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Topic 6: Exceptionality

Students who have learning disabilities or behavioral challenges, superior creativity or intellectual capability are typically considered, and often assessed, outside the norm. In some cases, schools are required by law to provide special services for these “exceptional” children. What happens when those services cannot be provided in the immersion language?

Practitioner Perspectives

Practitioner Perspectives

How do immersion schools serve students with special needs; i.e. students with language or learning disabilities and students with emotional or behavioral problems?

Even in the best of circumstances, parents and teachers of children with special learning needs agonize over which teaching techniques, instructional modifications, and learning plans will facilitate language acquisition and content comprehension. In an immersion setting where resources may be limited or unavailable in the target language or where school and district personnel may be unfamiliar with the goals of immersion, children with special needs may be counseled out of immersion at the first signs of failure.

Immersion administrators say this is a bad idea. First, although it is tempting to blame the medium of instruction – the immersion language – on the struggles a child may have with academic achievement, social development, or even school behavior, in the majority of cases, being immersed in a language other than one’s native tongue will not be detrimental to a child with special needs. In fact, unless the learning disability is language-related or auditory in nature, the problems the child has had in the immersion school will more than likely resurface in an English-medium school.

Secondly, counseling special needs children out of immersion schools can create tensions within a district. If immersion schools seem unwilling or unable to take care of such students, other schools in the district may feel put upon. They will be expected to bear an uneven share of the responsibility of providing services to students who may require costly and/or time-consuming adjustments to their academic plans. Although services for special needs students may not be available in the target language, it behooves immersion schools to do their utmost to look for all possible solutions before sending them to English-medium schools in the same district.

If possible, providing special services, in particular speech and language or learning disabilities services, in the language of instruction is preferable. For example, if students are being taught to read in the immersion language but can only receive remedial reading help in English (or vice versa in two-way immersion programs), the remedial services will be less effective than if they are provided in the language of instruction. However, this can be difficult to achieve. In many districts special needs personnel float between schools and are unlikely to speak the immersion language fluently enough to offer services in the language, if indeed they speak the language at all. For children who are struggling but not formally identified as needing special education services, it may be possible to provide ‘catch-up services’ in the immersion language.

In the long term, it is important to cultivate good relationships with Human Resources personnel and department heads who are responsible for special needs educational services. Work patiently to inform these decision makers about the second language proficiency of your staff and the importance of providing as much instruction as possible, even special needs contact time, in the immersion language. Encourage them to hire bilingual staff when there are openings in their departments so that they can then assign floaters who speak languages other than English to your immersion school as part of their workload.

How do immersion schools communicate with parents about the needs of exceptional children?

Each case is individual and a child study team composed of parents, teachers, administrators, and specialists should make decisions about school placement and academic improvement based on the reasonable chances for the success of the special needs child in the immersion environment. It is important to consider how parents will feel about the level of support that may be available for their child. If they do not speak the immersion language, keeping their child in the school may require a greater commitment from staff than if the child is learning in an English environment.

How do immersion schools serve children who have been identified as gifted?

Children who have been identified as gifted often receive services in the same way that students with other special needs are serviced – by specialists with little or no knowledge of the immersion language and little or no understanding of immersion pedagogy. If the district has a gifted pull-out program, gifted immersion students will more than likely be a part of that program. Our practitioners did not necessarily feel this was the best option, but with budget constraints and staffing limitations, such services, in English, are often the only available options. Although there are ready-made resources available in English for classroom acceleration and enrichment activities aimed at gifted learners, immersion schools usually have to adapt or create materials to use in the target language.

A better option to serve not only gifted children but all children in the regular immersion classroom may be to research staff training opportunities in differentiation of classroom instruction. Classroom management strategies and instructional techniques that make use of flexible grouping, scaffolding, learning centers, literature circles, anchor activities, open ended questioning, problem solving, and critical thinking allow gifted learners to explore ideas beyond their grade level while staying rooted in the immersion language being used in their own classrooms.

Readings from the ACIE Archives:

Vancouver’s Peer Tutoring Reading Program-Chapman & Roy, ACIE Bridge, November 2006
Evaluating Vancouver’s Peer Tutoring Reading Program – Bournot-Trites, ACIE November 2006
Assessment of Struggling Elementary Immersion Learners: The St. Paul Public Schools Model - Petzold, ACIE, February 2006
Instructional Scaffolding with Graphic Organizers - Cammarata, ACIE Bridge, February 2005
Learning Centers: Meaningful Context for Language Use in the Primary Immersion Classroom – Click, ACIE Bridge, November 2004
Underachieving Students and the Child Study Team: Determining Eligibility for Special Education Services – Woelber, ACIE, May ?2004
French Immersion Support Document: Possible Factors Influencing Student Performance in French Immersion - Vancouver School Board, ACIE, May 2004
Dyslexia in the Classroom-Anton, ACIE, May 04
Reading Support for Primary Immersion Students - Fisher & Stone, ACIE, May 2004
Why Do We Reinvent the Wheel All the Time? – Demers, ACIE, November 2001
Is Immersion Education Appropriate for All Students-Gaffney, ACIE February 1999

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