August 2, 2012
When students struggle to learn, teachers have the difficult job of identifying whether the root cause is a learning disability. But teachers of students whose first language is not English (termed English language learners or “ELLs”) face the even more difficult task of determining whether a learning disability or a language barrier is hampering the student. This initial diagnosis has a direct impact on the types of services that a student receives in school.
This issue is of greatest concern in urban school districts, where populations of ELL students tend to be highest. In Los Angeles, for example, nearly 30 percent of the student population is categorized as ELL; half of those students are also enrolled in special education programs. And in Houston, the dropout rate for limited English proficient students is double that of students receiving special education services.
Drawing on her own experiences working with urban districts around the country, EDC’s Claudia Rinaldi believes that special education and ELL services are too often at odds with each other, leaving many students behind.
Q: What are some misconceptions about English language learners?
Rinaldi: Everybody thinks of ELLs as newcomers to the country. But that’s not necessarily true—the majority of students in ELL programs were born in the United States, but didn’t speak English until they got to school. We often make big assumptions about who ELLs are without really considering that speaking another language is an asset. That said, most ELLs are a marginalized population. Two-thirds of all ELL students drop out of school.
Q: Are there strategies that can help teachers identify whether a student has a language deficit or a learning disability?
Rinaldi: There is no concrete rule for when to refer a student for special education, but there are guidelines teachers can follow. One strategy is to compare the student’s academic progress to a peer who has the same level of English language development and who has been in the United States for the same amount of time. It’s even more helpful if the students share the same primary language. While not a perfect approach, comparing ELL students with their true peers can help teachers identify whether the root of a student’s struggles are linguistic or academic—or a combination.
Another strategy is the test, teach, retest approach, which helps teachers see how much the student can understand, perform, and produce. On a wider scope, schools implementing tiered instruction models offer multiple layers of support for students before special education services are considered.
Q: Why aren’t ELL and special education programs more complementary?
Rinaldi: Special education services are federally mandated. Districts feel pressure to comply with those federal regulations before they are concerned with anything else. This means language support programs for ELL students often lose out. Put simply, special education needs trump language needs. That’s the biggest challenge that districts are facing right now. We need to push this conflict to the forefront of discussions so that new models of support can be developed for ELLs with disabilities.
Q: What have you learned from school districts about this issue?
Rinaldi: Districts are really hungry to learn how they can help ELLs get both the language and the special education support that they need. This issue is much more evident now than a few years ago. And people are realizing that special education services do not necessarily meet students’ language needs. Districts are asking, “Why is that happening? What do we do about it?” Research shows the scope of the problem. Now we need to help them find ways to address it.