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English Language Learners and Learning Disabilities

Considerations and Recommendations for Effective Remediation

D. Deubelbeiss

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to
him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
Nelson Mandela

In classrooms all over the world, students are learning second languages in increasing

numbers. By 2030, it is estimated that 40% of the entire school population of the United

States will be English language learners (ELLs) ( McKibbin and Brice, 2005). Not only

are the numbers increasing exponentially but students are not only learning the language

(in classrooms) but are more usually “pushed in” and having to learn the language “on

the fly”, in classrooms where the content too has to be mastered.

Teachers are confronted with the dual task of having to teach the curriculum and also

having to help students learn the language of instruction. Not an easy task for even a

specialist in English language instruction. Discrepancies in test results between ELLs and

non-ELLs have become alarming ( Goldenberg, 2008). Teachers are under a lot of

pressure and find it almost impossible to cope or keep up. The result of this situation is

the overrepresentation of ELLs in special education (Brown, 2005). Teachers and

administrators are too quick to refer ELLs to special education programs (for many

reasons – see Appendix A). This creates not only undo stress on the educational delivery

system but also a kind of “Mathew’s Effect” (Stanovich, 1986) whereby because of

inadequate language instruction, those ELLs assigned to special education fall further and
further behind until it is too late to catch up. On the other hand, if indeed a student does

have a learning disability and not a second language acquisition issue, they too can fall

further and further behind.

So we must understand more clearly the issues involved when differentiating between a

learning disability and a second language acquisition issue. Both to help stem the over-

referral of ELLs and also to correctly diagnose student learning disabilities. The question

is, how? Is a student who is having difficulties remembering words or writing basic

sentences in English, just in need of specific English language learning attention or do

they really need special needs assessment and treatment? How do we as teachers decide?

There are many important considerations that must be made.

The L1 – L2 Relationship – What causes the difficulty?

It is important to note “what” causes the difficulty in learning a language. This will help

us as teachers eliminate a lot of false notions when looking for the cause of an ELL’s

difficulty in our classroom

There have been a lot of causes attributed to language acquisition difficulties, most

notably; anxiety, motivation/effort, learning habits and “low” ability. However, these are

most often just masks hiding the real problem. Dinklage (1971) studied why some great

students at Harvard had problems learning a language. It didn’t seem right that such

excellent students would fail miserably at language. He found out that the cause was not

those normally assigned (effort, motivation, anxiety, access, strategies) but rather one of
“disability”. Dinklage’s remedy to the student’s language learning difficulty was to have

them taught in ways that worked for the learning disabled and in fact it worked.

What we need to realize is that almost all people suffer from a learning disability when it

comes to learning a second language. Especially after our early years (>9). Compared to

our first language (L1), our brain is clunky, our learning “stop and start”. It is no longer

natural and some subconscious processes of learning are cut off. So we teachers must

think of language learning ability along a continuum and further, fine tune our own

classroom instruction more towards that of special education delivery (specific strategy

focus, use of supports and modifications etc…). We should assume a wider range both in

terms of time and content when it comes to acquiring language. One might even go so

far as to suggest that because everyone does suffer from a second language learning

disability, we should not refer any students to special education that have difficulties with

language acquisition. If everyone has it, we should address the problem “systemically”

and not piece meal through special education. Brown alludes to this in her finally argued

work, “Reducing the Over-referral of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

(CLD) for Language Disabilities”. She writes,

“One underlying problem consistently contributes to the over-referral of CLD students

for language disabilities: The characteristics of second language acquisition – a language

non-disorder – are mistaken for language disabilities. In other words, some language

aspects observed in CLD students who do not keep up with their peers are not necessarily

disorders, difficulties, or disabilities; they are simply an inherent feature of acquiring a

new language” (Brown, 2005, p. 227)

What causes a language acquisition difficulty is not precisely known. Memory, our

experiences and socialization, our physiology and the very nature of thought all play a

vital role. We might posit that how we learned our L1 (the deficits and nature of that

process) would effect our ability to acquire L2. Especially concerning age (1). They

exact nature of this dynamic is unknown but what counts is that we teachers respond with

instruction that takes this into account. Further, we can say with certainty that some

ELLs do have a learning disability as opposed to a language non-disorder (given that up

to 15% of students will (Root, 1994) and it is this issue of how to identify such, we now

must address.

Questions To Consider:

1. What is the student’s L1 literacy?

This is the most important question. In a perfect world, the teacher would speak both

English and the student’s mother tongue. The teacher would also have student records

from their L1 school. Assessment would be much more precise and easier. However

most often this isn’t the case and the teacher will have to interview the parents and

caregivers for gather a more precise learner history. Students who have significant

processing difficulties in their L1 are much more likely to experience difficulties in the

second language classroom than not. Perhaps, there is no learning disability but rather a

lacking in literacy in the L1 which is transferred to the L2. This is very often the case

and before any intervention takes place, the student’s literacy needs in the L1 should be
addressed through sheltered and intensive instruction. Primary language instruction can

provide modest gains to most students (Goldenberg, 2008).

2. Time. How long has the student been studying English?

Often, teachers don’t understand just how long it takes to become fluent in another

language. Students seem to make progress in social language and the classroom teacher

assumes that because he/she understands the teacher conversationally, he/she understands

academically. However, that is usually far from the case. It takes at least 7 years of study

to acquire the academic language needed for the classroom (Genesee, Lindholm-Leary,

Saunders, Christian, 2006). Often, students need more time than the school system with

its test driven nature will allow. Individual differences play a much stronger role in

language acquisition than any other subject. Teachers should be aware time might be a

factor. It seems simplistic but too many students are wrongly referred to special education

because they rightly go through a “silent period” (normal for ELLs). Education should

not be run as a race, especially when it comes to language which is more organic and

deep than many content based disciplines. Language is of the heart, not the mind.

3. Are there any other barriers to learning?

Second language learners in many cases, are experiencing significant social

displacement. They arrive in a new language, without the traditional social supports.

Teachers should ask themselves whether the student is making a smooth transition and

the student’s learning is not being impeded by social factors such as social estrangement,

culture shock, family problems, income disparity etc… Very often, students are strongly

affected by the transition to a new country/land. Gonzalez (2001) suggests that much over

referral to special education is because of the cultural and social differences between
instructors and students. Further, perhaps the student isn’t getting enough integration into

the wider community to facilitate their language development? Given the multicultural

dynamic in many cities, this often is a factor dramatically slowing English language


4. Have adequate formal assessments been done?

Too many second language students fall through the cracks in the system. They are

inadequately screened for problems and don’t receive the early intervention that is

imperative for success at school. Assessment should be done through a well coordinated

team (see Appendix B). Both formal and informal assessments should take place.

Assessments should be done in a culturally sensitive and appropriate (standard) manner.

If possible, they should be functional (for language is all about “function” ) and about

what the students “can do” and not just what they “know of”. If possible, the gold

standard of assessment in the L1 for cognitive and psychosocial development should be

given. If not available, at least assessment for phonological awareness in their L1 should

be provided. Ganschow and Sparks’ Linguistic Coding Deficit Hypothesis (LCDH),

states that difficulties with foreign language acquisition stem from deficiencies in one or

more of the linguistic codes in the student’s native language system (Schwarz, 1997).

Thus, a possible quick way to assess for underlying language processing disability would

be phonological testing in the L1.

5. Has everything been done right to assist the student in learning the

Before any decision about language disability can take place, the teacher or school must

assure that adequate instruction and opportunity (also time – see point 2 above) was given
the student. In terms of language acquisition, children learn in so many different manners.

We should ask regarding effective classroom practices;

A) Has a variety of learning styles been accounted for in the instruction? Has the
instruction been clinical and strategy based?

B) Has there been adequate comprehensible input provided? (often not, in the U.S.
over 50% of ELLs receive all-English (according to the CREDE (Center for
Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence) in class immersive instruction
and are expected to “sink or swim” in many cases)

C) Has the curriculum / assessments been modified and instruction not just text or
oral in nature (audio support, leveled readings, visuals etc..)?

D) Has the curriculum been taught with a sensitivity to the student’s background and
cultural experiences?

E) Have explicit learning strategies been taught and the student / family given
support in their use?

F) Have the instructors and staff been given training in teaching ELLs and aware of
the normal phenomena and processes that accompany learning a second

G) Has the student been given extra instruction and support? Was the intervention
intense enough and of a long enough duration?

H) Has peer assisted learning been put in place (we learn language through social
interaction and without this, language will be only slowly been acquired)?

I) Has the school provided the resources to make both English language learning
possible and for student integration into the wider culture?

J) Has the student been assessed and monitored enough to suggest that the learning
difficulty is not just something temporary or short term?

ELLs really face a hard struggle and we should lean on the side of caution when

thinking of referral to special education. ELLs face 2 times the cognitive load in a sense –

One, they must learn the content of lessons and second, they have to learn the language.

This is a big task and it isn’t any surprise that many have difficulty. It is probably even
more surprising that the gap between ELLs and non-ELLs in testing (mentioned at the

beginning of this paper) isn’t much wider.

The nature of language acquisition is still in the early stages of being discerned. Only a

few decades ago we thought that learning a language was simply a matter of repeating

phrases -- how different are our assumptions nowadays! I’ve tried to suggest some ways

that teachers and all stakeholders might reflect and look into the mirror their ELLs face

– how they might see the issues that mask the true nature of their language learning

difficulties. English language teaching would do well to borrow much of the

instructional focus and philosophical ground that special education has brought to the

pedagogical table. I believe that if we can see all ELLs in a sense as “learning disabled”

(or even defined by the term SLAAP (Second Language Acquisition – Associated

Phenomena) which Brown (2005) uses), we’d be much better at teaching them and much

better at catching those with real learning disabilities and who especially need rapid and

early intervention. Part of the challenge for the future in TESL will be to more clearly

delineate the line between language learning and language disability. Doing so will much

benefit our students and give teachers firmer ground to stand upon.


(1) There is most definitely a relationship between the first language of a child (L1) and
their acquisition of a second (L2). However, among researchers, there is no clarity. Many
believe in an innate “language window” or “critical period hypothesis” ( Lennenberg,
1967). This suggests that there is a set time for learning a language correctly and that
outside this period, there is substantial difficulty in learning a second language, especially
in terms of syntax. These advocates point to a biological basis for language and content
that somehow through age, we have less and less access to our “Language Acquisition
Device” (Chomsky, 1959), either because the brain loses plasticity or it simply shuts off
certain functions. Others contend that language can be learned well and fluently at any
age, this is known as the “Relational Frame Theory”.

Brown, C.L. (2004), “Reducing the Over-Referral of Culturally and Linguistically

Diverse Students (CLD) for Language Disabilities. NAHE Journal of Research and
Practice 2 (1): 225-43.

Burnette, J. (1998). Reducing the Disproportionate Representation of Minority Students

in Special Education (ERIC/OSEP Digest #E566. Arlington, VA: The ERIC
Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education.

Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin and Alejandro Brice, (2005), What’s “Normal”, What’s

Not: Aquiring English as a Second Language,

Chomsky, N. (1959), A Review of B.F. Skinners Verbal Behavior. Language, 35, 26-58,
Reprinted in.Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, Mass:
M.I.T. Press

Dinklage, Kenneth T. "Inability to Learn a Foreign Language" in G. Blaine & C.

MacArthur(Eds.) Emotional Problems of the Student. New York, 1971: Appleton-

Ganschow, Leonore, Richard Sparks & Elke Schneider. "Learning a Foreign Language:
Challenges for Students with Language Learning Difficulties." Dyslexia (Journal of the
British Dyslexia Association) 1, (1995):75-95.

Genesee, F. , Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W.,and Christian, D. 2006, Educating

English Language Learners. New York: Cambridge University Press

Goldenberg, Claude, (2008), Teaching English Language Learners. What the research
does – and does not – say. American Educator, Summer.

Gonzalez, V. (2001). The role of socioeconomic and sociocultural factors in language

minority children’s development: An ecological research view. Bilingual Research
Journal, 25 (1&2), 1-30

Irujo, Suzanne, (2004), When an ELL has difficulty learning, is the problem a disability
or the Second Language Acquisition Process?, ELL Outlook, March / April,

Lennenberg, E. (1967), Biological foundations of language. New York: Wiley.

Ortiz, A.A. (1997). Learning Disabilities occurring concomitantly with linguistic

differences. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30, 321-32.
Root, Christine, (1994), A guide to learning disabilities for the ESL Classroom

Schwarz, Robin L., (1977), Learning Disabilities and Foreign Language Learning,

Sparks, Richard, & Leonore Ganschow. (1993), "The Impact of Native Language
Learning Problems on Foreign Language Learning: Case Study Illustrations of the
Linguistic Coding Deficit Hypothesis." Modern Language Journal 77,i 58-74.


From: Brown, C.L., (2005) Reducing the Over- Referral of CLD

students for Language Disabilities, pg. 225-26