Four little-known yet essential theories help teachers understand the source of their students’ learning difficulties.
There are always a number of students in foreign language classes that can’t seem to keep up with the pace of the other students. The following four theories may help teachers pinpoint the root of their ESL / EFL students’ difficulties.
Reading and Spelling Difficulties
Do your students only have difficulties in reading and spelling? The following two theories may help you understand why.
1. The Orthographic Dependent Hypothesis
Orthography is a written representation of a language. ‘The Orthographic Dependent Hypothesis’ claims that foreign language reading and spelling are influenced by the similarities and differences between the orthographies of the mother-tongue (L1) and the foreign target language (L2).
The greater the difference between the L1 and L2, the more difficult it will be for a learner to acquire the target language orthography. For example, German speakers acquiring Russian orthography would have greater difficulty than if they were acquiring the English writing system since English is a Germanic language using the same 26 letter Latin alphabet and a has a similar sound system whereas Russian uses a 33 letter Cyrillic alphabet.
It is essential find out what your student’s native language is and how does its writing system compare and contrast to English. You may find your students are challenged by orthographic differences.
Read more here: Are Different Writing Systems Causing Language Learning Difficulties?
2. The Orthographic Depth Hypothesis
‘The Orthographic Depth Hypothesis‘ focuses on the fact that different alphabetic systems have differing levels of deepness or transparency, meaning, the ‘deeper’ the language, the greater the distance between a letter and its corresponding sound.
For example, the English orthography is ‘deeper’ than the Spanish orthography in that the Spanish alphabetic system has 27 letters and under 40 sounds and therefore almost has a one to one correspondence between its letters and phonology or sound system.
The English writing system is more complicated. There are only 26 letters yet over 100 sounds. This means, one letter can represent more than one sound and consequently can be pronounced in many different ways. For example, when reading, the letter ‘g’ can be pronounced /g/ or /j/. When writing, sounds can be represented by more than one letter: the sound /k/ can be represented by the letters ‘k’, ‘c’, or ‘qu’. This lack of one to one correspondence causes difficulties for learners, especially for students whose L1 is ‘shallow’ or ‘transparent’ even if the same Latin based alphabet is used in the L1 and L2.
The Orthographic Depth Hypothesis proposes that the orthographic ‘depth’ how close the letter sound correspondence is of each language may influence the pace at which a language is acquired. Reading and writing using a language with a more ‘transparent’ ‘one to one’ orthography will be easier to acquire.
It is important to find out what your students’ native languages are. You may find your students are challenged by the orthographic depth of the English language.
Read more here: Understand Orthographic Depth: Help Your Struggling Students
Specific and Overall Language Difficulties
Are your students weak in many areas of language acquisition or in specific skills? The following theories may help you understand the source of their difficulties.
3. The Interdependence Hypothesis
‘The Interdependence Hypothesis’, proposed over thirty years ago by Jim Cummins, does not examine one specific area of linguistic ability but overall linguistic capability and looks more at everyday language acquisition rather than academic language proficiency.
Cummins’ research is based on minority students trying to acquire a second language. He theorises that potential bilinguals need to have reached a certain level of competence in their first language skills before they should begin to acquire a second language.
Thus, Cummins claims that the level of proficiency attained in the target language is dependent on the level of proficiency already reached in the mother-tongue. Accordingly, he proposes that the mother tongue or first language and the second or foreign language have common language foundations and the first language provides the first layer of building blocks.
Cummins suggests that students should have well-developed first language proficiency before starting to acquire another language, otherwise, the second language will be built on shaky linguistic foundations.
It is important to find out the level of your students’ proficiency in their L1 is. You may find they have not acquired all the skills necessary and cannot transfer fundamental linguistic knowledge to their second language learning.
4. Linguistic Coding Differences Hypothesis
The ‘Linguistic Coding Differences Hypothesis’ was proposed in the 80’s by Richard Sparks and Leonore Ganschow. It is based on research of foreign language students with language learning difficulties compared with foreign language students without any difficulties and proposes that a causal relationship exists between a student’s linguistic skills in his/her mother tongue and the acquisition of a second or foreign language. For example, any difficulties occurring in first language acquisition mainly in word recognition ability, reading skills, and vocabulary acquisition, will transfer to foreign language acquisition.
Use these Four Theories
Sometimes EFL and ESL students don’t seem to learn as quickly as expected. With a little investigation, the above four theories may help teachers locate the source of their students’ difficulties.
A rule to follow, always check your students’ proficiency in their first language. If they have not become fully competent in one of the language skills it could very well be affecting the way and speed at which they will acquire their second or foreign language.
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Copyright Lesley Lanir. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.
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