Saturday, October 29, 2011

Assistive Technology in Second Language Teaching

       In my 10+ years of experience as a second language teacher, I had never taught any “special” student until 2 years ago, when Matthew came into my classroom.  An 8th grader of Chinese heritage, Matthew speaks English at school and Cantonese at home.  His dad was very proud of his intelligence in Math.  Unlike other students who usually come to Chinese school under the pressure of their parents, Matthew showed strong interest in picking up Chinese Mandarin.  However, I realized Matthew was far behind the other students in terms of his language proficiency from the first class: he seemed to have trouble identifying different sounds and tones, as well as linking words and their meanings.  As a teacher, I really appreciate Matthew’s enthusiasm and his parents’ kind support, but 2 years passed, Matthew’s oral output is still incomprehensible, most of his writing is a strange mixture of English and Cantonese structures plus literal translations from English to Chinese.  As a matter of fact, the way he speaks English and Cantonese is also “different” from other kids.

Matthew was diagnosed with brain tumor and had a minor surgery, which I believe are the roots for his talent in Math and incapability in languages.  It is not hard to imagine students with learning disabilities, hearing or vision impairment experience difficulty taking in, retaining, and expressing information of language in second language classrooms.  Teaching second language to these special learners could be a daunting task.

The National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange provided guidelines and tips on teaching foreign language to students with disabilities, and recommended the following uses of assistive technology for students in learning a foreign language (

·       JAWS screenreading software. (

·       ZoomText text enlarger and screenreader.  (

Another topic related to both special education and second language teaching is the sign language.  Sign language is considered as one type of second language used by deaf or hearing impaired population.  Assistive technologies on sign language recognition and translation are being developed by researchers. Apps of learning sign language are available in the market for iPhone and iPad users.

In the area of second language teaching, I believe there are more opportunities than issues for improving the access of assistive technology.  The prices for most assistive technology products are affordable, ranging from several dollars to hundreds of bucks.  A variety of funds and grants is available for disabled students to apply for.  With the progress of in-depth research and the fast growth of technology,  the special needs and educational rights of students with disabilities would be better met and protected.

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