Education Letter to the Editor

Learning Disability, or Limited English?

February 21, 2006 1 min read

To the Editor:

A column in your Feb. 8, 2006, issue describes a fascinating series of studies on English-language learners conducted using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten cohort database (“Meeting Puts Focus on Early Education of English-Learners,” Reporter’s Notebook).

You report that Harvard University doctoral student Jennifer F. Samson found that language-minority students are being underidentified for special education services in the early grades. This has been a recurrent finding in academic research for the past 15 years. It is unfortunate that students may not receive the help they need while learning to read.

What is most noteworthy is the suggestion from Joan Herman of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing that it is very difficult for teachers to differentiate between learning disabilities and limited English proficiency in young children when they don’t speak the children’s language.

As recently as five years ago, this statement was accurate. But this is no longer the case. At least seven studies have demonstrated that English-language learners who need extra assistance can be reliably and validly identified by the end of kindergarten or the beginning of 1st grade. This body of research consistently demonstrates that the two types of measures that serve as valid predictors are measures of phonological processing and measures involving rapid naming of letters, numbers, and common objects.

The results have been remarkably consistent and carry across language groups. Research conducted by Esther Geva, Linda Siegel, Penny Chiappe, Noni Lesaux, and my research group has produced consistent findings. It is important to note that these assessments can be administered in either English or a child’s native language.

I remain surprised that so little attention has been focused on these important findings. Such research has the potential to radically improve the quality of education provided to English-language learners who are in the at-risk category. This is at the heart of both the Reading First program and the “response to intervention” method, which are increasingly involved in special education. We can—and should—include English-language learners in these reform models.

Russell Gersten

Instructional Research Group

Long Beach, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Learning Disability, or Limited English?