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Is There a “Disability” for Learning a Foreign Language?
Sparks, Richard L. Journal of Learning Disabilities 39. 6 (Nov/Dec 2006): 544-57.
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Recently, talk of a new type of learning disability (LD)-a foreign language learning disability, or FLLD-has made its way into the LD and foreign language (FL) literature. However, no empirical evidence has been published to support the concept of a “disability” for FL learning by those professionals who use the term. In this article, the author takes the position that there is not a distinct “disability” that can be called an FLLD. He reviews several years of research evidence indicating that any proposal for such a distinct entity is problematic. To support his position, he reviews problems with the current definition and diagnostic criteria for LD. He then cites the many difficulties inherent in the development and use of (a) a logically consistent, easily operationalized, and empirically valid definition of and (b) diagnostic criteria for the FLLD concept. The author then discusses how FL learning problems occur along a continuum of very strong to very poor language learners, and he explains how the proponents of an FLLD misuse the concept of FL aptitude. Finally, the author cites implications resulting from the research evidence on FL learning problems and use of the term FLLD. [PUBLICATION ABSTRACT]
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Abstract
Recently, talk of a new type of learning disability (LD)-a foreign language learning disability, or FLLD-has made its way into the LD and foreign language (FL) literature. However, no empirical evidence has been published to support the concept of a “disability” for FL learning by those professionals who use the term. In this article, the author takes the position that there is not a distinct “disability” that can be called an FLLD. He reviews several years of research evidence indicating that any proposal for such a distinct entity is problematic. To support his position, he reviews problems with the current definition and diagnostic criteria for LD. He then cites the many difficulties inherent in the development and use of (a) a logically consistent, easily operationalized, and empirically valid definition of and (b) diagnostic criteria for the FLLD concept. The author then discusses how FL learning problems occur along a continuum of very strong to very poor language learners, and he explains how the proponents of an FLLD misuse the concept of FL aptitude. Finally, the author cites implications resulting from the research evidence on FL learning problems and use of the term FLLD.
In a 1994 article titled “Does Dyslexia Exist?” Keith Stanovich commented, “Obviously, in order to answer the question posed in the title, we must specify what we mean by the term dyslexia. And, in doing so, we immediately encounter the crux of the problem” (Stanovich, 1994, p. 579).
Stanovich presented arguments refuting several assumptions, in particular that dyslexia: (a) is an etiologically and neurologically distinct disorder and (b) can be diagnosed by determining a significant discrepancy between aptitude (IQ) and achievement (on standardized testing measures). Stanovich noted that the term dyslexia had fallen out of favor in educational and research circles because it had become associated with numerous unverified assumptions. He concluded that the term is not useful because, to date, it has not been distinguished from other terms (e.g., reading disabled, poor reader), and also that it would be more appropriate to conceptualize reading disability on a continuum of developmental language disorders.
Over the past several years, a term indicating a new type of disability-foreign language learning disability (FLLD)-has appeared in both the learning disabilities (LD) and foreign language (FL) literature. For example, Gajar (1987) and Hu (2003) contended that an LD for foreign language learning is supported in the research literature. In a recent article, Reed and Stansfield (2004) defended the concept of an FLLD. The second Language Testing Institute, a company that publishes FL aptitude tests, states on its Web site that these tests can be used to determine whether a student has a “foreign language learning disability” (Second Language Testing Institute, n.d., Question 5). In most colleges and universities, the link between LD and FL learning problems is made explicit because students are required to have a diagnosis of LD to petition for a course substitution (Driscoll, 2004). Other educators do not use the term FLLD explicitly, but they implicitly have suggested that a relationship between a student’s classification as LD and FL learning difficulties exists (e.g., see Arries, 1999; Barr, 1993; Freed, 1987; Mabbott, 1994; Pompian & Thum, 1988; Shaw, 1999; Smith, 2002). For example, a number of Web sites, including those of colleges and universities, suggest that students classified as LD will likely have problems with FL courses and that they may be eligible for course substitutions for, or waivers from, the FL requirement.
In a recent chapter, Grigorenko (2002) used the term FLLD and attributed its genesis to the author of this article and his colleague. In our early work on students’ problems with FL learning, Leonore Ganschow and I used the term because, at the time, we speculated that there was a link between language-based LDs and the learning of an FL (e.g., see Ganschow & Sparks, 1987, 1993; Ganschow, Sparks, Javorsky, Pohlman, & BishopMarbury, 1991). However, our use of the term was premature and, in retrospect, incorrect. Shortly after the publication of the aforementioned articles, we conducted a series of studies in which we found few, if any, significant differences on cognitive, native language, and FL aptitude measures between secondary and postsecondary students classified as having LD who had enrolled in FL courses and students with FL learning problems who were not classified as having LD (e.g., see Sparks, Artzer, Javorsky et al., 1998; Sparks & Ganchow, 1993a; Sparks, Ganschow, Fluharty, & Little, 1996; Sparks, Ganschow, Javorsky, Pohlman, & Patton, 1992a). In more recent studies, we and our colleagues have found that many students classified as having LD passed FL courses, some with little or no apparent difficulty (e.g., see Sparks, & Javorsky, 1999b; Sparks, Philips, Ganschow, & Javorsky, 1999a; Sparks, Philips, & Javorsky, 2003). On the other hand, we have encountered large numbers of students who were not (nor could they be) classified as having LD (i.e., students identified as at risk or low achieving) who were experiencing difficulties in or failing FL courses. These findings led us to discontinue use of the term FLLD because it was clear that FL learning difficulties were not linked to a classification of LD.
As a result of the aforementioned empirical findings, in 1993 we acknowledged that our earlier use of the term FLLD had been in error and wrote that FL learning problems occur along a continuum of very strong to very weak learners and that there is not a discrete entity that can be termed an “FL learning disability” (Sparks, Ganschow, & Javorsky, 1993, p. 506). To support our position, we cited similar research findings related to dyslexia:
An example to illustrate this point can be drawn from the study of reading disabilities. Ellis (1985) has argued that an appropriate analogy for dyslexia is a condition such as obesity, not measles. Stanovich (1988) supports Ellis’ argument, citing a variety of sources to indicate that dyslexia does not exist as a discrete entity but on a graded continuum of reading (or reading problems). That is, dyslexia has always been “… operationally defined in a somewhat arbitrary way by choosing a criterion in a continuous distribution…” (p.169). The diagnosis of dyslexia, Ellis argues, “will depend entirely on where the line is drawn” (p. 172). (Sparks, Ganschow, & Javorsky, p. 508)
Because of the increasingly common usage of the term FLLD, as well as associated terms (e.g., FL disability, disability for FL learning), I thought that it was time to clarify for the record the position that a disability for learning an FL has not been supported by the research literature. Like Ellis (1985) and Stanovich (1988), I take the position that the proper analogy for FL learning problems is obesity, not measles, and that FLLD can be operationally defined and diagnosed only in an arbitrary manner. In this article, I present an empirically supported rationale for my conclusions. I begin with a brief overview of the problems inherent in the definition of and diagnostic criteria for LD. I then examine problems with a definition of-and diagnostic criteria for-a “disability” for FL learning. I next explain how some educators misuse the concept of FL aptitude. Finally, I cite implications resulting from use of the term FLLD.
Is There a “Disability” for FL Learning (FLLD)?
Since the term LD was first used, in 1963, learning disabilities has proven to be one of the most confusing, contentious, and contradictory of the disabling conditions. LD has been used to refer to a wide variety of problemsfrom underachievement to mental retardation-and is often used interchangeably with terms such as learning disorder, reading and mathematics disorders, and dyslexia (Flanagan, Keiser, Bernier, & Ortiz, 2003). Professionals continue to disagree about (a) the definition and diagnostic criteria for LD and (b) the best instructional practices to teach students classified as having LD (Lyon et al., 2001). The consequence of this disagreement has been a loss of confidence in knowing that a student diagnosed as having LD really has LD (Kavale, 1998; Kavale & Forness, 2000b). Moats and Lyon (1993) identified the lack of a logically consistent, easily operationalized, and empirically valid definition and classification (diagnostic) system as the primary threat to the validity and scientific merit of the LD concept and to further research about LDs.
After the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, the notion of an aptitude (IQ)achievement discrepancy quickly became the operational definition of LD in most states and served as the primary method for diagnosing LD (Mercer, Jordan, Allsop, & Mercer, 1996). However, the discrepancy model has been criticized on both theoretical and psychometric grounds (e.g., see Flanagan, Ortiz, Alfonso, & Mascalo, 2002; Hessler, 1987; Siegel, 1989; Stanovich, 1991). Recent research has shown that IQ-achievement discrepancies (a) do not identify a unique group of individuals with similar learning and cognitive deficits, (b) do not reveal the etiology of a learning problem, and (c) do not suggest appropriate intervention strategies for ameliorating the learning problem (Aaron, 1997; Dombrowski, Kamphaus, & Reynolds, 2004; Siegel, 2003; Vellutino, Scanlon, & Lyon, 2000). Despite the lack of empirical support for discrepancy definitions, the IQ-achievement criterion is used as the primary method for classifying students as LD and determining eligibility for special education services.
The lack of a logically consistent, easily operationalized, and empirically valid definition and classification system for LD has largely been responsible for the mentality by which the LD field has supported “new” types of learning disabilities to surmount perceived deficiencies in the current definition (Kavale, 1993). Stanovich (1993) demonstrated the absurdity of the mentality by proposing that the misuse of IQ tests in a discrepancy analysis could result in a new disability category, dysrationalia, or a condition in which a person’s “level of rationality as demonstrated in thinking and behavior … is significantly below the level of the individual’s intellectual capacity (as determined by an individually administered IQ test)” (p. 503). Because learning disabilities are not defined or diagnosed in a uniform way, many professionals view the LD concept as a service category for special education rather than as a specific diagnostic entity that denotes a specific disability (e.g., see Blachman, 1988; MacMillan, Gresham, & Bocian, 1998).
To determine whether there may be an LD for FL learning, I began by applying Stanovich’s point about dyslexia cited earlier in this article to the idea of an FLLD: In order to answer the question posed here (Is there an FLLD?), one must specify what is meant by the term FLLD. In doing so, the crux of the problem is immediately encountered. A definition should describe the parameters of a particular condition, and that definition should relate to the diagnostic criteria for that condition (Kavale & Forness, 2000b). I contend that the concept of an FLLD will naturally demonstrate the same problems that are inherent in the LD concept: the lack of a logically consistent, easily operationalized, and empirically valid definition and diagnostic criteria that are related to the definition.
Problems With the Definition of FLLD
For many years, researchers in both the LD and FL fields have attempted to determine the reasons why some students have problems in FL classes. Researchers have studied cognitive variables, such as language aptitude (e.g., Carroll, 1962, 1990; Pimsleur, 1966a, 1968; Skehan, 1986, 2002) and native language skills (Sparks & Ganschow, 1991, 1995b); whereas others have focused on affective variables, such as anxiety (Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope, 1986), motivation (Gardner, 1985), and personality (Ehrman, 1990). Among researchers who study FL learning, there is no consensus about the reasons for why some students exhibit problems with FL learning.
Nonetheless, professionals, parents, and legal advocates seem to have assumed automatically that students classified as LD inevitably will have problems learning an FL, and others assume that students with FL learning problems must have an LD. Previously, I described how Ganschow and I made the same assumptions prior to conducting empirical studies to determine whether students classified as having LD would routinely exhibit FL learning problems. Initially, when we made a connection between LDs and FL learning problems, we also made another assumption: The FL learning problems of students with LD were different from those of students not classified as having LD. Thus, implicitly, we had assumed the existence of an FLLD by linking it to a diagnosis of LD because we assumed students with LD were somehow different from students without LD. In addition, we assumed that students with IQachievement discrepancies (i.e., those students classified as having LD with high IQs and IQ-achievement discrepancies), were different from poor FL learners with lower IQs and no IQachievement discrepancies. In other words, we assumed the degree of discrepancy from IQ was somehow meaningful and that students with discrepancies exhibited distinct learning profiles and unique problems with FL learning.
In retrospect, we had not provided empirical support for these assumptions. Since that time, my colleagues and I have conducted a number of studies that have called into question these assumptions. In these studies, we have raised several important research questions. I examine the following three questions here:
1. Do students classified as having LD who are enrolled in FL classes exhibit weaker cognitive and achievement skills than poor (at-risk, non-LD) FL learners?
2. Do students classified as having LD who have varying degrees of IQ-achievement discrepancies exhibit lower scores on cognitive and achievement measures than other FL learners also classified as having LD who do not exhibit IQ-achievement discrepancies?
3. Do students classified as having LD who withdraw from or do not pass FL courses exhibit cognitive, achievement, and demographic differences when compared to students classified as having LD who pass FL courses?
The answers to these questions have failed to support the three assumptions that we and others have made about students classified as having LD in relation to FL learning.
In answer to the first question, since 1992, our studies have shown consistently that students classified as having LD enrolled in FL courses do not exhibit cognitive and academic achievement differences (e.g., in reading, writing, vocabulary, spelling) when compared to poor FL learners not classified as having LD. (For a review and discussion of these studies, see Ganschow & Sparks, 2001; Sparks, 2001, 2005.) In one study, results showed that high school students classified as having LD who were enrolled in FL courses and non-LD, at-risk FL learners did not exhibit significant differences on measures of native language achievement (reading, verbal memory, vocabulary, spelling, phonological awareness) and FL aptitude (MLAT), or on oral and written FL proficiency measures (reading, writing, speaking, listening) administered after 2 years of FL study (Sparks, Artzer, Javorsky, et al., 1998). In another study with three different cohorts of high school students enrolled in Spanish who were followed over 2 years, there were no significant differences between students with LD and low-achieving (nonLD) students on any cognitive, academic achievement, or FL aptitude measures, nor were there significant differences between the two groups on measures of oral and written FL proficiency and FL classroom tests/quizzes or in FL grades (Sparks, Humbach, & Javorsky, 2005).
Studies that we have conducted that are related to the second question indicated that there were no differences on cognitive and academic achievement measures between students classified as having LD with IQ-achievement discrepancies and students classified as having LD without IQ-achievement discrepancies, both of whom were enrolled in FL courses (see Note 1). In one study (Sparks, Artzer, Javorsky et al., 1998), no significant differences were found between these two groups on end-of-year measures of oral and written FL proficiency. In another study (Sparks, Philips, Ganschow, & Javorsky, 1999b), college students classified as having LD with and without IQ-achievement discrepancies did not exhibit significant differences in their ACT/SAT scores, FL aptitude (on the MLAT), college FL GPA, or graduating GPA. The aforementioned findings have been replicated with different populations of college students classified as having LD in other studies (Sparks & Javorsky, 1999b; Sparks, Philips, & Javorsky, 2002; see Note 2).
Additional studies related to the third question have shown that students classified as having LD who withdrew from, did not pass, or had no record of enrollment in (because of course substitutions and waivers) FL courses did not exhibit significant cognitive, academic achievement, or demographic differences when compared to Students with LD students with LD who enrolled in and passed FL courses. In one study, postsecondary students classified as having LD who received course substitutions for their university’s FL requirement (i.e., petition students) did not exhibit significant differences in IQ, academic achievement (reading, writing, language, math), graduating GPA, or ACT/SAT scores when compared to Students with LD with LD who had fulfilled the university’s FL requirement by passing FL courses (i.e., nonpetition students) (Sparks, Philips, Ganschow, & Javorsky, 1999a). The findings revealed few differences between the two groups on demographic variables (e.g., time of LD diagnosis, whether FL was waived in high school, tutoring in the FL) and also showed that the students with LD who had passed college FL courses achieved mostly grades of A, B, and C. In a replication study at the same university, similar results were obtained with a different sample of petition and nonpetition students with LD (Sparks, Philips, & Javorsky, 2003). When the petition students with LD at a second university were compared to the petition students with LD in our previous studies who were enrolled at a different university (see Sparks, Philips, Ganschow, & Javorsky, 1999b), the results revealed few differences between the groups regarding measures of IQ, academic achievement (reading, spelling, writing, math), and FL aptitude; college entrance scores (ACT/SAT); graduating GPA; and college FL GPA; or the extent of IQ-achievement discrepancies (i.e., 1.5 SD; Sparks & Javorsky, 1999b).
In sum, the findings of the studies reviewed here provide no empirical support for the assumption that there is a distinct “disability” for FL learning. Instead, the results offer empirical evidence that our earlier assumptions about students classified as LD and FL learning were incorrect. First, students classified as having LD do not always exhibit problems with FL learning. second, students classified as having LD do not exhibit different learning profiles or more severe FL learning problems when compared to students with FL learning problems not classified as LD. Third, students classified as having LD with high IQs and/or larger IQ-achievement discrepancies do not exhibit distinct learning profiles or unique problems with FL learning when compared to students with less severe or no IQ-achievement discrepancies. Moreover, students classified as having LD who received course substitutions for the FL requirement exhibited no differences on measures of cognitive ability, academic achievement, and college entrance exams (ACT/SAT), or in graduating GPA, when compared to students classified as having LD who fulfilled the college FL requirement by passing FL courses. These findings suggest that like all other academic skills, FL classroom achievement and oral and written FL proficiency run along a continuum from very strong to very weak FL learners.
Problems With the Diagnosis of FLLD
Even though, to date, empirical evidence has not supported the assumption that there is a specific disability for FL learning, I realize that there are students who exhibit difficulties with FL learning (see Note 3). Some of these students exhibit average or better achievement in their other school courses (e.g., English, math, science). Thus, their difficulties with FL learning appear to be “unexplained” because there is not an a priori reason to expect that they would encounter problems with FL learning. Consequently, some professionals will suggest that a specific disability for FL learning can be diagnosed either by using existing diagnostic criteria for LD or by employing other diagnostic methods.
Proponents of the FLLD concept might use several methods to classify a student with a “disability” for FL learning. They might propose that a student has an FLLD if he or she (a) exhibits a severe discrepancy between scores on a standardized measure of intelligence and a standardized measure of academic achievement (i.e., IQ-achievement discrepancy) or between scores in different areas of academic achievement (i.e., achievementachievement discrepancy); (b) fails an FL course(s), achieves lower grades in FL courses than other academic courses, or withdraws from an FL course(s); (c) exhibits a severe discrepancy between his or her score on a standardized measure of intelligence and the score on a measure of FL aptitude (e.g., the Modern Language Aptitude Test [MLAT]); or (d) achieves a low score on an FL aptitude measure.
IQ-Achievement and Achievement-Achievement Discrepancy. The idea that students with IQ-achievement or achievement-achievement discrepancies are disabled rests on the assumption that they should achieve at a level commensurate with their measured IQ or that they should achieve equally well in all academic subjects. However, this assumption is based on common misperceptions about both the meaning of IQ scores and the discrepancy model. Flanagan et al. (2002) summarized the following misconceptions, among others:

  • IQ is a highly accurate predictor of academic achievement.
  • IQ is synonymous with an individual’s academic potential.
  • IQ tests assess cognitive dimensions that are important in reading and other academic areas.
  • A significant discrepancy between IQ and achievement confirms the presence of an LD.
  • A significant discrepancy between any two scores (e.g., verbal and performance IQ scores) is clinically significant.

Gordon, Lewandowski, and Keiser (1999) reviewed evidence indicating that superior intelligence does not necessarily lead to superior achievement and that intra-individual discrepancies (e.g., between verbal and nonverbal abilities, math and reading scores) are common.
A common misuse of the discrepancy model by those who support the concept of an FLLD is to use a student’s IQ score not only as a predictor of native language achievement but also for FL achievement. For example, among individuals who report FL learning problems exists a segment of students who are relative, not absolute, underachievers and are sometimes characterized as “gifted” LD. In most cases, these students’ lowest score on standardized tests is in the average range when compared to the scores of their peers in the general population. Many of these students are not classified as LD until high school or college, when they achieve lower grades in FL courses than in their other courses (Kavale, 1998; Sparks, 2001; Sparks & Javorsky, 1999a, b; Sparks, Philips, & Ganschow, 1996). Some of these students may also have received special education support earlier in school because they exhibited a relative deficiency in one area of academic achievement when compared to their superior IQ and performed relatively poorly in one academic subject (Gordon et al., 1999). These individuals should not be classified as having LD, nor should their average grades in FL courses be viewed as a “disability,” because their native language skills and their FL achievement are similar to those of their peers (i.e., they exhibit average performance).
Another problem with using IQ as a predictor of FL achievement is that in general, IQ has not been found to be a robust predictor of FL proficiency (Carroll, 1962; Gardner & Lambert, 1965, 1972; Sasaki, 1996). In a recently completed longitudinal study, students’ IQ scores in first grade correlated only moderately (.42) with subsequent FL proficiency in 10th grade (Sparks, Patton, Ganschow, Humbach, & Javorsky, 2005). Instead, language aptitude (as measured by the MLAT, an FL aptitude test) was found to correlate strongly (.68) with subsequent FL proficiency. These results are consistent with the findings of other researchers who have studied the relationships among IQ, FL aptitude, and FL proficiency (Carroll, 1981, 1990; Ehrman, 1998; Ehrman & Oxford, 1995; Skehan, 1986, 1991). In some studies, the language-analytic aspects of aptitude have been found to be closest in the relationship to intelligence, whereas variables such as phonological analysis skill and memory were not as closely related to IQ (Sasaki, 1996).
Some proponents of the FLLD concept might recommend diagnosing a “disability” for FL learning using criteria from the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV; American Psychiatric Association, 1994). The DSM-IV criteria for disability in academic skillsIQ-achievement discrepancy and evidence of impairment in the specific academic skill for activities that require the skill-may appear to offer an alternative method for using discrepancy criteria to diagnose a “disability” for FL learning. However, there are two important standards that determine whether an individual meets the DSM-IV criteria for a disability. First, the degree of impairment must be substantial. Court rulings have made clear that “substantial impairment is determined by what is typical of most people, that is, the average person in the population” (Gordon & Reiser, 1998, p. ix). Thus, the evidence must identify an absolute deficit, not a relative performance deficit. For FL learning, this criterion would be difficult to meet because the “average person” in the general population cannot read, write, speak, or comprehend an FL. The individual cannot be compared to a special population (e.g., high school students in Advanced Placement courses, university level students) because the average person in the general population does not enroll in AP courses, nor does the average person graduate from a 4-year college or university. Second, the impairment must “substantially limit” a “major life activity.” For FL learning, this criterion would also be difficult to meet for several reasons. For example, many people attend college, but college attendance is not a major life activity, nor do FL learning problems prevent one from attending college, because many colleges do not require an FL for admission or graduation. Even if passing an FL is required for some college majors, there are other college majors that do not require the study of an FL, and one can either attend or transfer to another college that does not require an FL for that major. Given the aforementioned constraints, the DSM-IV criteria are not likely to provide an alternative method for diagnosing a “disability” for learning an FL.
The evidence to date suggests that discrepancy formulae (e.g., IQ-achievement, regression, achievementachievement discrepancies) do not delineate a group of students with unique or more severe native language or FL learning difficulties. The findings presented here undermine speculation that IQ-achievement discrepancies could signal the presence of a “disability” for FL learning and that one’s IQ score can be used to predict FL learning achievement and proficiency. Thus, neither the discrepancy model nor IQ tests are useful in determining whether a student will exhibit FL learning problems.
Failure or Poor Performance in FL Courses. An advocate of the FLLD concept might suggest that another method for diagnosing a disability for FL learning would be withdrawal from, or poorer than expected performance in, FL courses. Research findings over several years have shown, however, that these are not reliable indicators of one’s ability to pass FL courses or fulfill the FL requirement.
In a study at one university, college students classified as having LD who had received course substitutions for the college FL requirement had passed one or more FL courses in college and also self-reported that they had passed high school FL courses, many with average or high grades (A, B, C; Sparks, Philips, & Ganschow, 1996). Likewise, a colleague and I examined the high school transcripts of college students classified as having LD at another university and found that a majority of the students had passed FL courses with grades of C or higher; 95% of the grades on the students’ high school transcripts were passing grades (Sparks & Javorsky, 1999b). In both of the aforementioned studies, however, the majority of the students’ college FL grades on their transcripts were W (Withdrawal); in many cases, students had achieved only W grades or had not taken a college FL course before receiving permission for the course substitutions. Yet, most of the students who had withdrawn from college FL courses had passed their high school FL courses with average or better grades. These results were replicated in a subsequent study (Sparks, Philips, & Javorsky, 2002).
In another study, petition students classified as LD who had received course substitutions for the college FL requirement achieved lower grades in college FL courses than nonpetition students classified as having LD who had fulfilled the FL requirement by passing college FL courses (Sparks, Philips, & Javorsky, 2003). We found, however, that 37 % of the petition group’s college FL grades were passing grades, 7% of the group’s grades were failing grades (F), and 56% of the grades were Withdrawal grades (W, WP, WF); in contrast, only 3% of the nonpetition group’s grades were Withdrawal grades. Yet, there were no significant differences between the two groups’ scores on measures of native language skills (e.g., reading, written language) that in previous studies have been found to distinguish between good and poor FL learners even though there were differences in their FL grades (e.g., see Ganschow et al., 1991; Sparks & Ganschow, 1995a, 1996; Sparks, Ganschow, Javorsky, Pohlman, & Patton, 1992a, b). From these findings, my colleagues and I concluded that students’ FL grades were not helpful in determining who might have severe problems in FL courses because so many of the petition students had withdrawn from FL courses. These findings with FL grades were similar to those in a study by Sparks, Philips, Ganschow, and Javorsky (1999b) with a different group of college students classified as having LD.
In a recently completed study by Sparks, Humbach, and Javorsky (2005), high school students classified as having LD and low-achieving, students without LD were followed over 2 years of FL study. At the end of first-year Spanish, findings showed no differences in the two groups’ FL grades. Although some of the students in both groups did not continue in secondyear Spanish, only 7% of the students classified as LD achieved a failing grade; instead, 93% of the students achieved FL grades of A, B, and C.
These findings suggest that using performance in FL classes (withdrawal, poorer than expected grades) to diagnose an FLLD is problematic and unlikely to identify a group of students who have a “disability” for learning an FL. My colleagues and I have suggested that there may be confounding variables that (a) play important roles in students’ FL grades and achievement but (b) cannot be easily measured (e.g., effort, motivation, homework completion, class attendance, persistence). Furthermore, the reliability of classroom grades is problematic and may not accurately assess a student’s progress in learning the FL (see Note 4). We have also suggested that students withdraw from courses for many reasons other than difficulty with the subject matter (e.g., maintain a higher GPA, lack of persistence in learning, distaste for subject, dislike of teacher, recommendation of advisor). In addition, because recently developed college policies allow relatively easy access to course substitutions for the FL requirement, we have speculated that this option may often be used by students classified as having LD who have previously passed FL courses (Sparks, 2001,2005; Sparks & Javorsky, 1999a; Sparks, Philips, & Javorsky, 2002, 2003).
Discrepancy Between IQ and FL Aptitude Test Scores. In the 1950s and 1960s, John Carroll conducted studies on the concept of FL aptitude (Carroll, 1962). He and a colleague, Stanley Sapon, published the Modem Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) in 1959. Paul Pimsleur (1966a, 1968) also conducted studies on the FL aptitude concept and published an FL aptitude test, the Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery (PLAB; 1966b). Since the late 1960s, the MLAT has been the most widely used FL aptitude instrument (e.g., for placing students in FL programs with curricular options and selecting students for FL study; see Ehrman & Oxford, 1995; Reed & Stansfield, 2004; Wesche, 1981). The MLAT uses a simulated format (i.e., a “fake” FL) and English grammar to measure FL aptitude.
Proponents of the FLLD concept might speculate that a discrepancy between a student’s IQ score and his or her FL aptitude score could be used to diagnose an FLLD. Hypothetically, if an FL aptitude test such as the MLAT were used to identify students with an FLLD, it could be used in two different ways (see Note 5):
1. A student’s MLAT score could be compared directly to his or her IQ score. However, the MLAT is an aptitude test, not an achievement test. A student’s score on the MLAT does not indicate his or her level of proficiency (i.e., achievement) in an FL. Instead, the MLAT is an indication of aptitude for language learning. When a student’s IQ score is compared to his or her MLAT score, one is conducting an aptitude-aptitude discrepancy analysis, not an aptitude (IQ)-achievement analysis. Thus, the MLAT cannot be used in this manner to diagnose a “disability” for FL learning.
2. A student’s MLAT score could be compared to his or her native language achievement scores in those skills related to language learning (i.e., reading, writing, oral language). A proponent of this procedure might argue that because the MLAT is an aptitude test, it can be used as a proxy for a student’s IQ. However, IQ has been thought to represent a student’s potential for learning; thus, a severe discrepancy between IQ and native language achievement (i.e., reading, writing, math) was thought to be meaningful and indicative of LD. My colleagues and I have posited, however, that native language skills form the foundation for FL learning skill (Sparks, 1995; Sparks & Ganschow, 1991,1993b, 1995b; Sparks, Ganschow, & Pohlman, 1989). Our studies have provided empirical support for the concept that students who have stronger native language skills will have stronger FL proficiency and FL achievement than students with weaker native language skills (see reviews by Ganschow & Sparks, 2001, Sparks, 2001). Both Carroll (1963) and Skehan (1989) found that individual differences in second language learning have connections to first language learning. Moreover, other researchers found strong connections between native language achievement and subsequent FL proficiency (e.g., see Dufva & Voeten, 1999; Hultstijn & Bossers, 1992; Humes-Bartlo, 1989; Olshtain, Shohamy, Kemp, & Chatow, 1990). Because there is a strong relationship between native (first) and foreign (second) language learning, a student’s native language scores on measures of oral and written language should be roughly consistent with his or her score on an FL aptitude test. Indeed, empirical studies have shown that a student’s FL aptitude score on the MLAT is generally commensurate with his or her native language achievement skills (e.g., see Sparks & Ganschow, 1995a, 1996; Sparks, Ganschow, Artzer, Siebenhar, & Plageman, 1998; Sparks, Ganschow, Javorsky, Pohlman, & Patton, 1992b).
Although the MLAT has been found to be a good predictor of success in learning an FL (e.g., see Carroll, 1990; Ehrman, 1998; Ehrman & Oxford, 1995; Skehan, 1986,2002) and to distinguish between stronger and weaker FL learners, for the aforementioned reasons, it is inappropriate to use FL aptitude tests in a discrepancy analysis to classify students as having LD and also to identify students as being unable to pass FL courses or become proficient in an FL. To my knowledge, there is no empirical evidence indicating that students who exhibit discrepancies between their native language achievement scores and their FL aptitude score on the MLAT consistently fail FL courses or are unable to achieve a level of proficiency in an FL.
Low Score on an FL Aptitude Test (MLAT). In the previous section, I described why it is inappropriate to use the MLAT in a discrepancy analysis to classify students with an FLLD. But, is it appropriate to rely on a single test score from an FL aptitude test, such as the MLAT, to diagnose a “disability” for FL learning? One obvious problem with using only the MLAT for this purpose is that clinicians have long been taught not to rely on a single test score to make a diagnosis or offer recommendations regarding an important decision (Salvia & Ysseldyke, 2004). The use of a single test score to determine eligibility for services or the documentation of a disability conflicts with the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing developed by the American Educational Research Association (AERA), American Psychological Association (APA), and the National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME). Moreover, the use of multiple indicators for the documentation of a disability or determine eligibility for services is consistent with the consensus of the diagnostic field (SaIvia & Ysseldyke, 2004).
Some proponents of the FLLD concept suggest that a low score on the MLAT can be used to determine which students will have inordinate difficulty with FL learning and whether they can pass FL courses. For example, Reed and Stansfield (2004) argued that one way to use MLAT scores for this purpose is to construct expectancy tables based on local norms and then set a minimum score that indicates whether a student can pass an FL course. However, Francis et al. (2005) argued against this practice because attempts to set a “cut-point” on standardized tests would lead to instability in classification as scores fluctuated around the cut-point with repeated testing. They concluded that a single score cannot capture a student’s skill in a particular domain. Thus, choosing a cut-point in a continuous distribution of scores from the MLAT to identify a “disability” for FL learning would not only involve an arbitrary choice of a single score but would also result in the misclassification of students (see Note 6).
Another problem with using the MLAT as the only test score to diagnose an FLLD is its outdated test norms. For a test to be considered valid, the norms must be representative of the population under consideration (AERA APA, & NCME, 1999). When the MLAT was normed in 1957-1958, its psychometric properties (i.e., the representativeness of its norming sample, reliability, and validity) were considered appropriate for that time period. However, almost 50 years later, the standardization properties that made it a valid and reliable test are likely to present significant shortcomings for two reasons. First, from 1957 to 2002 an almost threefold increase in the percentage of individuals completing 4 or more years of college occurred. Moreover, the number of high school graduates attending college has increased significantly over the last 50 years. Thus, the school populations on which the MLAT was normed in 1953 through 1958 are unlikely to be representative of today’s college students. second, the appropriateness of test norms is likely to diminish over time (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999); that is, as test norms age, their diagnostic utility weakens, and old norms tend to estimate a student’s relative standing in the population erroneously because the old norms are too easy (Linn, Graue, & Sanders, 1990) or too hard, depending on the task (Salvia & Ysseldyke, 2004). Salvia and Ysseldyke also stated that the maximum useful life for norm samples used in ability testing is approximately 15 years. Therefore, the MLAT is more than 30 years past the recommended date for renorming (see Sparks, Javorsky, & Ganschow, 2005).
Proponents of using the 1959 MLAT test norms might argue that (a) students’ level of FL aptitude has not changed since 1958 and (b) because the MLAT is an aptitude test, its norms are relatively stable (i.e., language aptitude is unlikely to change over time). To determine whether students’ levels of FL aptitude have or have not changed, however, it would be necessary to verify that assumption empirically. Recent evidence has suggested that FL aptitude changes over time after students receive FL classroom instruction. For example, in several studies, students’ scores on the MLAT increased approximately 1 SD after 1 year of FL instruction (Ganschow & Sparks, 1995; Sparks, Artzer, Patton, et al. 1998; Sparks & Ganschow, 1993a; Sparks, Ganschow, Pohlman, Artzer, & Skinner, 1992).
In sum, the proposed methods for diagnosing an FLLD examined here are based on false assumptions. The methods contain common misconceptions about discrepancy models, the LD concept, and FL aptitude tests. These diagnostic methods are not based on research evidence; instead, they can be supported only by historical precedence and convenience (see Francis et al., 2005). Empirical research findings refute each of the methods and support my contention that current diagnostic methods used to identify a “disability” for FL learning are fraught with methodological problems and contradictions.
Misuse of the FL Aptitude Concept
In my view, the speculation that a student’s score on the MLAT can be used in a discrepancy analysis or as a single test score to determine whether she or he can pass an FL course is based on a theoretical misinterpretation of the FL aptitude concept. This misinterpretation is that one purpose of an FL aptitude test is to determine whether a student can or cannot learn an FL. In a 2002 article, Skehan corrected this misinterpretation, reminding the reader:
Discussions of aptitude by such researchers typically assert that everyone can learn a foreign language. What aptitude tests predict therefore is whether a particular level of proficiency can be achieved in the time available. Unfortunately, one of the common popular interpretations of ‘-:, aptitude is that it claims that some learners simply cannot learn languages. Following from this, aptitude test results are seen as devices which cause some learners to be deselected from courses of language study. This interpretation is to be regretted, not least because aptitude researchers are careful to avoid such claims (p. 93).
Following his development and publication of the MLAT, Carroll (1963) detailed a model of FL learning that incorporated the language aptitude variables in the MLAT found to be predictive of successful FL learning. The Carroll Model of School Learning included two primary components for FL learning: instruction and individual learning differences. The instruction component is influenced by (a) time devoted to FL study and (b) quality of instruction. The individual differences components is comprised of (a) general intelligence (IQ), or ability to profit from instruction; (b) language aptitude (i.e., the skills assessed by the MLAT); and (c) motivation to study and learn the FL.
Proponents of an FLLD misinterpret the FL aptitude concept if they assume that a student who achieves a low score on the MLAT cannot learn an FL or pass FL courses and thus must have an FLLD. To support their position, they might argue that some students are given insufficient time to learn the FL or receive poor quality instruction in the FL (Carroll’s instruction component; see Note 7). To date, however, the evidence supporting this position has been anecdotal (e.g., Ganschow, Philips, & Schneider, 2001; Levine, 1987). In studies described ear lier in this article, my colleagues and I found many students who withdrew from FL courses before completion; thus, no course grade was available, and the course outcome was unknown. In addition, other students were granted course substitutions for the FL requirement without having enrolled in an FL course (see Sparks & Javorsky, 1999b; Sparks, Philips, & Ganschow, 1996; Sparks, Philips, Ganschow, & Javorsky, 1999a, b; Sparks, Philips, & Javorsky, 2002, 2003). Furthermore, empirical evidence has shown that students classified as having LD who obtain similar scores on the MLAT (and similar levels of native language skills) achieve different outcomes in FL courses; that is, some students pass FL courses to fulfill the FL requirement and others withdraw from or do not enroll in FL courses before being granted course substitutions. Thus, two students classified as having LD who have similar MLAT scores may demonstrate vastly different outcomes in FL courses.
Proponents of the FLLD concept also misinterpret the FL aptitude concept if they assume that a student who has a high IQ score on an intelligence test and a lower FL aptitude score on the MLAT can profit from general instruction in other courses (e.g., science, history) but cannot profit from instruction in an FL. To support their position, these individuals might argue that some students achieve high grades in non-FL courses (e.g., math, science, social studies, English) but fail or achieve very low grades (D) in FL courses (i.e., Carroll’s individual learning difference component). Only anecdotal evidence supports this position, however (e.g., see Dinklage, 1971; Ganschow & Sparks, 1986; Keeney & Smith, 1984; Pompian & Thum, 1988). On the other hand, different studies have shown that (a) students who were at risk for FL learning but not classified as having LD did well in their academic courses and also passed FL courses (Sparks & Ganschow, 1995a, 1996; Sparks, Ganschow, Artzer, Siebenhar, & Plageman, 1998), and (b) students classified as having LD not only profited from general instruction in their academic courses by achieving above average grades but also passed FL courses (Sparks, Humbach, & Javorsky, 2005; Sparks & Javorsky, 1999b; Sparks, Philips, Ganschow, & Javorsky, 1999a, b; Sparks, Philips, & Javorsky, 2002, 2003). In these studies, interpretation of findings with postsecondary-level students classified as having LD who received course substitutions was problematic because some students did not take any FL courses in college and many others withdrew from FL courses before completion. In these situations, my colleagues and I were unable to determine if there were differences between these students’ ability to profit from general instruction in standard academic courses (e.g., science) and instruction in FL courses. Moreover, many of the students classified as having LD in these studies who had received course substitutions had achieved (a) average or better MLAT scores but had still withdrawn from or not enrolled in college FL courses or (b) low MLAT scores but had passed college FL courses with grades of C or higher before receiving course substitutions.
In sum, the evidence indicates that students classified as having LD and others who are at risk for having problems in FL courses may achieve a wide range of scores on the MLAT, pass FL courses despite low scores on the MLAT, withdraw from FL courses despite achieving average or above average scores on the MLAT, and receive course substitutions for the FL requirement despite achieving average or higher scores on the MLAT and lacking a record of enrollment in or completion of FL courses. These findings suggest that proponents of an FLLD misinterpret the FL aptitude concept and misuse the MLAT score; that is, FL aptitude and a student’s MLAT score do not reflect whether he or she can learn an FL or pass FL courses.
Conclusions and Implications
The findings presented in this article indicate that there is no empirical evidence to support a distinct “disability” for FL learning. Like Stanovich and the concept of dyslexia, I contend that the research literature does not support the notion that there is a scientific concept of FLLD separate from other more neutral terms (e.g., students with FL learning problems, at-risk or poor FL learners, low-achieving FL learners). Unfortunately, professionals at all levels of education have begun to make the assumption that students who find FL learning to be difficult must have a “disability” specific to that skill.
Based on the evidence presented in this article, I have derived several implications related to identifying and testing students with FL learning problems. First, IQ tests are not useful in determining a student’s “potential” for FL achievement. second, IQ-achievement (and achievement-achievement) discrepancies have no diagnostic value in determining whether a student will have FL learning problems. Third, a discrepancy between a student’s IQ and MLAT scores should not be used to diagnose a “disability” for FL learning. Fourth, the MLAT (or any other testing measure) should not be used as the only test to determine whether a student may have FL learning problems. Fifth, a low score on an FL aptitude test should not be interpreted to mean that a student cannot pass FL courses or learn an FL, or that she or he has an FLLD. Sixth, the MLAT should be renormed before it is used diagnostically. Seventh, withdrawal(W) grades in FL courses should not be considered synonymous with course failure. Eighth, relative differences between a student’s grades in standard academic courses (e.g., English, social studies) and FL courses should not be considered as evidence of an FLLD.
Another implication involves policies for course substitutions or waivers from the FL requirement. In many secondary and postsecondary institutions, classification as having LD is used as the sine qua non to receive course substitutions for the FL requirement. However, the research findings presented here show that classification as having LD is irrelevant in determining whether a student will exhibit FL learning problems. The evidence suggests that if a high school or university allows course substitutions or waivers for the FL requirement, there are two empirically defensible policies that could be adopted: all students, not just those classified as having LD, should be eligible for FL course substitutions on the basis of schoolselected criteria, or no students should be allowed course substitutions for the FL requirement. At this time, there is no empirical basis on which a diagnostician or disability service provider could approve course substitutions or waivers for students with FL learning problems who are classified as having LD but deny access to substitutions for students who are not classified as having LD.
A final implication relates to assisting students with FL learning problems. In my view, the focus of native and foreign language educators and researchers should be on developing effective methods for teaching FLs to low-achieving students. Ample research evidence indicates that native language skills serve as the foundation for FL learning and that good and poor FL learners exhibit differences in language learning, particularly in phonological/orthographic skills. Research findings with poor readers (see Vellutino, Fletcher, Snowling, & Scanlon, 2004) have suggested that the teaching of native language reading skills can best be accomplished by teaching domain-specific skills (i.e., skills related to reading). Likewise, reviews by Sparks, Ganschow, Kenneweg, and Miller (1991) and Sparks,. Schneider, and Ganschow (2002) have shown that at-risk and low-achieving FL learners became more proficient in an FL when educators taught directly and explicitly the skills related to learning the new language (see Note 8).
Kavale and Forness (2000b) contended that definitions for LD are stipulative definitions because they use an “explicit and arbitrary adoption of a meaning relation between words . . . they mean whatever a particular individual (or individuals) decide they should mean” (p. 246). My colleagues and I have found that several stipulative definitions described in this article, including previous classification as having LD, are being used to promote and gain acceptance for the FLLD concept. Stipulative definitions for FLLD are useful because they remain vague and ill-defined; thus, all arguments about their validity or invalidity are relative and, like definitions for LD,, they can be used by individuals, groups, professional organizations, and educational institutions to promote and secure specific outcomes (see Note 9). Stipulative definitions are also convenient because their use allows proponents to avoid making logical arguments for and providing empirical verification of the FLLD concept. In scientific research, however, the lack of empirical evidence validating a particular theory or practice generally leads to its modification or suggests that the theory or practice should be abandoned (Stanovich, 1999). The use of stipulative definitions may permit a “disability” for FL learning to attain the status of a service category in our high schools, colleges, and universities. If so, the validity of the LD concept will be undermined once again.
Footnote
NOTES
1. In our studies, many school-identified students classified as having LD did not meet legal or research criteria for this diagnosis. For example, in our studies with college students classified as having LD who received course substitutions for the FL requirement, more than 50% of the students did not meet any criteria for classification as having LD.
2. Here, I note that some students were classified as having LD only in mathematics. These students exhibited average to superior performance in skills related to language (e.g., reading, spelling, writing). Because of their classification as having LD, however, they had been permitted to substitute courses for the FL requirement. To my knowledge, to date there is no empirical or anecdotal evidence showing that problems with mathematics are related to FL learning difficulties.
3. There are students who will likely not be able to pass FL courses or achieve a level of proficiency in an FL. However, these students have low-average to below-average intelligence and native oral and written language skills and achieve below-average grades in their other school courses (i.e., English, math, science, social studies). Thus, they are not likely to be classified as having LD, nor are they likely to be enrolled in FL classes.
4. In our studies, we encountered students who, for example, achieved grades of A and B but could not pass end-of year FL proficiency measures, and students who withdrew from FL courses although they were achieving passing grades as high as B and C. An additional problem pertaining to grades in FL courses and their relationship to FL proficiency (i.e., ability to read, write, speak, and comprehend the language) is that FL proficiency measures are not standardized and do not yield standardized scores for comparison purposes. The proficiency guidelines developed by the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) (1989) list levels of proficiency that range from Novice-Low to Superior. However, the guidelines do not describe a standardized procedure for measuring FL proficiency.
5. All subsequent discussions about FL aptitude tests apply to both the MLAT and the PLAB.
6. Reed and Stansfield (2004) asked, “Is it ethical to fail to assess FL aptitude [with the MLAT] when diagnosing foreign language learning disability (FLLD)?” (p. 162). However, I contend that their question puts the cart before the horse. Before they ask whether it is ethical not to assess FL aptitude, they should consider whether an FL aptitude test such as the MLAT should be used (a) in a psychometrically inappropriate manner (i.e., as the only test to determine who may have difficulty with FL learning), (b) for a purpose for which it was not designed (i.e., to determine who should be excluded from FL classes), and (c) to diagnose a “disability” for which they and others have generated no empirical support.
7. To date, there is no available evidence to guide practitioners, disability service providers, diagnosticians, or students themselves in estimating the amount of time needed to learn an FL sufficiently to pass an FL course. One might make some general inferences about a student’s “speed of learning” from his or her MLAT score; however, this score is not helpful in determining just how much time is needed.
8. There has been an ongoing debate in the special education field about the most appropriate type of classroom environment for students with disabilities. For more than 25 years, special educators have advocated integration of students with disabilities into general education classrooms and programs (i.e., mainstreaming, least restrictive environment, Regular Education Initiative, inclusion; see Kavale & Forness, 2000a). As of 1997, the U.S. Department of Education reported that 95% of students with disabilities were being served in general education settings. It is puzzling, then, that practitioners (Smith, 2002), policymakers (Freed, 1987; Shaw, 1999), legal advocates (Wolinsky & Whelan, 1999), and researchers (Shaywitz, 2003) have advocated for course substitutions for and waivers from the FL requirement for students classified as having LD rather than their full inclusion in regular sections of FL courses with appropriate instruction and accommodations.
9. Vague definitions and relative diagnostic criteria can prove beneficial to individuals, groups, professional organizations, and colleges and universities in several ways. For example, individuals benefit by gaining access to services, such as instructional accommodations, course substitutions, and waivers. Croups such as diagnosticians or attorneys benefit by increased numbers of referrals. Professional organizations benefit by engaging in advocacy activities that can result in heightened public visibility and increased membership. Colleges and universities benefit by larger enrollments, resulting in increased revenues, and avoidance of lawsuits brought by those seeking services.
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