Accessibility and Language Acquisition

Creating accessible language courses should be all of our goal. Do we really believe languages are for everyone? Do we REALLY believe that everyone who has learned a first language can and has a right to learn a second one? I, for one, definitely do. But I have not always put into practice the kind of pedagogy that leads to universal success for my students. Mostly because I didn’t always know how.


You’ll notice in this blog post I am really talking to college instructors. I hope the content will resonate with other people too, but this past week I participated in a panel presentation on language course accessibility here at the university where I work. So, I am really thinking about how my colleagues and I can do better by the students we have in front of us.  If we really want to make language learning for everyone , we need to talk about how to improve accessibility to language study for ALL students. 

For language faculty in particular, we have to talk about how:

  • only a small percentage of students have the particular combination of aptitudes that makes traditional grammar-instruction effective. See this Musicuentos Black Box Video for more details and research. If we are teaching using a grammar-based syllabus and grammar-based assessments, then we are already leaving behind most of of our students. 

The very first step toward designing courses that promote success for all students is to a) teach in a way that uses lots of fully-comprehensible target language, and b) to assess what students KNOW rather than creating tests that reveal what students don’t know.  If you start doing that today, you will radically improve outcomes for your students.

  • in addition to the way we are failing most of our students with a grammar-based syllabus, about 20% of college undergraduates have reported disabilities. That is just the ones we know about. Many traditional practices that fail the majority of students who do not possess high language aptitude, do further harm to this group of students in particular to a greater degree and in more specific ways. 


So, now that we know, what steps can we take from here? 

Universal Design for Learning or UDL means designing courses that do not have the barriers to student success in the first place. We don’t have to give students accommodations to overcome our course barriers if we have eliminated the barriers for everyone.  I see UDL in the language classroom as requiring a three-pronged approach. These might be things you start working all at once, or you may take one at a time.

  1. Make sure your classroom instruction is not based on explaining the details of grammar points, but rather on communicating in comprehensible ways.

Can they understand you when you speak? Are you speaking about something interesting? Are you asking them to interact in level-appropriate ways? If so, then 100% of your students are learning language! That is the first step towards universal design.

On the other hand, are you spending a class period describing the differences between ser and estar, then having students do decontextualized practice activities, and then testing them for grammatical accuracy? While common in many classrooms, this grammar-based approach leaves a lot of students out and does not harness people’s natural language learning ability.

2. Think about which aspects of your course may be challenging for people with different needs, and seek to eliminate or provide alternatives that are available to ALL students and wold serve a variety of learners. For example, do you require students to read in the target language? Is it possible that some learners could choose to listen and get the same benefit? Why not allow learners the choice of reading or listening to a text? Are there learners at different proficiency levels? Do you allow learners to choose a text from multiple options rather than assigning one text for all?

One really important detail here is this: I have to be responsive to the students in front of me. These students here and now. What needs do they have? How can I reduce their load? How can I increase their access? Based on what my students are teaching me now about accessibility for them, how can I carry these lessons and opportunities forward to benefit my future students as well? Are my classes improving over time as I respond to the students I have now?

3. Learn a bit about how screen readers and other assistive technologies work and make sure that the electronic resources you use in your course are set up to play nicely with those technologies. Little things like choosing an accessible font (Arial is a good one) or choosing high contrast color schemes can make a difference for learners in an online environment.

If you teach at Vanderbilt, I recently wrote this blog post about a few of the features on our course management system that are useful.

Of course, we are never “done” making our courses more accessible learners. It’s a learning process. When we know better, we do better. I am committed to doing better starting with the three steps I outlined above, and I’m grateful to my colleagues and students who have taught me how to continue improving.


If you want to learn more about UDL and SLA, check out these resources I have linked below:

Universal Design for Learning break down 

Why UDL matters for English Language Learners

Handle (2010) Universal Instructional Design and World Languages

A huge list of studies on different types of interventions

Virginia Department of Education Handbook on designing accessible world language programs

University of Washington – How can foreign language courses be made more accessible to students with disabilities?

I also want to promote this teaching guide from the teaching center where I work. Its a great guide written by some thoughtful people. I hope you check it out. → Vanderbilt CFT Teaching Guide on Accessibility

If I missed anything or you have tips or links to contribute, please do leave comments! I would love to learn from you!

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