Identifying and Supporting ELLs with Learning Disabilities

When an English language learner struggles academically, it is often difficult to determine whether this is due to a language barrier, learning disability, or some combination of factors. In fact, several characteristics of acquiring a language mimic behaviors associated with a learning disability, making the process of differentiating between the two particularly complicated. And as studies suggest, there is both an over- and underrepresentation of language learners in special education programs likely due to teachers’ misunderstanding of student needs and poorly designed language assessments. (For more analysis of research on how DLLs are represented in special education, see here).

How, then, can educators and policymakers do a better job of identifying and supporting ELLs with learning disabilities?

To answer that question, researchers from the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) at WestEd looked at current practices in the top 20 states with the highest ELL populations and synthesized their findings along with literature research in a recent report, Identifying and Supporting English Learner Students with Learning Disabilities. According to the report, policymakers should target two underlying causes to more accurately identify ELLs with learning disabilities: weak referral processes and a lack of understanding by teachers as to why ELLs might not be progressing. The researchers—who found only one framework to help staff navigate the referral process of supporting ELLs with learning disabilities—recommended that states and districts provide increased professional development for teachers, use pre-referral strategies such as the response to intervention (RTI) approach, consider a variety of data from multiple stakeholders and experts, and develop clearer, more explicit policy guidelines and materials to aid educators.

The RTI approach seems particularly worthwhile for its potential to prevent unnecessary referrals in the first place, with four of the 20 states studied in the report providing resources to teachers on how to implement RTI. In this model, struggling students are identified by teachers and receive classroom interventions at increasing intensity before any formal special education referral processes take place. Each new classroom intervention is closely monitored to assess its impact. This allows students a chance to respond to the increased supports before rushing to label them with a learning disability.

However, because RTI relies heavily on teachers implementing effective interventions and having a clear understanding of what progress looks like for a language learner, increased educator training is key. As the report outlined, several researchers have suggested professional development on topics such as instructional and intervention strategies, typical and atypical rates and trajectories of language acquisition, how to appropriately evaluate progress of ELLs, how cultural differences affect behavior, and suitable accommodations or adaptations for learning and testing. While it would clearly be beneficial for teachers to have these competencies, it is less clear what policies we might pursue to support the acquisition of all of them. Providing more robust teacher training seems critical, so long as professional development is well-developed, research-based, and sufficiently evaluated to avoid becoming a well-intentioned waste of time.

But the challenge isn't just about developing strong professional development to cover a number of important competencies at the intersection of language, culture, and special needs. Many states have no clearly-defined procedures or expectations for educators during the referral process. This can lead to high variability and confusion around rules for referring language learners across a state’s schools. While 13 of the top 20 states with the highest ELL populations have an official policy statement acknowledging special considerations before placing a language learner in special education, only 3 of those states—Illinois, Minnesota, and Virginia—issued public manuals on best practices. These manuals supplied sample intervention programs, case examples, checklists, and explicit decision criteria for referrals. All states should follow their lead and give educators a common starting point and more meaningful framework for collaborative decision-making when it comes to making referral decisions for special education for DLLs.

Identifying language learners with learning disabilities is no easy task. It’s an inherently complex process, and much more research needs to be done. However, states and districts must not shirk from addressing the issue head-on, increasing its visibility and investing in the development of policies, processes and resources that will better serve students.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learner National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “Education Policy.”"


Janie Tankard Carnock is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Dual Language Learner National Work Group. Her work addresses policies and practices related to multilingualism, immigration, English proficiency, and educational equity.