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States Struggle to Identify, Support ELLs with Learning Disabilities


A 20-state review of research and policies from the federal Institute of Education Sciences found no clear-cut process for identifying English-language learners with learning disabilities.

The report from the institute's Regional Education Laboratory West, operated by WestEd, found that states and schools often have trouble drawing distinctions between English-learner students who struggle with the language and those who have learning disabilities.

Last summer, my colleague Christina Samuels addressed this very topic on her On Special Education blog, writing that "states and districts are struggling both to identify these children and to steer them to effective programs."

That's partly because schools have "poorly designed and implemented referral processes" and a "lack of understanding about why English-learner students are not making adequate progress," the institute's latest report argues.

Culling from the guidelines and protocols used by the 20 states with the largest ELL populations, the brief offers a set of recommendations to better identify and support English-learner students who may have learning disabilities. The suggestions include:

  • Relying on additional considerations, such as previous education experience, fluency in his or her first language, attitude toward learning English, and parent input, when determining whether English-learner students should be placed in special education programs.
  • Establishing exit criteria for English-learner-support programs for EL students in special education.
  • Providing test accommodations for English-learner students.
  • Producing manuals to aid classroom educators in identifying and supporting English-learner students who may have learning disabilities.

Among the states with the largest ELL populations, only five—Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia— have publicly available manuals designed to aid educators. Among those, only the Illinois and Minnesota guides explore how a child's cultural background or acculturation process might lead to misdiagnosis. And only the Illinois manual outlines a professional development program for educators serving English-learners who may have disabilities.

Here's a look at the brief:

  Strategies to Identify and Support English Learners With Learning Disabilities

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