Serving English Learners with Disabilities: How ESL/Bilingual Specialists Can Collaborate for Student Success

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Dr. Phyllis Robertson is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, with expertise in special education and culturally/linguistically responsive instruction. In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Dr. Robertson explains why collaboration around identifying and serving ELs with disabilities is critical and offers tips for ESL/bilingual specialists to collaborate and advocate effectively in their setting.

Video bonus: Learn more about collaboration on behalf of ELs with disabilities from Dr. Alba Ortiz, Dr. Debbie Zacarian, and Dr. Nancy Cloud below!

Appropriately serving English Learners (ELs) with disabilities requires a team effort involving professionals from multiple disciplines to ensure that instruction is provided to support both the language-learning and disability-related needs of the students.  Critical to this endeavor are bilingual and English as a second language (ESL) teachers who have the skills needed to assess students’ proficiency in the native language and/or English and to design instruction that is both linguistically and culturally relevant. 

Even though these unique skills may not always be well understood or valued by teachers, administrators, and professionals in other disciplines, they are absolutely essential to ensuring that ELs who experience academic or behavioral difficulties receive appropriate early intervention supports, that cultural and linguistic differences are not mistaken for disabilities, and that Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for those students who do need special education services address students’ multiple needs.  

While school districts should put appropriate structures in places to support collaboration across disciplines, as a bilingual/ESL educator you must be prepared to share (and often explain) your expertise and advocate for your students when those structures are not provided. This article will give you some guidance for getting started!

The Need for Collaboration

The necessity for collaborative teaming cannot be overstated because so few educators have been adequately prepared to meet the needs of ELs with disabilities. As a long-time teacher educator, I am quite familiar with programs that prepare teachers in separate tracks with limited opportunities to collaborate across disciplines.  Consider that:

  • Bilingual/ESL teachers are typically taught to provide instruction that addresses language-learning needs, usually with limited preparation in working with students with disabilities. 
  • Special educators are prepared to design programs that address needs associated with a disability but often have limited coursework or skills in native language instruction, second language acquisition, ESL strategies, and other techniques designed to improve outcomes for ELs. 
  • General educators may be well versed in standards-based curriculum and instruction but may have had limited opportunities to learn about special populations. 

Although the research evidence is limited, it appears that as educators we rely on our discipline specific knowledge when we design and deliver instruction, instead of focusing on the interaction between culture, language, and disability (García & Ortiz, 2008).  As a result, ELs with disabilities may receive:

  • instruction designed for ELs without disabilities from bilingual/ESL teachers
  • instruction designed for monolingual English speakers with disabilities from special educators
  • instruction designed for monolingual English-speaking students without disabilities from general education teachers. 

This likely results in fragmented and ineffective instructional programming and a lack of ownership among teachers for those students who receive services from multiple programs and service providers.

Friend & Cook (2010) define collaboration as “a style for direct interaction between at least two coequal parties voluntarily engaged in shared decision making as they work towards a common goal” (p. 7).  The focus on the common goal of instruction that addresses a student’s cultural, linguistic and disability-related needs provides a framework for bilingual/ESL educators to work collaboratively with general educators, special educators, family members and others, and to share information and responsibility for the design of programs and services for ELs with (and at risk for) disabilities.   Such collaborative efforts can provide us with opportunities to build meaningful relationships with the families of the children we serve, to learn from one another, and to ensure that our students reach their maximum potential by designing and implementing IEPs that reflect research-based assessment and instructional practices (Hart, 2009; Hoover, Klingner, Baca & Patton, 2008).

Guidelines for Collaborating Effectively

Being an effective teammate or collaborator requires that bilingual/ESL educators develop the knowledge and skills needed to work with other adults as we share mutual goals, responsibilities, and resources (Friend & Cook, 2010).   As professionals who have been prepared to work with children, we often need structured opportunities and practice to acquire the expertise needed to be an effective teammate.

What follows are suggestions for enhancing collaborative practice.  They are geared toward bilingual/ESL teachers but also offer sound guidelines for all educators involved in supporting ELs who may have disabilities. These suggestions generally assume that a collaborative structure is in place at your school or district but also includes strategies you can use when working on your own.   If a formal structure isn’t provided for you, begin by establishing relationships with the teachers with whom you share responsibilities for individual students.  Then suggest to the leadership on your campus that you would like to share the results of your efforts with others.

Remember that meetings in which IEPs are developed are by their very nature collaborative (as defined in legal statute) and provide opportunities for establishing meaningful relationships and sharing resources and expertise. 

Build partnerships with families

  • Recognize that families are their children’s first teachers and value their funds of knowledge (Gonzales, Moll, & Amanti, 2005).
  • Encourage family members to share important information about their student’s development including strengths, needs, exposure to and use of the native language and English, cultural norms, school and social history, etc.
  • Provide the supports needed to ensure that family members can actively participate in meaningful ways (e.g., flexible scheduling, interpreters).
  • Seek input from family members to determine what structures works best for them.

Learn from One Another

  • Recognize that all collaborators have important information to share and add value to collaborative planning and problem solving.
  • Work to develop a common philosophy and shared knowledge base that reflects high expectations for ELs, including those with disabilities, and joint responsibility for their success.   
  • Identify specific areas of expertise among collaborators representing different disciplines.  Be prepared to communicate your own unique knowledge and skills and specify the ways in which you are prepared to support others in meeting students’ needs.  As a bilingual/ESL educator you could share information regarding:
    • the influence of language and culture on student learning and behavior;
    • the stages of second language acquisition;
    • the types of language assessments you utilize, the ways in which you interpret them, and how you use that information to inform instructional planning;
    • the resources that can be provided to support development of the native language and/or English while simultaneously building academic knowledge and skills.
  • You should also be prepared to discuss resources you find particularly valuable in serving your students and their families.  It can also be helpful to identify the areas in which you would value the input of your colleagues. Consider and expand upon the following examples:
    • General educators:  grade and subject-level curriculum; benchmark and end-of-year expectations for performance; the provision of instructional and behavioral supports to students in large group settings.
    • Special educators:  the influence of disability on student learning and behavior; adapting and modifying materials, instruction, and assessment to address the unique strengths and needs of the learner.
    • Administrators:  instructional leadership; scheduling; resource allocation; responsibility for professional development.
    • Related Service Providers:  specific supports students need in order to benefit from special education services (e.g., speech language pathology, counseling, assistive technology); ways in which teachers can reinforce and utilize those supports in the classroom environment.
    • Interpreters:  proficiency in multiple languages, intercultural communication. (It is important to remember that while interpreters are valuable team members, they must receive adequate preparation and training in order to understand their unique role and participate effectively.)
  • Develop a shared understanding of the impact of language, culture, and disability on the development of academic and behavioral skills.
  • Clarify and define the roles and responsibilities of all teachers toward all learners.

Establish a Structure for Collaboration and Evaluate the Results of Your Efforts

  • Schedule a time and format for collaborative planning, including a description of the responsibilities of each team member.
  • Establish ground rules that address effective communication and respect for all participants.
  • Seek the support of school administrators for the collaborative process, and ask for their assistance in providing the time and resources needed.
  • Work with others to create and maintain a culture of collaboration, including support for new faculty.
  • Develop a system for maintaining accurate records that is shared across all programs and personnel who serve ELs with disabilities.
  • As your capacity to serve ELs with disabilities increases, consider what is working effectively and determine areas for improvement.
  • Share your successes with others.

Use Collaboration to Develop Appropriate IEPs for ELs with Disabilities

In addition to following the state and federal guidelines for IEP development, special considerations are needed to develop plans that address student’s linguistic, cultural, and disability-related needs.

  • Ensure that family members’ voices are heard by providing opportunities to share their desires and concerns.  Consider their language preferences and cultural communication styles in your efforts.
  • Include representatives of all programs that serve ELs with disabilities in IEP development.  Be sure that those representative have knowledge and skills regarding research-based instruction in their individual disciplines.
  • Identify data sources and share current formal and informal assessment results gathered by all service providers.  The following examples can get you started:
    • Bilingual/ESL educators:  formal and informal measures of conversational and academic language proficiency; the impact of language supports provided to enhance academic success.
    • General Educators:  performance on daily assignments, results of curriculum-based assessment, benchmark measures, standardized assessments, measures of effectiveness of specific instructional activities and strategies.
    • Special educators: individualized assessments of academic, behavioral and functional performance; the impact of adaptations and modifications to instruction and/or daily assignments.
  • Review and discuss the data gathered over time to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the student’s strengths, needs, and responses to various instructional supports.
  • Identify appropriate annual goals based upon present levels of academic achievement and functional performance.
  • Develop a language use plan that specifies the language(s) of instruction for each goal and the nature of ESL supports (García & Malkin, 1992).  Remember, all students are entitled to services that address both their language development and disability-related needs regardless of the severity of their disability.  In fact, instruction in the native language and/or the use of ESL strategies are extremely important considerations for students with the most severe disabilities.
  • Identify strategies for ensuring that the instruction provided is culturally relevant and builds upon the student’s prior knowledge.
  • Specify the ways in which service providers will collaborate to meet each goal and identify areas of individual responsibility.
  • Discuss strategies for monitoring progress that are sensitive to the student’s background characteristics and will enable educators to track progress over time in all areas of student performance in the native language and/or English as appropriate.
  • Support one another as you implement and evaluate the plan.  Share strategies and materials, assessment information, concerns and most importantly success stories.

Final Thoughts

While the research on the impact of collaboration is limited, there are studies that have found collaboration to be important in improving schools and increasing student outcomes (Friend & Cook, 2010).  There is no doubt — collaboration takes time and there is hard work involved.  However, working collaboratively has the potential to reduce isolation and increase the effectiveness of all educators, and it can make our work more interesting, rewarding and fun. 

The complete interviews with these experts are available in our Meet the Experts section.


Friend, M., & Cook, L. (2010). Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals. Boston, MA: Pearson.

García, S. B., & Malkin, D. H. (1993). Toward defining programs and services for culturally and linguistically diverse learners in special education. Teaching Exceptional Children, 26 (1), 52-58.

García, S. B., & Ortiz, A. A. (2008). A framework for culturally and linguistically responsive design of response to intervention models. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 11(1), 24-41.Gonzales, Moll, & Amanti, 2005

Hart, J. E. (2009). Strategies for culturally and linguistically diverse students with special needs. Preventing School Failure, 53, 197-203.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004).  Public Law 108-446.  108th Congress.  Retrieved from

Orosco, M. J., & O’Connor, R. (2014). Culturally responsive instruction for English language learners with disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 47, 515-531.

U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education (2015).  Dear colleague letter:  English learners students and limited English proficient parents.  Retrieved from

Zacarian, D. (2012).  Serving English learners: Laws, policies, and regulations.  Retrieved from


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