Problems of Practice: Using a Digital tool to support an ill-structured problem in the classroom.

This past week in my CEP 812 course, we were introduced to various kinds of problems that we face regularly. Educators consistently learn from, create and help students understand and solve problems that fall under the categories of well-structured, ill-structured or wicked problems.

Focusing in this week on ill-structured problems, an ill-structured problem is one that Coulson, Feltovich and Anderson (2004) has described as learning situations in which, “many concepts (interacting contextually) are pertinent in the typical case of knowledge application, and that their patterns of combination are inconsistent across case applications of the same nominal type” (p. 641).  Ultimately it is a problem where there isn’t one exact solution (like a well-structured problem), but rather one must look at multiple variables and be flexible in coming up with a solution (which the initial solution could potentially change or need a varying response at a later given time) to the problem.

As a Spanish teacher, I regularly face ill-structured problems in that I have to help my students acquire the necessary tools to be able to read, write and create in a language other than their primary language. I took some time diligently looking at what needs I consistently see in my classroom and I chose to look at the specific learning disability (SLDs) involved with basic reading and comprehension. My ill-structured problem is reading comprehension.

“Much evidence exists to indicate that phoneme segmentation – the ability to separate a word into its constituent phonemes – is strongly linked to reading disability and plays a primary role in the speed of initial reading acquisition. Poor readers have been found to have difficulty making explicit reports about word segments at phoneme level and their poor perception of phonemes negatively affects word decoding, the most fundamental problem for poor readers at all age levels,” (Sparks & Ganschow, p. 293).

Students who have a specific learning disability in basic reading and comprehension have difficulty understanding phonics and thus a greater difficulty decoding meaning from what they are reading. Ultimately, this makes it difficult for the student(s) to reproduce written or oral information in the target language after they’ve read in the target language.

Much of the structure of Spanish levels one and two are based around the key development and understanding of vocabulary and grammar structure to be able to reproduce thought through written and oral formats.  When students have difficulty decoding words and comprehending sentences in their native language, doing the same thing but in a secondary (or foreign language) in theory could be just as difficult, or even more difficult.

“The theoretical assumption underlying our position is that individuals who have difficulties in the rule systems of their first language are likely to have related problems as they begin to learn a second language. For example, if a student has a poor phonological skill in the native language, concomitant difficulties will be experienced with the phonology of the [foreign language],” (Sparks & Ganschow, p. 290).

As discussed by Jonathan F. Arries, in his article entitled “An Experimental Spanish Course for Learning Disabled Students,” Arries talks about how a high school Spanish teacher had demonstrated a technique to help students with a learning disability comprehend the key vocabulary and grammar in a lesson.

“The teacher pre-taught the component graphemes and phonemes in the lesson and required her students to manipulate them multisensorily. She required her LD students to first look at the grapheme, listen to her pronounce the phoneme, copy the syllables, and finally say them aloud to a classmate. The objective of all these steps was to increase the probability that students would correctly read, write and remember the content of the vocabulary and grammar lesson,” (p. 113. 1994).

Reading as an ill-structured problem doesn’t have a specific answer, nor is there one specific way to address reading comprehension difficulties in a foreign language classroom.  After talking with some of my peer educators and wanting to integrate more technology tools in my foreign language classroom, I found the website Quizlet to be a powerful and free (with additional paid options) source to help facilitate learning and understanding for a student with a learning disability in the foreign language classroom.

Quizlet allows the teacher to create a set of vocabulary flash cards, attach pictures to them so that meaning is given to the specific flash card, as well as provide the pronunciation of the word(s) with a click of the mouse. The website will store those word sets and students can refer back to it at home or from a mobile device and use it to study or play games from those vocabulary sets.

Ultimately, I believe Quizlet would enable a learner with a specific learning disability for basic reading comprehension to thrive academically because it allows them an opportunity to break down the structure of the vocabulary word through a visualization of the vocabulary terms, listen to someone pronounce the words and provides them with multiple ways to practice those functions both in and outside of the classroom.

Check out my screencast on Quizlet here for further information about this wonderful digital tool:



Arries, J. (1994). An Experimental Spanish Course for Learning Disabled Students. Hispania, 77(1), 110-117. doi:10.2307/344462

Arries, J. (1999). Learning Disabilities and Foreign Languages: A Curriculum Approach to the Design of Inclusive Courses. The Modern Language Journal, 83(1), 98-110. Retrieved from

Sparks, R., & Ganschow, L. (1993). Searching for the Cognitive Locus of Foreign Language Learning Difficulties: Linking First and Second Language Learning. The Modern Language Journal, 77(3), 289-302. doi:10.2307/329098

Spiro, R.J., Coulson, R.L., Feltovich, P.J. & Anderson, D.K. (2004). Cognitive flexibility theory: Advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In R.B. Ruddell, N.J. Unrau (Eds). Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (5th Ed., pp 640-659). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

2 thoughts on “Problems of Practice: Using a Digital tool to support an ill-structured problem in the classroom.”

  1. I can only imagine how difficult learning the graphemes and phonemes of a new language that is not spoken at home or outside of the classroom context for SLD students. Foreign languages are difficult enough for students without a learning disability. The research you presented that breaks down the incremental steps is a great way to provide confidence for the students. I have not used Quizlet before, but your cast showed me how interactive the site is. This would be a great tool for students to practice in and outside of the classroom. Great job!


  2. Yay! A fellow Spanish teacher! haha.

    Good job considering your audience. Explaining what an ill-structured problem is clarifies the post topic for non-educators. The problem you identified is one that myself and other language teachers struggle with constantly, and one that I have been thinking about a lot lately. How do we teach Spanish to students who don’t fully grasp English concepts?

    I agree that Quizlet is an awesome tool to help with meaning, pronunciation, and comprehension. You describe well the specific ways it can help students with learning disabilities. Your screencast was very well put together! You explain the purpose and take the viewer through each feature efficiently. Nice job articulating and pacing the video. So informative!


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