English Language Learners with Special Needs

ELL students with special needs

Today’s teachers know more about both ELLs (English Language Learners) and Special Education than ever before. Yet, the combination of ELLs with various special needs poses unique issues with identification, instruction, and assessment.

Two student profiles: Lan and Huy

Lan is a fourth grade student in an urban public school. Her family came to the U.S. because of her father’s work and to find new opportunities. Lan’s parents are both highly educated, although their English proficiency is not high. Lan’s mother speaks very little English and has not yet made any friends in the U.S. Her father continues to learn English while at his job, but speaks Mandarin at home with Lan and her mother.

Lan excelled at school back in China and has taken music lessons since she was able to talk. She is a gifted pianist, and is able to create her own musical compositions. Lan’s teacher notices that she completes assignments quickly and easily, especially in math class. However, she does not perform well in tasks that involve reading and writing in English.

Lan is mostly quiet and very well-behaved. Her teacher has not considered that Lan might be in need of any services beyond the normal classroom curriculum and her pull-out ESL lessons.

Huy is a kindergarten student in a suburban public school. He came to the U.S. from Vietnam along with his parents and siblings. His parents were looking for a better life for the whole family. They speak very little English and work in house-cleaning and landscaping. Huy’s teacher has tried to get to know him, but he does not speak at all or make eye contact with the teacher or with his peers.

Huy always sits quietly and rarely engages in classroom activities on any level. Huy’s teacher does not know if Huy is nonverbal due to developmental issues and in need of Special Education services. It’s also possible that he has a lack of English proficiency or is simply shy.  Huy’s teacher does not know where to begin in determining Huy’s educational and social needs.

Both Lan and Huy are ELLs and share the needs of all ELLs. However, their specific profiles and learning needs are markedly different. Lan’s profile suggests that she may be intellectually gifted. Without instruction specifically designed for gifted students, she is in danger of becoming bored and disengaged. Huy may or may not be in need of a variety of Special Education services, including autistic support, speech and language therapy, and general learning support.

Due to also being English Language Learners, these students’ possible Special Education needs are difficult to sort out. Both of these students and many others like them face issues such as under-identification, improper placement, frustration, and underachievement for their potential.

Identification issues

While the above profiles provide a broad understanding of what teachers face when considering ELLs with special needs, there are some specific factors that impact identification and placement:

  • Some ELLs have had little schooling in their native language, let alone English.
  • ELLs may be able to speak English but not write it or perhaps even vice versa, due to various experiences with language learning back home.
  • Proficiency in English varies not only in the level of proficiency but also in qualitative aspects. For example, a student might perform well in conversational language with peers but poorly with content area English.
  • Cultural and familial expectations for schooling and education vary widely across the world.
  • Families of ELLs may not be aware of early intervention services or even that Special Education exists at all.
  • Students may be over-identified for things like general learning disabilities and under-identified for gifted programs.
  • Behavior issues due to lack of English proficiency, frustration with school, and differing cultural expectations may mask other underlying issues.

Race and Poverty

Race can also be a related factor for some ELLs who are members of minority groups in the US. Recent studies have shown that intellectually gifted minority students are far less likely to be identified as gifted by their teachers than their white peers. This is especially true for students of African and Latin American descent.  Many ELLs also live in poverty, which is yet another factor that is correlated with under-identification of gifted students and over-identification of general learning disabilities.

Supporting ELLs with Special Needs

When teachers suspect that ELLs have special needs beyond their language proficiency issues, they can take the following steps to help these students:

  • Collaborate with Special Education and ESL teachers for both additional knowledge and support.
  • Gather information on ELL’s backgrounds that could point to differences in prior schooling or cultural expectations.
  • Meet early and often with parents of ELLs to discuss student’s progress and learning profiles.
  • Be aware of the wide variety of Special Education services, including services for gifted students and those with learning disabilities.
  • Advocate for ELLs who may or may not have special needs by partnering with and educating administration.

Identification, instruction, and assessment issues for ELLs with special needs are complicated and take time to work through. Teachers who are aware of the most common issues with identification are one step closer to helping these students.

Dr. Maggie Broderick teaches master’s and doctoral level courses in teacher education online for various universities, including Concordia University – Portland. Dr. Broderick taught K-12 in the Pittsburgh Public Schools before completing her Ph.D. in Foreign Language Education at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to teaching, she enjoys writing, course development, and research.

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