Summarized by Cindy Perras, M.Ed., OCT
Educational Consultant, LDAO
Ontario schools serve a student population from a rich array of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Throughout the province, many students in English language schools are English language learners (ELLs) – students who are learning the language of instruction at the same time as they are learning the curriculum and developing a full range of literacy skills (Ontario Ministry of Education , Supporting English Language Learners: A Practical Guide for Ontario Educators Grades 1 to 8, p.3).
It is important to recognize that, as with any student population, some ELLs will have special education needs, such as giftedness, a behavioural disorder, a mental health condition or learning disabilities.
Note: Many excellent resources are available for educators who teach ELLs at both the elementary and secondary levels (see Resources section).
Language Acquisition Difficulty or Learning Disability . . . or Both?
ELLs and students with learning disabilities (LDs) are both at risk for lower achievement in language and literacy, but for differing reasons. A student with a learning disability in reading may have difficulty with language processing, which impacts reading comprehension and literacy skill development. According to Spear-Swerling (2006), ELLs can usually learn to read in their native language, but they lack sufficient exposure to both spoken and written English, which can adversely affect the development of English literacy, skills. Further, Spear-Swerling notes that when both situations coexist for the same student, i.e. when the student with a learning disability happens to also be an English language learner, the issues surrounding identification and intervention can be very complex.
Because of the challenges that are universally experienced when trying to learn a new language, it can be difficult to determine if a student is simply struggling with the language, or if the student also has learning disabilities (Duquette and Land, 2014). There are many shared characteristics between ELLs and students with LDs, including weak oral language skills, poor motivation, and low self-esteem (Ortiz et al., 2006, as cited in Duquette and Land, 2014). Further, they often lead to ELLs being “misdiagnosed” with LDs and disproportionately represented in special education programs (Linan-Thompson, Vaughn, Prater, & Cirino, 2006, as cited in Duquette and Land, 2014).
So how, then, is the classroom teacher to distinguish between language acquisition challenges and a learning disability? According to the Ministry of Education (2008, p.45), “Students should not be assessed as having learning disabilities on the basis of performance or behaviours that reflect a process of language acquisition or acculturation, or a lack of prior opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills being tested”. Table 1 provides a sampling of observable classroom behaviours and potential interpretations:
As Table 1 illustrates, the same behaviours in one student may have a different cause than for another and this is especially true in the case of ELLs. According to the Ministry of Education, “Strong similarities of surface behaviours may lead teachers to make incorrect assumptions about their learners. The first step is a careful observation, over time, of what the ELL can do in a variety of classroom activities and settings. Conclusions must be cautiously drawn to avoid inaccurate labeling of the causes of the behaviours observed in the classroom.” (Supporting English Language Learners: A Practical Guide for Ontario Educators Grades 1 to 8, p.44)
An excellent resource to assist in distinguishing between language acquisition difficulties and learning disabilities is an e-Book, entitled, “English Language Learners: Differentiating Between Language Acquisition and Learning Disabilities”. This resource is available through the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC).
Note: The Ministry of Education and the ESL/ELD Resource Group of Ontario provide direction and protocols for the identification and assessment of learning disabilities in ELL students. Please refer to the resources section for further information.
Supporting English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities
When an ELL is diagnosed with a learning disability, careful consideration as to programming is key – this student will continue to require support in English language acquisition as well as receiving appropriate special education intervention and support. The Council for Exceptional Children’s (CEC) Division on Learning Disabilities (DLD) published a position statement in March 2014 entitled, “Essential Components of Special Education for English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities”. The position paper advocates for a seamless, supportive education that includes the following components:
- Culturally and linguistically responsive teachers
- Culturally and linguistically responsive and relevant instruction
- A supportive learning environment
- Assistance with English language acquisition
- Support in general education classrooms
- Intensive research-based interventions
The National Center of Learning Disabilities (NCLD) provides considerable research-based interventions and strategies to support the instruction of students with LDs, including those who may also be ELLs. An article on the NCLD website entitled, “Effective Instruction for LD or At-Risk English-Language Learners”, identifies the following effective and research-based strategies:
- Using visuals to reinforce concepts and vocabulary;
- Utilizing cooperative learning and peer tutoring;
- Use of students' native language strategically when students are floundering;
- Providing opportunities for students to practice speaking English in both formal and informal contexts throughout the day; and
- Focusing on rich and evocative vocabulary words during lessons so students remain engaged and challenged. The words can serve as vehicles for teaching literary concepts.
Note: The document on the NCLD website was prepared for the Keys to Successful Learning Summit held in May 1999 in Washington, D.C. Keys to Successful Learning is an ongoing collaboration sponsored by the National Center for Learning Disabilities in partnership with the Office of Special Education Programs (US Department of Education) and the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (U.S. National Institutes of Health).
Authors: Russell Gersten, Scott Baker, Susan Unok Marks, Sylvia B. Smith, Eugene Research Institute, University of Oregon
Duquette and Land (2014) recently reviewed the literature on Response to Intervention (RTI)  strategies to teach reading to ELLs with LDs. The literature review concluded that two reciprocal teaching strategies were effective in teaching reading to ELLs with LDs: Reciprocal Teaching Model with Cooperative Learning and Cross-Age Tutoring and Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS).
As articulated in DLD’s position statement (2014), providing special education support for ELLs with LDs will require collaboration among the various teachers and support personnel in a school. Classroom teachers and special education teachers who are unfamiliar with the process of second language acquisition and sheltering techniques will need to collaborate with colleagues who have qualifications/experience in teaching English as a Second Language. Similarly, teachers working with ELLs can seek advice from their special education colleagues. School-based Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) may also provide a collaborative source of support.
Note: Queen’s University library website includes a section on Ministry of Education resource documents focusing specifically on English Language Learners; the selection of resource documents includes the following titles:
- Think Literacy: English as a Second Language/English Literacy Development
- Many Roots, Many Voices: Supporting English Language Learners in Every Classroom
- The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 9-12: English As a Second Language and English Literacy Development (2007)
- English Language Learners ESL and ELD Program and Services (2007)
- Supporting English Language Learners in Kindergarten: A Practical Guide for Ontario Educators (2007)
- Supporting English Language Learners: A Practical Guide for Ontario Educators Grades 1 to 8 (2008)
- Supporting English Language Learners with Limited Prior Schooling: A Practical Guide for Ontario Educators Grades 3 to 12 (2008)
- STEP: Steps to English Proficiency: A Guide for Users (2012)
Division on Learning Disabilities, (March, 2014). Essential Components of Special Education for English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities. Retrieved from http://teachingld.org/pages/position-papers
Duquette, C. & Land, M. (2014). Strategies for Teaching Reading to English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities. Retrieved from https://ldatschool.ca/classroom/literacy/strategies-for-teaching-reading/
Ontario Ministry of Education, 2008. Supporting English Language Learners: A Practical Guide for Ontario Educators Grades 1 to 8. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/esleldprograms/guide.pdf
Spear-Swerling, L. (February, 2006). Learning Disabilities in English Language Learners. Retrieved from http://www.ldonline.org/spearswerling/Learning_Disabilities_in_English_Language_Learners