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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Support ELLs With Special Needs

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 05, 2016 15 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What are the best instructional strategies for working with ELLs who have special needs?

Adequately supporting English Language Learners is often a challenge for many schools, and accurately identifying and supporting ELLs with special needs can be an even greater challenge. When is it a language issue and when is it an issue related to special needs?

Today, Maria Montalvo, Beverly Maxwell, Jennie Farnell, Ann Wilson, share their suggestions. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation the five of us had on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in a previous post in this blog, Assisting Students With Special Needs.

Response From Maria Montalvo & Beverly Maxwell

Maria Montalvo is the ELL Director at the Metropolitan Regional Educational Service Agency (Metro RESA) in Georgia and a member of the ASCD Faculty, where she works with schools and districts to implement customized, research-based curricula and instructional strategies. Beverly Maxwell is a program specialist with Metro RESA, focusing on special education:

My first year of teaching pedagogical tool box was nowhere near full. As a special education teacher, I was curious about my student’s brains, devoted to adapting my instruction to match their deficits and compassionate towards the cognitive load they were experiencing. These practices would have been enough, had I had a class of culturally and linguistically homogenous students--which I didn’t.

With school being close to the community where many refugees settled, I had the opportunity to serve students who qualified for both EL and IEP services. I struggled with understanding the difference between Language Acquisition and Cognitive Disabilities. I wasn’t sure if there was an overlap in the specialized instruction techniques for dually certified students.

Are there commonalities in the best practices for EL students with special needs? Absolutely. Before instructional planning begins, it is important to make sure the best practices in EL align to the processing disorder. For example, my former EL student was identified as having a Learning Disability. Visual Processing and Long-term Memory Storage were her deficits. Thinking her EL needs required the heavy use of visuals; I consistently used pictures to represent concepts. Catch my mistake? My instructional intervention targeted her cognitive deficit--adding to her already overloaded processing.

Knowing your students level of language proficiency in both their native language, as well as the new language being learned, is the first step in understanding where to start with a child who has been identified with a special need. However, the same premise that applies to all students learning in a second language applies to students with special needs. All students must have opportunities to practice using the language in context with appropriate support in various modalities.

Some key strategies might include:

  • video, digital books, audio, data displays, simulations and concept maps.

  • students with low vision: visual display options such as screen magnification, the ability to adjust font size and contrast values of text to background.

  • students with reading disabilities, including dyslexia, often experience difficulty reading large amounts of text. Supports such as: audio textbooks, video, text-to-speech technology and additional time to complete assignments.

  • linguistic and non-linguistic methods to represent key vocabulary, labels, symbols and icons to support comprehension of concepts.

  • identify key ideas and critical information with tools such as graphic organizers, outlines and concept maps.

  • Scaffolding: beginning instruction at a student’s current level of understanding and providing teacher support to assist the student in reaching the next level of mastery.

Response From Jennie Farnell

Jennie Farnell is assistant director of The English Language Institute at the University of Bridgeport. She has been teaching ESL/EFL since 1998 to all levels and ages of students:

A few years ago, I found myself teaching English as a Foreign Language in a school where many students had undiagnosed learning disabilities (LDs). Even as an experienced ESL teacher, I was way out of my depth when it came to dealing with students with LDs. Having no choice, I soldiered on, made many mistakes, and learned an enormous amount. I can credit my LD students for teaching me how to be a much better teacher in general, regardless of subsequent student populations.

There is extensive research available to both parents and teachers regarding effective coping / learning strategies for LD learners. I have chosen to focus on the LDs (or suspected LDs) that I have found most common or easiest to observe in my ESL students. These are: attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and persuasive development disorders (PDD, of which autism is the most well-known condition). While LDs are far too complex and varied to be able to provide a one-size-fits- all approach, there are some general techniques which can support all students with LDs. These techniques fall into three general areas: classroom management, materials presentation, and assessment.

Good classroom management is the foundation of any successful class. For LD students in particular, meeting classroom behavior expectations can be extremely challenging. Many of the standard behaviors we as teachers take for granted are uncomfortable, unfathomable, or illogical in LD learners’ worldview. For example, ADHD students often learn better when in motion; sitting still actually distracts them from the content (Rapport et al., 2008). Many PDD students are very logical and find the emotions associated with peer engagement baffling and uncomfortable. PDD students can also be hypersensitive to background stimulation, such as florescent lights or electronic noise (Grandin, 2011).

Research has found techniques that many teachers already employ in their instruction can be particularly useful for both ESL and LD learners. Scaffolding materials by using visuals such as graphic organizers, pictures, and diagrams can be very helpful to students with auditory processing problems or PDD. Think, pair, share and small group discussions work well for ADD/ADHD students as well as ESL learners (Carr & Bertrando, n.d.).

Additionally, outside the context of a content-specific lesson, multiple methods of material presentation help all students meet broad Common Core standards. Adaptions in classroom management will set the stage for LD learners to more successfully master Common Core expectations. Using charts, graphs, and diagrams not only helps support LD learners but also meets Common Core Reading Anchor Standards. Readability software and leveled readings also support Reading Anchor standards for literature, drama, and poetry. Speaking and Listening Anchor Standards place a heavy emphasis on collaborative discussions and presentation of ideas through multiple media choices, including digital.

What follows is not an exhaustive list of LD support suggestions, but rather some simple, easy to implement strategies. Many teachers are probably already using these approaches in some fashion. However, knowing that these can all be effective in supporting LD students may provide reassurance that, as teachers, you are doing well in supporting your LD learners or may encourage you to implement more of them in your classrooms.

Classroom management

  • Provide a stable routine. Regardless of the LD, having a classroom routine diminishes anxiety by providing a stable environment where LD students clearly know what’s expected of them.

  • Use a bell ringer. It might sound antiquated, but it gives LD students in particular a chance to adjust to the changed expectations of your classroom from the last. They may not complete the task as fast as other students do, if at all. Make it low-risk but meaningful, with no penalties for non-completion.

  • Make sure you have all students’ attention before transitioning between tasks. Task transition is one of the greatest challenges many LD learners face. For example, students who are PDD are often reluctant to end a task and begin a new one if they haven’t finished their previous task to their satisfaction. It won’t matter if you’re satisfied, if they’re not, you’ll face considerable resistance to moving forward. ADD/ADHD students can be overwhelmed by what may seem like simple requests to you - put away this work, take out this work, look at this page. The very act of looking inside a backpack can bring all types of distractions! Make sure all students are prepared to start before moving forward.

  • Provide directions through multiple forms of input. If you have LD students in your classroom, you’ll find you end up repeating the directions multiple times, driving yourself to distraction. The ADD student may have floated away halfway through your instructions. The PDD student might be overwhelmed by too much information. Students with audio processing problems will be puzzling out the first step when you’re on your third. Give directions verbally, write them on the board or worksheet, and have students clarify them before you begin. Even better, break instructions down into step-by-step directions. If you’re working in groups, have one group member summarize your directions back to you. Make it a point to walk around the classroom and check with each student or individual group to be sure they’re all on-track.

Material presentation:

  • Use multiple modes of input. Don’t rely solely on verbal input or written input. Use videos, manipulatives, and written and oral input to communicate your information. It’s not as repetitive as it may seem to you.

  • Use sentence frames to scaffold writing or oral production. ELLs normally internalize the frames and cease to need them. ELLs with LDs may continue to need the frames as a way of organizing their thoughts.

  • Scaffold materials, taking into consideration factors other than difficulty levels. Dyslexic students may need a different font or contrasting colors. ADHD students may need their project broken down into clearly defined steps, each listed on a separate sheet of paper.

  • Allow students to use technology to supplement their areas of difficulties. Use readability websites or multi-level materials to provide accessibility for all students. Use audio books and videos for dyslexic students. Let students dictate their first draft or outline of a writing assignment. Typing is often much easier for dyslexic and dyspraxic students than handwriting.

  • Keep your goals in sight. Your priority as a teacher is that your students understand the materials, not that they master the input approach. Whatever adaptations students need to use to comprehend the concepts are probably ok to use.


  • Have multiple methods of assessment. For example, don’t rely solely on a written essay or a spoken presentation to determine skill mastery.

  • Allow for choice in assessment. If you’re doing a project, provide various options for demonstrating mastery. For example, students could write a paper, create a video, give a speech, etc.

  • Focus on the goals of the assignment, rather than the actual method of assessment. For example, if you’re working on organizing information, keep in mind that the skills used for organizing a 5 paragraph essay resemble the skills used in organizing a well-prepared presentation.

Coping strategies

  • Keep the end result in mind. It’s not about how students get there (usually), it’s that they get there. Your ADD student may flip his pencil through your entire lecture. If at the end he knows what you said, the flipping doesn’t really matter.

  • Educate yourself. There’s a plethora of information available online. You don’t have to become an expert, but understanding some of the general traits of common LDs helps enormously, especially in maintaining patience.

  • Be flexible. If you have ADHD students, there will be times you turn around to find your students under the desk, across the room, etc. Before you lose it, ask yourself if it’s really problematic or just annoying to you. Maybe all of your student would enjoy a lesson from underneath their desks here and there.

  • Maintain a sense of humor and enjoy the ride. Your LD students can provide you some of the richest experiences you ever have. If you let them, they will teach you entirely new ways of perceiving the world, and you’ll be better for it.


Grandin, Temple. (2011) The Way I See It | A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s. Retrieved January 03, 2015, from fhautism.com/the-way-i-see-it-dr-temple-grandin.html

Rapport, Mark D., Bolden, Jennifer, Kofler, Michael J., Sarver, Dustin E., Raiker, Joseph S., Anderson, R. Matt. (2008) Hyperactivity in Boys with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): A Ubiquitous Core Symptom or Manifestation of Working Memory Deficits? - Springer. Retrieved January 03, 2015, from link.springer.com.libproxy.bridgeport.edu/article/10.1007/s10802-008-9287-8/fulltext.html

Carr, John & Bertrando, Sharen. (n.d.) Language Magazine » When English Doesn’t Come Easy. Retrieved January 03, 2015, from languagemagazine.com/?page_id=5602

Additional resources:

There are many excellent online resources for teachers. Below are suggestions for a place to start, but the list is by no means comprehensive. Additionally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Temple Grandin’s excellent book The Way I See It | A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s.

British Council: Creating an inclusive learning experience for English language learners with specific needs

Colorado State University: Access Project

Language Magazine: When Language and Learning Get Tough

Learning Disabilities Association of America

LD Online

Response From Ann Wilson

Ann Wilson is a Special Education Coordinator/Teacher who has been teaching for 12 years in a variety of settings including Oyster-Adams Bilingual School and The Lab School in Washington DC. She currently teaches at Pine Spring Elementary, a Title 1 school in VA:

So there you are, a capable ELL teacher with a well-planned lesson and still, Jonny doesn’t get it. In fact, he hardly seems to be listening. Your frustration rises as you wonder what to do next. While I am not an ELL teacher, I will share with you some of the strategies that have worked for me in teaching Special Education for the past twelve years.

First, try to read the student’s psycho-educational testing results. The report will tell you about the student’s processing deficits (auditory, visual, etc.), and this will help you design great lesson plans. If you learn that the student is a strong visual learner, you may want to have them draw vocabulary words. If they struggle with auditory processing, do not rely on lecture style to get your point across.

I always start with the assumption that a child is bringing the best they have got ‘to the table.’ If you start with this assumption, it will change the kinds of questions you ask. (For instance, instead of asking, “Why is he trying to drive me crazy?” you will find yourself asking, “What can’t he control and how can I work around it?”)

Reward, reward, reward! Yelling simply does not work. I recommend a glass jar with glass pebbles as a group reward, and a small box or plastic cup for individual student tokens (positive and negative). I reward the group with extra break when they fill the jar, and the students trade in their tokens for prizes weekly.

Kids with Learning Disabilities often struggle with abstract concepts so it helps to teach an abstract concept by starting with something concrete, or with the student’s own experience. For instance, teach inference by describing a parent yelling the student’s name in an angry voice and asking what that would mean. It helps the student realize that they already know something about inference.

Give students with ADHD short breaks, especially movement breaks. In the classroom, place an extra desk facing the wall, and offer it as an ‘office’ --a place where students with ADHD can go to focus. This should not be a punishment, but a privilege.

Build a student’s vocabulary by reading aloud text that is on their grade level. Most students with Learning Disabilities are far behind in reading, so reading aloud is critical to build vocabulary.

Games, songs, and passwords are helpful to review core concepts that you are teaching. For instance, my students say a password (with hand gestures) to get into my classroom. The current password for my 2nd graders is “Ice is a solid; water is a liquid; air is a gas.”

Finally, take good care of yourself. Sally Smith, Founder of The Lab School, used to say that you need to stay balanced so that you don’t ‘catch’ the emotions of frustration and anger that often accompany Special Education students. Keep your balance so that you react in a level way. Sleep, exercise, have a life, enjoy!

Thanks to Maria, Beverly, Ann, and Jennie for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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