Some Myths Regarding ELLs and Special Education

This article is an excerpt reprinted with permission from Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners: Delivering a Continuum of Services (Caslon Publishing). It also appears in the 2nd edition of the book.

Note: You can see more from author Cristina Sánchez-López in our related interview.

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Several myths prevail in the area of special education for ELLs. These myths guide us in the way we approach education in general, in the way we interpret students' behaviors, and in how we teach and assess students. The following are commonly held misconceptions regarding ELLs and special education.


A special education placement when none is warranted does not serve the student well. First, we are bestowing on the student a stigmatizing label that the student does not need. Second, 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 (Gersten & Woodward, 1994). Special education interventions tend to target a narrow selection of skills to enable mastery, and discrete skills are often practiced out of context (Damico & Damico, 1993a; Westby & Vining, 2002). This complicates the learning process for ELLs, since they need a meaningful context in order to comprehend the language that surrounds them (Genesee, 2006).

In addition, special education interventions often use reading materials with controlled phonics and vocabulary, which reduces the meaningfulness of the text. Intervention tasks often revolve around surface structures of language, targeting grammar, syntax, and spelling. This constricts language usage and makes it more difficult for ELLs to understand and retain information (Gersten & Woodward, 1994).


Although it is true that ELLs may take five to seven years to develop proficiency in academic language (Cummins, 2006), there is no need to withhold any kind of support services that an ELL might need in the meantime. The timeline suggested by Cummins was meant to give teachers a sense of how much to expect students to learn through a language that was not yet fully developed, especially in abstract academic concepts. Besides, if a student truly has an intrinsic difficulty, then it exists in all the student's languages and in most use contexts.

The sooner these exceptionalities are identified and supported, the better opportunity the student has to be successful in school.


Children with speech, language, or learning impairment can become fully bilingual (Genesee, Paradis, & Crago, 2004; Perozzi, 1985; Perozzi & Sanchez, 1992). There is even emerging evidence that children with Down syndrome can be successfully bilingual and that bilingualism does not disadvantage their language development (Kay-Raining Bird, Cleave, Trudeau, et al., submitted). The majority of people in the world are bilingual, and some of them have disabilities. Disabilities certainly do not arise from being bilingual. They manifest in all or most contexts. The decision to shift to instruction in English exclusively is usually based on lack of knowledge of the research, ignorance of the students' native language, or convenience. Developing the native language can help students with a specific language impairment (SLI) make better progress in the second language.

In addition, for ELLs with severe disabilities, it is especially important to maintain the home language, since the students' main caregivers will be their parents well after they have left the school system and have entered adult life. It is important that parents and family be able to communicate with and have close ties to their children.


Source: Hamayan, E., Marler, B., Sanchez-Lopez, C, and Damico, J. (2007). "Some Myths Regarding ELLs and Special Education." Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners: Delivering a Continuum of Services. (pp.7-8). ©Caslon Publishing. Printed with permission, all rights reserved.


Cummins, J. (2006). How long does it take for an English language learner to become proficient in a second language? In E. Hamayan & R. Freeman (Eds.), English language learners at school: A guide for administrators (pp. 59-61). Philadelphia, PA: Caslon.

Gersten, R., & Woodward, J. (1994). The language-minority student and special education: Issues, trends, and paradoxes. Exceptional Children, 60(4), 310-322.

Genesee, F., Paradis, J., & Crago, M.B. (2004). Dual language development and disorders: A handbook on bilingualism and second language learning. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Kay-Raining Bird, E., Cleave, P.L., Trudeau, N., Thordardottir, E., & Sutton, A. Bilingual children with Down syndrome: A longitudinal study. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Perozzi, A.J., & Sanchez, M.L.C. (1992). The effect of instruction in L1 on receptive acquisition of L2 for bilingual children. Language, Speech, and Hearing in Schools, 23, 348-352.

Perozzi, A.J. (1985). A pilot study of language facilitation for bilingual language-handicapped children: Theoretical and intervention implications. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 50, 403-406.

Genesee, F. (2006). How do English language learners acquire a second language at school? In E. Hamayan & R. Freeman (Eds.), English language learners at school: A guide for administrators (pp. 65-66). Philadelphia: Caslon.

Damico, J.S. & Damico, S. K. (1993a). Language and social skills from a diversity perspective: Considerations for the speech-language pathologist. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in schools, 24, 236-243.

Westby, C. & Vining, C.B. (2002). Living in harmony: Providing services to Native American children and families. In D.E. Battle (Ed.), Communication disorders in multicultural populations (3rd ed., pp. 135-178). Woburn, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.


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Teachers and administrators should give ELLs time to adjust before evaluating a child. In order to evaluate a child fairly, we must find out if the perceived deficits exist in L1. ie. does the child have memory problems, word retrieval difficulty in L1,or delayed expressive language? If so, the child's difficulty may be neurological and may require special services, but they should also receive ESL support.

It is exciting to see this challenge finally being addressed across the board. As an ESL teacher with Special Ed and Reading Specialist certificatons, I've discovered there are many misconceptions. Thank You!

I was completely suprised by Myth #3. The fact that Downs learners can become bilinqual is one of the most encouraging things I have read in a long time.

should intermediate ELEM ELLs be placed in SPED reading groups because they are reading on the SPED reading levels only because they have not required English yet? Many schools say they have to be in a reading group and that is where they "fit" until they can read with their non SPED peers.

Been an educator for 38 years. An ESOL student needs someone special to evaluate them...someone who speaks their language. That is the only way to determine if they are special needs. If someone not qualified tests, the test is invalid. Hard to find these testers...I know. very careful when putting a disability on students that are ESOL. Make VERY sure they have needs and it's just not a language barrier.

What about children that are ELL and are dyslexic. As an LBS, methods utilized in the public schools (direct intense reading instruction) are not available in native languages. I have found these methods helpful in teaching the ELL to read in English. Is it still recommended to keep the native language instruction going when data indicates there has been no growth at a Tier 2 native language instruction.

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