost unlikely to presume that learners will be exposed to the English language in the actual setting - at least the majority of them; the minimal exposure is likely to happen only through the media and technology. It is, therefore, worth considering the impact of new technology. Another issue which deserves a lot of consideration, because it can cause huge problems, is how teachers treat learners' errors. Mitchell and Myles (2001) argue that it is one of the distinguishing characteristics about FL learners that they make mistakes. Although my main interest is in oral output and development, it is worth considering the effect of written tests on learners, as they are probably one of the main forms of assessment. Can they inhibit learners' oral development? Is it reasonable to assess them on the basis of written tests at their early stage of learning? Do teachers evaluate their learners' performance having in mind that "performing" in a language does not necessarily involve speaking it (Mitchell and Myles 2001: 117)?

There are plethora of other questions which need addressing concerning mentally disabled children. But the main aim of this paper is to find possible answers to the following questions:

  • to what extent are such learners able to gain communicative skills
  • is a teacher's FL competence related to learners' language acquisition (I will hereafter refer to my target group as "learners", having in mind "learners with special needs or mildly mentally disabled learners")
  • what are the factors that enhance FL acquisition, no matter how partial or incomplete it may be.


Within the education system in Slovenia children with SEN (Special Education Needs) have the option to attend:

  • regular schools
  • schools with adapted programmes
  • units in regular schools which follow the adapted programme
  • units in specialised institutions

Schools with adapted programmes provide education at lower level and special education programmes.[1] In 2010 there were 67 locations across Slovenia which were classified as pedagogical units on the primary level to educate children with special needs (Rozman in Zaviršek and Gorenc, 2010: 12).


 [1] (12. 5. 2010)


It has been a few years since some changes were brought about in relation to schools with adapted programmes. The English language was included for the first time in the national curriculum with the aim, among others, to prepare learners and give them the opportunity to enrol in a two and a half-year lower vocational education programme for students with mild intellectual disabilities. The English language is thus taught in the 7th, 8th and 9th class. An important aspect to be considered is that the subject is taught by teachers who are special pedagogues and not English language specialists. No English language qualifications are required to teach the English language in adapted-programme education. As there had been performed no deeper insight or evaluation as to English language teaching and, consequently, language performance of this particular group of learners, it seemed reasonable enough to undertake such a case study.

Rea-Dickins and Germaine (2001) argue that there are a lot of various purposes for evaluation. Due to my small-scale research it will not be possible to consider all of them, but hopefully it will highlight issues such as: supporting material, teacher self-development, teachers' approaches and methods used to meet the needs of learners and institutions as well.

As Hall (2001: 214) points out, "no-one knows how we learn language". This is particularly relevant to the target group of learners. Though learning outcomes may be lower compared to learners from mainstream schools, approaches to teaching are nevertheless of pivotal importance. Similarly, it is not reasonable to deal with issues such as which variety of English to use, but more with the question what tools should a teacher use, how they are to be taught to provoke the highest possible output. What are the best methodologies to be followed? Is it a communicative methodology that paves the way for development of their comprehension and communicative skills?

According to Kachru and Nelson (2001), there are varieties of English with specific vocabulary and grammatical patterns that are acceptable. In this sense, teachers are challenged to find new ways of teaching and, what is especially relevant to this specific group of learners, accept the effectiveness of English as a means of communication and not just evaluate their mastery of words and grammatical structure.



The research was carried out in the academic year 2009/2010. The data collection methods consisted of classroom observations, questionnaires, and interviews with teachers; the combination of all these methods served as a means of triangulation with the aim to provide the most credible outcome. Three classroom observations were conducted in two different schools with adapted programme in Slovenia, which included 15 learners altogether.

One of the key problems was teachers' co-operative participation. Interestingly, some of them were reluctant to collaborate when classroom observation was mentioned. Even two of the heads did not show any interest in participating in the research project, despite the fact that the process of innovation most probably caused some difficulties.


3.1 Questionnaires

Questionnaires were administered to individual teachers by e-mail. In order to obtain as much information as possible and because it was not feasible to conduct face-to-face interviews with all the teachers, closed questions were followed by some optional open-ended questions similar to those included in the interview.

The following three different sections of closed questions were included in the questionnaire:

  1. teacher-related questions
  2. learner-related questions
  3. innovation-related questions


Table 1: Teacher-related questions






Teachers should use English to communicate with their learners.





Teachers should teach mainly isolated lexical items.





Teachers should correct bad pronunciation as much as possible.





Teachers should constantly correct grammatical errors.





Teachers should focus on grammatical correctness rather than on communicative competences.





 SA=strongly agree      A=agree       N=neutral       D=disagree


Table 2: Learner-related questions




Learners relatively quickly understand various instructions, orders and greetings in English.



Much higher level of comprehension skills than communicative skills can be achieved with the majority of learners.



Learners like learning the English language.



Learners notice and use English expressions heard outside the classroom.



The use of computers and modern technology contributes to better English language learning outcomes.



                                              Y=yes         N=no

Table 3: Innovation-related questions




Workshops gave me enough information on English language teaching.



Teachers get enough information in terms of professional support and advice.



I find it difficult to prepare all the necessary teaching material.



We would need text books and additional teaching materials.



The introduction of English language teaching in our special school education system was to too quick.



                                            Y=yes         N=no


The following optional open-ended questions were added to the above sections of questions. They were aimed to give some broad answers from teachers' perspective relating to mildly mentally disabled learners and their FLL.

  1. From your perspective, is it reasonable for your group of learners to be exposed to English language learning, taking into account the fact that they will probably never need to use the knowledge of it?
  2. What are your learners' language learning expectations?
  3. In your opinion, to what extent could your learners communicate in English?
  4. What level of foreign language comprehension could be achieved?
  5. Eventual remarks.


The first three groups of questions were highly structured, providing quantitative information. Four-point scale was used for the first group of questions, four the last two groups of questions just two-point scale was included to measure some aspects of FLL.

The questionnaire was sent to 22 subjects with the return rate of 59%. Some interesting findings and teachers' comments are worth mentioning.


3.2        Questionnaire analysis

All the respondents agreed that a teacher should speak in English as much as possible in class; five of them advocated teaching isolated lexical units. One of them stressed the importance of teaching whole sentences, but due to the specific group of learners isolated lexical units were usually taught. All the respondents agreed that communication was more important than grammatical correctness. There was a slight discrepancy in the pronunciation error treatment. Six teachers were neutral; three teachers advocated bad pronunciation repair. One of the respondents pointed out that a teacher should correct pronunciation errors simply by saying the wrongly pronounced expressions correctly.

Interestingly, all the respondents answered positively to the second group of questions, apart from the question about learners' perception of English expressions outside the classroom. Six of them said that their learners did not pay attention to such expressions outside the formal school setting.

All the teachers interviewed expressed the opinion that their learners liked learning English at school, but not at home. The respondents also agreed that the use of computers could stimulate and facilitate the teaching/learning process.

The most striking answers were those relating to the process of innovation, teachers' professional development and teaching material resources.


Table 4: Innovation-related responses


Every innovation involves a desired outcome. How teachers as the end users of an innovation perceive its feasibility is a crucial factor in the ultimate success or failure of that innovation (Li, 2001: 126). The goals which learners are supposed to achieve are closely connected with teachers' input. In this sense, teachers' views on the process of the curriculum innovation, i.e. introduction of English as one of the school subjects in schools with adapted programmes, are of high importance. According to the collected data, teachers are faced with a load of constraints when conducting this new programme. Surprisingly, almost all off the respondents see the innovation of the new curriculum programme as being too quick.


3.3        Interviews

Five face-to- face interviews with teachers were conducted, all of them semi-structured. The interview questions were similar to those included in the open-ended part of questionnaires.


3.4        Interview analysis

One of the respondents said that learners' interaction in a foreign language depended greatly on their personal characteristics. In terms of interaction, she put more importance to learners' characters than knowledge about the language.

Two respondents said that, according to their experience, there was always at least one learner in the classroom capable of engaging in a simple conversation, some of them showed a rather high level of learnability, and there were always few learners who were capable of just repeating after the teacher.

Three respondents explicitly stressed their needs for professional English language development. They reported that a major obstacle preventing them from delivering a quality English language teaching was their own low English proficiency. One respondent admitted that teachers often made mistakes due to no formal education in English language.

To sum up, the main problems expressed by the respondents are the need for appropriate text books and teaching materials suited to their learners' needs and level of proficiency, and the lack of their own English language proficiency. As one of the interviewees pointed out, although there are a lot of text books and teaching materials available on the market, it is difficult to find books that are not too childish or too demanding. She explicitly stressed the age of learners (about thirteen-year-olds) who are much older compared to their peers from mainstream schools when they start learning foreign languages; what is more, their interests differ to a great extent from the interests of children in mainstream schools when they start to learn English.


3.5        Classroom observation

Most information on learners' communicative abilities and the most reliable source can be obtained through direct observation of a learning process "in situ". For this purpose, three classroom observations were conducted. The observations were facilitated by the fact that the average class size was five pupils per class.

The following data (Table 5) present an account of two classroom observations. Both classes were taught by the same teacher. The first observation included 7th grade pupils, i.e. first-year English language learners; the second one included a combination class (8th and 9th grade pupils), i.e. second and third-year English language learners.


Table 5: Number of English utterances in two lessons - Observations No 1 and 2


No of teacher-initiated moves

No of learners' responses

No of learners' repetitions

No of learner-initiated moves

7th grade

(first-year learners)



6 different repetitions


8th and 9th grade (combination class)

(second or third-year learners)



8 diff. repetitions



As can be seen from the table, the teacher used just few lexical items in terms of input which learners were being exposed to. There were no conversational features, such as greetings, instructions etc.., and a very low level of engaging in interaction. A primary means of teaching methods was through their mother tongue, which was a predominant feature during both lessons. The approach was completely teacher-centred. Although the teacher showed the in-depth knowledge of individual personal characteristics of her learners, her English language teaching showed just a minimum socio-cultural approach.


Observation No 3

Firstly, I would like to mention an interesting approach adopted by the second teacher. She asked me to video record activities in the classroom, thus undertaking a piece of action research on her own. Her attitude towards the teaching/learning process could be compared to Breen and Candlin's (2001: 104) argument about a communicative curriculum: " makes sense for the teacher to see the overall purpose of language teaching as the development of the learner's communicative knowledge in the context of personal and social development". According to her, the action research process would give her some feedback on her teaching practice and, at the same time, serve as a tool to motivate her learners.

The pupils observed were 8th and 9th grade pupils (second and third-year English language learners) attending a combination class. The teacher tried to give instructions and various remarks in English, such as:

  • It's cool. Yes, super.
  • Are you ready?
  • Great, you're fast.
  • Do you need my help?
  • Have a nice weekend. See you on Monday.

Three of the learners clearly showed some ability to communicate and socialize in English; they were able to introduce and describe themselves and their family members. They clearly showed a relatively high level of understanding and memorizing lexical items. One of them had difficulties in pronunciation.

The learners in question have a short attention span. To gain their attention for a longer period of time, the teacher used various strategies and materials. She even engaged them in a dice game to achieve desired outcomes. The whole lesson was a real social event. The way she managed the learning process was, by all accounts, remarkable.

The process of socialisation is believed to be central in foreign language teaching and learning (Roberts, 2001). This approach was evident from the classroom talk - there was a link between language learning and the process of socialisation through language. The teacher was not concerned with linguistic features, grammatical correctness or pronunciation, but rather with fostering her learners' comprehension. There was actually no error treatment, just evaluation - a positive appraisal.


3.6        Classroom observation analysis

Considering the results of the three classroom observations, the claim is that learners with mental disabilities are capable to socialize in English. Depending on the degree of disability they can either develop some communication skills or learn and understand simple English words. The results show that the teacher plays an important part in FLL in mentally disabled children. The learners from the 3rd observation achieved much higher level of performance compared to their peers from the 1st and 2nd observation, which was mostly due to the teacher's approach to teaching.


4.          CONCLUSION

In this paper, I have tried to give some evidence that learners with mild mental disabilities have abilities to develop their FL competence. Speculating from the above research results, one can conclude that to what degree is it achievable depends on learner's abilities and teacher's professional competence as well. But considering the limitations of my research, further studies are needed.

There are grounds for believing that the innovation within the national curriculum was not well enough prepared. The responses through interviews and questionnaires revealed teachers' concern about teaching materials, especially text books, and their own English language skills. Although the effectiveness of teaching and learning is not explained solely in terms of how good or bad the learning materials are, materials are nevertheless part of the co-operative management of language learning (Allwright in Rea-Dickins and Germaine, 2001: 256).

Much of the research was based on the assumption that a child's FL communicative ability, even if a child is mildly mentally disabled, can be provoked by using a professional approach to teaching and learning. The research data suggest that these children are capable of achieving certain FL skills. But it is teachers' FL competence and their pedagogical approach which both play a decisive role in the process of FL acquisition. The research data lead us to the conclusion that the interactive teaching learning process between teachers and learners is of paramount importance for the English language acquisition. Despite the importance of the innovative programme, learners and teachers play the most important role. Similarly, Allwright and Bailey (in Nunan, 2001: 205) point out: "... no matter how much intellectual energy is put into the invention ...what really matters is what happens when teachers and learners get together in the classroom".


Literature and references:

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