10 Effective Tools to Teach Languages to Students with ADHD

Nearly 10% of American students are afflicted with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder according to the CDC.

And that's just students that are diagnosed. The number has climbed slowly but surely since I first studied pedagogy; it's not likely to fall anytime soon.

I doubt any teacher within any classroom has yet to experience that one student who can't stop fidgeting (I'm shaking my leg subconsciously as I write this), speaking out of turn, or getting lost in frequent reverie. 

Despite the useful medications given to help tackle these conditions, it takes a significant period of time to adjust dosages to most adequately help the student.

That's for students whose patient parents are able to afford the medication, the doctors' visits, and the therapist visits. Many cannot. Even so, all students with ADHD deserve the opportunity to attain success in our classrooms. My goal here is to share the techniques and tools that worked for me.

Universal Design


So anyway, like the educators in other disciplines, you've chatted with these students' parents, hopefully before any minor crises have arisen. You've taken up precious time to consider their IEPs and 504s. Their seat in the classroom has been deliberately chosen to keep distractions to a minimum. You spend an inordinate amount of time redirecting their attention as you move about the room.

You'll recall from your differentiation classes in college that Universal Design principles, wisely applied, benefit not only neurodivergent students but all students. When I ponder Universal Design, I think of my car's cruise control. It makes sense to me that this function would have been originally devised to assist drivers with limited use of their limbs. Naturally, the ability to coast for miles has benefited most drivers when they have a car so equipped.

(As an interesting aside, per its Wikipedia article, modern cruise control was invented in 1948 by a blind mechanical engineer! It seems he was frustrated by his driver's habit of speeding up and slowing down as he talked. Remind you of anyone you know teach?) 

My experience

Considering the concept of Universal Design along with my experience working with students in a school devoted to special education, I have created a list of the 10 most effective tips I have used to successfully teach a world language. Although inspired by my amazing students with ADHD of all types (hyperactive, inattentive, or combined), these tips should be of significant benefit to all students:

10 Effective Tools to Teach Languages to Students with ADHD

  • Break up new grammar, vocabulary and reading into small chunks.
  • Incorporate movement like TPR into instruction when possible.
  • Incorporate tactile learning with realia when possible.
  • Assign graphic novels/comics with lots of illustrations to accompany reading.
  • Give them the opportunity to create skits, dialogs, artwork when relevant to the material.
  • Give them lots of encouragement to feed on their internal reward/motivation system.
  • Encourage ongoing enrichment in the language with tutors or classroom peers, outside of class.
  • Allow their minds to wander while playing 2L music, videos, and other auditory inputs. They may not get the exact gist of the spoken/sung word, but they are subconsciously picking up muscle memory grammar.
  • Provide brain breaks after ~20 minutes of intense instruction.
  • Incorporate games and challenges where they have an above average chance to succeed.

My favorite way to encourage success amongst students with ADHD in the world languages classroom?

For teachers, Fearless Foreign Language is a great way to kick off your 101 classes. In addition to syllabus overviews, classroom rules, and all the other beginning language class rituals, you can use the book to introduce the proper mindset to get into new grammar. It helps students see how much vocabulary of another language they already know, and it encourages them to speak up and engage with you!

I actually wrote the book (it's short; only 80 pages, great for our kids' short attention spans) as the ideal item to present to anxious parents and students during Open House night just prior to the opening of a new school year. It gives students a head start, or as I like to call it, a massively unfair advantage, on their language learning journey.

I'd love to know what tips and tricks you use in the Spanish, French or German classroom to educate students with ADHD. Let me know in the comments!

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Your massively unfair advantage in the world language classroom starts right here, right now.