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learning disabilities

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									Learning disabilities …
 Are considered intrinsic to the individual  Are presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction  Last throughout the person’s life  Involve significant difficulties in listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematics* To be considered learning disabled, the child must have average or above average intelligence.
*Adapted from National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. (1998). Operationalizing the NJCLD definition of learning disabilities for ongoing assessment in schools. ASHA 40 (Suppl. 18)

What would make a teacher suspect that a child might have learning disabilities?
 A teacher would notice a student not making progress in the areas of: • Reading • Writing • Spelling • Comprehension • Math • Reasoning • Problem solving

English language learners with learning disabilities
Children who are English language learners (ELLs) sometimes have learning disabilities (LD). These children have two separate challenges as they learn in school. But those two challenges are intertwined to such an extent that it is often difficult to determine the difference between language difficulties and a learning disability.

There are similar patterns for learning disabilities across languages.
 In both Spanish and English for example, children with dyslexia might have trouble: • Processing sounds • Hearing sounds in order • Distinguishing between two similar sounds • Playing with sounds (e.g., rhyming) • Reading single words

Steps for distinguishing between language difficulties and a learning disability
1. 2. Screen ELL students when they first come to school. Use that as a baseline. Employ research-based teaching strategies known to be effective with English language learners. Adjust and adapt these strategies as needed and monitor for progress. If progress is not adequate, seek expert evaluation.


This is an incredibly complex situation, and researchers are working to find a better understanding of the overlapping issues involved. Meanwhile, teachers and schools have to work with these kids; these steps can help.

The teacher is a detective who starts the process of identifying a learning disability.
 Gather such information as: • What was the previous language of instruction? • Was this child exposed to English before? • How many years of educational opportunity have they had? • Have they been responding to that opportunity?  Discuss this information with experts at the school: • ELL teacher • Special ed teacher • School psychologist  Decide together if a formal assessment is a good idea.

Assessment in both native language and English = gold standard
 Gives a complete picture of what the student knows
 Comparison of results can show whether the child’s difficulties reach across both languages or are an issue of acquiring a second language  Called “dual language assessment”

Who can perform dual language assessments?
 Ideally, a bilingual school psychologist trained in assessment  Other bilingual staff members or community members who are trained to work in tandem with the school psychologist

A comprehensive dual language special education assessment looks at …
 Speech-language • how well children understand concepts • how well they understand words • how well they’re able to use words in their first language and also in the second language  Reading • ability to process sounds • ability to read words • ability to comprehend what they’ve read  Writing  Math

It is vital that the assessment instrument is …
 Culturally sensitive, not culturally biased  Accurate, that it really measures the skill it is assessing  Vetted for reliability and validity with English language learners  Administered by someone who is qualified and trained to do so

For more information on assessing ELLs for LD, please see this article on LD OnLine: Learning Disabilities in English Language Learners, by Dr. Louise Spear-Swerling.

Non-verbal period
ELL students often go through a non-verbal period in which they’re absorbing information. This “silent period” can be confused for a learning disability when, in fact, it’s just a part of the second-language acquisition process.

First steps after the LD is identified
 Once a learning disability is identified, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) must be formulated to figure out how to best help the student.  For ELL students with LD, it is important that the plan includes what the language of instruction will be. And once that decision is reached, it is important to stick to it. Be consistent with the language of instruction, and give the student time to respond to that instruction model.

Educators must consider certain adaptations when creating an IEP for an ELL student:
 How can we make what we’re trying to teach more comprehensible?  Do we need to take smaller steps in getting to the goal?  Have we provided enough native language support so students can understand the information and reach their goals?

Example: An IEP for third grade newcomer with dyslexia
 Similar to an IEP for a native English speaker in calling for work in phonological awareness, phonics, and reading and requiring ongoing checks of a student’s progress toward goals.  Dissimilar (perhaps) in specifying that the language used to conduct intervention match the language of instruction in the general education classroom; calling explicitly for teaching “new sounds” not prevalent in the native language; requiring teaching of cross-linguistic relationships — the differences within and across languages.

Most teachers will have an ELL student in their classroom at some point.
 What teachers should know: • Effective practices in the general classroom also work with ELL students. It’s important to give ELL students native language support and to explicitly teach the connections (similarities and differences) between the first language and the second.


Monolingual teachers can still help their ELL students.
 You don’t have to know the language to know the cross-linguistic relationships  For example, in alphabetic languages a teacher can see some shared and unshared components. With Spanish, many consonants sound the same in English. But vowel sounds differ, an area in which the teacher can help students understand the patterns of differences.

Make sure students are following what’s happening in the classroom.
 Define basic vocabulary words.  Use visuals.  Use hands-on activities.

 Use lots of repetition, rehearsal, and practice.
 Model activities.

Ways teachers can make themselves more easily understood by ELLs with LD
 Speak slowly, clearly, and naturally.  Face your students and avoid putting your hand in front of your face.  Be careful using idioms, e.g., “back-seat driver”; ELLs may take it literally.  Alert your students when something is particularly important. Consistently use a phrase such as “A key point is …”

Other possible accommodations for ELLs with LD
 If possible, provide written notes that will help your students follow the lessons.  Lower the level of background noise in your classroom to help your students hear.

 Allow a long pause between your questions and your students’ answers. They need time to think.

Twice the cognitive load

ELLs have twice the cognitive load — they have to learn a new language AND learn new content simultaneously.

Books on tape

Books on tape can help with pronunciation of sounds and words.
For information on books on tape, visit the website of Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic:

Coordination of professionals
In order for these children to be successful, a team of adults will have to work together. The team should include as many of the following people as possible: Classroom teacher Special education teacher ELL specialist Parent liaison School psychologist Speech therapist Learning disability specialist Principal

Establish a plan together and then communicate regularly to assess progress and reevaluate the plan. For students who are identified as having a learning disability, this coordination should be managed by the IEP team.

Benefits of peer-assisted learning
 Stronger English speakers model the language  More time on task with small groups  Less intimidating for ELLs with LD It’s critical to establish these routines very early so that children are invested.

Perform daily informal assessments.
 Continually check basic vocabulary.  Offer many opportunities to practice new words.  Ensure they understand the meanings of new words. If they’re not getting it, go back and use smaller steps.

When working with ELLs …
 Take into account cultural differences.  Don’t assume children know what native English speakers know.

Progress monitoring
 Progress monitoring tools must be directly related to the content taught.  Monitor often — weekly or daily.

 Be diagnostic and prescriptive in teaching. Adjust instruction based on progress monitoring results.

Resources for teachers of ELLs with LD
 Center for Applied Linguistics (  Colorín Colorado ( Check out the section on learning disabilities.

 LD OnLine ( Visit the ELL and LD section.
 Reading Rockets (

Video: Parents as Partners
Clip from “Becoming Bilingual,” a part of the “Reading Rockets: Launching Young Readers” television series.

Rachel Carson Elementary Chicago, Illinois

Parent involvement
 How can parents who don’t speak English help? • Speaking with children in their native language helps them build transferable language skills. • Reading with children in their native language helps them build transferable language skills.  How about parents who can’t read in their native language? • Take your child to the library. • Look through books and talk about the pictures. • Show a respect and enthusiasm for books and reading.

Parent involvement
 Why might a parent of an English language learner not visit their child’s school? It’s intimidating if you do not speak the language of the school, particularly in cultures where the teacher and school personnel are held in very high esteem.

How to engage parents of ELLs
 Have small group sessions with refreshments.  Make the parents who do participate into leaders who can encourage other parents to attend.  Offer a parent resource center where parents can come and learn about the school or use various educational materials (e.g., books on tape, books in native languages, etc.).  Provide translation services.  Send home materials in their native language.

 Follow up with parents via personal phone calls.

Involving parents in IEP meetings
Remember: A room full of professionals here to analyze your child can be incredibly intimidating.  Reassure the parents that you are all here to help.  Have a translator available at the meeting.  Take meetings step-by-step, making sure parents understand everything being discussed.  Suggest what parents can do at home to help.  Offer an open-door policy, with an invitation for questions and frequent communication.

 Offer a list of community resources.

Accommodating parents’ literacy levels
There may be some parents who are not readers even in their own language.  Provide adult literacy classes with native language support.  Provide parental involvement activities that require minimal reading.  Provide alternative means of distributing information, such as phone calls or voicemails.

Guidelines for successfully teaching ELLs with LD
 Look at every child as an individual.
 Closely monitor progress. Are they responding to the intervention?  Adapt instruction based on progress.  Track progress in new language and in native language.

What research needs to be done?
 Follow ELLs in special education over multiple years and report results.  Look at what delivery models were used and the language of instruction.  Compare to ELLs in general education and to nonELL students in special education.

Future steps for the field
 Design better assessment tools covering as many aspects of language and literacy and learning as possible.  Measure the effectiveness of the accommodations we give ELLs with LD during assessment and instruction.  Determine better ways to increase students’ academic language skills.  Help teachers understand the language and literacy opportunities in every classroom.

Some final thoughts on ELLs with LD
 Assess these children regularly and carefully.  Base instructional decisions upon assessment data.  Have consistency across languages of instruction.

 Provide opportunities to develop social language skills.
 Focus intensively on high-level vocabulary and comprehension skills.

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