English Language Learners and Special Education Issues
by: Elizabeth Dowling
As of 2006, English Language Learners (ELLs) represent approximately ten percent of the United States public school population. Nationally, the ratio of all special education students represents about twelve percent of the total student body. Proportionally, twelve students of each one hundred would be in need of special education. However, when that ratio is determined using only LEP students in need of special education, the number skyrockets to twenty-two percent. Nearly forty years after studies revealed minority and English Language Learners were over-represented in special education programs, there is still great inconsistency in accurately identifying ELLs with special needs. Furthermore, where some states show ELLs consist of over twenty percent of the population, in other states they comprise of only one percent, revealing there is under-representation as well (Artiles & Ortiz, 2002, p.8). English language learners encompass varying rates and stages of acquisition, as well as cultural influences and behaviors. With disparate statistics and a consistently increasing ELL population, increased awareness of the nature of second language learning and a consistent framework of identification must be developed for the ELLs in US public schools.
Scenario 1: Stages of Acquisition – Silent period
Peter entered an early childhood special education program with a speech and language IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that specified he was non-verbal, speech and language impaired. Peter had just turned four years old. His parents spoke only Spanish in the home. This IEP showed hours of testing and evaluations conducted primarily in English with some words translated into Spanish. Upon fully screening the new student, the newly arrived ESL teacher informed the Early Childhood Special Education team that she did not feel this was a learning disability, but rather a silent period. A few months later, Peter was speaking in full sentences in English and Spanish and is now, two years later, a fully functioning first grader.
There are several learner characteristics, which may appear to mainstream teachers as indicators of students with special needs. As revealed in Scenario 1, the student’s seeming inability to speak was most likely what Dulay, Burt, and Krashen define as a “silent period” (1982, pp. 25-26). In this particular case, the three teachers in the classroom were not aware of the term silent period or its implications. While it is not known if a silent period is extended due to lack of incomprehensible input, or a high affective filter, the answer is most likely a combination of both. With ESL teacher intervention and inclusion, techniques were used to make the classroom language more comprehensible. Additionally, the student’s affective filter was lowered with less demands to speak which may have been interpreted as stressful and merely a day full of language “tests.”
Studies frequently support it takes four to seven years to reach English proficiency in the academic setting. (Mac Swan & Pray, p.7). With the recent pressures under the No Child Left Behind Act and subsequent standardized testing, teachers and English language learners are expected to miraculously cut this time to one, sometimes two years. The expectations are not linguistically appropriate. Furthermore, language acquisition does not always show the forward progress mainstream educators look for. There are times of stagnation, even “backsliding” as the process is recursive rather than linear (Gass & Selinker, 2001, p.58). To illustrate this, Susan Schwartz notes on the TESLK-12 list that each year she is approached by “teachers either wanting to refer a child to SPED or wanting to retain a child because s/he hasn’t made ‘enough’ progress” .
Another linguistic occurrence is the result of a student’s developing interlanguage. Carol Ascher points out that, “many new immigrants settle in neighborhoods among others from their country of origin, and after a time may not speak like a ‘native’ in either of their languages.” This phenomenon is a normal product of second language acquisition, but may lead parents or educators to refer students for speech services (Eric digest 65,1990).
Other characteristics may be cultural in nature. For children of Asian cultures direct eye contact with adults is offensive. In contrast, mainstream teachers often perceive a lack of eye contact as rude or a possible indicator of autistic spectrum disorders. In a recent Virginia Department of Education professional development seminar, speech and language pathologist, Marie Ireland, noted that Asian students are frequently referred to special education assessment for this precise reason (VDOE: Strategies for teachers with students with speech language issues, 2007). Clearly this is a breakdown in sharing of knowledge between professionals who work with ELLs and the mainstream classroom teacher.
Other Socio-cultural issues may be perceived as indicators of special education needs. As Luis Garrido notes in his article, “The Culturally Diverse Student in the Emotionally Disturbed Classroom,” “We should remember that a behavior which may seem extreme in this culture might be acceptable in another culture.” (Cross Cultural Developmental Education Services, n.d.). Unfamiliarity with the US educational norms also leads teachers to question a student’s abilities. Students from a culture that stresses rote memorization may not be accustomed to higher order questions that elicit a personal opinion based upon facts. In turn, the teacher may suspect the student does not comprehend the material and suffers from processing deficits.
Scenario 2: Testing Bias, and the perils of Inappropriate Assessment
Iliana arrived at her new school as a seventh grader. She did not have her prior records, but the home language survey revealed Iliana spoke English only when at school. The ESL teacher screened Iliana and determined she was a Level 3 English proficiency, or High Intermediate. A few weeks later an IEP arrived from Iliana’s previous school. According to this school, in another state, Iliana was a special education student with an identification of EMR- Educable Mental Retardation. She was in a self-contained classroom 75% of her day. She was also about to be remanded to an alternative special education school for fighting, disrespectful behavior, and poor attendance. The EMR identification was made when Iliana was only nine years old and had been extended without further assessment. Furthermore, although Iliana was in ESL at the time of her first assessment, she never returned to an ESL class until her arrival at the new school four years later. In her self-contained class Iliana reported she “helped the teacher with the other students.” The ESL teacher and a team consisting of the, school counselor, psychologist, mainstream teachers, and native Spanish-speaking interpreters met with Iliana’s grandmother to discuss the issue. After extensive new assessments, which included non-verbal screenings, Iliana was found to be well within the normal range of intelligence. It was determined that Iliana was probably a level I ESL student at the time of her original testing. The original assessments were administered solely in English. The IEP was removed. After one year at her new school, with ESL support each day, Iliana had relatively few absences, zero incidents of fighting, and zero referrals for disrespectful behavior.
Once the referral process has begun, the traditional assessments administered to native language speakers are not appropriate for ELLs for several reasons. The student in Scenario 2 was screened predominantly in English when Spanish was her native language. This error in assessment led to extremely inappropriate placement in a self-contained classroom. In addition to the tests being invalid for linguistic reasons, the cultural bias of standard assessments also renders the assessments inaccurate. Even non-verbal tests are normed for American speakers of English.
Administering assessments designed for native English speakers is also invalid when using an interpreter. Sanchez-Boyce discovered that the interpreters did not always follow the precise requirements of the assessment. Additionally, the “complexities of communication patterns” in the process of interpretation “overwhelmed” the students being tested (Artiles & Ortiz, 2002, p.54). The creation of dual-language forms of English tests is also proving invalid. One test designed for use with Spanish speaking students offers its own level of bias. The Woodcock-Munoz test is normed to “speakers of seven Spanish-speaking countries” however they do not address “demographic and socioeconomic data” or “lexical and semantic variations” among these samples (Artiles & Ortiz, 2002, p.55).
In addition to the risk of overrepresentation, there appears to be under-representation of ELLs in special education as well. Some argue this is a reactionary backlash due to legal actions because of over-representation (Olson, 1991). Over-representation and under-representation also appear to correlate with available services. Districts where students receive less language support services were three times more likely to receive special education services (Artiles & Ortiz, 2002, p.9).
Whether the ELL population is over or under-represented in special education, there are certainly students with disabilities in US public schools that need appropriate services. Every effort on the part of educators, counselors, and administrators must be made to accurately identify students in need. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires states to provide eligible disabled children with a “free and appropriate public education (FAPE)” (Artiles & Ortiz, 2002, p.14). The act also provides important the important caution that, “students are not eligible for services if their learning problems are primary the result of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage” (Artiles & Ortiz, 2002, p.13). Understanding the risk of disproportionate representation of English language learners in special education is the first step in creating a framework for appropriate pre-referral and assessment.
Appropriate English language proficiency identification and services must be available for ELLs to facilitate English language acquisition and meaningful participation in the classroom. Whether bi-lingual, sheltered content instruction, or ESL in nature, the services must be provided for students who are limited English proficient prior to considering a student for special education.
Early intervention teams are also an integral need prior to a student’s referral to special education. These teams may have one of several different names, Child Study Teams, Instructional Support Teams, or Teacher Assistance Teams (Olson, 1991). The important factor is the teams include mainstream teachers, ESL teachers, reading specialists, school psychologists, speech and language professionals, administrators, and parents/caretakers must be included. Additionally, translators must be provided if the parents/caretakers are not fluent in English.
Early intervention teams need to work collaboratively to answer important questions regarding a student’s learning difficulties. The classroom environment must be examined. Parents can share a wealth of information regarding the home environment and access to support for the student. The parents/caretakers are critical members of the intervention team, as true disabilities should present themselves in both the native and second language environments. The ESL teacher must be able to demonstrate the student is receiving adequate services for the student’s proficiency level.
Together, the team creates what Ortiz describes as a “shared knowledge base.” (Artiles & Ortiz, 2002, p. 35). This shared knowledge base also extends to the school environment as a whole. Professional development that develops awareness and training in working with ELLs will aid in the prevention of students being referred inappropriately (Artiles & Ortiz, 2002, p.35). Prior to continuing the referral process, the team should create goals to meet any deficiencies found in the students educational program that fail to address language proficiency or cultural differences. Should the intervention team determine the student has in fact been participating in services designed for English language learners and that targeted efforts to assist the child in overcoming learning difficulties have been ineffective, the referral process should begin as soon as possible.
Once again, the assessments selected must be as valid as possible. Students should be assessed both in the native language, and in English. However, considering the volume of languages represented in US schools, it is unlikely standardized assessments are readily available in all students’ native languages. Collecting a body of evidence may be more fruitful than using assessments designed for native English speakers. Teacher and professional observations, samples of work, documentation of classroom activities coupled with native language, or non-verbal tests will create a holistic picture of the students needs.
Several school districts are developing flow charts to assist in the accurate referral, intervention, and identification of English language learners with special education needs.
A flowchart created by Theresa Armentrout with the Missouri Migrant Education and English Language Learning Program is one of the most thorough and useful charts available for educators. A detailed version of the current flowchart entitled K-12 Sped-ELL Flowchart, may be accessed at http://rpdc.truman.edu/mell.asp. For the purposes of this report, an adapted and simplified version of essential questions to include in a flowchart is as follows:
1. Is the student experiencing difficulty as a result of untreated health issues?
2. Is the student receiving appropriate ESL services?
3. Has the curriculum proven effective for ELL students?
4. Have the identified concerns been documented by mainstream, content, and ELL teachers, and parents?
5. Have the concerns been addressed by analyzing teacher, student, and curriculum systematically?
6. Have interventions been appropriately utilized?
7. Does the difficulty persist?
If the answer to number 7 is yes, a referral to special education is appropriate.
Armentrout and colleagues are also preparing numerous additional resources for the Missouri Migrant Education and English Language Learning Program and expect them to be available in early 2008. One document in currently in the drafting stages guides educators through a “Wait and See, Watch and See, and Act Now” process. The “Wait and See” approach is listed as less desirable than the “Watch and See” which will incorporate active monitoring, data collection, and sharing of information. The “Act Now” step allows for immediate referral when there are clear health related issues, obvious disabilities, or educators trained in language acquisition are significantly concerned. The “Act Now” step is also activated should difficulties “escalate” during the “Watch and See” period. This approach is a basic guideline to supplement the flowchart. The prepared document would prove useful, especially if shared with all staff at the beginning of each school year (Armentrout, October 28, 2007 email).
Each English language learner arrives at school with differing layers of culture, native and additional language proficiency, economic status, and expectations. Within these layers are multiple characteristics that may present as special education needs. Additionally, there may be special needs that are masked by an inability for the learner or educators to separate a language difference or disorder. All children have the right to an equitably accessible, free, and appropriate education. Some children need additional English language support, some children need additional special education support, and some children will need both. It is the duties of educators to make every effort to be mindful of the multiple factors involved and work as a team to accurately identify each student’s individual needs.
Armentrout, T. (2007) K - 12 Sped - ELL Flowchart. Adapted with permission from personal email correspondence. Retrieved October 28, 2007 from: http://rpdc.truman.edu/mell.asp.
Artiles, A.J., & Ortiz, A.A. (Eds.). (2002). English language learners with special education needs. McHenry: Center for Applied Linguistics & Delta Systems, Co.
Ascher, C. (1990). Assessing bilingual students for placement and instruction. (ERIC/CUE Digest No. 65). National Committee on Testing and Public Policy. New York: ERIC Document Reproduction Service No ED322273. Retrieved October 15, 2007 from
Dulay, H., Burt M., & Krashen, S. (1982). Language two. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gass, S.M., & Selinker, L. (2001). Second language acquisition: An introductory course. (2nd ed.). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Garrido, L. (n.d.). The culturally diverse student in the emotionally disturbed classroom. Retrieved October 1, 2007 from Cross Cultural Developmental Education Services. http://www.crosscultured.com/articles.asp?category=163&id=31
Olson, P. (1991). Referring language minority students to special education. (ED329131). Washington, D.C.: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics. Retrieved October 22, 2007, from http://www.cal.org/resources/archive/digest/1991langminor.html.