Educational Alternatives

Helping English Language Learning Students Who Are Learning Disabled

Dana Stahl, a learning specialist and educational consultant, will address educational questions and concerns that parents may have regarding their children’s academic development and progress in school. Topics can center on such concerns as how to handle homework dilemmas or what questions to ask at a CSE meeting. Questions can range from “How best do parents advocate for their children?” to “How do parents interpret formal tests that have been administered?” to “Which schools and colleges are right for my child?”

Readers can write to Dana at Dana will respond to one reader’s question a month. Dana hopes that her response will alleviate parents’ concerns and offer useful educational advice.

Q.  How can schools help English Language Learners who are also Learning Disabled?

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A.  Deciphering if English languish learners (ELL) are also learning disabled initially requires teacher observations, and adaptations in class lessons. It also requires the administration of formal assessments in the students’ native language and in English. Children, who have difficulty in learning to read, write and spell will have difficulty in their native language and in English. Similar patterns of difficulty transcend languages.  Understanding how to support English language learners who also have language-based learning disabilities is often difficult to determine because their struggle is often perceived as a language issue as opposed to a learning issue.

Educators observe that when teaching to their English language learners, two languages are developing simultaneously or sequentially. Second language acquisition involves a non-verbal period where students are taking it all in. Sometimes this silence is viewed as a learning disability, but when tested in their native language, their supposed difficulty dissipates. It is often difficult to tease out whether English language learners have learning disabilities.

Dr. Elsa Cardenas-Hagan, a bilingual speech-language pathologist emphasizes the importance of providing English language learners with an initial screening that can be used as an anchor in obtaining a baseline for proficiency in English. She recommends that educators incorporate strategies, make adjustments and adaptations in their instruction, monitor progress and if warranted, administer appropriate assessments by evaluators.

Once you know that a learning disability exists, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) needs to be developed that is specific to English language learners. The IEP needs to include what is the language of instruction, state guidelines for how the student is responding to specific goals and objectives, and specify the adaptations that can be made in the classroom.  It is also helpful to have the student’s’ native language incorporated into their lessons to support the goals and objectives stated in the IEP’s, helping them to understand content-based information being presented in the classroom.

Effective teaching practices can help to facilitate fluency and literacy. These practices can include modeling through small group instruction, peer partners, books on tapes and ELL support that compliments the instruction being presented in the regular classroom.  Peer assisted learning, differential instruction, and students being paired together all helps to facilitate modeling where the language of the unit is emphasized in a relaxed manner. By presenting and practicing vocabulary, all students benefit. English language learners will respond positively to repetition and increase their understanding of the language and content being presented.

It is essential that educators regularly monitor and assess comprehension of lessons being presented. In order for teachers to be both diagnostic and prescriptive, they need to analyze what is and what is not working when presenting their lessons. This is especially true with English language learners.  Educators need to understand the challenges of their English language learners who are also learning disabled, implement their IEP’s and provide intensive instruction.

Educators will also benefit from welcoming the families of these ELL students into their schools and partnering with them in their quest to help their children learn to read, write and spell. It will be helpful if home-school communication was written in the parents’ native language, and that a person who spoke that native language was available to attend school meetings. Working effectively to help children with learning disabilities involves a home-school relationship. By promoting families to act as partners with their children’s’ teachers, language fluency and literacy can be fostered, demonstrating yet another way that schools can help English language learners who are also learning disabled.


by Dana Stahl, M.Ed., Educational Alternatives LLC

Dana’s educational consultant practice focuses on assessment, advocacy and school placement for students with learning disabilities and social-emotional challenges.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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