How do I help a student with a speech disability?
August 3, 2005 8:40 AM   Subscribe

DiscriminationFilter: How do I adapt my teaching methods for a student in my SAT prep course with a speech disability?

I teach SAT courses for a major prep company; last night I had a student with a serious speech disability join my class. He seems to have a muscular or neurological problem which limits his speech control; he cannot enunciate clearly or speak loudly, so the sounds he makes are extremely difficult to understand. He's also probably the smartest kid in the class.

We teach most of our material by having students work through problems out loud, with gentle coaching, for the benefit of the class.
I ask, "Joe, how would you approach problem #10?"
"I'd factor it."
"Very good Joe. Where would you begin factoring?"

...and on we go, with everyone learning from both the mistakes Joe makes and the brilliant insight he may bring to the problem. I select students to work problems and try to give everyone an equal amount of time "on the spot." I often choose students based on the content of the problem; if Matt has been having trouble with quadratic equations, I make sure to call on him to work one, in order to ensure he's learning the material. On the other hand, I might give a sentence completion question with tough vocabulary to a girl who excels in Verbal, because I know that she'll know the answer, everyone gets to learn, and nobody has to look stupid in front of the class for not knowing the definition of "egregious."

In the case of my student with the speech disability, this creates a huge challenge. Last night, I called on him once or twice for short, one-word answers, which he knew easily but had difficulty saying, and which I repeated for the benefit of the class. I feel.....awful. I already like this kid a lot, and I feel guilty that I don't call on him more often.

Am I being evil and discriminatory for not calling on this kid to work through problems out loud? Am I damaging his learning experience? Is there another way to involve him in class participation? I'd particularly like to hear from anyone with a disability: what sort of things did teachers do that made you feel good, and what did they do that was horrible?

Maybe this goes without saying, but I am not a certified teacher and have never had any training for helping kids with disabilities.
posted by junkbox to Education (12 answers total)
Have you considered talking to the kid in question about how he feels? I'd say that a disability that impairs his speaking abilities is something that causes difficulties with any classroom situation, so it would be damn surprising to me if he hadn't had to hash this out with a previous teacher. If he's cool with you repeating his answers for the benefit of others, he'll tell you. If he prefers something else, again, he knows better than the rest of us what will work for him.
posted by caution live frogs at 8:53 AM on August 3, 2005

Yeah this is a kid-by-kid thing often. I had a boyfriend with a severe stutter once and he was more comfortable just taking longer to answer a question than he would have been if he found himself implicitly or explicitly passed over. Other kids may have self-esteem problems [like any kids really] and might not relish the extra attention when they're trying hard to master the material. This can also vary depending on whether he is in a group with his peers or completely among strangers in your class as well.

First step, I'd talk to the kid and see if he has any preferences, make some sort of a deal with him one way or the other. You might want to think beforehand about other ways of tackling this and offer him some suggestions.
- giving him an ability to write answers instead of speaking them, if this is possible
- moving kids more towards problem-solving in groups where they can work on problems together and have a reporter bring the results to the group, assuming this kid is more easilty understood in smaller/quieter settings.
- spend some time talking with the kid and/or putting him closer to you so that you can get used to his speech and repeat his answers to others who can't hear them as well. Kid gets to give his smart answers, but doesn't have to struggle to be heard at a distance.
- finding more ways to recognize students than just by their replies. This may be going over problems they write in to you, using good examples to highlight the skills of specific students with your explanation instead of theirs, having them go to the board to draw something instead of talking about it &c.
There may need to be some retooling, and it may be that the kid in your class didn't think about having to do a lot of talking when he signed up, or it may be that he's comfortable being treated just like everyone else and his speech difficulties may just have to be worked in to the class like erveryone else's weirdness. The only piece of advice I have is that unless this kid is really young -- which I assume he isn't -- do NOT talk to the kid's parents, talk to the kid. Students with disabilities, especially language ones, often get not-so-subtly ignored when people like doctors or teachers need to get information from them if there is someone who speaks more clearly readily available, try to avoid this.
posted by jessamyn at 9:25 AM on August 3, 2005

** I work for Kaplan -- teach SAT, ACT, SAT IIs, LSAT, GMAT, GRE, MCAT **

If you work for Kaplan, try e-mailing Albert Chen and Bob Verini. I have taught 2 kids with dyslexia, and a blind kid and those two were extremely helpful for me.

Important question: is he scoring well? With his disability, there are a number of things to consider:

- do private tutoring... it could be distracting for the class to have you have to pull him through problems.

- can he take the test with accomodations?


In class, if he is doing well, don't push him to work out the problem.

Talk to the parents or ask your center admin to speak with the parents -- they can't out-and-out ask about his disability. I've found my Kaplan center to be AWESOME about helping me communicate with parents and kids.

Good luck! I can give you some thoughts on how I've dealt with other disabilities, if you'd like
posted by k8t at 9:29 AM on August 3, 2005

Also, a note to other commenters -- most test prep companies don't let you stray too far from the book when you're teaching a full class. While tutoring, you can do whatever you'd like.

We have to consider the other 5, 8, 10 kids in the class ... don't want to waste their time (and parents' $$$) by altering the basic class structure.

Test prep companies are all about standardization... you can't "break them into groups"... every minute counts in these classes.

This is why I recommend that he should transfer his class into tutoring... a full class load (at Kaplan) can buy you 8 hours of private tutoring... which is all a lot of kids need.
posted by k8t at 9:32 AM on August 3, 2005

Test prep companies are all about standardization... you can't "break them into groups"... every minute counts in these classes.

I taught for years at The Princeton Review and a few other smaller prep companies. We had the mandate to do pretty much whatever we needed to ensure that the kids were learning the material. I don't know if this is a TPR/Kaplan difference or just a time difference since this was years ago. It seems like junkbox is looking for various ways to approach this problem.

That said, your test center manager is the go-to guy for this and is the one to make the call over whether you try something alternative to benefit one of the students in the class. The kids' parents clearly thought he had something to gain by taking a class and the test prep center took their money, so they should be the ones working with you to figure out what's the appropriate response. Since everyone is paying the same amount to be in the class, you have some level of obligation, even if it's not an ADA one, to make sure they have the same learning experience or at least have the same chance to improve their testing scores. The fact that you care enough to ask about this in the first place is a step in the right direction.
posted by jessamyn at 10:08 AM on August 3, 2005

I agree about just asking him what he'd prefer. Something like, "I can see that you are mastering the material very well, would you rather not speak out loud in class?" But then, if this is the agreement you come to, you may have to devise different way to help him with trouble spots that doesn't involve calling him out in class.

That said, we have several pages of tips for professors working with students with disabilities. Some of these might help, even though the educational setting (and age group) is a little different than yours.
posted by whatnot at 10:42 AM on August 3, 2005

As a former severe developmental stutterer who was also always the smartest kid in the class, I feel I can offer some input here.

The best thing to do with a kid like this is - for the kid - is to call on him and let him stutter his way through the problem, as far as it's not a major disruption to classroom time. It's not a bad idea to maybe meet with the kid before hand to let him know that you're willing to take the time to let him do this, if you are; and also to feel out his comfort limits. Maybe he won't want to stutter for more than 60 seconds without you interrupting him and sort of taking the reins. Maybe he'd prefer it if you just let him work through it. In any event, you can be sure he's as aware as you are of taking extra classroom time; try not to make him feel too guilty about it.

Developmental stuttering is associated with very strong feelings of anxiety and shame, which are probably at least in part inherent to the disorder and not learned, but most of us desperately want to function and integrate ourselves into normal roles despite these very unpleasant feelings.

It's not a muscular problem; if I knew what it was, I'd be working on a cure for it. It's been associated in the literature with a number of things, including overbearing parenting and abnormal bilateral frontal activation on fMRI during dysfluent speech. Valproic acid and levetiracetam have been known to treat it successfully.

Mine went away about a week after I got my driver's license and has not troubled me since.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:12 PM on August 3, 2005

Doesn't sound from the question that the kid has a stuttering problem at all.
posted by agregoli at 1:01 PM on August 3, 2005

agregoli is right -- my student is not a stutterer; I'm sorry if I gave that impression. I don't want to play armchair physician here, but he exhibits symptoms characteristic of a condition like muscular dystrophy; he lacks muscular control over his face, tongue and throat (and probably other parts of his body; he will sometimes hold his arm to his chest in that pose so often cruelly charicatured). He appears to be physically incapable of clearly forming words; everything he says sounds like an indistinct vowel sound. He is not slightly difficult to understand; he is nearly impossible to understand.

All of his words are distorted; only about 1 in 4 can be made out with any certainty; everything else is a matter of guesswork. If he and I are speaking about a given topic, I can decipher a lot through context. If he asks me a question on a new topic, however, I need to hear it 2 or 3 times before I can understand what he's asking.

To ask him to explain a math problem to the class would be very involved. He would have to repeat everything until I could understand what he's saying, and then I would need to repeat it back to the rest of the class, to ensure that they understood too. If he's comfortable doing this, we can handle it that way; I just hate the necessity of putting myself in there like a translator, when the kid is plenty smart enough to speak for himself. I don't know which is worse: letting the kid abstain from answering, or parroting his answers to the other students so they can understand.
posted by junkbox at 1:06 PM on August 3, 2005

If you can track one down, an overhead projector might be a lo-fi solution that would let him participate in pretty much the same manner as everyone else. You'd have to set up the projector and have him sit him near it, but then he could just write his answers on transparencies to share with the whole class.
posted by desuetude at 2:54 PM on August 3, 2005

Aha. I still vote for letting him plow through it, for the same reasons, to whatever extent possible without disrupting the class. Or at least, ask him which he'd prefer.

Sounds like he's pretty seriously impaired, though. I feel sorry for the kid, and I hope it's something static, not progressive; he's going to have a pretty high hurdle to jump to convince a med school admissions committee that he'll be able to function as a medical student if only 1 out of every 4 of his words are intelligible.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:53 PM on August 3, 2005

Er, this is the SAT kid, not the MCAT kid. I'm all over the place today; maybe I better quit while I'm behind.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:54 PM on August 3, 2005

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