Teaching Bilingual Learners with Disabilities in an Integrated Co-Teaching Dual Language Program

A woman smiling at two kids who are playing with blocks.

Dr. Diane Rodriguez is an Associate Professor in the Division of Curriculum and Teaching at Fordham University. In this article written for Colorín Colorado, she discusses the ability of bilingual learners with disabilities to learn in more than one language and describes the components of a successful bilingual program serving students with special needs.

  Video bonus: Dr. Alba Ortiz discusses the intersection of bilingual education and special education in the videos below.

In my work, I have been fortunate to get to know some excellent bilingual programs serving kids with disabilties.  There are a number of pieces that need to be in place for these programs to work successfully, and in this article I will share what I have learned from my work in schools using this model. First, it's helpful to answer some basic questions.

Bilingual Learners with Disabilities

Who are bilingual learners with disabilities?

Bilingual learners with disabilities in K-12 student populations are children and youth with special needs whose primary language is not English (Rodriguez, Carrasquillo, Lee, 2014).  They attend school, engage in instructional events, and learn in public and private educational settings. Some of these students are immigrants. Others were born in the United States, but are raised in an environment in which their parents, guardians, or caretakers speak their native language and may or may not have an understanding of English.

Can bilingual learners with disabilities succeed in bilingual programs?

Yes! Bilingual learners with disabilities have three complex challenges:

  1. language differences
  2. cultural differences 
  3. disabilities (Baca & Cervantes, 2004; Rodriguez, 2009).

There are many sociocultural and language implications for bilingual learners with disabilities.  Zhang and Bennett (2003) argued that differences such as “language and cultural differences of the family, a lack of understanding of linguistic and cultural diversity by professional, and lack of support from the systems are key influences” on bilingual learners participations.  The imperative question is what language should the instruction be delivered?  I argue in both!  Bilingual learners with disabilities are capable of understanding and comprehending in two languages.  As a matter or fact, Thomason, Gorman, Summers (2007) concluded, that Spanish literacy does not interfere with English learning and “no studies reviewed indicated that native language instruction hindered literacy development” (p. 5).

Bilingual education advantages for students with and without disabilities promote (a) metalinguistic awareness, (b) cognition, (c) social achievement; and (d) cross cultural awareness and understanding. In addition, the use of a student’s primary language facilitates participation in instructional and learning activities, which leads to the acquisition of academic content.

Like all students, bilingual learners with disabilities also need teachers to provide for social learning in order to enhance intellectual and social growth.  A nurturing social environment is especially important to bilingual learners because they attend school while adapting to a new culture and a new language. Adapting to a new culture is very complex and stressful, especially when one must learn a new language.  A bilingual learner with a disability or disabilities must resolve how to retain her or his own original identity while being bombarded with new expressions and customs.

The ICT-LD Model

What is an Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) Dual Language (DL) program?

An Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) Dual Language (DL) program is the instruction of academic content in two languages (English and native language), which was designed specifically to meet the unique needs of children and youth who are acquiring a second language and who have been identified as having disability. The ICT-DL model brings together two programs:

  • Integrated co-teaching services means a general education teacher and a special education teacher jointly providing instruction to a class that includes both students with and students without disabilities to meet the diverse learning needs of all students in a class.  The regulatory maximum number of students with disabilities receiving integrated co-teaching services in a class is 12 students.
  • Dual language programs’ purpose is to teach literacy and subject area content in two languages, with emphasis given to the area of native language curriculum, instruction, and assessment. These programs aim for bilingualism (the ability to speak fluently in two languages), biliteracy (the ability to read and write in two languages), academic achievement equal to that of students in English-only programs, and cross-cultural competence (Rodriguez, Carrasquillo, Lee, 2014). According to Boyle, August, Tabaku, and Cole (2015) a “two-way dual language program is when ELs who are fluent in the partner language and English-speaking peers are integrated to receive instruction in both English and the partner language” or “one-way dual language programs, in which students from predominantly one language group receive instruction in both English and a partner language.” (p. viii).

Accordingly, the ICT-DL program is a paradigm of instruction in an inclusive setting in which bilingual learners are instructed in two languages. (You can learn more about this approach from the New York City Department of Education website.) An ICT-DL program accommodates children who learn in different ways that all children, with and without disabilities, are curious about the world.

Integrated Co-Teaching classrooms are instructional environments in which students with disabilities receive services and are educated with age appropriate peers in the general education classroom (United Federation Teachers, n.d.). Whether a child has a disability, is learning English as a second language, or is an avid reader, the primary focus is on teaching children to speak up, to ask questions, and to delve deeply into a topic in two languages.  Here is a brief overview of what makes this kind of program successful.

What are the essential components of an Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) Dual Language (DL) program?

There are positive instructional attributes of an ICT-DL class, which include:

  • The use of two languages by the students and the teachers
  • The role of the teacher in affirming the diversity of the student population represented in the classroom
  • The development of critical thinking skills in the two languages
  • Manifestation of a positive classroom environment
  • The inclusion and participation of all students

In order to create an inclusive program, Hatheway, Shea and Winslow (2015) promote the ICT-DL model for bilingual learners with disabilities to meet the needs effectively in one classroom. These programs must have two or more teachers, the general education teacher or bilingual teacher, and a special education teacher who can modify, accommodate, and teach students with special needs.

How do we select the best language of instruction for bilingual learners with disabilities?

When selecting the appropriate language of instruction for bilingual learners with disabilities in an ICT-DL classroom for bilingual learners with disabilities, Hoover and Collier (1985) recommend consideration of the questions below, which are consistent with today’s educational settings for an inclusive DL education:

  • What is the student’s native language?
  • What is the student’s level of proficiency in English?
  • What is the student’s most proficient language – English or the native language? What native language instructional resources are available?
  • What English language instructional resources are available?
  • Does the student’s IEP specify language instruction; and if not specified in the IEP, what is the school district’s policy for selecting language of instruction? (p. 16)

What additional recommendations can help support bilingual learners with disabilities?

Artiles & Ortiz (2002) recommend the following effective instructional strategies for bilingual learners with disabilities, which are aligned with a supportive ICT-DL program.

  • A shared knowledge base
  • Recognition of students’ native language
  • Collaborative school community relationships
  • Academically Rich Programs
  • Effective Instructional Implementation

Klingner, Boele, Linan-Thompson, and Rodriguez (2014) identified the following essential components for bilingual learners with disabilities:

  • Culturally and linguistically responsive teachers
  • Culturally and linguistically responsive instruction
  • Relevant instruction
  • Explicit instruction to foster acquisition of English language
  • Use of the native language

The Native Language Instructional Foundation (NaLIF) also provides sound recommendations for educators (Rodriguez, Carrasquillo, & Lee, 2014).  Regarding bilingual learners, NaLIF promotes learner analysis in order to understand the biography of bilingual learners. Specially, teachers should know each learner’s linguistic ability in their first and second language, their cognitive abilities, academic learning aptitudes, and sociocultural life experiences.  Each student’s native language is an important cognitive asset for acquiring new knowledge, skills, and capabilities.  Use of the native language in teaching is of paramount importance because language provides a key foundation for students’ understanding, and is necessary in the provision of culturally competent instruction in bilingual settings.

In my own quest to identify strategies and effective instructional methods using students’ native language in dual language classrooms, I went into the field to observe successful ICT-DL classrooms.  The classroom activities are captured in the video, Celebrating Bilingual Special Education. Such classroom inquiries contributed to development of the Native Language Instruction Foundation (NaLIF) approach, which provides a guide for teachers as they seek to instruct ELLs effectively through use of culture and first language.

What do administrators need to know who may wish to implement an ICT-DL program?

Most importantly for school administrators planning to implement an ICT-DL program is the need to identify qualified teachers.  Carrasquillo & Buttaro (2004) identified eight areas in selecting teachers for bilingual learners with and without disabilities.  Those teacher selection criteria are:

  • linguistic and educational strengths
  • evidence of commitment to learn and be flexible
  • evidence of effectiveness as a teacher in both bilingualism and special education (d) teachers’ commitment for flexible time for planning and preparation
  • language(s) proficiency
  • professional development needs
  • willingness to observe and be observed by colleagues
  • cross cultural competence.

Teachers also need to understand the theories and concepts for planning a dual language through a systematic:

  • classroom organization
  • dual language planning instruction
  • identification of evidence-based practices
  • identification of hands-on activities in both languages intersected with the curriculum
  • identification of educational assessment to collect data progress
  • building trust throughout the school community.

Concluding Thoughts

As educators of bilingual learners, we want to ensure that their learning environments enable them to engage in effective instructional experience, which contribute to their bilingualism and biliteracy development for success as bilingual learners as they seek self-determination and self esteem. ICT-DL classrooms provide an avenue for that approach and an opportunity for bilingual kids who need extra support to have the greatest chances for success.

Be bilingual!
En dos idiomas
En deux langues
Nan de lang
Em duas línguas

Dr. Alba Ortiz discusses what the impact can be of moving kids with disabilities out of bilingual programs. See her complete interview in our Meet the Experts section.


Artiles, A. & Ortiz, A. (Eds.). (2002) English language learners with special needs: Identification, placement, and instruction. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Baca, L.M. & Cervantes, H. T. (2004). The bilingual special education interface (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NY: Pearson.

Boyle, A., August, D., Tabaku, L., & Cole, S. (2015). Dual language education programs: current state policies and practices. Washington, D.C: US Department of Education retrieved on April 12, 2016 from https://ncela.ed.gov/files/rcd/TO20_DualLanguageRpt_508.pdf

Carrasquillo, A. & Buttaro, L., (2004). Promoting academic success through dual language programs: Easy steps for implementing and evaluating a dual language program for native English speakers and English language learners. Woodside, NY: Bastos Educational Publishing.

Hatheway, B., Shea, D., Winslow, M. (2015). Dual language program meets integrated collaborative teaching. Journal of Multilingual Education Research, 6 137-151.

Hoover, J. H., & Collier, C. (1985). Referring culturally different children: Sociocultural considerations. Academic Therapy, 20, 503-509.

Klingner, J., Boele, A., Linan-Thompson, S. & Rodriguez, D. (2014) Essential components of special education for English language learners with learning disabilities: Position statement of the Division of Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 29(3) 93-96.

Rodriguez, D. (2009). Culturally and linguistically diverse students with autism. Early Childhood, 85(9), 313-317.

Rodriguez, D., Carrasquillo, A., & Lee. S. (2014). The bilingual advantage: Promoting academic development and biliteracy through native language in the classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Thomason, K.M., Gorman, B.K., & Summers, C. (2007). English Literacy Development for English Language Learners: Does Spanish Instruction Promote or Hinder?EBP Briefs, 2(2), 1- 15

United Federation Teachers (n.d.) Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT). Retrieved on April 12, 2016 from http://www.uft.org/teaching/integrated-co-teaching-ict

Zhang, C., & Bennett, T. (2003) Facilitating the meaningful participaton of culturally and linguistically diverse families in the IFSP and IEP process. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. 18(1), 51-59.


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