Why Do We Reinvent the Wheel All the Time?
Special Education and Second Language Immersion Programs

The ACIE Newsletter, November 2001, Vol. 5, No. 1

By Daniel D. Demers, Principal, Glenayre Elementary School, Port Moody, British Columbia



I have worked in second language immersion school settings for the last fourteen years, as a teacher, resource room teacher, school-based team manager, school administrator as well as a faculty associate and sessional instructor at a university pre-service teacher training program, teaching theory and practice in the field of Learning Disabilities. In a parallel life, I survived raising two gifted LD sons and followed them through the French Immersion program. It is hard to evaluate which of these two parallel experiences taught me more. Training for special education, for me, has been an ongoing venture, from teacher training and classroom teaching, through to graduate school; from watching my own children through to graduation and each and every day I spend with children, I learn something.

Defining Special Education


In this reflection, I would like to ponder the following questions: What is Special Education? Is Special Education "Special" when dealing with students in a language immersion program? Or is it so linked to process that it is the same regardless of program?

I believe it depends on our definition of "special education." Special education to me is designing and providing accommodations or modification in the learning environment or in the curriculum we offer learners based on identified learning disabilities and learning difficulties, in order to narrow the distance between their current academic performance and their actual potential. This entails quantifying a learner's performance, his or her potential, and how a specific learning disability or problem may affect the student's learning or the student's learning environment.

You may notice that there will be few references in this article to the actual second language learners or first language learners. There is, in my opinion, very little difference between the way we approach special education in a second or first language situation. Admittedly, there are situations which will create some level of frustration for second language learners. We are, after all, expecting learners to process years of auditory-type input in order to acquire a second language in an artificially created immersion setting. This is bound to create frustrations for learners who have difficulties with auditory processing. I simply recommend we look at each individual case in contrast to the learning situation, not immediately the language of instruction. In the regular classroom, students with learning disabilities face specific challenges and create specific challenges for classroom teachers. How can we develop a system to provide support to the classroom teacher while reducing the potential frustrations experienced by students who are challenged by learning disabilities or by the "gap" between their potential and their actual academic performance?

Establishing an Intervention


A good way to assure that students receive the attention they need is to establish a simple and systematic school-based team process. Decisions should be taken following a collaborative process involving all stake holders, especially the learner. With today's fiscal realities, special education centres or diagnostic centres are rare. The responsibility for special education now often falls on school-based systems that become accountable to better informed and involved parents and to a growing bureaucracy. The school district that provides special staffing and the provincial or state government body that regulates and funds special education require more and more supporting data from schools, not only in identification of students, but in the recording and evaluation of interventions. Furthermore, dealing with the educational needs and interventions for such heterogeneous learner populations mandates systematic and collaborative approaches.

Many teachers start their teaching career with little, if any, training in identifying and addressing the needs of exceptional learners. Systematic and consistent school-based collaborations are necessary to help both the learners and the classroom teachers in providing interventions and developing a repertoire of accommodations. A good special education teacher, in my opinion, is simply a good teacher. However, there is some theoretical background required to fully appreciate the ramifications of learners with learning disabilities and to remediate or re-educate them. If a team can pinpoint specific areas of strengths and specific areas of needs, its next phase is to develop interventions in the least restrictive environment. My usual counsel: start small and review as often as possible. Keep track of interventions and their level of success. You often learn as much from what does not work as you do from what works.

There are ways to adapt curriculum outcomes without modifying the actual prescribed learning outcomes, therefore facilitating the curriculum for the learner without reducing the grade level of his or her work. If the learning outcomes are modified, it means that the student is not learning the prescribed curriculum and must receive, according to many governing bodies, modified reports. However if one can accommodate the learner's learning style or modality by adapting the teaching situation, the output expected, or the volume, without diluting the learning outcomes, the child can follow his or her peer's curriculum program.

Identifying Second Language Problems


When collaborating on a second language learner's case the following questions should be considered: Is the learner frustrated? What have we done to address the identified areas of need? Would a transfer to the English program remove this frustration? What are potential problems if we transfer the child? Each case must be addressed and investigated individually.

My oldest child went through French Immersion with a friend who was deaf in one ear and could hear 30% out of his other ear. Did he have frustrations in French Immersion? Yes. Did he find being in band and playing two different instruments difficult? Yes. However, he accomplished both well enough to be functionally bilingual and is now in third year college in a music program and plays a third instrument. Why did he succeed when all odds appeared to be against him? Motivation and support! If he had been in a school district that did not provide special education support for students in French Immersion, he would have had to go without school support or transfer to the English program in order to get the support he needed. Now, can I apply his experience to another child who has hearing dysfunctions? Most likely not.

Bottom line: there are too many variables at play with each learner we face on a daily basis to generalize. However, with the efficient use of a systematic and consistent collaborative system, we can use our collective wisdom to make the best decision for each learner (not for the program or for his or her parents).

How do we do it? Believe it or not, many teachers already have what it takes. Classroom and other school-based professionals and para-professionals have a repertoire of accommodations to modify the teaching, learning or the testing environments in order to respond to various learning challenges experienced by learners with learning disabilities. Together, as a school-based collaboration, you too have a bank of incredible ideas; use them and review their effectiveness regularly with each learner.

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