EFL for Special Needs Students

Adam Lebowitz

This column starts with a mea culpa. Previously, I wrote disparagingly of the English Conversation School industry. Now, on a break after almost two decades in academia, I find myself working at one again. And it is extremely interesting: I teach children (including second-generation Peruvians, who are a real kick), salarymen facing mid-career and mid-life challenges, housewives facing mid-life challenges, mature and immature researchers, a jockey (horse, not disk), and a former documentary filmmaker now in the family chiropractic business. In other words, the world. Being face-to-face with it after years in classrooms filled with teenagers is a change of pace. And sometimes such changes are necessary.

One student, in particular, stands out. T-kun is 14 years old with a bag plastered with anime characters and a mind constantly on his developing body. He is also autistic, roughly on the mid-functioning level of the spectrum. I have never taught a student like him. My former university has a very active disability studies department, and I have taught the hearing-impaired and some very heavily physically challenged students. They presented special challenges for classroom management, from difficulties in writing or operating a computer mouse, to the placement of wheelchairs so they do not become covered in chalk dust. Their enthusiasm for education is humbling and has challenged me to become a more effective educator.

Now, T-kun is not my first student with a pre-existing mental condition, but he has certainly caused me to stretch and adjust my technique. Of course, he has behavioral difficulties, including incessant humming and touching himself inappropriately. However, in other ways, he is savant and has the capability to learn fifteen new vocabulary words every week. He also has a wonderful sense of humor: he laughed out loud when I showed him a picture of a bathroom with a rubber ducky in the toilet (see if you get the same response from university students). The point is, now that English is becoming compulsory in primary school there needs to be more research, with a focus on applied pedagogies in second-language acquisition and EFL for special needs students.  These students deserve to be afforded the same opportunities for language education as their peers.