Teaching ELLS with Learning Disabilities
It is hard to know why some English language learners struggle with literacy skills. Is it just due to their lack of English skills? Or might there also be a learning disability? As a recent post at the blog EdCentral points out, studies show that there is both an over- and under-representation of language learners in special education programs likely due to teachers’ misunderstanding of student needs and poorly designed language assessments.
A recent report, Identifying and Supporting English Learner Students with Learning Disabilities, synthesizes the research literature related to this topic, as well as the findings from a recent study by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) at WestEd that looked at current practices in the top 20 states with the highest ELL populations.
In my professional development work with schools, I am often asked questions about why ELLs have difficulty with reading and writing, and what are the best practices for teaching literacy to these students. Regardless of whether the cause is a lack of English, or a combination of that with a learning disability, the implications for teaching reading and writing are the same: these students, like struggling students who have English as a first language, need explicit and direct instruction (i.e., modeling and think aloud) coupled with a significant amount of guided practice that takes place in small groups. These students CAN improve their literacy skills, they just require more explicit instruction and practice than students who do not struggle.
But it is helpful to know if, in fact, some of these students have a learning disability. The WestEd report identified two factors that lead to inconsistent identification of students who may have learning disabilities:
- A lack of understanding among teachers about why English learner students are not making adequate progress
- Poorly designed and implemented referral processes
The report identified the following actions to effectively address these factors:
- Professional development for educators.
- Using pre-referral strategies, such as the response to intervention approach.
- Involving parents.
- Considering multiple forms of data.
- Developing clear policy guidelines and data-tracking systems.
If you are interested in learning more about effective literacy instruction for ELLs, check out these resources:
- Colorin Colorado’s Teaching English Language Learners resource collection
- Learning Disabilities in English Language Learners article at LDonline
- It’s over 10 years old, but the summary of the 2003 National Symposium on Learning Disabilities in English Language Learners provides some helpful information
- Assessment of English Language Learners with Disabilities: chapter from the book Helping English Language Learners Succeed in Middle and High School
- Distinguishing Language Acquisition from Learning Disabilities: guidance document from New York City Department of Education