During the past year, we have had the opportunity to visit with educators across Michigan to talk about their questions and concerns when it comes to educating English language learners (ELLs). In our conversations, we often receive questions about the intersection of English language development services and special education needs. In particular, we have been asked about how to determine if an ELL has special needs and how to best support students who are identified in both ways. It can be difficult to disentangle English language development issues from special learning needs, so we will be devoting the next several issues of the MI Toolkit to this issue. We want to begin this series of articles by addressing several myths that arise around this issue.
Myth #1: We must allow ELLs to develop their English language skills for several years before we can rule out language as the root cause of a student's difficulty in the classroom.
While it takes students approximately four to seven years to acquire the academic English proficiency that allows students to demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests, it does not make sense to withhold special educational services to an ELL who could benefit from them in the meantime. If a student truly possesses a learning disability, this will manifest in their native language as well as in English. The sooner we can determine if a student has special learning needs, the better the odds of improving the student's opportunity to learn.1
Myth #2: Classifying an ELL as a student with disabilities will ensure that he or she gets some help.
Providing an ELL with special education services when the student does not possess a special learning need is poor practice, period. Services that are meant to help children with learning, linguistic or cognitive disabilities are unlikely to help ELLs acquire English proficiency. In fact, these services may even limit ELLs' opportunity to learn since special education interventions often target discrete skills that are practiced out of context, and a meaningful context helps ELLs make sense of unfamiliar language.2,1 Research has shown that ELL students, particularly those with limited language proficiency both in English as well as their native language, are overrepresented for special education services.3,4 Being aware of the potential for over-identification into special education services is the first step in improving opportunities to learn for ELLs. If educators have concerns about whether or not their ELLs are getting the help they need to be successful, they should speak with school leaders to push for high-quality language development services rather than seeking help through special education.
Myth #3: ELL students who are identified as having special educational needs should only receive instruction in English in order to prevent confusion.
Students with various types of learning impairments are perfectly capable of being bilingual. In fact, learning in the student's native language can help students make more progress in acquiring English proficiency, particularly for students with linguistic impairments.5 It is also important not to discourage or forbid students from communicating in their native language.5,1 Doing so sends the message that ELLs' native language and, by extension, their cultural heritage, is not valued at school, which may very well exacerbate poor academic performance.
Myth #4: The Michigan Department of Education will not allow students to be classified as both an ELL and a student with disabilities.
There are no federal or state policies prohibiting students from receiving services to address all of their needs. Title III regulations specifically allow for schools to assist "limited English with proficient children with disabilities." As of the 2011-12 school year, 11% of students identified as needing ELL services in Michigan were also classified as students with disabilities.6
Myth #5: It's best to provide as many accommodations as possible to ELL students.
Research shows that making as many accommodations as possible available for students may not be the most appropriate or valid way of providing access to classroom content or content on a statewide test.7 Providing accommodations for students to use with everyday classroom instruction is certainly appropriate if the accommodations provided are aligned with and tailored to students' specific individual needs. However, not all accommodations are appropriate for all students. The bottom line with regard to accommodations is that the decisions to use some accommodations over others should be made on an individual, student-by-student basis. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) has created a document that includes a series of tools for helping educators decide which accommodations might be appropriate for this population of students: Accommodations Manual: How to Select, Administer, and Evaluate Use of Accommodations for Instruction and Assessment of English Language Learners with Disabilities.
Myth #6: As a classroom teacher, I need to have lower expectations for my ELLs who are also identified as students with disabilities.
All students should have access to challenging content and high expectations from their teachers, regardless of their status as an ELL or a student with disabilities. Failure to do so may, in fact, yield an environment that is not as effective for learning as it could be if students were appropriately challenged.4
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1 Hamayan, E. V., Marler, B., Lopez, C. S., & Damico, J. (2013). Special education considerations for English language learners: Delivering a continuum of services. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon Publishing.
2 Genesee, F. (2012). How do English language learners acquire a second language at school? In E. Hamayan & R. Freeman Field (Eds.), English language learners at school: A guide for administrators (2nd ed., pp. 65-66). Philadelphia, PA: Carlson Publishing.
3Artiles, A. J., Rueda, R., Salazar, J., & Higareda, I. (2005). Within-group diversity in minority disproportionate representation: English Language Learners in urban school districts. Exceptional Children, 71(3), 283-300.
4 Ortiz, A. A. (2002). Prevention of school failure and early intervention for English language learners. In Artiles A. J. & Ortiz, A. A. (Eds.). English language learners with special education needs (pp. 31-63). Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
5 Gutierrez-Clellan, V., Simon-Cerejido, G., & Sweet, M. (2012). Predictors of second language acquisition n Latino children with specific language impairment. Am J Speech Lang Pathol, 21(1), 64-77.
6 Oh, S. (2013). Demographic overview of the LEP and FLEP population in Michigan (2011-2012). Lansing, MI: Michigan Department of Education.
7 Kopriva, R., Emick, J., Hipolito-Delgado, C.P., & Cameron, C. (2007). Do proper accommodation assignments make a difference? Examining the impact of improved decision making on scores for English language learners. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 26(3): 11-20.