Functional Language Instruction for Linguistically
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Moderate to Severe Disabilities
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The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education
ERIC EC Digest #E501
Author: Elva Duran
This digest explains how functional language instruction can be
useful for persons with moderate to severe disabilities who are
culturally and linguistically different. It further explains how
vocabulary and cultural information of the Spanish-speaking
can be included in functional language instruction for students
are from different cultural groups.
What Is Functional Language Instruction?
In functional language instruction, the student is taught
that he or she can use in everyday life. In order for the
be functional it must be useful to the student in many different
environments (Brown et al., 1984). Thus, the words students learn
school must be useful at home and in other settings. One way to
discover useful words is by using an ecological inventory.
Using an Ecological Inventory to Determine Language Needs
Brown and colleagues (1984) noted that an ecological inventory
determine the words children need to know for more effective
functioning at home, at school, and in the community. An
inventory is a detailed listing by parents or caregivers of
the student enjoys participating in. The ecological inventory
reveal the vocabulary that the teacher and parents should include
instructional activities. By getting information regularly from
home environment, the teacher can better decide what to emphasize
the classroom. Too often parents are left out of the student's
instruction because teachers and other caregivers do not take the
to ask them what they feel their children need to learn.
The ecological inventory should include a section that seeks
information about important cultural events that the family
together. Often children who come to school from culturally and
linguistically different families do not participate as fully as
might because the families have not been encouraged to explain
matters to them and their children culturally. Parents can be
share traditional legends, stories, and songs that are enjoyed by
their children. These materials can then be incorporated into the
language instruction program. In addition, parents may be invited
come to school to share in a wide variety of cultural events.
A Classroom Example
Songs can provide functional language activities for students in
variety of settings. If students have some verbal skills, they
sing some of the words or phrases from songs. If they are
they can participate by pointing to photographs or pictures of
the key words as they listen to other children sing. Students can
be helped to follow what is being said by learning to "sign" the
important concepts or vocabulary from stories and songs. Another
example might be a class discussion of holidays in which each
brings a item pertaining to a personally important holiday or
section of the room might be set aside for a holiday "museum,"
each item labeled in English and the home language.
It is important to share what is being done in the classroom with
parents so that they can carry over the activities at home. If
not done, students will not learn to generalize information from
setting to another and language acquisition will be slower.
Generalization training in language instruction is crucial if
information taught in one environment is to be used functionally
(Sailor & Guess, 1983).
Choosing Vocabulary for Functional Language Instruction
When determining what particular vocabulary should be taught to
students who are from culturally or linguistically different
it is important to ask parents and other caregivers what words
student needs to know. Vocabulary related to particular foods,
celebrations, or other culturally unique events are particularly
choices. The ecological inventory can be used to list appropriate
vocabulary to incorporate into individualized language
programs. For example, in many Hispanic homes the student may eat
"tortillas," "fajitas," and "enchiladas." These vocabulary words
be added to a list containing English words for other familiar
such as chicken and bananas. Matching vocabulary to actual foods
pictures of food can be an effective way of helping children
words that are familiar to their experience. Cueing can be done
both English and the home language. It is most effective to use
languages with students whose home language is different from the
primary language of instruction used at school (Duran & Heiry,
Continuing Parent-school Communication
It is desirable to ask parents for additional vocabulary to add
language program periodically. Regularly scheduled parent
provide ideal occasions for gathering this input. It is important
add new vocabulary that is timely and relevant to the student's
Effectiveness of Functional Language Instruction
Children who receive functional and context-embedded language
instruction are more likely to have a positive attitude about
and a heightened self-concept. There is a positive correlation
self-concept and academic achievement (Gay, 1966; Lumpkin, 1959).
Furthermore, by using elements of students' cultures to teach
language, practitioners assist students in valuing and preserving
their family heritage.
Brown, L. et al. (1984). The discrepancy analysis technique in
programs for students with severe handicaps. (Manuscript written
cooperation with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Madison
Metropolitan School District).
Brown, L. et al. (1984). Ecological inventory of strategies for
students with severe handicaps. (Manuscript written in
with University of Wisconsin-Madison and Madison Metropolitan
Duran, E., & Heiry, T. J. (1986). Comparison of Spanish only,
and English and English only cues with handicapped students.
Improvement, 23(2), 138-141.
Gay, C. (1966). Academic achievement and intelligence among Negro
eighth grade students as a function of the self-concept.
doctoral dissertation, North Texas State University, Denton.
Lumpkin, D. (1959). The relationship of self-concept to
reading. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of
California, Los Angeles.
Sailor, W., & Guess, D. (1983). Severely handicapped: An
design. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
This digest is based on an article by Elva Duran, "Functional
Instruction for the Handicapped or Linguistically Different
Journal of Reading Improvement, Vol. 25, No. 4, (1988): 265-268.
publication of Project Innovation, 1362 Santa Cruz Court, Chula
ERIC Digests are in the public domain
and may be freely
disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This
publication was prepared with
funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of
Educational Research and
Improvement, under Contract No. RI88062207. The opinions
expressed in this report do
not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the
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