There is very little research on the impact of second language learning for students with learning disabilities (LD).
It could certainly stand to reason that students who struggle to learn English (their native language) would also struggle to learn a second, symbol-based language such as Hebrew.
And yet, this is not always the case. While some find it extremely difficult to differentiate the shapes and sounds of the letters and the patterns of the vowels, there are those students with learning disabilities that excel in Hebrew, particularly because it is symbol-based.
Generalization about Hebrew language acquisition for students with learning disabilities can be tricky. The way in which any particular child’s abilities will impact second-language learning varies tremendously as there are many different forms of LD. As an advocate for inclusion, I am uniquely attuned to the fact that each of us has a unique learning style and that all children can experience a variety of challenges in any educational setting.
What I find most salient to the work of Jewish Educators in supplemental religious schools is that the demands of language learning can actually lead to cases where previously undiagnosed learning disabilities are uncovered in the second-language classroom.
Some children have developed coping mechanisms that effectively mask problems in their native language, but the second language acts as a magnifying glass to expose more subtle difficulties. Basically, we can see children who have been able to “fake it” when working in their native language have trouble hiding these problems when working in a second language. So what does this mean for our once or twice-a-week Hebrew classes?
How do religious school educators handle being the front line when a child struggles?
Establishing open lines of communication with parents is critical. An ability to share what is happening in the classroom and to welcome the advice and support of parents is essential in all educational settings. Such healthy relationships will enable you to speak to parents openly and honestly. You do not have to be trained in any special methodology to share your concerns in a kind, supportive manner.
How can teachers, who do not typically have backgrounds in special education and may not even have backgrounds in education, manage such responsibility?
It is significant to recognize that we, as Jewish Educators and religious school teachers, are not qualified to diagnose or classify students (unless, of course, you happen to have such credentials). This does not mean that we can't share what we see or experience with our students. (I strongly suggest documenting patterns of behavior.) Quite the opposite. We MUST share what students are experiencing in our classrooms; we just need to choose our words carefully, especially when learning issues are emerging in our classrooms and have yet to be identified in other educational settings.
Don’t we need an expert?
It would be ideal to have someone on your faculty with a background, degree or certification in special education, but this is not always feasible. An alternative is to hire a consultant who can periodically observe students and/or meet with faculty to conduct training sessions and provide support. Maybe you even have someone within your congregation with such a background who would be willing to volunteer their services in support of the school.
Children with learning disabilities can absolutely learn Hebrew when the instruction is varied and individualized to their unique needs. Indeed, all students will benefit from such an approach.