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Response: Teaching English Language Learners With Special Needs

(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

What are the best instructional strategies for working with ELLs who have special needs?


In Part One, Maria Montalvo, Beverly Maxwell, Jennie Farnell, Ann Wilson,  share their suggestions. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation the five of us had on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Frank E. Vargo, Cindy Pirro Vargo, Donna DeTommaso - Kleinert, Susan Hillyard, Paul Boyd-Batstone and a reader contribute their thoughts.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources On Assisting ELLs With Special Needs.

Response From Donna DeTommaso - Kleinert

Donna DeTommaso - Kleinert Ed.D. is in her 31 year of teaching. She is the secondary ESL department chair and teaches middle school ESL to grades 7 - 9 in the North Penn School District, Lansdale, PA. In addition, she is an adjunct professor at Arcadia University, Montgomery County Community College, Del Val College and works for Educere online education:

Teaching English Language Learners with a special education IEP requires understanding the student, the IEP process and second language acquisition.

The ESL teacher should be a contributing member of the IEP team and participate in the creation of student learning goals, needs for specially designed instruction and program modifications.  Often there is a reciprocal relationship between the IEP team and the ESL teacher.  The ESL teacher can educate the team on second language acquisition and teaching in a linguistically and culturally responsive classroom. The IEP team contributes with their knowledge on special education law and specially designed instruction.

Using the SIOP model (Echevarría, Vogt & Short, 2008) provides the instructional supports and differentiation needed to include a student with a learning disability.  When a SIOP teacher plans instruction, they plan on the content and language objectives and assessments needed to drive instruction.  SIOP facilitates planning for the background building and the comprehensible input needed for students to grasp instruction. Often students with learning disabilities need additional scaffolds and adapted materials to grasp instructional concepts.  In addition, SIOP teachers plan for verbal, procedural and instructional scaffolds that allow all students to enter in the instruction and grow.

When teaching a student with learning disabilities the following strategies may help in scaffolding students into the content.  Some of the scaffolds are common scaffolds often used with beginner and intermediate ELLs.

Verbal Scaffolds

  •  Slower speech and slower pace
  •  Rephrase, paraphrase and simplify English
  •  Model think alouds
  •  Simplified English academic language frames
  •  Provide synonyms for tier 3 and tier 2 words
  •  Repetition and repeat
  •  Explain idioms, cultural context and slang
  •  Recast back and provide feedback for student language errors
  •  Provide oral and written sentence frames

Procedural Scaffolds

  • One step or two step directions in writing and orally
  •  Gradual release of independence
  •  Small group and partner work
  •  Modeling, modeling, modeling
  •  Partnering higher language proficiency speakers with lower level proficiency to increase language.
  •  Release students to read complex text according to lexile and comprehension level: some read in partners, some read independently and some read with the teacher.

Instructional Scaffolds

  •  Provide access to first language support
  •  Graphic Organizers
  •  Chunking of information
  •  Modeling
  •  Use mentor sentences
  •  Picture support
  •  Word banks
  •  Language frames
  •  Sentence starters
  •  Have students reframe and repeat directions, and other student responses.
  •  Read aloud all directions, tests, and activities.
  •  Differentiated responses to activities
  •  When possible, provide text on instructional lexile levels, so all students can read independently.

The following is an example of a middle school ESL classroom scenario that has twelve total students and also includes two students with learning disabilities:

When planning for instruction, the teacher plans for meeting all students' needs.  The teacher has built background with comprehensible input using strategies such as pictures and video. When asking students questions, some students are provided with oral or written sentence frames to assist in answering and they are scaffolded into answering in a complete sentence. These frames work for students with lower language proficiency as well as a student with a processing disability. When reviewing vocabulary, students who need it are provided with either mentor sentences to model or sentence frames to provide support for using vocabulary in context. There are two different worksheets handed out in the classroom. Some include the sentence frames, mentor sentences and cloze sentences and others do not. While picture walking a text selection, students work in partners to create complete sentences using academic language to describe pictures. As students are working, the teacher circulates to assist in creating complete sentences and provides some partners with oral sentence frames.  As students prepare to read the selection, the teacher decides ahead of time what the purpose is for reading and how to provide support for all students.  

Three students read the text independently and move right into answering comprehension questions.  Six students read with a partner and work on questions together. One of the six is a student with a learning disability.  Two groups have worksheets with supports built in. They have a word bank and sentence frames. Three students, in a small group, read with the teacher. One student has a learning disability and the other two are newer to the country and need more cultural background to grasp the text. These students also have word banks and sentence frames to provide the supports they need to answer the comprehension questions.  When the teacher brings the students back together to review the reading and questions, students work in small groups to review the questions and answers.  Each group has a variety of language proficiency and the students with learning disabilities are in separate groups. The teacher uses numbered heads to review as a class.  All students are able to provide complete answers using academic language. Eventually, when the teacher prepares to assess the students, the students with IEPs will be read aloud the test and provided with word banks, chunking and sentence starters.

Often, ESL teachers are well skilled to work with students with disabilities because they have often mastered scaffolding and differentiated instruction due to working with students with multiple language proficiency and cultural backgrounds.

Echevarría, Jana, MaryEllen Vogt, and Deborah Short. Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2008. Print

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Response From Frank E. Vargo & Cindy Pirro Vargo

Dr. Frank E. Vargo, EdD, is a clinical and developmental neuropsychologist and a licensed school and educational psychologist. He is an internationally recognized expert in the inter-disciplinary fields of learning disabilities and special education, neurodevelopmental disorders, and applied clinical and educational psychology and clinical child development. Dr. Vargo is the executive director and senior clinician for the Fireside Center Clinic for Psychological and Educational Services, and he is the Chief Executive Officer for the Learning and Teaching International organization. Dr. Vargo is the author of the recently released book Neurodevelopmental Disorders: A Definitive Guide for Educators, published by W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.

Cindy Pirro Vargo, MEd, is Vice-President of the Learning and Teaching International organization, the Director of Educational Services for the Fireside Center Clinic for Psychological and Educational Services. She is a licensed educator most recently preparing Title 1 students for the English Language Arts MCAS in Massachusetts.

Further information on Dr. Vargo and Cindy Pirro Vargo can be accessed at: www. LTI-FiresideCenter.com:

Unfortunately, many English Language Learner (ELL) students who also have learning disabilities and other neurodevelopmental disorders may not be recognized as having these disabilities in addition to their already-recognized concerns as ELL. In many cases, the differences between ELL-related issues and developmental disabilities involving learning and cognitive functioning are not obvious. A brief overview of both these areas may help clarify the differences between the two.           

English Language Learners

ELL are students who are unable to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English, who most often come from non-English-speaking homes and backgrounds, and who typically require specialized or modified instruction in both the English language and in their academic courses. According to The National Center for Educational Statistics, the number of ELL students in the United States during the 2012-13 academic year was an estimated 4.4 million students, or 9.2 percent of the total national student population.

Learning Disabilities and Neurodevelopmental Disorders

An individual with learning disabilities is either born with those issues or acquired them through events such as a brain/head injury. Researchers think that learning disabilities are caused by differences in how a person's brain works and how the brain processes information. Individuals with learning disabilities, in fact, usually have average or above-average intelligence, but they process information differently from more typical learners of their age.

The diagnostic category of "learning disabilities" is actually a general term that describes specific kinds of learning problems, including significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical problem solving abilities. Problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perception, and social interaction may exist with learning disabilities, but they do not by themselves constitute a learning disability. Although learning disabilities may also occur alongside other handicapping conditions (for example, sensory impairment, mental retardation, or serious emotional disturbance) or with extrinsic influences (such as cultural differences or insufficient/inappropriate instruction), they are not the result of those conditions or influences.

In addition to learning disabilities, other developmentally based special needs that ELL students may also be struggling with could include various neurodevelopmental disorders such as Language-Based Learning Disability, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and various neurologically based Motor Disorders.

General educational considerations for English language learners who are also suspected of having developmentally based special needs

ELL educators who suspect that a student receiving ELL services may also have a developmental learning disability should follow through with the same special education referral procedures to assess for possible learning disabilities that all mainstream students benefit from. When an ELL student is recognized as also having developmental learning disabilities and/or related neurodevelopmental disorders, educators can then begin to integrate additional educational interventions and supports specific to that student's individual educational and learning needs, in addition to established ELL curriculum and programming.

For instance, a student with English as a second language requiring ELL supports may also be recognized as having a neurodevelopmentally based Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder with related problems involving executive functions and controls. In such a situation, educational accommodations to both support a student's organization and attention in the classroom, as well as progressively teaching effective study skills strategies over time, may be very beneficial and appropriate to add to a student's educational plan.

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Response From Susan Hillyard

Susan Hillyard ( B.Ed. Hons) is the Coordinator, English in Action, teaching English through Drama for inclusion in Special Education, Ministry of Education, City of Buenos Aires, Argentina and SEN Network Coordinator for YLTSIG, IATEFL:

Practical Guidelines and Specific Activities for working with ELLs with SEN

Drama as the SPICE of ELT in SEN

Do you have some challenging students in some of your classes? Are they diagnosed Specific Educational Needs (SEN) students? Or not? Do you get frustrated with current methodology? Do you want to reach these students and engage them? Do you support inclusion? Do you want to change the refrain from "I can't" to "I can?"

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions then read on........

Teacher: Good morning! Let's arrange the desks, put them out of the way and put the chairs in a circle. Sit down on your chairs. Let's begin! Let's sing the hello song and do the actions!

This is one example of how every English in Action class begins. The word "Action" represents both acting (as in Educational Drama) and action itself.

One of the team's all-embracing guidelines is to work in the "magic circle". This is because we believe in teaching the English language as the SPICE of ELT. This means covering all the necessary developmental processes of the growing learner:

S for Social development

P for Physical development

I for Intellectual development

C for Creative development and

E for Emotional development

This represents the holistic nature of Drama and explains why it is so effective a methodology for teaching a language. The desks create a barrier to both student /teacher and student/student social relationships and inhibit the students from using their whole body to learn. We concentrate on listening and speaking through working with "The Speaking Body in the Empty Space", a basic premise of Drama, so we do not use a text book or any traditional methods to teach the language. Nor do we use pen and paper.

Teacher: Good. Now stand up and let's stretch and breathe deeply so we can concentrate together....Shake your hands, arms, body, feet, head, tongue etc, etc. (always ask one student to take on the role of the teacher to give instructions.)

In order to develop body language, expression and gesture and have the students, particularly adolescents, feeling good about their bodies we use exercises from theatre rehearsals to prepare the students for the lesson. At the beginning the teacher demonstrates but then moves more into TPR (Total Physical Response) to develop receptive language.

Teacher: (showing flashcards or illustrations from the story/video in her ActionSack) Remember the vocabulary? OK, I'm going to bounce the ball to each of you and you must tell me one word you remember. Bounce it back to me each time.

So we continue with the social, the physical and add cognitive growth and fluency in thinking skills.

Teacher: Juan, show me how .....(Jack played on his computer/the ghost walked into the room/ Goldilocks fell off the chair and what did each say?)

In this way we develop the students' creativity and work on the notion of "real learning in imagined worlds". Throughout the lesson the teachers continually monitor emotional growth and give the students opportunities to express their fears, worries, anger, likes and dislikes, often in mother tongue but then worked on through language games in English.

We use improvisation, role play, puppets, language games and vocal activities which develop all areas of the SPICE in every lesson.

Whether you face these challenges in mainstream schools or special education institutions you and your challenging students may start shouting "I CAN!"

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Response From Paul Boyd-Batstone

Dr. Paul Boyd-Batstone is Chair of the Department of Teacher Education at California State University, Long Beach.  He has worked in public education for almost 30 years as a bilingual teacher, reading and language specialist, and professor of language arts and literacy.  He has write five books in the field including his most recent book, Helping English language learners meet the Common Core:  Assessment and instructional strategies. Eye on Education (2013).

These are two very big questions because they involve multiple factors including socio-economic status, schooling environment, family involvement, cultural differences, and cognitive processing issues on the part of the students; not to mention linguistic issues such as literacy in the primary language and access to quality materials in first and second languages.

Asking for strategies is not the starting point with closing the achievement gap. What we need to be asking for first of all is what systems support all students. When I use the term "systems," I refer to coordinated efforts of the entire educational community. Schools where all students are supported begin with administrators who have been entrusted with adequate budgets, facilities, and resources to address a coherent vision for achievement.  Teachers are supported with materials, tools, and time to plan and confer with each other and families about their students' progress. Business communities open up sites for field trips, internships, and celebration of achievement. Families of all cultures and language populations have a place to network and learn how best to work with their children in a North American schooling community. 

Let me share one example of a very cost effective approach one urban school employed.  This school's population was over 85% ELL, low income, and consequently, low achieving academically.  But the principal had a vision to create a parent center.  He received funding to hire support teachers to run the parent center.  The teachers opened the center for drop in times before, during, and after school.  Parents received classes from the community on family medical and dental resources, how to write a resume, and how to interview for a job.  They also received classes in English, but in the context of using English to help their own children with their homework. 

During the school day, the parent center functioned as a tutoring hub for the entire school.  Classroom teachers could refer students to the center for help with their schoolwork.  The teachers in the center would utilize the tutoring opportunities to show parents how to help their children.  Even illiterate parents were taught to sit with a child as they read, and to ask simple questions like, "What does that word mean?" and "Where does the text say that?"  Members of the surrounding business community provided coffee and snacks for parents.  And parents were encouraged to organize themselves as boosters for the schools programs. 

This kind of systemic model costs money in the form of teacher salaries, facilities, and materials; but it was an extremely cost effective support that engaged the entire school community for the benefit of the students.  The net impact was a dramatic increase in academic achievement as measured by classroom performance as well as standardized test scores.

Students with special needs require systemic approaches, as well. More recently Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) has gain a lot of attention, but the body of research support is still very slight.

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Responses From Readers

Thanks to Frank, Ceindy, Donna, Susan, Paul, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected].When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form.  It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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