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700,000 English-Language Learners Have a Disability. We Have to Do Better by Them

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Teachers should focus on ELL students' strengths, not their deficits

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A Pakistani 2nd grader with dyslexia, a South American girl suffering from a benign brain tumor, and a Japanese teenager experiencing symptoms of attention deficit disorder might not have a lot in common at first glance. However, they are all English-language learners who have also been identified as having an intellectual, psychological, or physical disability. I have taught students much like these—and countless others—during my 28 years as an English-as-a-new-language teacher in New York.

Recent figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics indicate that more than 700,000 English-language learners with disabilities are currently enrolled in the nation’s public elementary and secondary schools. This comprises 14.7 percent of the total ELL population in U.S. public schools.

Throughout my career, I have taught countless students who have struggled to overcome their learning differences, while also trying to learn English and master the content in their academic subjects. Many of these students have surprised their parents, teachers, and administrators by achieving success despite formidable odds. Despite their obstacles, English-language learners with disabilities can thrive with the help of specific teaching strategies. Teachers must also adopt a positive attitude to help ELLs with disabilities reach their full potential.

This affirming approach focuses on emphasizing students’ strengths rather than their deficits. Students feel motivated when the teacher acknowledges their past experiences, special skills, interests, and talents. This gives them the confidence to try new and challenging activities.

"Discovering the 'hidden' talents of ELLs with disabilities is another way to motivate this population of students."

As I learned more about this strength-based philosophy, I was reminded of one 7th grader from Central America who was classified as learning disabled. Although he had been in the United States for several years, he still struggled to comprehend what he read and had trouble writing using standard conventional English. Despite these difficulties, his oral language skills were well developed. He loved participating in class discussions and telling stories about his former home life on a family farm in his native country.

One day when we were speaking about food preparation, this student told a story about his mother cooking a meal while standing knee high in water in their flooded kitchen.

His classmates were intrigued. They asked, “Why didn’t you call a plumber?” “Wasn’t it dangerous to use electricity while standing in water?” “Did this happen often?”

Later, I asked him if he would write about this experience, so it could be shared with students in other classes. Although he usually disliked writing, he was eager to begin this assignment.

In fact, realizing that others were interested in his experiences gave my student a new mission: to write about the important events in his life. I met with him individually for a few minutes each day to provide feedback. We discussed his lack of punctuation, reviewed verb tenses, revised the paragraph organization, and examined the best way to express his ideas.

Slowly, his writing began to improve. He became interested in reading other personal narratives as well. By validating his past experiences and acknowledging his strong verbal skills, this assignment changed my student’s attitude toward reading and writing.

Discovering the “hidden” talents of ELLs with disabilities is another way to motivate this population of students. Research from John Hopkins University indicates that children pay closer attention, are more motivated, and are more likely to retain what they learn when the arts are integrated into the curriculum. Giving students an opportunity to use their creative abilities through music, theater, dance and other artistic expression helps them learn.

When a student we’ll call Hana entered my 5th grade classroom, I realized I would need to find an innovative way to help her succeed. Originally from Korea, Hana had suffered from a debilitating illness as a child that left her with both physical and cognitive disabilities. During one class, I discovered Hana doodling on a paper while the rest of the class was reading independently.

“That’s an interesting drawing, Hana,” I commented. She had drawn a picture of students with their noses stuck in their books. “Why don’t you create a picture to go along with the book you’re reading?”

For the first time that day, Hana opened the book she was supposed to be reading and drew a picture of the main character. The next day, Hana came to school eager to show me other illustrations she had drawn at home. I urged her to draw more pictures as she continued to read the book. Each day we looked at her artwork and discussed what was happening in the story. We also spoke about the characters’ motivations, the problem in the story, and its resolution.

Later that year, our English-as-a-new-language class studied the Egyptian pyramids. We read how the pyramids were built, which materials and tools were used, how measurements were planned by architects and surveyors, and possible secret tunnels within the pyramids. One day, Hana surprised me with a project she had made at home. She had created a miniature three-dimensional pyramid out of construction paper, incorporating many of the facts we had studied. I was overcome with emotion to see that not only had she understood the topic, but she was also able to use her knowledge to produce an independent project.

These vignettes reflect what I have learned from nearly three decades of teaching: Once students feel valued in the classroom, they will be more motivated to access language and content. When working with ELL students in particular, teachers need to use creative strategies to tap into students’ interests, talents, and experiences. English-language learners with disabilities are multifaceted and can be highly resistant, but with the proper approach, they can shine.

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