‘The only learning I’m going to get’: Students with intellectual disabilities learning a second language through performative pedagogy1

Erika Piazzoli & John Kubiak

Volume XIII, Issue 1, 2019, doi:10.33178/scenario.13.1.2
© 2019, The Author(s). This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Traditionally, adults with intellectual disabilities have not been given the option of participating in and thus benefiting from higher and post-secondary education. However, over the last number of years, an increasing number of inclusive tertiary educational programmes have come into existence. This article focuses on one such programme entitled Arts, Science and Inclusive Applied Practice delivered in the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities, School of Education, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. The aim of this study was to consider the role of embodiment in supporting the Second Language Acquisition (SLA) process of a group of students with intellectual disabilities. The paper describes a project which integrated two of the programme modules – Italian for Beginners and Exploring Art: Renaissance to Modern. Findings presented support the use of a performative approach to second language learning for students with intellectual disabilities and sheds light on the connection between embodiment, language and learning in a performative key.


  1. Introduction: Myths about L2 learning and intellectual disabilities
  2. Performative pedagogy and the role of embodiment in learning
  3. Towards inclusive tertiary education: The Arts, Science and Inclusive Applied Practice programme
  4. The research study and participants
  5. Discussion
  6. Limitations
  7. Conclusion

1. Introduction: Myths about L2 learning and intellectual disabilities

In Western and non-Western societies, people with intellectual disabilities have stereotypically been considered ‘non-educable’; consequently, they did not receive an education like their peers without disabilities, were left at home, or on some occasions, abandoned (Barnes 2010). One of the main catalysts for the drive in promoting the rights of this group of individuals, particularly in relation to their learning needs, has been Article 24 of The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Article 24 states that “persons with disabilities are able to access general tertiary education, vocational training, adult education and lifelong learning without discrimination and on an equal basis with others” (UNCRPD 2006). Since then, accessing education and training throughout the life-span for this population is gradually becoming more widely accepted (Uditsky & Hughson 2012).

However, myths about Second Language (L2) learning and students with disabilities still persist. In many settings, it is still common practice to exempt pupils with intellectual disabilities from L2 lessons in primary and secondary schooling, and it is rare to see any student with intellectual disabilities progress to tertiary level of education. As Sparks (2016) points out, in the U.S. the deceptive notion of a ‘disability for learning a foreign language’ has become acceptable, leading to an increase of substitutions and waivers in schools. In the Republic of Ireland, where the current study was based, it is not uncommon to hear of students with disabilities being automatically exempted from language classes in compulsory schooling, a practice that reinforces and institutionalises the myth of ‘foreign language learning disability’ (Sparks 2009). For students with learning disabilities including dyspraxia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dyslexia, it has been documented that the process of learning a foreign language can be a demanding and even a humiliating experience, with many learning environments lacking personnel who are versed in dealing the problems encountered by these students (Schwarz 1997). But does it really have to be like this? The anxiety generated by hostile environments is arguably detrimental to the learning process of any student – particularly one who is vulnerable to low academic efficacy. However, as contemporary research suggests (Kormos & Smith 2012; Kormos 2017), having a disability does not preclude second language acquisition. Rather, it is the affective factors associated with learning that either hinder, or facilitate, second language acquisition.

Our position aligns with Sparks, who holds that “several myths about disabilities and Foreign Language learning have become common” (2016: 255). Sparks sets out to expose and debunk these myths, one of which is the myth that students who are classified as having a learning disability will exhibit L2 learning difficulties and will fail or withdraw from an L2 course. Instead, he reviews several studies that support evidence to discredit this myth. We believe that Sparks’ points are valid insofar that having a disability should not preclude a learner the opportunity to learn a second language, should he/she wish to do so. Thus, Sparks’ argument is highly relevant with regard to the participants of this study – university students with learning and intellectual disabilities – who, at the time of writing, were undertaking the Certificate in Arts, Science and Inclusive Applied Practice (ASIAP) in the School of Education, Trinity College Dublin. As all ASIAP students expressed a keen desire to learn the target language (Italian), this willingless motivated us to embark on the project in the first place; second, it prompted us to consider an appropriate pedagogical approach, one that focused on the role of embodiment which we felt would support the Second Language Acquisition (SLA) process of this group of students.Third, integrating two of the programme modules – Italian for Beginners and Exploring Art: Renaissance to Modern – allowed us the opportunity to co-teach, and to contribute our individual subject area expertise to the project. Whenever a student is subjected to experience L2 learning as a “humiliating experience”, as Schwarz (1997) reports above, we identify the issue as a mismatch between a students’ learning needs and the methodological framework underpinning the pedagogical approach. In this project we aimed to identify whether, and how, a performative approach to language learning (Schewe 2013) can support the SLA processes in adult students with intellectual disabilities by looking at the effects of embodiment on the learning process.

2. Performative pedagogy and the role of embodiment in learning

There is a scarcity of research related to how we as educators can identify an effective language pedagogy to support the SLA process of students with intellectual disabilities. The choice of how to teach a second language, that is, the pedagogical approach used in a given educational context, is underpinned by what an educator believes learning a language entails. We believe that learning a second language is not just a cognitive process; rather it entails experiencing a language, voicing its sounds, embodying thoughts and emotions through it.

In the last decades, performative pedagogy has emerged as a paradigm in second/foreign language education (Schewe 1993; Schewe 2013; Even & Schewe 2016; Mentz & Fleiner 2018). A performative approach to language education is, for Schewe (2013), one where forms of teaching derive from the arts, most centrally theatre and drama. Performative pedagogy is connected to the notion of (aesthetic) form, as well as to the ‘formative’ function of education. The term ‘performative’ can be contextualised within a variety of frameworks: including linguistics, anthropology and performance studies. Recently, Crutchfield (2018) synthetises effectivelly the various influences of performative teaching, and draws the following conclusion:

By performance, we simply mean embodied action executed for and in the presence of one or more witnesses. Thus a particular action can be called performative when it is embodied and executed for and in. (2018: 51, our emphasis)

The concept of ‘embodied action’ is key to performative language learning. For Perry and Medina (2011:63) embodiment in performative pedagogies is defined as “teaching and learning in acknowledgement of our bodies as whole experiential beings in motion” As Stolz suggests, embodied learning allows learners to experience learning as “a holistic and synthesised acting, feeling, thinking and being-in-the-world, rather than as separate physical and mental qualities that bear no relation to each other” (2015: 485). In this light, learners are encouraged to experience a language not exclusively through the cognitive domain, but also through the sensory, kinaesthetic, affective and aesthetic domains.

Embodiment studies, or gesture studies (McCafferty 2008) is a branch of SLA research that studies how the body mediates learning. This field of inquiry was inspired by the work of psycholinguist McNeill (2000) who claimed, with Vygotsky (1987), that speech and gesture develop interdependently in speech. In essence, McNeill holds that inner speech is not only verbal, but also has a gestural aspect. This sparked a body of studies looking into how L2 learners mediate abstract meaning through gesturing and posture. Haught and McCafferty’s (2008) research on embodiment focusses on gesturing as a form of self-regulation to mediate SLA in drama-based language classes. These authors found that performative approaches like improvisation, drama games and the re-enactment of scripts allowed their participants (L2 learners) to self-regulate their learning by engaging in physical, cognitive and affective activity.

While Haught and McCafferty’s participants were non-disabled learners, we were interested in the role of embodiment in learners with intellectual disabilities. However, we found little research on performative pedagogy and students with intellectual disabilities in a second language context. What we did find was a range of studies to document the effects of drama on people with a range of disabilities, including autism, exposed to drama in their first language (L1) (see Kempe & Tissot, 2012; O’Sullivan, 2015). For example, in a longitudinal project that spanned almost two decades, O’Sullivan found that the use of drama can be highly beneficial to improve social skills and self-esteem in children and young adults with Asperger syndrome. Kempe and Tissot (2012) report similar findings working with students on the autistic spectrum. Both studies were conducted in the participants’ L1 and drew on process drama, described by O’Neill (1995) as a thematic exploration, rather than isolated drama scenes where the outcome is not predetermined, but discovered in process.

As Fleming (2018: 14) notes, “there has been a long tradition of using exercises, games and role-play in the language classroom but these often did not exploit the full potential of the art form to provide rich contexts for language use”. He differentiates the value of performative approaches to learning as ‘surface reasons’ and ‘deeper reasons’. Surface reasons relate to the arts instilling enjoyment and motivation in learning; deeper reasons relate to “concepts of meaning and embodiment, where the learning is more active, dialogic and integrated” (ibid. 17). At the onset of this project, we wondered: what would the pedagogical value of embodiment be in our unique context, where adult students with intellectual disabilities take part in an Italian (L2) course, taught through a performative approach? To unearth possible answers, we embedded a variety of performative pedagogical practices into the arts syllabus of the TCPID, within a tertiary programme designed for adult students with intellectual disabilities.

3. Towards inclusive tertiary education: The Arts, Science and Inclusive Applied Practice programme

The Arts, Science and Inclusive Applied Practice (ASIAP) programme is a two-year course, offered by the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities, which aims to promote full citizenship for its students (adults with intellectual disabilities) through the development of learning networks and opportunities for work placement and employment (Kubiak, et al. 2019). The ASIAP is now acknowledged as a programme which fosters high academic expectations from its students regarding the level of learning achieved and the workload undertaken. Lecturers adopt a holistic approach towards the delivery of the ASIAP curriculum, using interdisciplinary methods to examine topics, and facilitate both collaborative and independent learning. Furthermore, in collaboration with a number of business partners, students participate in and complete research projects on personal and professional development, consequently developing a broad range of skills that can be transferred to the employment market. The ASIAP certificate is made up of 22 modules which are divided into six interdisciplinary themes: 1) advanced learning theories and self-development; 2) applied research theories and practice; 3) applied science, technology and maths; 4) business and marketing; 5) advocacy, rights and culture; 6) fine arts and languages (Table 1).

Figure image

Table 1: ASIAP interdisciplinary themes and related modules

In 2017 we saw the possibility of integrating the curricula of two separate ASIAP elective modules: Italian for Beginners and Exploring Art: Renaissance to Modern. This decision came about because in the second term of their first year, our students could choose between these two modules. Given that the students manifested equal interest in both subjects, we decided to combine the syllabi of the two modules, piloting an inter-disciplinary module that integrated both. It was decided that the Exploring Art: Renaissance to Modern curriculum would create the contextual background for the language course. The integration of these two modules allowed for Italian language vocabulary to be built around key developments and artists in Western art between 1600 to the present day. This aligns with a context-based approach to L2 learning, whereby the language is anchored to a specific context (in this case artwork and artists studied as part of the arts syllabus), rather than language being presented in a vacuum.

In parallel, the syllabus of the Italian for Beginners module aimed at introducing the language at beginner level, in line with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), and covered approximately one third of the A1 Level. Language covered included greetings, expressing identity, expressing basic needs, describing shapes and colours in relation to art work and expressing likes and dislikes related to the art work. To avoid any potential ethical pitfalls, it was decided that the language learning component of the module would not be formally assessed; the required assessment for ASIAP accreditation would solely focus on the module Exploring Art: Renaissance to Modern. In this way, we hoped to avoid running the risk of students feeling they needed to comply with the performative approach to language learning just to fulfil the assessment. They were free not to participate in the Italian component of the classes, and knew that it was not going to be assessed.

4. The research study and participants

The participants consisted of a group of six Irish students – three male and three female – aged between twenty and thirty-five. The spectrum of disabilities of the participants included Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), dyspraxia, Down Syndrome as well as learning disabilities like dysgraphia, dyscalculia and dyslexia. The students – identified in this paper using pseudonyms – were absolute beginners of Italian (pre-A1 level). They were familiar with drama and improvisation as they had just completed the ASIAP Expressive Arts module in Term 1, through which they took a performative approach to storytelling, in English. Indeed, this prior exposure to performative pedagogy proved vital to the quality of their engagement with an embodied approach to L2 learning.

We designed the module with a range of embodied activities suitable for language beginners, including: L2 drama warm up games; a voice routine inspired by Kristin Linklater’s (2006) voice training, and Total Physical Response (TPR), a method developed by Asher (1977) that draws on sensory-motor skills to connect speech and action. A complementary, gradual build-up of these strategies enabled the students to engage in two short process drama sessions. Each class included a warm up of about 10-15 minutes in Italian, drawing on Linklater’s voice work, conducted by the first author in the target language. A second phase followed, whereby TPR was pivotal to review previous language and introduce new language structures. Games, or process drama would follow. The main part of the class would be conducted in English by the second author and focused on the Exploring Art: Renaissance to Modern. In the final part of the class, a game in the target language would close the session.

In their own different ways, these strategies (Linklater-inspired routine, TPR, games, process drama) imply embodiment; however, the question posed itself as to how the different approaches to embodied action would be received by this group of learners. The overall research question underpinning the study was: What effects does embodiment have on the language learning process of a group of adult students with an intellectual disability? To attempt addressing this question, we sought students’ reflections through three focus groups, respectively at the beginning, middle and at the end of the project, which were filmed and transcribed for analysis. We also filmed a number of classroom activities and took some photographs to document the work. Throughout the project, spanning twelve weeks and with a total of 16 contact hours, we recorded our observations in our reflective practitioner’s journals. A synthesis of the findings is reported below.

5. Discussion

This section presents the discussion related to the effects of embodiment on L2 learning when using a performative approach, working with a group of adult students who have an intellectual disability. We review three very different practices, all sequentially building on one another and all embodying language in action (Piazzoli 2018) in distinct ways: a Linklater-inspired voice routine, a TPR language activity and a short process drama session. These are illustrated in the context of the arts syllabus, namely: a voice warm up embedded in Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, a L2 language practice grounded in Bruegel’s paintings The Peasants Wedding and The Flemish Proverbs, and a process drama set within Bruegel’s The Peasants’ Dance dramatic world. We present the data thematically supported by our own reflection notes, students’ interviews in the focus groups, and an analysis of the video recordings. The argument is organised under four themes: a) motivation and enjoyment; b) sensory stimulation and mnemonic retention; c) imagery and meaning-making; d) self-regulation through play.

5.1. Embodiment, motivation and enjoyment

We believe that learning a second language is inextricably connected to a sense of motivation, self and identity (Dörnyei & Ushioda 2009). As Dörnyei argues, “a foreign language is more than a mere communication code that can be learnt similarly to other academic subjects” (ibid. 9), with issues related to self, identity and imagination being of paramount importance. For adults with intellectual disabilities this discourse assumes a critical role, as an individual’s self-perception as a ‘disabled’ language learner (inferred by societal stereotypes) can cause real barriers to learning. We also believe, with Van Lier (1996), that to create the conditions for second language acquisition students need to become receptive, that is, to open to the experience of learning, as opposed to remaining defensive or resistant.

In reviewing the data, we noted that one of the effects of the warm up voice routine in the target language that opened each session was to create a relaxed atmosphere, coupled with a receptive, open attitude towards being a language learner – by creating a full-immersion environment in the target language, while shifting the focus on the arts curriculum. To better illustrate what this entailed in a performative classroom, where the arts syllabus was integrated with voice training activities, we paint a vignette of practice and share some students’ comments about the experience.

In one particular session, the voice routine was inspired by Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (Figure 1), an art work introduced in the previous class as part of Surrealism.