Part I: Opportunities and Challenges in Identifying ELLs with Disabilities
Is the programming for ELLs effective?
When we think of the topic of English learners, identifying English learners and working with English learners with disabilities, part of our thinking has to be what does the general or regular programming look like for English learners. And it is helpful to both understand the laws and the regulations and look at how we are enacting them.
So part of our thinking has to be first, is what we are doing scientifically proven to be sound and reliable. And the reliable part comes from are we properly resourcing our programming with highly qualified people to provide the instruction and proper resources or instructional resources in order to do that?
And then are we proving that what we are doing works? And that is the very well-known and cited Castañeda versus Piccard case that requires those three elements, that what we are doing is based on scientifically proven model of instruction that works, that we are properly resourcing it and that we are evaluating our programming to make sure it's effective.
And part of the dilemma around students with disabilities is that oftentimes the programming itself has been proven not to be based on those three elements that I just talked about.
IDEA: An Overview
What is helpful is to understand sort of the laws governing students with disabilities, and that's the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that was first implemented in the early '70s. And then later, there have been many iterations of it and probably the most known happened in early 2000 with the introduction of the response-to-intervention models.
And what IDEA looks at, or what, the purpose of IDEA was, was to provide a free evaluation for students that were suspected of having a disability. And then when a disability was found, to provide appropriate remedies or remedial interventions for those disabilities that were identified.
So when students, or should I say babies and toddlers, have a suspect of a delay and the delay can be in a range of areas that IDEA describes, students are evaluated or children, young children are evaluated. And then when they are identified as having these delays, interventions are provided. So that is one group.
And then a second group would be when students ages three to 21 are identified as having one of thirteen disabilities, so they are evaluated and then if they are identified as having one of the thirteen disabilities that IDEA describes, students are then provided with an Individual Education Plan or an IEP.
What's important for all of us to know is that disability is a disability that is present in school, out of school, wherever a student goes. And what's critical is what types of interventions can we provide to help students not just cope with their disability, but learn and be the best that they can possibly be. And that's really the goal of IDEA, to identify and provide a properly resourced educational program that is going to help the student grow socially and academically, depending on what the disability is.
So let's say I am identified as having an auditory processing or some type of disability. The hope and the expectation is that the education that I am going to receive is going to be specifically targeted to help me learn and me be provided with resources and interventions that are going to help me be successful in school and beyond. And that's the goal of any identification of students with disabilities is that their educational program is going to be targeted to meet their learning disability needs.
Being an EL is not a disability
Foundational to any programming provided for English learners is that the state of being an English learner is not a disability. And that's really important. And in some schools who may think it's in the best interest of the student to be placed with a special education teacher, think about what that does to a student's identity. Not only are they being identified as learning a language, but because they are learning a language, that's being associated with having a disability.
So the logic behind that, while it may be well-intended, it definitely may be disempowering instead of empowering a student. I haven't seen it in the best interest of students being identified as an English learner and then being placed in a special education program. It's better to provide that student with what the law suggests, which is a program of instruction that is targeted to their second language learning and literacy needs.
Over- and under-identification of ELLs with disabilities
In the United States, there's overwhelming concern about the dilemma of either over-identifying English learners or under-identifying English learners.
So for example, there are number of students who are English learners that look like they are not making academic progress or they look like they are having behavioral issues, when really they are second language issues. They often are referred for a special education evaluation. They are evaluated by people who are quite qualified, but haven't had much in the way of experience around working with English learners.
And what ultimately can happen is students can be misidentified disproportionately as having a disability. So it's one sort of swing of the pendulum. There is great concern about over-identifying English learners as having disabilities.
And then the pendulum swings in exactly the opposite direction which is concern that maybe it isn't a disability, that it is a second language issue. So there's this under-identification or high incidence of students who really are experiencing challenges in school, but the school might be afraid of referring the student and will stall or delay a referral based on concern that they may be over-referring.
So there is the pendulum swinging one way to over-identifying and the other way to under-identifying and never hitting that just right position of knowing that they are identifying students properly and securely, that they really do have disabilities.
Language vs. disability: Why are students struggling?
Generally a lot of us have questions regarding is this a language difference or is this language development or second language development or is it disability? And part of it, regardless of what our various disciplines are, is to really have a pretty healthy depth of understanding around what types of predictable programming can students count on that is going to be effective, that is going to be successful. How do we really plan for working with the complex, diverse differences of students? And then how do we look for what's working and how can we make it work better?
And when that occurs and we are much more sure that our programming is optimal. And there are a variety of different ways to measure that, both from what are we doing to help build relationships with students, help them feel like they are active members, trusted members of their classrooms. What kinds of, you know, just sociocultural things can we do to build strong relationships with our students and their families?
When we engage students in paired and group work, how are we basing that on creating those strong collaborative partnerships with students? How much attention are we paying to issues of second language acquisition in terms of sort of the developmental process of acquiring a new language?
And every state has standards regarding their students' English learners level of English language development and how much are we targeting instruction to each student's specific level of language and literacy development? So that's an important element.
When it comes to the academic or subject matter, how are we sure that we are providing an instructional program that is based on our students' prior learning and we can build from that and that is using materials that are appropriate for our students?
And then lastly, how are we really ensuring that we are helping students think about what we are teaching and helping them learn to do that? So part of it is really thinking about learning as a four-prong process regardless of who our students are and where they are coming from.
First, how are we building connections with their personal, cultural world and language knowledge. Second, how are we paying attention to their level of language and literacy development? Third, how are we paying attention to their prior schooling or prior knowledge in the subject matter we are teaching? And then fourth, in what ways are we helping students sort of think to learn and what does that look like and what should instructional conversations look like based on our students' level of literacy.
And when we do that, we have a wonderful chance of helping students be more successful. And then when that is layered that, if we more properly identify students with disabilities and provide an educational program, that really helps provide interventions that are found to be effective, we can do many wonderful things with all English learners.
Student scenario for over-identification: Li
Let me share with you a hypothetical example of one student who went through the evaluation process and kind of look at what does all of this look like in play. So let's just hypothetically call this student Li who is from Beijing. Okay?
So she comes to a school district at age five, she goes into a kindergarten and the kindergarten teacher sees that she cries a lot, doesn't seem to play well with other students and doesn't seem to be attending to any of the learning tasks in the classroom. So she is very concerned as the good teacher that she is that Li might have a disability and she refers her.
So they meet with Li's parents and at home Li's parents are concerned about Li's behavior at home. So the school very quickly assumes that well, Li is having these problems at home and she is having these problems at school, let's go through the evaluation.
She goes through the evaluation, she is tested in English, while she speaks almost solely in Mandarin, in fact doesn't speak any English at all. And the school in its best judgment will use sort of non-verbal assessments to help figure out what Li is all about.
They observe her in the classroom and they see indeed she is acting out, not able to attend to tasks. And very quickly she is defined as a student with a profound disability and is taken out of the classroom and given special education interventions, almost exclusively spending the day outside of the classroom. That is one potential of outcome.
So then let's take the same student, Li, who comes in at five, is coming from Beijing, new to the school and the teacher notices the same things and is quite concerned and she brings her concerns to the child's study team at her school. And the child's study team under the laws regarding IDEA says, "Let's look at various things that we might do to help Li participate more actively and appropriately in class. And let's do that first by meeting with her parents and just finding out a little bit about her background."
So with an interpreter, they interview her parents and they find out that Li, indeed, was born in a rural community outside of Beijing and that her parents, right after Li was born, came to the United States to do their graduate studies and they left Li in the loving care of her grandparents and she spent the first five years of her life with her grandparents.
Now her parents are ready for her to come to the U.S. They live in an all-English- speaking community. They themselves have acquired English. They haven't had much opportunity in the way of parenting and they welcomed Li into their home. And they decide that because they speak English, it would be in her best interest to be in an all- English-speaking environment.
So one of the reasons that Li is crying and upset and not able to attend to any tasks is she is being surrounded very abruptly by people she doesn't know, her parents, that she hasn't spent her first five years with. They are speaking in a language she is not familiar with and she is in a classroom environment that doesn't speak Mandarin either.
So with the help of the child study team, they decide to do various interventions before she is referred. The first one is with the help of a translator they work with her in the classroom to help her be more appropriate with her classmates, more aware of what is going on with the help of a translator.
The school guidance counselor works with the parents about what might be helpful to do at home and how hearing Mandarin might be helpful. And just sort of general parenting, because they don't have much background. They work with the classroom teacher. So all of these sort of ideas come into play around what might help Li feel more like she is a member of the classroom.
So if we look at the first scenario of what happened to Li, she is identified as having a disability and taken out of the classroom and at the end of the year, it's recommended that she repeat kindergarten again. In the second hypothetical case, Li does quite well and by the end of the class, by the end of the school year she is recommended to go on to first grade and she has never been referred for a special education evaluation. So you can see how that concern around over-identification can occur when proper, appropriate interventions aren't applied and when they are applied.
Student scenario: Li's parents
An important opportunity with students who are learning English is how can we partner with parents. The hypothetical example I used with Li, the school found the parents really wanted help, support and partnering with them to help their child do as well as possible in school and obtain all the opportunities that she could. And it was a wonderful partnership between the parents and the school around what would help Lee be successful.
And indeed, that partnership that they developed, that coming into school and helping in the classroom, learning about parenting, learning about how the school could help and so forth really paid off big benefits. And through her school years, the parents became more and more involved with the school and became more in close partnership with the school.
Another recommendation that the school made was to encourage the parents to speak the language that Lee understood best, which was Mandarin. And feeling that sense that Mandarin was honored, valued, the culture was honored and valued became a very important element in her academic and social development.
Including ELL parents through the referral process
The special education referral process is a big process. Picture a parent being part of an evaluation process with their child and they are concerned about whether their child might have a disability or not. And then they go into a room for a meeting about their child in which all of these professionals have evaluated their child. That's a pretty daunting experience for the most veteran of parent, even an educator who is highly skilled.
So if we layer onto that a parent of an English learner who is going to go through this very important process of having their child referred and possibly identified as having a disability, we have to step back and think about how are we working closely with parents and what is this process about, so that when parents come to this meeting, they are not coming cold.
And when research has been done about that IEP or special education referral process, oftentimes what we find is that parents of second language learners are unfamiliar with the process of a referral, may not have the language, not just in English, but the specialized language that is used in this referral and evaluation process and may be quite passive in the process.
Indeed, when one study was done where they were translators present, the team of professionals from the school often made eye contact with the translators and very little eye contact with the families. And that is really not what we are hoping to help happen. Regardless of the outcome of whether students are identified as having a disability or not, as educators we want to work closely in a partnership with parents.
So part of it has to be when a student is a second language learner, what should this referral process look like, what should any meetings look like, what types of professionals should be part of that meeting, how do we help support parents through that process. And of course, how do we help team with parents.
And part of it has to be what is it that we are really hoping to accomplish to help work closely with families and really avoid those pitfalls of families feeling like they are disconnected from the process. We really want to be in close partnership through that entire start to finish and beyond process of identifying and working with English learners with disabilities.
Learning more from ELL families on student background
Let's say that I am a classroom teacher and I am in what's called a low incidence school. I don't have a lot of English learners in my school and there is, unfortunately, not much in the way of specific programming for various and few English learners who come through. What kinds of things would be important for me to think about, especially if I am concerned that the student that I am working with might have a disability?
And a first really important step would be to meet with the family or the parents or guardians and the student to find out are they concerned. What does school look like before they came to my school? What is their background?
And sometimes that could be really helpful, even take the student on a tour of the school they are enrolling in or that they are into the classroom and ask them to describe what their prior classroom was like. And sometimes we would be really surprised to hear the differences between what a school day looks like.
For example, one student I recently, I was involved with the school and they were expressing concern about a student. We learned that the student hardly went to school, that lived in a rural area in our world where it had a lot of rain and during the rainy season, schools were closed.
So we said, "Well, what was school like for you prior to you coming here?" School wasn't a possibility prior to their coming here and he had spent many months without school. Not that he wasn't learning and he wasn't exposed to other things, but that rich important knowledge of what students' prior learning experiences were.
And finding out whether or not the student is concerned about their learning or the parents are concerned. And the other is how does the student learn best, asking the student, "What types of situations do you learn best in?" or asking the parents, "What type of situation does your child learn best in?" And that should be part of our thinking, "What can I do to help the student learn best and most optimally?"
And then how does my classroom really represent what that is. So for example, if a student says, "I learn best when I am sitting by another student and they can show me an example," we want to provide a lot of that. So some of the information that we can get initially may be really right in front of us, the student and their family.
Part II: School-wide Support for Dually-Identified Students
Important data to collect about ELLs in special education
One of the most important and helpful data to collect is how many English learners are there in a given school or district? How many have been referred for a special education evaluation and what trends are there? In other words, when students have been referred, are most of them being found to have a disability, are most of them being found to have a certain type of disability of the thirteen?
If I'm working with a school, what's the percentage of students identified with disabilities? And lets' say it is 10 percent of the overall school population. And we look at data about English learners and we have a certain number of them and we might see something like 20 or 30 percent have been identified as having disabilities.
Well, is that because of second language issues and many of the staff might not have that specialized training, or is it truly that the students have disabilities? And when schools analyze their data and look for these types of trends, it can help identify the professional development that is needed and the type of collaboration that is needed to best ensure that the pendulum isn't swinging one way or the other, but is swinging in that just right position that I described.
What makes RTI effective or ineffective with ELLs
Response to intervention is a very well-intended possibility for students prior to the referral process. So a student may be discussed at a child's study team or a teacher may express concern and others in a school may be able to provide interventions that are intended to help a student progress.
There's three levels of RTI. The first two of response to intervention can be provided by this team approach, various people becoming involved with helping students progress within the construct of the regular education program. And the level three or the third intervention would be when a student has been identified as having a disability.
So under the RTI provision, it is a wonderful thing that these interventions can be provided without a student having been identified and labeled as having a disability. Where it can be a concern are when the interventions that are applied are being applied by educators who don't have much background in the area of second language acquisition and working with English learners, especially the dynamic changing English learners that are happening all across our country.
So it's effective when it is being applied to what we know about English learners. Where it can be ineffective and sometimes inappropriate when it is applied by very well intended educators, but those that might not have the background that is necessary for working with English learners.
Why a team approach matters for serving ELLs in special education
A team approach is really important when it comes to working with, identifying, and undergoing a special education evaluation for English learners. And part of that reason is, just think about it — a student's day when they are an English learner can be with a number of adults. And this is a student who hasn't been referred.
It will be, it is generally with a general classroom teacher or secondary subject matter teacher, any of the specialists such as art, music, computer technology, physical education, as well as ESL teachers and bilingual teachers. So in a given day an English learner may be working with a wide range of professionals with a wide range of differing understandings about English language acquisition and working with English learners.
So part of our thinking has to be how do we do this as a team, who is coming into this process and what is our background? For example, if I am an ESL teacher, I may have wonderful background in second language acquisition and how to work with English learners, but I might not know a whole lot about identifying and working with students with disabilities.
And the same holds true for school psychologists, speech and language pathologists, special educators and others, including administrators, whose field may be quite strong and background may be quite strong in special education, but may not have had the privilege of really learning a lot about second language acquisition. So everyone on the team becomes these important players.
And in addition to that, our population of English learners is dynamically changing from students who come to us with high levels of literacy in the first language to students who haven't been privileged into much in the way of prior schooling, to English learners who are coming from areas where trauma, violence and of course being under chronic stress is a dilemma.
So others should be included as being members of this important team, and some of them are bicultural, bilingual representatives of the students' communities or school guidance counselors, school counselors who really have a depth of understanding about the different populations who are coming in. And all of that needs to be really part of this identification, evaluation.
And of course, what goes beyond that of how we work with students, because when students are identified, what then? What types of services are we going to be providing and, importantly, who is going to be providing them and what is their background. And what types of resources, both in materials and instructional approaches, are we going to use that are going to meet the second language learning needs of students, as well as their identified disabilities.
What an ESL teacher can contribute to a special education team
Oftentimes ESL teachers are the professionals who know their students best. And part of it is they have been well trained in what approaches to use, how to build strong relationships with their students and so forth. And they work with English learners all day.
And so part of it is when students are suspected of having a disability, they become a really important member of the team. They understand their students well. They have had a lot of education around issues of second language acquisition and what to expect. And can become really important members of a team and help elementary classroom teachers, general secondary subject matter teachers and others, really help students be successful. So they should be an active member of any child's study team when it comes to identifying and working with English learners with disabilities.
How administrators can help support ELLs with disabilities
Students will be referred for a special education evaluation and the team meetings that happen with the families will occur over the same length or schedule as for general American English-speaking students.
So let's say a team typically sets aside an hour and a half. And then an English learner is referred, that same hour and a half may happen. And what they find if they have a translator or if they have additional items that they want to talk about at the meeting, they may not have enough time.
So part of our thinking has to be as administrators, what should this referral evaluation and meeting look like? And if I notice as an administrator that students are being referred, are many English learners being referred? Are they being identified as having the same disability?
What should the programming look like? How is that student's day going to look after that referral process that's any different from before? What does that mean? Who is going to be working with them? How are we going to make their day as seamless as possible?
And administrators have a very important role to play from the meeting of families, from the evaluation process, the team meeting itself and making sure that it's occurring with the right amount of time so that everyone can make an informed decision. And then the after process, what does it look like when students have been referred and evaluated and found to have a disability, what is their educational program going to look like.
And then going forward, how are we going to evaluate that program to make sure that it's well resourced, successful and has the best outcome for students? So administrators really have a very important role to play in this process.
Using resources at our disposal to support ELLs with disabilities
Regardless of which state we live in, our state has English language development and proficiency standards, and those can be really helpful. Some of them have abbreviated formats where they say students at this level can do this, students at that level can do that.
Those can be really helpful to help guide the teacher into providing appropriate, more appropriate levels of language activities and literacy activities. So those are also important elements. And then really building trusting, nurturing, valuing relationships with students in whatever forms those take.
So part of it is we if we build strong relationships with our students as teachers and help them build strong relationships with their peers, and really look at who can we partner students with, who are they going to work best with, how can we help them be leaders in the class and feel empowered, that can really help us feel much more secure in our own work.
And there's wonderful articles on the web regarding how to do that. There's organizations — let's say I am a speech and language pathologist, the ASHA professional organization provides a wealth of information for speech and language pathologists.
School psychologists, there are also associations that they can get information from. And if we are general or secondary subject matter teachers, there's a lot of information about how to provide an adequate and positive strength-based education for English learners that is available for all of us.
What kinds of professional development do we need around dually-identified students?
When it comes to identifying and working with English learners with disabilities, we should be thinking about what types of professional development do we need to help strengthen our own experience with both issues of second language acquisition and methods, as well as issues related to identifying and working with students with disabilities.
And when we use a team approach and provide professional development that's targeted to the specific needs of our context of English learners, it can really be helpful. For example, let's say I am a school with a high incidence of refugees. What types of professional development would all of us need to really help address the specific needs of the English learners who have these refugee experiences? And for those that have identified learning disabilities, what types of training would we need to really help ensure that we are providing the most positive empowering educational experience with the students and with their families?
District survey: Trends around ELLs with disabilities
In a book that I wrote called Transforming Schools for English Learners: A Framework for School Leaders, there's a chapter in the book on identifying and working with English learners with disabilities. And in the back of that chapter is a survey that is intended to help schools or districts identify who the English learners are in their district and what are the trends around identifying and working with English learners with disabilities.
Who is being referred, what is the outcome, what are the languages represented? What types of trends are schools noticing and then what types of professional development would be important to provide based on a local district's own findings?
And the intent behind that survey is to really help schools identify any common categories that they're finding, what types of professional development may be helpful. What types of things can help us think more about how to help teachers and other specialists and so forth be more empowered to feel and be more successful with the students that they work with and build stronger instructional programming and family school partnerships.
App: TeachAll for teacher observation
I wrote a book on academic language and in the back of the book I include these rubrics to help us identify or help us strengthen our practice around providing optimal programming for students regardless of the type of program, be it bilingual, second language or just general programming.
The book is called Mastering Academic Language: A Framework for Supporting Student Achievement. And these observational rubrics look at how we are building our student sociocultural language literacy, academic and helping them think as learners. And it's based on using all strength-based language so that teachers feel empowered.
It doesn't look at anything that is deficit-based. It takes teachers' strengths and helps them build from that. And there are elements in it that help build strong family-school partnerships, so that is a good thing. It is also available as an app and it's called Corwin Teach All and teachers can see videos of practices that are really helpful. So if you are from really any school district across the country and you are looking to look at what are improved practices or how do I strengthen my practice, that's a great resource.
Dr. Debbie Zacarian is known nationally for her work in advancing student achievement. Her accessible explanations of the most current research into practical instructional, school-climate, and parent engagement strategies as well as strength-based teacher evaluation systems are widely practiced. She is a popular and frequent speaker at national and international conferences of major education organizations, including the Teachers of English as a Second Language and the Association of Supervisors and Curriculum Developers and at state conferences throughout the United States. Dr. Zacarian consults with state agencies, school districts, and colleges throughout the United States, has led and provided professional development for thousands of educators, and is the author of more than 100 articles, chapters, books, teacher training and coaching manuals, strategic plans, and policies.
This video interview was made possible by a generous grant from the National Education Association.