How can I tell if an English learner has some type of disability or is struggling because of the language difference?
Oh, the number of times I’ve been asked that question or similar ones!
Often educators are looking for an assessment to use with English learners that will definitively answer the learning disability question when concerns are raised about the academic progress of these students. While assessments are important tools that can provide valuable information, there is much more involved in deciding on appropriate educational services for students. Interpreting test results is only one piece – and results should be interpreted cautiously, keeping in mind the considerations discussed below. By the way, there doesn’t exist one such test — a magic bullet so to speak.
One of the reasons that Response to Intervention (RTI) was made an option for identifying students with learning disabilities was so that schools could move away from exclusive reliance on testing and the “wait to fail” approach. RTI is a multi-tiered system of support designed to maximize student achievement by catching problems early and providing immediate, targeted intervention. This additional targeted support is intended to ameliorate academic problems by providing students the instruction they need in a small group setting. Some students simply need a boost of instruction to get on track. For those students who don’t respond well to the interventions provided, a team of qualified professionals considers next steps.
Unfortunately, RTI has morphed into a lot of different things in practice with little consistency across schools and districts. As a result, students with learning disabilities are falling through the RTI cracks. Another issue is that in a number of states RTI has been used as a way to delay or deny help to students who are entitled to special education services. The latter practice is so widespread that in 2016 the U.S. Department of Education issued two letters reminding states that intervention strategies cannot be used to delay or deny evaluation of students suspected of having a disability.
So, back to the original question….
The following four factors should be considered during discussions and decision-making when determining instructional services for English learners. Although discussed separately, these factors are interrelated, i.e., culture and background are tightly connected as is English proficiency and high-quality teaching.
- Opportunity to learn. The “frontline of prevention” of learning problems is Tier 1, or the general education classroom where teachers provide high quality, research-based instruction. When English learners struggle, the question should be, What supports are being provided by the classroom teacher? High quality teaching for English learners offers scaffolds and supports to make grade-level content comprehensible while capitalizing on language development opportunities during lessons – an approach such as SIOP. English learners also require a specific time for ESL teaching to enhance their English language development. Interventions might be warranted for English learners who continue to struggle after they’ve had high quality teaching and opportunities to improve their English proficiency. One caveat: a student may be referred for an evaluation at any time if a disability is suspected. Legally, there is no stipulation that students need to be in the country for a certain amount of time or go through cycles of intervention before being evaluated for eligibility for special education services.
- Language proficiency, including academic language. English proficiency is the greatest predictor of school success for English learners. But by definition, these students are still in the process of learning English and cannot be expected to perform like native English speakers. Many English learners may communicate quite fluently using social language, but the academic language use required in school is more challenging for them. It is more complex, and uses more sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structures than that used in conversational English. The ability to extract meaning from text or to argue a point verbally or in writing is an essential part of schooling and involves a high level of academic English. Naturally, a student’s level of English proficiency will impact his or her academic performance, including performance on assessments, and is not an indication of a learning problem in and of itself. One question to ask is, Does the student exhibit the same struggles in his or her home language?
- Background. Isn’t it easier to learn about a topic you already know something about compared to one that is completely new and is riddled with unfamiliar terminology? Of course, and the same is true for our English learners – but with a twist. Students come to school with a wealth of knowledge and their previous cultural, language, and literacy experiences influence their ways of learning. However, these experiences and perspectives don’t always align with the materials used in school, the lessons’ content or teachers’ expectations. To facilitate learning, effective teachers tap into what students already know and build on it. They connect new concepts with students’ experiences and past learning. Sometimes there are gaps in knowledge and skills that need to be filled. The point is that poor academic performance may be related to background and isn’t necessarily an indication of a learning problem.
- Culture. Cultural norms and values are deeply ingrained in all of us and many different influences make us who we are: religious beliefs and practices, gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic level, and geographic region to name a few. English learners, particularly immigrants, may feel distance from peers and teachers because their parents have rules, values, and expectations for them that may differ from those in school. An example I experienced recently was with a taxi driver from Tibet who was a college graduate and had moved away from his girlfriend and job to care for his parents in another state. As we were chatting, he timidly asked about what he viewed as Americans’ cruel treatment of their elderly parents. He was astonished that a son (per his culture) would hire caretakers or, worse yet, place parents in a facility. We explained about American traditions of individualism, self-reliance and independence, and that many parents prefer professional caregivers so that they are not a “burden” to their children. The man expressed gratitude to us for discussing a delicate topic, one that he admitted he had misunderstood. Similar misunderstandings happen in schools. Cultural norms and values that may impact the way students behave or perform academically include notions of modesty and politeness, ways language is learned and used, approaches to problem solving, order of time, and incentives to work. Professionals familiar with students’ cultures must be included in the decision-making process of RTI because culturally appropriate interpretation of behavior and data is critical.
In our book on RTI and English learners, we suggest asking the following questions to distinguish between disability and language difference:
- Does the student differ significantly from others with similar background (e.g., cultural, geographic, linguistic)?
- Has his or her family noticed a problem?
- What about first language development? Was it normal?
- Is the difficulty due to environmental or economic disadvantage?
- Is the student making steady progress, regardless of how slow?
- Has the student had the opportunity to demonstrate knowledge and skills in the home language?
- Has the student had sufficient opportunities to learn?
Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way of answering the question of disability or difference. It requires the collective input of family members and education professionals, especially those professionals who know about research-based instruction for English learners, who understand the students’ culture and background, and are familiar with the second language acquisition process.
An advantage for English learners when RTI is implemented well is that the focus isn’t on, “What’s wrong with this student?”
The emphasis is on instruction: “How can we meet the instructional needs of this student?”
Based on Echevarria, Richards-Tutor & Vogt (2015). RTI and English Learners: Using the SIOP Model. Pearson.