Identification of English Language Learners with Disabilities

Bilingualism can promote cognitive development. During the early stages, though, development in the second language can be slower; there can even be some loss of skills in the first language as the child divides his or her time between the two and works to sort the systems in his or her mind. Of course, one will always need to set standards in a different place when assessing someone who hasn’t had the same educational experiences.

These are among the reasons that it can be challenging to identify second language learners who have learning or communication disabilities that qualify them for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While there is some overlap in needs between learning disabled students and English Language Learners – both may show some benefit from intensive teaching – it is important to assess the reasons for performance deficits and provide targeted support.

Requirements under IDEA

IDEA regulations set standards for identification and service delivery for ELL students who have suspected or established disability. Educational agencies must rule out limited language proficiency as the reason for poor school performance. They must administer assessments in the student’s primary language (except in cases where it is clearly not feasible). They must provide communication to the parent in a language that he or she can understand.

Still, carrying out these steps in the manner intended can be difficult. Unfortunately it is too easy to over- or under-identify second language learners who have disabilities. There has sometimes been a geographical split, with districts with smaller ELL populations tending toward over-identification, districts with larger populations tending toward under-identification.

If educators are not knowledgeable about second language acquisition, they may confuse normal acquisition issues with disability. Teachers may, on the other hand, want to give the student the benefit of the doubt and allow plenty of time to develop language proficiency before initiating evaluation or intervention. They may want to err on the side of caution and not discriminate, opting to put off evaluation until the student has enough skills to test in English. Unfortunately, this can mean two or more years of valuable time lost (

The Department of Education has provided a toolkit for local education agencies to use for identifying ELLs with disabilities and making educational decisions for them ( Among the tools is a chart that summarizes differences between acquisition-related language learning differences and disabilities. The RTI Network has also put together a toolkit, noting that it is helpful to compare progress to that of a “true peer” (

Sometimes there are tell-tale differences in performance. Typically developing ELLs and learning disabled students may both display delayed response time. A student with a disability who displayed this trait would not only display it in both languages but fail to improve over time.

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Both may have difficulty blending sounds and may misspell and incorrectly sequence letters. A child whose incorrect sequencing was based on acquisition errors would be likely to display patterns consistent with attempting to encode phonetically using primary language (L1) rules or patterns. A child whose errors were based on disability would be more likely to reverse letters in a way that does not reflect L1 rules.

Both might have trouble with multi-step math problems, but the child with acquisition issues would be likely to do a much better job grasping steps when presented with visuals (or with instruction in the 2nd language). The child with the learning disability would be more likely to reverse steps, or to forget them from day to day, even after having been provided instruction with appropriate visual support.

Of course, making the distinction in real world conditions is trickier than distinguishing between items on a chart. A child with a specific learning disability typically displays some of the traits associated with learning disability, but not all. This is one reason it is important to have someone on the team who understands language acquisition issues and has had experience applying them.

A big part of discriminating between acquisition-related difficulties and disability is determining whether the problem also exists in the primary language. This is of more difficult if the disability is academic and the child has had little academic instruction in the primary language. Parents can be instrumental in providing information about the child’s development and performance. It is likely, however, that if the child is not fluent in English, the parent is not either. Hence the need for a translator.

Dr. Debbie Zecarian notes that the Response to Intervention (RIT) model can be effective for struggling ELLs if the program is properly implemented ( RTI allows professionals to come together as a team to implement intensive and individualized education before screening. If a student’s needs are addressed, he or she may begin making the expected progress. Sometimes ELL students are no better off under an RTI system. Without adequate knowledge of language acquisition and appropriate systems to support the educational needs of second language learners, these children are vulnerable to over-identification.

Educating ELLs with Disabilities

What happens once the student has been identified? The IEP must address the child’s functioning in English as well as his or her level of functioning in the areas of educational focus. Children may receive both ELL and disability services. Communication between professionals is instrumental for success.

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Some state organizations have put together very strong resources that may be informative even for professionals living in other states. Educators may, for example, wish to consult the website of the Massachusetts Dual Language Special Education Network (