Teachers of English Language Learners face unique challenges in identifying students who require special education services. This lesson describes a process for fair and accurate identification of English Language Learners with special needs.
Special Education Issues with ELL
When an English Language Learner (ELL) appears to be struggling, how do you determine if the problem is language acquisition or special needs? Are you confident that your decision-making process doesn’t confuse linguistic and cultural diversity with cognitive skills and intellectual abilities? In the US, there has been a lack of consistency in how ELLs have been identified for special education services. Research shows that there is an over-identification of ELLs in school districts with fewer than 100 ELLs; that is, ELLs may be referred for special services who don’t actually need them. On the other hand, districts with very large ELL populations have the tendency to under-identify ELLs for special education, or fail to refer ELLs who do require special services.
Some educators assume that identifying an ELL for special education services is a fast, easy way for the student to acquire and master the English language. Not only is this detrimental to the student who does not receive the rigorous instruction needed, but it’s a violation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
Best Practices for Issues
To correctly identify ELLs for special services requires an extensive assessment approach. You must use data from various sources, avoiding bias at all costs. Ask yourself the following questions before deciding if it’s time to move forward with formal evaluations:
- Did the student receive appropriate interventions in the general education environment?
- Was the student assessed in their primary language?
- Are you familiar with the ‘silent phase’ of language acquisition?
- Have you considered cultural differences?
- Is your team in place?
Let’s go through each of these evaluations in more detail, one at a time.
Interventions and Assessment
Did the student receive appropriate interventions in the general education environment?
Determine where the student is in the multi-tiered system of support. Ensure the student has received appropriate research-based interventions with rigor and fidelity. Consider the data that you have gathered:
- Has the parent been notified and attended problem-solving conferences (with an interpreter present) during the process?
- Have you followed your school, district, and/or state policies for Response to Intervention regarding instructional and behavioral concerns?
- Have you used professional judgement with the length of implementing interventions? (Some interventions may take longer than others to implement due to planning required.
2.Was the student assessed in his or her primary language?
Testing students in their primary language is a crucial part of the informal evaluation process. An evaluator or educator can’t tell the difference between a student’s degree of knowledge and competency if the student doesn’t understand the directions or the questions being asked. Consider this: could you pass a simple oral first grade spelling test if the words were read in Urdu? It sounds like a ‘no-brainer’, but yet this unfair practice still occurs.
Silent Phase and Cultural Differences
3. Are you familiar with the ‘silent phase’ of language acquisition?
Similar to the ‘honeymoon’ period at the beginning of the school year before negative behaviors appear with students, ELLs go through a ‘silent phase’. During this phase, ELLs are slowly acquiring English language skills that begin with new vocabulary and syntax. During this phase, ELLs are apt to appear dazed, confused, may point rather than speak, and appear not to be listening.
They’re actually familiarizing themselves with the English language and its foundations. Many educators may be confused by this demeanor, assuming incorrectly that the student has low cognitive abilities.
4. Have you considered cultural differences?
When working with an ELL, have you thought about cultural differences? Think about English speaking students who raise their hands for assistance. Now consider the ELL. Some cultures believe asking for help is a sign of weakness.
Other cultures may even frown upon asking for help from a female teacher. Some cultures believe asking for help is putting the individual before the group, which is perceived as a matter of disrespect. Another difference is that some ELLs aren’t familiar with the Latin alphabet or font in which the English alphabet is rooted, such as ELLs from places like China or Russia. Lastly, other ELLs have never written or read printed text from left to right.