Several myths prevail in the area of special education for ELLs. These myths guide us in the way we approach education in general, in the way we interpret students' behaviors, and in how we teach and assess students. The following are commonly held misconceptions regarding ELLs and special education.
A special education placement when none is warranted does not serve the student well. First, we are bestowing on the student a stigmatizing label that the student does not need. Second, interventions that are specifically geared to help processing, linguistic, or cognitive disabilities often do not help children acquire second language proficiency. In fact, special education services can limit the kind of learning that ELLs need (Gersten & Woodward, 1994). Special education interventions tend to target a narrow selection of skills to enable mastery, and discrete skills are often practiced out of context (Damico & Damico, 1993a; Westby & Vining, 2002). This complicates the learning process for ELLs, since they need a meaningful context in order to comprehend the language that surrounds them (Genesee, 2006).
In addition, special education interventions often use reading materials with controlled phonics and vocabulary, which reduces the meaningfulness of the text. Intervention tasks often revolve around surface structures of language, targeting grammar, syntax, and spelling. This constricts language usage and makes it more difficult for ELLs to understand and retain information (Gersten & Woodward, 1994).
Although it is true that ELLs may take five to seven years to develop proficiency in academic language (Cummins, 2006), there is no need to withhold any kind of support services that an ELL might need in the meantime. The timeline suggested by Cummins was meant to give teachers a sense of how much to expect students to learn through a language that was not yet fully developed, especially in abstract academic concepts. Besides, if a student truly has an intrinsic difficulty, then it exists in all the student's languages and in most use contexts.
The sooner these exceptionalities are identified and supported, the better opportunity the student has to be successful in school.
Children with speech, language, or learning impairment can become fully bilingual (Genesee, Paradis, & Crago, 2004; Perozzi, 1985; Perozzi & Sanchez, 1992). There is even emerging evidence that children with Down syndrome can be successfully bilingual and that bilingualism does not disadvantage their language development (Kay-Raining Bird, Cleave, Trudeau, et al., submitted). The majority of people in the world are bilingual, and some of them have disabilities. Disabilities certainly do not arise from being bilingual. They manifest in all or most contexts. The decision to shift to instruction in English exclusively is usually based on lack of knowledge of the research, ignorance of the students' native language, or convenience. Developing the native language can help students with a specific language impairment (SLI) make better progress in the second language.
In addition, for ELLs with severe disabilities, it is especially important to maintain the home language, since the students' main caregivers will be their parents well after they have left the school system and have entered adult life. It is important that parents and family be able to communicate with and have close ties to their children.