Dealing with language deficiencies in the adult classroom

I know, the title sounds really fancy but if you are looking for a scholarly article I am sorry to disappoint you: I know close to nothing about Dyslexia or any other language-related deficiency. This post is more of a written-down-and-shared version of my thoughts since, from the little I do know (most of which comes from conversations with a speech-therapist friend), I think we as foreign language teachers sometimes deal with language-related problems or deficiencies that students aren’t even aware they have.

I don’t know if this happens to you, but I easily come across people who are unable to spell words (in their own native language, not in English), unable to read properly – especially longer words – or even unable to repeat sounds I model, no matter how slowly or clearly I model them.

In fact, this post stems from a particularly difficult case I am dealing with at the moment. This is a beginner adult in his forties: he started learning English for the first time with me last year, and I immediately perceived that, on top of the usual difficulties Italian adult beginners are faced when learning English (some sounds, the spelling, connected speech, etc.), this person had (and still has) a really hard time reading or pronouncing even the simplest sentence. In fact, if I repeat the sentence enough times, he mostly can remember it “by sound”” and thus say it quite correctly, but then if he sees it in writing he immediately gets confused and mispronounces it. This is becoming quite frustrating for both me and him: he is starting to think he is “the dumb one” in the class (it is a very small group of 5 adults) and from my part I don’t know exactly how to help him without making him feel singled out.

After noticing his reading difficulty, I started making him repeat sentences without looking at the written words – but then he can’t remember the sentence and wants to peep the notebook. Then I tried dividing difficult words or expressions into smaller chunks or syllables, and then connecting them. Last week I tried this last method with “Anything else?”, which he could not pronounce correctly even after drilling. Since the whole class had some problems with this phrase, I took the opportunity to drill is a few times. We first drilled the separate syllables, then connected them into words, then connected the words together. While the other students were able to pronounce it successfully, this person was unable to do it even after repeated drills, so in the end I had to give up as I felt the exercise was taking up too much classroom time.

You can imagine how bad both me and the student felt in this occasion. I’m sure there are tons of other, different ways I could have done this, but I still can’t figure out which one is the best or which one could help both my lessons and his learning outcome.

The questions that mostly haunt me are:

  • How do I help such a person? How can he successfully study at home, or even record new language? And what are the strategies that I should adopt to help him?
  • How do I help him without making him feel singled out (and thus starts to lack the self-confidence to speak)?
  • Most of all: is it my job to address this problem, or is it just too big of an issue for a language teacher, who only sees this person two hours a week?

I can’t seem to find a good answer to any of the above. I know this is a huge issue, that is not confined to ELT but expands into the literacy and language deficiency spectrum; and I know I should probably seek the help of an expert. But still, if you can suggest any interesting reading on the topic, or leave a comment with your experience or ideas, your suggestions and opinions are more than welcome.

2 thoughts on “Dealing with language deficiencies in the adult classroom”

  1. Hi Giulia,
    I’ve just discovered your blog thanks to Adam Beale’s share of your Demand High post. It’s interesting to read about your CELTA experience because I’m a relatively new tutor, and it’s useful to remember what it feels like being on the other side of the table.
    I wonder if Quizlet might be useful for your student. He can use different functions to practise recognition of new words, he can repeat them as many times as he likes, and the speller function tests his understanding of the spoken form. I have a guide at The most useful thing is the fact that you can create your own sets.
    Good luck!

    1. Hi Sandy!
      Thanks a lot for the tip, I’ll definitely give Quizlet a try!
      I generally suggest Anki, which is also a powerful flashcard software. Unfortunately where I live people (at least my average, middle-aged student) are not very confident and/or familiar with online tools and software, so they are generally very reluctant to use anything that needs a computer.
      I’ll try anyway and see if he finds it helpful.

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