Addressing ELLs’ Language Learning and Special Education Needs: Questions and Considerations

"We worry about what a child will be tomorrow but we forget that he is someone today." — Karl Meninger

Samira's Story

A number of years ago, Kristina taught a Somali English language learner (ELL) named Samira who was dedicated, attentive, and friendly. Kristina thoroughly enjoyed teaching her as they worked on Samira's English skills. When it came to assigning final grades, though, Kristina had a dilemma – Samira wasn't able to successfully complete assignments. She came to the classroom often, asked for additional help, and did her best to understand the directions and complete the work. Kristina felt discouraged every time she corrected her assignments because she realized that, despite her best efforts, Samira either wasn't able to do the assignment or she had copied someone else's work.

Samira was obviously struggling, and at the time Kristina attributed it to her refugee experience and lack of formal education. She thought that she just needed more time and English language exposure.

Now that Kristina has had the benefit of collaborating with Special Education teachers who have experience working with ELLs, she believes it is likely that Samira had a learning disability that went undiagnosed because she and her colleagues had not received training in how to recognize and address special education needs for ELL students.

Kristina also remembers a student who was having significant struggles with learning; when his teacher met with the family and a bilingual interpreter, she was told that the boy had had a brain injury in his home country and that learning had always been difficult for him. There were no special supports available to him in his prior school, so his parents never thought to ask for them.

Eyeglasses Needed!

On the other hand, Lydia recalls a story told by Education Week reporters Lesli Maxwell and Nirvi Shah of a San Diego teacher who referred six ELLs for special education evaluation; after some initial health screenings, it turned out that all of them needed eyeglasses, and one needed a hearing aid.  None of the students, however, needed special education services.

Educators know how confusing this issue can be, and in our work, we frequently hear the question "Language or disability?" The authors of Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners: Delivering a Continuum of Services, 2nd Ed. (Caslon, 2013) suggest, however, that a more appropriate question would be, "What are this student's needs and how are they being met?"

This complex question of identifying the reasons why students are struggling is one of the most difficult challenges for teachers of English language learners to address. While it is tempting to look for easy answers, solutions are unlikely to come from a single checklist, workshop, meeting, or intervention; rather, they are more likely to come over time and with the help of a team that includes family members working together on behalf of the student.

It sounds like a lot of work, and it is! The extra time and work are worth it, however, as a misdiagnosis will may result in students:

  • continuing to struggle without the services they need
  • regressing without the right support
  • getting tracked into inappropriate programs for the remainder of their school career

A holistic approach

This article is meant to serve as a broad introduction to some of the important issues to consider when determining whether a student's educational needs are being meant. Rather than laying out a series of steps to follow, we offer suggestions and guiding questions to a holistic approach that look at each individual student's situation in lieu of quick decisions about testing or program assignments. For additional in-depth information about putting together a support team, language learning factors, cultural considerations, and instruction for ELLs with disabilities, please look at our in-depth resource section on special education and ELLs.

We also highly recommend the above mentioned Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners and our video interviews with experts in this area, including Dr. Alba Ortiz, Dr. Debbie Zacarian, Dr. Nancy Cloud, and Dr. Lynn Shafer Willner.

Webcast: ELLs with LD

  Video bonus:  For a great introduction to this topic, take a look at Colorín Colorado's webcast featuring Dr. Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan on the topic of ELL students with learning disabilities.

In addition to the suggestions offered in this article, we also strongly encourage educators working with ELLs to:

  • Educate themselves as much as possible about the process of language acquisition and other important factors in working with ELLs so that they become familiar with typical patterns of language development
  • Request the support and training needed to provide effective instruction for students, conduct accurate assessment and evaluations, and manage interaction with diverse families effectively
  • Review and revisit the assessment, evaluation, and screening procedures currently in place in the school or district to determine whether they make sense for ELLs
  • Seek out collaboration with school or district colleagues who specialize in ELL and bilingual education, special education, speech-language therapy, and parent outreach in order to pull together different areas of expertise as part of a team
  • Update and improve evaluation processes if needed with input from colleagues who have relevant experiences as well as staff from other districts

While it may seem like these are changes that you can't make on your own, taking small steps to collaborate with colleagues and administrators can have a significant impact for students. The more information all educators have, the better informed their decisions will be and the better their chances are of finding ways to help their students succeed.

Why Do We Need to Get It Right?

As indicated in the introduction, there are two troubling trends when it comes to identifying the services that ELLs need to succeed: over-identification for special education, which results from assigning students to special education programs who do not actually need those services, and under-identification, which is what happens when students who do have learning disabilities or special education needs do not receive appropriate services. It is important to note that an awareness of one trend can sometimes lead to an over-correction towards the other, which is why it is essential to establish a process that focuses on each individual student rather than a vague sense of what has or has not worked it the past.

In the above-mentioned Education Week article, Lesli and Nivri report that a 2003 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education found that over-identification tended to happen in districts with small numbers of ELLs (less than 99 ELL students) and under-identification occurred in districts with a large ELL population. More recently, though, research suggests that under-identification is a bigger problem nationally. Yet at the same time, high numbers of special education referrals don't indicate that a district's evaluation program is working and that students are getting the services they need.

Case Study: San Diego

Lesli and Nirvi share the story of San Diego, a district faced with class action lawsuit in 2007 due to its poor special educations services. The district asked Harvard's Thomas Hehir to evaluate their program, and he found that Latino ELLs were 70% more likely to be referred to special education than Latinos who were not ELLs. Two years later, bilingual educator Jaime Hernandez followed up in San Diego with additional research and found that there was still limited use of special education assessments in students' native language as well as a lack of evidence of efforts to take "extrinsic factors" such as health, family conditions, or previous academic experiences into account.

Following these reports, the district began to create a more comprehensive evaluation process that would "slow everyone down" and "look at all the features of a child's life" before making a special education referral. Lesli and Nirvi write, "The goal was valid referrals and accuracy of special education decisions for ELLs, so educators and specialists from across the district — bilingual teachers, special educators, psychologists — developed a set of procedures for district staff members to follow when students are flagged as possibly needing services."

It is easy to understand why under-identification is problematic when students don't receive the services they need, particularly if valuable time goes by when the student could be receiving the necessary help that would address their difficulty or information could be gathered on the student's academic experiences over time.

It is less obvious to understand why over-identification is a problem. In fact, many students have been placed in special education with the best of intentions so that they will receive "some kind of help." The wrong placement, however, is not only unhelpful; it can also be harmful.

The authors of Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners outline a number of reasons why over-identification of ELLs in special education is problematic:

  • ELLs without special education needs and those students with special education needs require different kinds of support. Even though ELLs and special education students are frequently grouped together as "special populations" and some support strategies that help one group may help another, their needs are quite different. In this excerpt from their book, the authors explain that "interventions that are specifically geared to help processing, linguistic, or cognitive disabilities often do not help children acquire second language proficiency. In fact, special education services can limit the kind of learning that ELLs need."
  • Misdirected special education placement can actually result in a reversal of achievement. The authors note in this second excerpt from their book that "(s)tudies have shown that Hispanic students who were classified as learning disabled performed at a lower level after three years of special education placement."
  • There is the question of stigmatization and lowered expectations. ELLs with special education needs may find that their entire academic trajectory, as well as expectations for their success, have changed even though the school has determined that the student's needs have been met. As a result, students may be restricted in their access to challenging academic content and the appropriate language instruction that would address the root cause of their difficulties. (pg. 2)

In addition, when an ELL has difficulties, the authors note that "there is a tendency to assume something is intrinsically wrong with the student," particularly if difficulties are described without any specifics, such as saying a student "can't read." The authors encourage teams of educators to "answer the question 'What' before attempting to answer the question 'Why'" in order to take the appropriate next steps (pg. 36-37). Approaching this issue from the assumption that something is "wrong" with the student also misses an important opportunity to build upon student strengths — an important resource in looking for ways to help students succeed, as described by Lynn Shafer Willner in her article about using a "Can Do" approach in the classroom.

Note on ELL and Special Education Services

If the district does identify an ELL student as also requiring support from special education, then the student should get both kinds of services — it's not a question of one or the other. For example, if the district develops a more culturally and linguistically responsive RtI process / Multi-tiered System of Supports (MTSS), then the district will need to intensify the ELL-appropriate support a child/children receive. If the student then additionally qualifies for special education services, the collaboration that began in RtI would continue so that all the child's needs are met (both ELL and special education.)

Physical Difficulties or Disabilities

There are, of course, situations in which immediate action is needed. If a child has obvious signs of cognitive or physical issues such as those listed below, they need to receive immediate support. Factors leading to immediate referral include (but are not limited to):

  • Documentation of known previous medical condition(s)
  • Known brain damage
  • Problems with hearing or vision
  • Physical disability
  • Cleft palate
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Brain injury
  • Polio
  • Post traumatic stress
  • Documented severe malnutrition
  • A concern or concerns shared by parents, family or the student herself/himself
  • An accident/injury

Information from family members may provide more background on these conditions.  See our tips for working with diverse families around questions of special education below for more guidance, as well as information about the various categories of disabilities under the special education legislation IDEA.

What Information Do We Need?

When the cause of difficulty is not so obvious, where do educators begin to look for answers? Here are some questions to ask about the student.

Student background

  • How much do you know about your student's previous educational experiences?
  • Has the child switched schools or language programs?
  • Are there any traumas or difficult family situations that you should know about?
  • Do you have access to accurate records of the student's previous school experience, the location of previous schools, and length of time at each school?

Tips for learning more about your student's background information can be found in Getting to Know Your ELLs: Six Steps for Success.

Family background

Another source of information about the student's background is the family, and it may be most effective to conduct a family interview to gather additional background. Parents have a legal right to interpretation for IEP notifications and meetings, and it is extremely important that a highly trained interpreter be available to assist in this conversation, as well as to explain any information in a way the family can understand. For example, in the Somali language, there is no direct term that means "Special Education."  If the interpretation is not done sensitively, the family may believe the staff is referring to the student as "crazy" or "mentally defective."

If there is no trained interpreter at the building, it is possible that the district has a central interpretation staff that has had training in special education assessments. If the district does not have such staff, the state may have resources to assist with translation or a local technical assistance center may be able to help.  Ideally, the translator will have experience interpreting about these topics and within a particular cultural setting.

How can administrators help?

There are a number of ways that administrators can support this process, including allowing time for collaboration. It's also important to begin to increase the number of multilingual staff to reflect the languages and cultures of the students at the school.

As a pro-active action, this helps give families and students access to the school and curriculum much earlier in the process, possibly preventing some challenges in the future. This also allows schools to build a commitment to cultural reciprocity (Kalyanpur & Harry, 2012). This is also true at the district level; hiring bilingual professionals who have received training and/or are certified in Bilingual/ESL education, which can have a significant impact for students.

At the interview, a special education staff member and an interpreter can ask many in-depth and background questions to get more insight into environmental or physical factors that may be affecting the child's learning. Example questions might include:

  • Have there been any serious health problems in the family? Parents? Grandparents? Aunts and uncles?
  • What is the formal educational level of the parents and of the child?
  • What was the child's educational experience prior to coming to the U.S.? At previous school districts? At other schools / classrooms within the same district?
  • Has there been any trauma in the family? For example, has the child been involved in a violent situation, or witnessed violence and death in a war situation?
  • Has anyone in the family ever had psychological issues such as depression? (This may need to be described more in behavioral ways, such as describing someone who was sad or slept a lot.)
  • Have there been any other identifiable behaviors in the family such as stuttering or dyslexia? (Again, the behaviors may need to be explained.)

Families may be hesitant to answer these questions, particularly if they are newcomers to the U.S.  Assure them that their answers will only be shared with staff who support the students as well as social workers and are only meant to guide decisions for providing the best possible services for their children.

The process of acculturation

Another factor to keep in mind is that ELL students need time to adjust to their new surroundings and language and to have an opportunity to demonstrate their learning over time. This process may take quite some time when accounting for cultural adjustment, a silent period, and the development of literacy skills in a second language. This is why familiarity with the language acquisition process can help provide some context for the student's language development.  What appears to be slow growth in learning English may actually be quite typical for the child’s age and educational background.

Student work and behavior

Over time, it is important to track the student's work and behavior in order to establish some benchmarks. It can be tricky to determine if the challenges the ELL student is experiencing are a result of the normal developmental process of learning a new or additional language or if he/she has special needs because at the surface many of the behaviors displayed appear to be the same.

This excerpt from Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners shows some example of contrasting explanations for similar observed behaviors:  

Observable Behavior

Possible ELL Explanations

Possible Disability Explanations

Has trouble following directions

  • Not enough English proficiency to understand what is being said
  • No demonstrations or context given for directions/procedure
  • Can’t process the entire set of directions with sufficient speed
  • Distractibility
  • Memory limitations
  • Not able to understand the temporal or spatial concepts

(Table 3.2, pg. 47)

For example, if during English instructional time, a teacher observes an ELL student who refuses to answer questions, makes inappropriate comments, has poor recall, comprehension and vocabulary, and struggles when sequencing ideas, the teacher might be concerned that the child needs special education support. While that may be the case, it's important to remember that these behaviors can also be explained from the perspective of an ELL student in the process of developing academic English. In the case of "refus(ing) to answer questions," ELL students may often not participate in class because while they might have proficiency enough to understand the message, they might not have enough proficiency in English to answer. Here are two examples of questions you can ask to tease out whether a student's difficulties may be part of learning a new language.

  • Is the disability present in both languages?: One important clue is to see whether the disability is present only in English. If the student only shows the difficult behavior in English settings and not in his/her non-English language(s), then it cannot be an indicator of a disability. A true disability will manifest across all the child's languages and in most settings. If an ELL "struggles to retell events" in English and not in his/her home language or in a bilingual retelling, then this cannot be evidence of a disability.
  • How does the student compare with his/her peers?: Another initial question to ask is whether the student is making academic progress at about the same rate as other ELL students from similar backgrounds (students who share similar linguistic, cultural, educational, or refugee experiences) and to compare that progress over time.

Academic interventions

It is essential that different academic interventions are tried and the results recorded before any formal special evaluation assessment is requested. This process may be part of a Response to Intervention approach. (You can learn more from this RtI framework developed by Cristina Sánchez-Lopez for WIDA.) This is important because students may have very different learning styles or comfort levels with the U.S. educational environment, or may be struggling with literacy skills. When a teacher does intentional interventions to provide support and documents the results, valuable information is then available if an assessment is needed in the future. Here are some common academic intervention options:

Recommended Resource

For research-based instructional interventions, take a look at Classroom Instruction that Works with English Language Learners by Jane Hill & Kathleen Flynn (McCreL, 2013)

  • Give ELL students access to the content by having them read multiple level readings (in English and in students' non-English languages) and other resources (brochures, websites, outlines, Powerpoints, podcasts, etc.) on the topic of study.
  • Write hints or reminders in the text. Analyze text structure of the materials read and highlight/bold key characteristics and content.
  • Use real life experiences when discussing the reading material.
  • Using Language Experience Approach / Shared reading/ Shared Writing across the content areas and grade levels to build on students’ linguistic resources and bridge to literacy.
  • Pair ELL students with other ELLs.
  • Use manipulatives or hands-on materials and visuals to build content area schema and to support oral academic language development.
  • Use a tape recorder to play books on tape. Have students develop podcasts / recordings of their own dual language stories, memoirs, reports, etc.
  • Have students preview content visually, orally and through literacy (when available) in their non-English language before reading/learning about content in English. Actively invite students' languages and cultures into the classroom.
  • Explicitly teach study skills/habits, as well as effective ways of using educational resources and materials.
  • Use the student's name in instructional examples. And use culturally and linguistically relevant materials, books, as well as multicultural literature
  • Provide visuals to support academic work.
  • Encourage re-reading of tasks/instructions. Or, using multiple texts and other resources on the same topic to give access and to deepen comprehension and build vocabulary.
  • Provide more time to finish assignments/tests.
  • Pair the English Language Learner with a gifted or older same-language student in tutorial situations.

Once those options have been exhausted and the student is progressing much more slowly than other ELL students with a similar background, or needs a lot of repeated instruction when other ELLs with similar educational experience do not, it is time for the team get together to examine the data gathered and determine if the student is eligible and entitled to receive special education services.

Who Should Be Involved?

Creating a team

In examining a student's needs, a collaborative team approach is best. Background information on why coordinating support services for ELLs is provided in this tip sheet from the Michigan Department of Education.  Someone who speaks the child's native language must be involved in the process along with colleagues with expertise in ELL and/or bilingual education, special education, speech-language therapy, and parent outreach. Even if your school doesn't formally use a team when assessing or evaluating students, creating an informal team is a better option than trying to figure it out alone, and informal steps may lay the groundwork for more formal processes in the future.

This vignette from Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners highlights the ways in which bilingual professionals can provide valuable insight into how students are using and learning language. A bilingual coordinator recalls an instance of a kindergarten teacher who was preparing to refer a student to special education screening because she thought he didn't understand her questions about the sounds that letters make. The bilingual coordinator was able to determine that the student was in fact answering the teacher’s questions correctly — but he was answering them in Spanish.

In Palm Beach County, Florida, Lesli and Nirvi report that the multicultural team that works on evaluating ELLs for disabilities includes bilingual psychologists and speech-language therapists and that the district hires interpreters and consultants when necessary to work with students and families who speak other languages.

Working with families

Families are a valuable source of information about their children and an important part of a student's support team. It's essential that ELL families are kept informed about their student's progress so that they understand each step of the way, just as would be done for monolingual English students. Keeping families informed also builds trust so that if evaluation or referral are needed, the family understands what is happening and why. This is another reason why getting to know ELL families throughout the year is a key part of student success since it builds a positive foundation that makes it easier to find solutions together!

What Happens If Special Education Assessment Is Needed?

If your team determines that special education assessment is needed, the next question is to ask which evaluation methods will be used to determine what kinds of services the student might need and to learn more about the language used in those tools. According to expert Kathy Escamilla, who Lesli and Nirvi interviewed for their article, "When most of the tools that are used to assess learning disabilities are in English and were normed on monolingual English-speaking kids who are part of the dominant culture, you can't rely on that to tell you if a child with a different primary language has a learning disability or if they just don't know the language." An added complication is the evaluation of long-term ELLs who were born in the U.S. but don't have strong literacy skills in English or Spanish.  Ideally, the evaluation process will include multiple sources of data that can take those realities into account.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • Does documentation show limited or no progress or change resulting from instructional strategies, alternative instruction, or interventions?
  • Do ESL and/or bilingual staff support the position that the student is performing differently than his/her cultural peers?
  • What evaluation measures are most appropriate for this situation (even if those are different than what the district typically uses)?
  • What is our evaluation plan and parent communication plan?

Parent conference

If the interventions have not been effective up to this point, then further information must be gathered and an initial conference must be held with the parents of the student. In the initial conference, it is important to share with the parents (and make sure that they understand) the interventions that have been tried in the classroom, an explanation of what is involved in an initial assessment, what support would be available to the child if he/she qualifies, and the parent and student rights. Find out from a bilingual staff member or interpreter if there are any cultural considerations that will need to be addressed during the conversation.

Special Education Support

If the child qualifies for special education services, then due process is followed, and an Individualized Education Program (IEP) will be created based on the services and instruction that the student needs. This information from the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities offers IEP considerations for ELLs. (Note: This document will be online through September 2014.)

Again, it is very important that the family have a skilled interpreter at the meeting when they consent to service and for all future IEP meetings. It’s important that professionals continue to collaborate in order to support all of the student’s needs as an ELL student as well as a student with particular special education needs.

Your district or state may be the best source for figuring out what guidelines to follow or how to create an IEP for an ELL. These statewide resources, modules, and guidebooks also have extensive information, support materials, and translated forms:

You can find additional information in these resources, as well as those that follow this article:

Concluding Thoughts

As educators begin to collaborate more and look more deeply into students' experiences and needs, there is a better chance that students will get the support they need to succeed. Building a more culturally and linguistically responsive RtI / MTSS process will help to address the needs of ELLs who are having significant challenges in a more timely manner as well as provide a framework for making more informed decisions about ELLs who may also have special education needs.

Even if you feel like you don't have all of the answers, we encourage you to come together with colleagues and think about what steps you can in the short-term and long-term to improve these practices in your setting, ensuring that students like Samira get the services they need to become successful.



Hamayan, E., Marler, B., Sanchez-Lopez, C., and Damico, J. (2013). Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners. Philadelphia: Caslon Publishing.

Kalyanpur, M., & Harry, B. (2012). Cultural Reciprocity in Special Education: Building Family–Professional Relationships. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks.


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As a teacher, I find the all the information relating to the upliftment of. Academic life of students is apparently outstanding,informative & helpful. Thanks.

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