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Succeeding in a Foreign Language with Effective MSL Study Strategies
by:  Elke Schneider, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Winthrop University and Andrea Kulmhofer (PD Candidate), University of Graz, Austria

An increasing number of middle and high schools offer foreign language courses in preparation for college because increasingly university programs require foreign language competencies for which waivers are difficult to come by. In addition, having especially some oral command of a foreign language increases living and working opportunities tremendously in our globalized society. Naturally, this puts extreme pressure on students with dyslexia as their struggles with English have been challenging enough. Over 15 years of research on the Linguistic Coding Differences Hypothesis in many different languages has shown that language processing difficulties (i.e., reading, spelling, writing) transfer from the first to a foreign or second language (Schneider & Evers, 2009; Spark, Patton, Ganschow, & Humbach, 2009). Many studies have documented the positive impact of multisensory structured foreign language (MSL) instruction on the learning successes of students with learning disabilities in foreign language classes  (e.g., Schneider, 1999; Sparks, Ganschow, Kenneweg & Miller, 1991; Spark, Patton, Ganschow, & Humbach, 2009; Sparks, Ganschow, Pohlman, Artzer, Skinner, 1992).

Therefore, we provide some MSL strategies to improve study strategies for students with learning disabilities in foreign language classes. They are based on the principles of multisensory structured language learning that have over 60 years of research support (Birsh & Shaywitz, 2011). Suggestions are stated in direct user-language for students and parents.

General suggestions for effective study practices:

  • Study in a distraction-free, clear and organized space 
  • Break study times into manageable portions of 20-30 minutes with 5-10 minute breaks in between study phases as needed. 
  • Best study times are those when you can focus well with a refreshed mind. For an early bird that may mean early morning study times, for a night owl, the opposite.
  • Multisensory learning can be accomplished by using as many learning channels as possible to take in and retrieve new information. Simultaneous “seeing, saying, and working with the material hands-on” offers an intense sensory input that helps compensate for weaker learning channels (i.e., see, speak) with stronger ones (i.e., movement, touch).
  • Repetition is essential. The more new language elements are practiced frequently and in varied forms, the better the recall as new vocabulary and grammar concepts need to be over-practiced to reach automatic correct recall of new words and other language concepts (pronunciation and reading, grammar, spelling, and writing conventions)
  • Carefully structured and sequenced studying is important for positive learning results. Easier content is studied first before more difficult structures are approached (i.e., study less complex new vocabulary first before using them in oral or written sentences)
  • Explicit metacognitive studying allows you to remember and retrieve new information knowing why to apply which study strategy for best results.  Students can keep a “Strategies Log” that lists the problem solving steps for all issues they frequently face (i.e., recalling the spelling or pronunciation of a word, using the grammatically correct endings in both speech and writing)

Vocabulary study strategies

  • In the initial foreign language learning stages, the teacher or someone else with native-speaker like pronunciation (i.e. student in advanced foreign language class) audio-records the pronunciation of words and phrases to study so that the student can independently practice hearing and saying the new words. The recording person speaks the entire word/ phrase, at a normal pace, then breaks it into syllables and pulls it back together, pausing for the student to repeat after these voice recording phases (i.e., malen-pause for repeat of entire word- ma-len-pause for repeating each syllable, malen – pause for repeat of entire word).  These recordings are best supported by a visual representation of the word or phrase and a picture to assist the recall. This is easily achieved in PowerPoint presentations with voice recordings. Such pronunciation recordings can be organized by themes (i.e., sports, shopping, greetings, talking in the past) or by book chapters, or in alphabetical order of words.
  • Create a vocabulary learning resource file at least for difficult words and phrases. This file can contain cards or sheets of paper with four quadrants. They can also be created as card files, paper files or as an electronic file using PowerPoint with voice/pronunciation recording.
    • One quadrant shows the word in colors that identify either the part of speech and/or the gender. 
    • The second quadrant shows the meaning, and the third shows the word used in context in either highly frequent expressions.
    • The forth quadrant contains illustrations or other bi-lingual comments that help the student recall the new word. Images and personal associations are essential for effective recall. Below you see a German/ English example:

Vocabulary Card Sample:

 (der) Hund

(die) Hündin


dog (masculine)

dog (female)

Plural: der Hund/die Hunde (maskuline)

Die Hündin/die Hündinnen (feminine)

Sample sentences:

Der Hund ist freundlich.
 (The dog is friendly.)

Der Hund bellt laut.
 (The dog barks loudly.) 

Die Hündin wedelt mit dem Schwanz.
 (The dog wags her tail)

Die Hündin frisst ihr Futter schnell.
 (The dog eat her food fast.)

Idiomatic phrase: Ich bin hundemüde 
          (I am dog-tired) meaning I am dead tired

Ways to remember:

Hund  = H + und (= and)

Sounds close to “wound”

Reminds me of: English “hand”

Picture petting a dog with my hand
  • Keep a separate list or deck of cards of words that cannot be sounded out or spelled in a regular way (non-phonetic rule breaker words). They can also be added to an electronic list of vocabulary words in a PowerPoint presentation with images, pronunciation and ways to recall awkward pronunciations and spellings. If a card is used, write the word in red on the front of a card  (red signals “stop and think” about special pronunciation and spelling). On the back of the card write a common phrase or sentence in which the word is used and note any strategies to remember the irregular spelling and pronunciation of the word. If a word list is used it can be broken into the following sections:

RULE BREAKER WORD Example Ways to Remember the word

Act out:
Sounds like:
Picture/looks like:

Then, practice saying and spelling each “rule breaker word” simultaneously many times to gain automaticity in saying and spelling the word correctly. German and Spanish will have very few of those because they are very regular in their pronunciation and spelling patterns.


  • Engage in MSL practice of spelling and saying new words and phrases on scrap paper using colors to signal parts of speech or gender information. Fold over the paper each time you have written and pronounced a new word so you cannot see it when you write it again. Repeat this per word at least 10 times and do it again on different days to assure automatic correct recall of how to spell and pronounce the word. Do the same with phrases.

Grammar concept strategies 

  • Study the gender of nouns by color-coding each gender and locating those vocabulary cards in a place that “carries that gender.” For instance, if the word for drawer is masculine, keep masculine nouns written in color designated for masculine in this place until you review them). This allows the brain to have a color and a space clue to assist effective recall. 
  • Create your own color-coded, picture coded grammar charts with comments to remember a concept so that the visual images assist the student in recalling the information. Here, the student can include the reasons for why and how to use a grammatical concept. For instance, for inflectional endings of verbs or nouns in certain positions in sentences (i.e. direct vs. indirect object), the student will draw images with those endings or associate a gesture for the ending. For instance, for an –st ending on a verb when addressing a person (you) as in du liest (you are reading), the student points to an imaginary person and repeats saying “hey you, st, st, st, du liest, du singst, du lernst). That information is placed in the grammar learning chart as a study device. 
  • Write classic sentences using a color-coding system (i.e., red for verbs and verb parts to create tenses of predicates, green for subjects (light green for adjectives, and dark green for nouns), yellow for direct objects and blue for indirect objects), adverbial phrases of time and place in purple. Then, create many of the same sentence patterns with the same color-coding so that the colors help recall the sentence structure.  Placing the English equivalent in matching colors underneath, helps see the differences and similarities in placement of words and phrases in a sentence in each language. Students who learn better from a more kinesthetic- tactile approach can laminated sentence strips on which they write their examples in color. They can be reused for many different structures if the individual strips are made long enough to fit several words on it.

An example with a different sentence structure in each language might be the following. The colors illustrate the difference of information placement in different languages.

Example for sentence structure patterns:

German: Mein Vater hat vor einem Jahr einen Merzedes gekauft.
English: A year ago, my father bought a Mercedes.

Links to other sources on the topic:

References on foreign language learning and learning disabilities: http://inside.msj.edu/academics/faculty/sparksr/references.htm

Assisting students with foreign language learning difficulties in school: http://www.ldonline.org/article/22725?theme=print

Best Practices in differentiating instruction: Identifying and teaching learners with special needs (suggestions at the beginning of a course book series):


Foreign language learning IDA fact sheet: http://www.interdys.org/ewebeditpro5/upload/AtRiskStudentsForeignLanguage2012.pdf

Schwarz, R. L. (1997). Learning disabilities and foreign language learning: http://www.ldonline.org/article/6065

Scott, S. S., & Manglitz, E. (1997). Foreign language learning and learning disabilities. http://www.ldonline.org/article/6066

Further reading suggestions for teachers and parents:

Schneider, E. & Crombie, M. (2003). Dyslexia and Foreign Language Learning. London, Great Britain: Fulton Publishers.

Cited Literature:

Birsh, J. & Shaywitz, S. (2011). Multisensory teaching of basic language skills.  Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Ganschow, L., & Sparks, R. (2000). Reflections on foreign language study for students with language learning problems, research, issues, and challenges. Dyslexia. International Journal of Research and Practice, 6, 87-100.

Schneider, E. (1999). Multisensory structured, metacognitive instruction: An approach to teaching a foreign language to at-risk students. Volume 30 of series: Theorie und Vermittlung der Sprache Volume 30. Frankfurt a. M., Germany: Peter Lang Publishers.

Schneider, E. & Evers, T. (2009). Linguistic intervention techniques for at-risk English language learners. Foreign Language Annals, 42, 55-76.

Sparks, R., Artzer, M., Patton, J., Ganschow, L., Miller, K., Hordubay, D.  & Walsh, J. (2000). Benefits of multisensory structured language instruction for at-risk foreign language students.  Annals of Dyslexia, 50, 239-272.

Sparks, R., Ganschow, L., Kenneweg, S., & Miller, K. (1991). Using Orton-Gillingham methodologies to teaching language to learning disabled students. Explicit teaching of phonology in a second language. Annals of Dyslexia 41, 96-118.

Sparks, R., Ganschow, L., Pohlman, Artzer, M., Skinner, S. (1992). The effects of a multisensory, structured language approach on the native and foreign language aptitude skills of high-risk foreign language learners. Annals of Dyslexia, 42, 25-53.

Sparks, R., Patton, J. Ganschow, L., & Humbach, N. (2009). Long-term cross-linguistic transfer of skills from L1 to L2. Language Learning, 59, 203-243.