One of the frequently expressed challenges for schools that have English Language Learners (ELLs) is determining when to evaluate for special learning needs or learning disabilities. In some schools, ELLs may be over-identified for special education; in others, they may be under-identified. While a lack of training in assessment and instruction for ELLs (for both language proficiency and academic/learning challenges) may be the reality for many school teams, it is not an excuse for failing to provide appropriate assessment and instruction for students who are English learners.

In Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners (Hamayan, Marler, Sanchez-Lopez and Damico, 2013)1, an approach to assessment and service delivery is proposed to ensure that misidentification does not occur. This approach is founded on the provision of a continuum of services with support provided seamlessly as an ongoing element of daily schooling.

This undergirds a framework of continuous observation and formative assessment, timely and targeted supports and interventions, and appropriate assessment of both language proficiency and academic achievement. In essence, this proposes to address learning within a systemic and systematic framework of multi-tiered supports (MTSS), or response to intervention (RtI).


Hamayan, Marler, Sanchez-Lopez and Damico note that assessment of proficiency and academic achievement of ELLs is difficult; further, typical school practices are likely to short-change a thorough assessment for ELLs. Hamayan et al underscore some primary reasons for inappropriate assessment of learning challenges, including:

  • A bias to rely on superficial behaviors rather than underlying proficiency, as indices of difficulty;
  • The collection of inadequate data – with reliance only on criterion or norm-referenced test results;
  • The application of inappropriate discrepancy formulas for interpretation purposes (relative to learning disability).

These biases and practices yield inaccurate descriptions of proficiency and fail to recognize consequences of bilingualism during assessment.

One of the distinctions to keep in mind when considering evaluation for ELLS is that "language and learning disabilities are generally due to factors intrinsic to the learner" and this is distinct from second-language learning which is tied to "the language learning process itself or cross-cultural differences.2"

So, if a child is struggling with learning English – understanding English, speaking English, reading English, writing English – the first task is to determine the nature of the learning challenges and whether or not these same challenges are apparent in the child's native or first language use and contexts.

Leadership Challenge: If your school or district team does not include staff with appropriate training for assessing ELLs (in both language proficiency and academic/learning needs), find networks of schools and agencies that DO have appropriate staff and negotiate/contract services to assure that YOUR teams have the opportunity to learn from them, as well as to assure that YOUR students are appropriately instructed and evaluated.

Assessing for Learning Disabilities

With a focus on learning disabilities, Spear-Swerling3 advises that evaluations of ELLs must consider many variables, such as:

  • Native language and literacy skills
  • English language and literacy skills
  • Cultural factors that may influence test and school performance
  • Family and developmental history
  • Educational history
  • The nature of previous instruction

Further, Spear-Swerling notes that, ideally, formal assessment of learning disabilities should be administered in (and developed for) the native language, as translations for English tests can be highly problematic. In addition, caution must be raised in the use of any assessment in relation to cultural bias, cultural experience and previous instruction in the student's first language.

In determining whether or not to assess for learning disabilities, the nature and context of the language behaviors that are exhibited must be carefully documented.

For example, if the child struggles with phonemic awareness of English sounds and symbols, does s/he also struggle with phonemic awareness of sounds and symbols in her first language? If the child demonstrates difficulty with vocabulary acquisition, as compared to his peers, has he also struggled with vocabulary in his first language?

Information from parents should always supplement any formal assessment data. Spear-Swerling suggests that parents should be asked about:

  • Difficulties or delays in learning to talk in the native language
  • The educational history of both the child and the family
  • Opportunities to learn literacy in the native language
  • Consistency of school attendance
  • Medical conditions, such as hearing or visual impairment

If the English language learner exhibits difficulty with English reading skills, "patterns such as the following suggest the possibility of a learning disability:

  • History of oral language delay or disability in the native language
  • Difficulty developing literacy skills in the native language (assuming adequate opportunity to learn to read)
  • Specific language weaknesses, such as poor phonemic awareness, in the native language as well as in English (these difficulties may manifest somewhat differently in different languages)
  • The child has had research-based, high-quality reading intervention designed for English language learners, and still is not making adequate progress relative to other, similar English language learners.4"

An Important Consideration: First Languageeip tool ell and iep-01

Assessment, instruction, and targeted interventions must recognize the need for use of both languages for the English language learner. A learning disability is intrinsic to the learner, not to a specific language. For an English language learner, assessing for learning disability must include observation of learning difficulties in all contexts and in both languages. Proficiency in a native language supports proficiency in a new language – ignoring this undermines the language learning trajectory. Supporting students who are English language learners requires understanding and respecting the learners' experiences and cultures. This is critical to the assessment process and outcomes – "once ELLs begin to lose their home languages, as may occur in a subtractive school environment, it is very difficult to uncover an intrinsic disability as the explanation for the students' difficulties.5"

"Of all the factors that affect an individual's behavior or performance on a given task, none is more likely to exceed those of culture. Virtually everything that an individual knows, does, feels, thinks, believes, or says can be traced to the interaction between the cultural roots of the home, the community, and the society in which the individual is raised. In order to understand the functioning of an individual on a measured task, we must first understand the influences which caused the individual to perform in the manner observed. When we fail to account for such culturally based behavior, we run the greatest risk of identifying simple differences as serious deficits." – Rhodes, et al (2005)


Click Here for References

1 Hamayan, E., Marler, B., Sanchez-Lopez, C., and Damico, J. (2013). Special Education Considerations for English language Learners, Second Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Carlson Publishing.

2 Ibid.

3 Spear-Swerling, L. (2006). Learning disabilities in English language learners.

4 Ibid.

5 Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters. 

Rhodes, R.L., Ochoa, S.H., and Ortiz, S.O. (2005). Assessing culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students: A Practical Guide. New York: The Guilford Press.

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