English-Language Learners

How to Identify and Serve English Learners with Disabilities

By Ileana Najarro — September 07, 2023 4 min read
Young girl with teacher learning sign language.
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English learners are one of the fastest growing student populations in the country with a variety of unique needs that educators must address for their academic success. Even more factors and nuances come into play when English learners are also identified as having a disability.

Nationally, approximately 1 in 7 students identified as English learners were also identified as having a disability in the 2018-19 school year, according to new federal data. That’s slightly higher than the 14 percent of all students receiving IDEA services, however, the percentage of English learners with disabilities varies greatly between states.

In a webinar co-hosted by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English language acquisition and office for civil rights in June, national experts gathered together in a panel discussion on the best approaches to both identifying these students with unique needs, and then best serving them.

Here’s a recap of the advice they shared for states, districts, and individual schools. Further information on best practices can be found in the federal English learner toolkit.

How to properly assess students

Above all, when both identifying and meeting individual student needs, the panel experts agreed upon the importance of collaboration.

For instance, when assessing an English learner for a disability, schools must ensure that an English language development specialist is involved in the process early on, said Lynda Espinoza Idle, an educational consultant and co-owner of the Responsive Inclusive Strategic Education, or RISE, professional development program.

Schools must also rule out language as a main reason or determinant of a learning barrier, difference, or discrepancy. For example, is a student struggling to understand vocabulary overall in both their home language and in English, or is the issue primarily present in an English context?

“The possible disability, you see it across languages,” Espinoza Idle said. “It is not only going to be seen in one language, it’s going to be seen in both.”

That means assessment must be done in more than just English, she added. Schools need to consider whether they are asking the right questions and looking at the right data. For instance, is the student in question typical or atypical when compared to a true multilingual peer and not just their monolingual peers?

Caroline Torres, an associate professor at Kapi’olani Community College in Hawaiʻi who teaches second language teaching to pre-service teachers, added that schools must have an understanding of cultural differences that may show up in communication patterns, and make sure that they are factoring those into an evaluation.

“We also want to make sure that we’re looking at characteristics of our students and looking for things like acculturative stress, or trauma or other stressors that students may be experiencing, that often can manifest in ways that look like a disability, for example, inattention or lack of focus,” Torres added.

Once assessed, how to best meet students’ needs

Laurene Christensen, director of accessibility research at WIDA, which administers English language assessments in close to 40 states, said schools must ensure that students have appropriate ways to communicate with both peers and adults around them. For instance, students should have augmentative and alternative communication devices available in both English and their home language.

“Those devices need to be able to go home so that students are able to develop more facility with the communication tools that they have,” Christensen said.

Collaborative planning involving general education, special education, and English language development teachers is also important.

“We know that many students who have significant cognitive disabilities spend much of their day in self-contained special education classrooms,” she added. “And it’s really critical for them to be in general education classrooms as well to spend time with their peers.”

That collaboration extends into developing an individualized education program, or IEP, said Fran Herbert, lead educational consultant and co-owner of the RISE professional development program.

“There has to be multiple data included in the IEP that describes and substantiates the need for specialized instruction,” Herbert said.

That includes input from a variety of teachers, interventionists, students’ families, and cultural mediators hired by the district, she added.

Overall, Torres recommended schools use an asset focus when working with English learners who have disabilities by respecting their backgrounds, their strengths, and their preferences, as well as identifying potential challenges and supports.

She also called for schools to examine curriculum and instruction and identify potential barriers to learning. For instance, teachers can chunk information—meaning breaking information into smaller segments so the student can focus more on one specific piece of information or one piece of a larger task—and practicing that before adding on content can be helpful for students who struggle with working memory.

Torres also said teachers should apply culturally relevant frameworks to their instruction.

“To really improve outcomes for multilingual learners with learning disabilities, particularly in reading, when the content is culturally relevant the learners are better able to access and engage with that content, as they leverage and draw on their backgrounds and their funds of knowledge to help understand and build meanings,” she said.

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