February 10, 2020

Identifying learning disabilities among students who are struggling is often difficult, but for English learners—the fastest growing segment of students in U.S. schools1—this challenge is multiplied. I sat down with my colleague Carrie Parker, a researcher at REL Northeast & Islands at EDC, to learn why this is the case and what educators can do.

“Some of the processes students go through in learning English can look similar to a learning disability or a speech or language impairment,” Carrie says, “And teachers don’t always have the skills to differentiate between them.”

Carrie further explains that English learners can be under- or over-identified. “Younger kids may go underdiagnosed because we are waiting for them to learn English, and we might be waiting too long,” she says. “As kids get older, if they are having a hard time learning English, we may resort to identifying them with a disability because we don’t know what else is going on.”

Carrie and her colleagues have been working across Connecticut districts to improve teachers’ ability to recognize disabilities among English learners. They have also published the infographic Identifying English Language Learners with Disabilities to provide teachers with additional information about determining whether a student’s difficulties stem from a limited English language proficiency or a learning disability.

The infographic offers the following recommendations:

  • Bring together diverse voices and expertise to identify and address English learners’ needs. This team should include parents and family members, English learner teachers, special education teachers, school administrators, and other relevant school staff.
  • Consider many data sources when assessing English learners’ eligibility for special education services. Sources might include student health and attendance records, parent interviews and surveys, classroom and home observations, student work samples, standardized test results, oral language samples—anything that might shed light on the problem.
  • Take steps to create a classroom that values English learners’ strengths and fosters their success. For example, integrate students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds by helping them see bilingualism as an asset and encouraging families to speak native languages at home. Carrie’s infographic and coaching workshops draw from a number of high-quality, federally funded resources. “We’ve included links to these resources [in the infographic] so you can look up the details since there is so much more information in these manuals,” she explains.

Carrie’s infographic and coaching workshops draw from a number of high-quality, federally funded resources. “We’ve included links to these resources [in the infographic] so you can look up the details since there is so much more information in these manuals,” she explains.

Erica Macheca, senior editor/writer, provides communications and dissemination expertise for EDC’s REL Northeast & Islands.

 


1U.S. Department of Education. (2018, October 22). U.S. Department of Education releases study and accompanying toolkit on Ed tech for English learners (Para 1). Retrieved from https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-releases-study-and-accompanying-toolkit-ed-tech-english-learners

Capacity Building for Individuals, Organizations, and Systems

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