Differentiating Between Language Acquisition and Learning Disabilities with English Language Learners

need to know

The following is an excerpt from English Language Learners: Differentiating Between Language Acquisition and Learning Disabilities, by Janette Klingner and Amy M. Eppolito (CEC, March 2014)


In its Blueprint for Reform (U.S. Department of Education, 2010), the Obama Administration stated that an important goal for the United States as a nation is to produce high school graduates who are fully bilingual, multicultural and ready to compete in the global economy.

If that is the case, then we should regard students who begin school already knowing another language besides English as having a head start over their peers. If we nurture their bilingualism and capitalize on their linguistic, cultural, and experiential strengths—helping them to feel “smart” rather than “at risk” —then we will enrich their school experiences as well as our own (Klingner, Vaughn, & Boardman, in press).

We can do this by making sure English Language Learners (ELLs) have every opportunity to interact with peers and use academic language, engage in higher-level thinking, and contribute in their classrooms and schools in meaningful ways.

As delineated by the CEC and Division for Learning Disabilities (DLD) position statement on instruction for ELLs with learning disabilities (LD), everyone who works with ELLs should know how best to support their language acquisition as well as their academic and social development.

However, many teachers and support personnel are not adequately prepared to meet their ELLs’ literacy and language needs (Zehler et al., 2003).  Teachers described feeling “challenged to help these children reach the level of proficiency required for learning sophisticated academic content through English” (Dixon et al., 2012, p. 6).  Now that the Common Core State Standards have been adopted by many states, their emphasis on increasingly complex texts can make these challenges seem even more overwhelming.

ELLs With LD

About 7.6% of the ELLs in the U.S. are believed to have a disability (National Center for Education Statistics, 2009; Peña, Bedore, & Gillam, 2011). However, percentages vary greatly by state, from highs of 28.36% in California, 20.50% in New Mexico, 16.70% in Nevada, and 15.45% in Texas to a low of 0.35% in Virginia. Identification rates also vary within and across districts (Artiles, Rueda, Salazar, & Higareda, 2005; Sullivan, 2011). The majority (about 55%) of those ELLs identified with a disability are thought to have LD (Peña et al., 2011).

Yet determining whether an ELL actually has LD can be quite difficult; the multidisciplinary team must be able to establish that the ELL’s learning difficulties are not primarily the result of language acquisition (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, IDEA, 2006).

To be able to distinguish language acquisition from LD, educators must understand the second language acquisition process, recognize characteristics associated with LD, and be able to assess the quality of instruction in students’ classrooms. Have these students truly received an adequate opportunity to learn?

Struggles with English language acquisition, on the surface, can seem to mirror characteristics of LD. Digging deeper and trying to understand the reasons for certain behaviors is essential to identifying the underlying causes.

We recommend using a hypothesis-driven approach to determining whether an ELL has LD, including:

  • Beginning the referral and evaluation process by exploring the hypothesis that the causes of the student’s learning difficulties are primarily external factors (rather than internal to the child).
  • Conducting the assessment with the notion that there is nothing wrong with the individual and that systemic, ecological, or environmental factors are the primary reason for learning problems.
  • Maintaining this hypothesis until data suggest otherwise and all plausible external factors have been ruled out. The point is not to look for whom or what to blame for a child’s struggles, but rather to understand the multiple complex factors that are affecting the child’s learning and performance.

The team also must determine that the student has received an adequate opportunity to learn through research-based instructional and intervention practices that have been validated with other ELLs, although it can be difficult to make judgment calls such as these (Klingner, Artiles, & Méndez Barletta, 2006). One way is to look at class data sets to see how ELLs in general are doing in comparison to “true” peers (i.e., same-language, same-age peers with similar background experiences).

There are many reasons why an ELL may not respond to a particular instructional approach in the way we intend (Klingner & Edwards, 2006). It is possible that the instruction or intervention is not as effective for this child as for others, and a different method would yield better results. It could be that the student needs more language support, or that the level of instruction is not a good match for the child. Another possibility is that the environment is not conducive to learning. Before referring a student for an evaluation, consider the classroom environment, observe instruction, and recommend different approaches.

ELLs with LD are usually taught by special educators who have received inadequate preparation in how to meet ELLs’ language and literacy needs (Barker & Grassi, 2011). In fact, when they are placed into special education, many ELLs lose access to specialized language instruction, such as through English Language Development (ELD), English as a Second Language (ESL), or Structured English Immersion (SEI) programs (Zehler et al., 2003).

There seems to be a mistaken belief that special education and ESL services should be thought of as “either/or”—that once ELLs qualify for special education, they no longer qualify for language support services. An important principle to keep in mind is that ELLs with LD are entitled to a full range of seamless services designed to meet their individual language and learning needs.

Classroom example: Michele teaches first grade at Garvey Elementary School. She has been teaching there for 14 years and has seen the community change from almost all White middle class families to mostly Latino working class families who work at the new plant nearby. More than half of Michele’s students speak Spanish in their homes, and about 36% are in the process of acquiring English—or, in other words, are ELLs.

Michele has a Master’s degree in Elementary Education and her principal considers her to be an effective teacher, although she personally feels that she has “the wrong master’s” for the school’s changing demographics. Because the school district selected Garvey Elementary to be a pilot response-to-intervention (RTI) school, Michele recently attended district-sponsored professional development workshops on progress monitoring and other components of RTI. Like many schools around the country, her district is pushing the use of evidence-based practices as “what works.”

Yet, Michele has not taken any coursework or received any professional development in teaching ELLs how to read. She does not know about second language acquisition or understand much about LD. She supposes that the evidence-based reading practices touted on the What Works Clearinghouse web site are appropriate for all students. She ponders, “Isn’t good teaching just good teaching?”

The problem with this thinking is that the answer to that question is a resounding “No!” If your belief is that you can teach your ELLs in the same way, with the same materials, you have been using in the past with students from different demographics, then you are bound to experience some challenges.

It is common for teachers to misunderstand ELLs’ lack of progress and blame it on the students (Orosco & Klingner, 2010). Being an effective teacher with one demographic group is not the same as being an effective teacher with all students. A typical scenario is that a principal or a language arts director in the school district advises using a specific instructional or intervention approach, stressing that it is research-based. The principal might even emphasize that the method has been “proven” to work.

When this happens, teachers assume that, because they are using an evidence-based practice, when their ELLs do not progress, it must be because the students are somehow deficient. Yet students do not all learn in the same way. What works with some students is not the same as asking what works with whom, in what settings, under what conditions, with which outcomes, and when taught by whom.

The vast majority of referrals for an evaluation for possible special education placement are made by classroom teachers (Ysseldyke, 2005). If teachers can improve their understanding of the reasons for ELLs’ struggles, they will be less likely to judge them as lacking.

However, some ELLs truly do have LD and would benefit from the extra support they would receive in special education. Teachers should not wait until ELLs are fully proficient in English before deliberating whether they might have LD. The temptation is strong to delay concentrating on the possibility that ELLs are struggling with reading due to language acquisition or learning disabilities (Francis et al., 2006). It is understandable that, because the characteristics common to language acquisition can appear to mirror those of LD, school personnel may have a habit of waiting, to avoid the possibility of incorrectly placing an ELL in special education. Wanting to wait could actually be a sign that school personnel have some knowledge about the confusing aspects of language acquisition and LD.

Just as it is a predicament to identify ELLs as having a disability when they do not, it is also a problem to delay providing interventions to ELLs who really need them. Following the guidelines outlined in this book can help improve instruction for all ELLs and result in fewer inappropriate referrals. The few ELLs who are still experiencing difficulties at that point will benefit from explicit, intensive interventions in addition to the instruction they are receiving in their general education classrooms.

English Language Learners - Klingner & EppolitoLearn more about English Language Learners: Differentiating Between Language Acquisition and Learning Disabilities and how to order the book.