ESOL and Special Education Collaboration: A Teacher's Perspective

Kimberley Mathews. an ESOL teacher.

Kimberley Mathews has taught English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) for 13 years in many different settings including preschool, adult education, and elementary schools both in the U.S. and abroad. She currently teaches at Mason Crest Elementary School in Annandale, VA. In this article written for Colorín Colorado, she shares some of the steps that have made collaboration around special education issues successful in her experience.

  Video bonus:  Learn more about collaboration on behalf of dually-identified students from Dr. Alba Ortiz, Dr. Debbie Zacarian, and Dr. Nancy Cloud.

One important role of an ESOL teacher is supporting and advocating for dually identified students. Dually identified students are English Learners who have also been identified to receive special education services. This role includes being part of their education in every phase of the special education process by properly identifying students with unique learning needs, advocating for students and parents during the identification process, and supporting IEP behavior and academic goals.

One strategy to help you meet all of these demands is to build collaborative relationships with the special education teachers at your school. I have had the opportunity to collaborate in schools where I was the only ESL teacher (a “singleton”), as well as in my current position, where I am part of a bigger collaborative team. Even though those experiences are different, I have used many of the same strategies to collaborate with my colleagues, most importantly in our efforts to make sure that students are properly identified and once identified still receive ESOL services. Based on my experiences, I would like to focus on three main phases of serving dually identified students and the steps I use to collaborate with special education colleagues in each of those phases, as well as other steps I have taken to strengthen collaboration.

Building a Foundation for Collaboration

Sharing information about language acquisition

As the ESL teacher, it has been important to make sure my colleagues and I are on the same page when it comes to serving dually identified students. One of my responsibilities as an ESL teacher has been to ensure that my colleagues have an understanding of the language learning process and how that affects student academic achievement. By sharing this important information, I can decrease the possibility that English Learners may be wrongly identified for special education services.

 Video: Collaborating for Success

To learn more about the collaboration model at Mason Crest, take a look at these video interviews with Kimberley's colleagues:

Presenting professional development on this topic has been one way to achieve this goal. When I was a singleton, I was on the leadership committee which helped me target this goal. By being a member of this team I could advocate for better staff training on the typical language development of ELs or add the lens of teaching ELs to whatever training was put in place.

The leader of the special education team was also on this committee, and through our collaboration on the leadership team, we developed a strong relationship. We often shared articles, instructional ideas, and helped each other understand the needs of our learners. Currently, I teach on a team with three other ESL teachers and we have led whole staff training sessions on English language development and best practices for ELs. We have also presented with the Special Education team. Because both our teams are differentiating curriculum content, many ideas and the services we provide are similar. Sharing best practices and ideas together helps teachers see how we may adapt instruction the same way, but that typical language development is different from other learning needs.

Collaboration with support teams

Another strategy I have found useful in building knowledge about how ELs learn content while developing academic English is to find ways to communicate this information in a more direct teacher-to-teacher model. As a singleton I also joined a committee similar to a Response to Intervention committee. This is where teachers went for advice on students who were making slow to no progress with current instruction in the classroom. The students that teachers brought up with the committee were often English Learners, and I had the opportunity to collaborate with the members of the Special Education team as well as other specialists. We would discuss students on a case by case basis and could share input as to what intervention might work best. I shared how certain Tier 2 reading interventions might not be appropriate for new English learners, or which Tier 1 instructional techniques might better support ELs in the classroom. Collaborating with teachers in this way helped show that supporting the needs of ELs is not an intervention, but that differentiated instruction is part of core instruction.

Meeting to discuss student progress

Now that I am on a team, we also regularly discuss individual students who are struggling or are below grade level. Because our school strictly follows the PLC tenants as developed by Rick and Becky Dufour, a system of planning and progress monitoring meetings is scheduled and attendance for all members of a grade level team, including ESL teachers, special education teachers, and resource teachers, is mandatory. It is at these collaborative meetings that the ESOL team advocates for differentiated instruction, supports teachers with ideas to how to do this with each lesson, and offers immediate suggestions for students who may not be demonstrating engagement or academic progress. We often collaborate with the SPED team to develop these ideas.

Three Phases of Serving Dually Identified Students

Having a shared foundation based on the steps I described above means that our team can work more effectively to identify the reasons a student is struggling through the following phases:

Phase One: Monitoring Student Progress Before Identification

Factors to Consider

Identifying English Learners who may require special education services is a difficult task. Many factors may contribute to why a student is not making academic progress. On our teams, important factors we consider are:

  • the language level of the student
  • how long the student has been in U.S. schools
  • how instruction has been differentiated to meet those needs
  • if the student is struggling in all areas or just one
  • if there has been slow progress over time or no progress at all
  • if the student has had any tier two interventions

Before recommending an English Learner for possible special education testing, we discuss these factors and questions in collaboration with classroom teachers, looking for clear evidence that students have received differentiated instruction that matches their language level before other interventions are considered.

Phase Two: Should a Student be Recommended for Testing?

In my experience, I have continued to collaborate with the Special Education team into Phase Two when a student has been recommended for further observation and testing. During this phase, a student typically is screened by a committee of educators, the school psychologist, school counselor, and social worker. Collaborating with these members is helpful to ensure English Learners are properly assessed, so it is important that I participate in these meetings. At this point in the process the classroom teacher usually shares the lack of progress a student has made and the interventions that have been put in place.

During these steps I have participated by explaining what language progress the student has made, whether the language level is still a large contributing factor to the lack of progress, and advocating for the student and parents. Decisions are made whether to continue the process of special education by having a meeting with parents to decide if further testing is needed. Once testing is complete, the team meets with parents to decide if the student is eligible for special education services.

Phase Three: Supporting Dually-Identified Learners

After an English Learner has been identified as needing Special Education services, I have collaborated with the special education teacher to plan the student’s IEP goals. Together we identify areas of need that a student should focus on to make academic progress. Sharing my knowledge of the student’s language background and WIDA Can Do Descriptors has helped make these learning goals more targeted and appropriate.

Differentiating Instruction

In addition, I have worked with my special education colleagues to differentiate instruction. As a singleton, I often co-taught or co-planned differentiated lessons. For example, we developed scaffolded history and science study guides by doing one unit together and then splitting up the rest. We also co-taught groups of students during Language Arts to develop inference skills and reading strategies. At my current school, we have worked together to make a Socratic Seminar about Sonia Sotomayor accessible for dually identified students by finding bilingual picture books on the subject, using technology to create ways for students to practice answering questions, and providing sentence frames and starters for the discussion. Together we have made scaffolded graphic organizers for students to show their higher level thinking. Finally, I have collaborated with my special education colleagues to help collect data for those IEP goals.


I have found that building relationships with the special education colleagues at my school has helped me provide better services for English Learners. Collaboration has come in many forms from sharing language development information, monitoring student progress, or planning IEP goals together. Regardless if you are the only ESOL teacher at your school or on a team, there are opportunities to work together with the SPED team to differentiate instruction and support dually identified students. Collaboration leads to better services for your English Learners and helps to make sure students are properly identified in the first place.

ELL experts discuss the importance of collaboration on behalf of dually-identified students and offer tips for succes.


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