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Don't Underestimate, Shortchange ELLs With Disabilities, Researcher Argues

Some educators feel bilingualism is "too lofty a goal" for English-language learners with disabilities, an attitude that could limit the educational trajectory of an already underserved population, a Lehigh University study found.

During a seven-month ethnographic study, Sara Kangas, an applied linguist and assistant professor in Lehigh's College of Education, found that some educators did not prioritize language services for ELLs because they had low expectations for the students. 

"This underscores the necessity for teacher education programs to work towards systematically dismantling these perceptions through curricula," Kangas wrote in her study. "If teachers working in the capacity of language believe ELLs are semilinguals, then the possibility of high expectations for academic and linguistic development of these students is grim."

Kangas defined semilingual students as those who aren't proficient in their first or second language. During her research, she spent months observing classrooms, interviewing teachers and administrators, and collecting documents in a charter school in the northeastern United States, which used a dual-language immersion model in Spanish and English

Kangas said her findings don't just reflect a "charter school problem." Schools of all stripes have long struggled to identify and support English-learners with disabilities: in 2016, a 20-state review from the federal Institute of Education Sciences and written by the Regional Laboratory West found that many states don't have well-defined processes for identifying ELLs with disabilities.

In addition, as my colleague Christina Samuels reported in 2015, many states didn't have exit criteria for English-language support programs for ELLs in special education. But that could change under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires states to provide a much clearer picture to the public on how English-learners are doing in schools,.

Research has shown that English-learners with disabilities have higher academic performance and linguistic development when exposed to both languages, even for more severe disabilities such as developmental delay.

"Dismissing the importance of bilingual development for ELLs with special needs out of a belief in their pervasive deficit has serious ramifications, both academically and personally, for these learners," Kangas wrote.

Here's a look at her research:

   Intersection of Special Education and Dual Language Education by corey_c_mitchell on Scribd

Related Stories

States Struggle to Support, Identify ELLs With Learning Disabilities

Evaluating ELLs for Special Needs a Challenge

Study: How One School Carried Out RTI for ELLs Badly

Parents of ELLs With Disabilities Sue Philadelphia Schools

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