When English Language Learners or ELL’s are introduced into their new English-speaking classroom they are usually at a disadvantage from the very beginning. They do not know the new language they are being immersed in and they unfortunately do not have the tools they need in order to be successful in that new setting. In most cases, they are put in the classroom of a teacher who unfortunately does not know what to do with them or how to help them due to lack of preparation both during their education and in the professional development that is offered. These factor’s often have impacts that are far reaching. ELL students quickly become further behind and teachers are left feeling discouraged because they do not know the best way to help their student. These students may end up being placed in Response to Intervention or RtI or put in an Individualized Education Plan or IEP. In, The Assessment of English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities: Issues, Concerns, and Implications, Huang, Clarke, Miclzarski, and Raby quote Garcia and Ortiz who state ELLs are disproportionately represented in the special education population due to the fact that they are often referred for special education before programs are appropriately modified to meet their needs (Garcia & Ortiz, 2004 as cited in Huang, Clarke, Miclzarski, and Raby, 2011). Currently, the ELL population is being misrepresented when it comes to Special Education. I believe that it is important for policies to be enacted that will allow for the development of new programs that will help ELL students as well as offering continuing education for educators.
English Language Learners and Content
In English Language Learners and Response to Intervention, Rinaldi and Samson state that schools are having a very difficult time distinguishing between the difficulty of acquiring a second language and a language-based learning disability (Rinaldi and Samson, 2008). These difficulties begin very early on when a new English Learner is introduced into an English-speaking classroom. Educators have a difficult time determining how to differentiate content for ELL students in their classroom, especially in the area of reading. This makes it more difficult to understand the full ability of a new ELL student in the classroom. At times, there is a total lack of understanding on how to help the student integrate into the new classroom while also giving the student content that is helpful and appropriate and this leaves the teacher grasping at straws for ways to help the new student.
A student’s ability to acquire new language skills is dependent on a number of factors. In Reading Interventions for Elementary English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities: A Review, Boon and Barbetta quote:
ELLs’ reading abilities depend on many factors including their literacy and language skills in their native language, reading proficiency levels in their non-native language, their disabilities, past literacy educational experiences in their non-native language, their text comprehension, background knowledge, and teacher abilities (August & Shanahan, 2006; Eskey, 2005; Grassi & Baker, 2010; Samson & Lesaux, 2009; Saracho & Spodek, 2007 as cited in Boon and Barbetta, 2017).
No two students are the same. This is especially true when we take the experiences of ELL students into account. They come from vastly different backgrounds, both academically and culturally. All these factors will have an impact to how quickly they will be able to pick up the language and their abilities to read and comprehend texts in English. It is quite a feat for a student who only hears Spanish or Haitian Creole at home to come into an atmosphere where 99% of the population they come in contact with speaks English. It takes time for these students to acquire their new language and even longer for them to be able to produce academic content that shows they have an understanding of what they are listening to or reading. The problem then becomes at what point we need to evaluate them for Special Education. How long do we let them struggle and let that gap continue to get wider before we step in and say this is more than a language acquisition issue? At this point there is no solid answer to this question. If you do not wait long enough you could have a child who has an unneeded IEP and if you wait too long you have a gap that almost seem insurmountable for a child.
As an educator in a classroom with a number of ELL students, I understand the frustration that is associated with these situations. I have students who have been here three years and are reading at a Kindergarten level and then I have students who have been here for a year or six months and are reading one or two grade levels below their current fifth-grade level. It’s frustrating because there is no answer to how long is too long or how far will the gap get before we can intervene. At my current school, we have a great ELL program and team in place to help us make decisions when it comes to our English Language Learners. ELL students are also given to get small group instruction with their ELL grade level peers for a half hour daily. They are able to work on developing those reading, phonics, and comprehension skills. When a new ELL student comes into our classroom we have someone that we can go to in order to find resources that are helpful to the new student, however this is not a program that is in place in every school or in every district across the country. This means that ELL students are most likely not getting the same level of assistance in all schools. It is important for new legislation and policies to be enacted in order to make sure that all English Language Learners are being given the same opportunity and also to make sure that they is a set of standards in place in order to help determine when students should be assessed for special education programs and IEP’s.
- Boon, R. T., & Barbetta, P. M. (2017). Reading interventions for elementary English language learners with learning disabilities: A review. Insights on Learning Disabilities: From Prevailing Theories to Validated Practices, 14(1), 27+. Retrieved from https://link-gale-com.mylibrary.wilmu.edu/apps/doc/A503309170/AONE?u=new90507&sid=AONE&xid=7bc718a3
- Huang, J., Clarke, K., Milczarski, E., & Raby, C. (2011). The assessment of English language learners with learning disabilities: Issues, concerns, and implications. Education, 131(4), 732+. Retrieved from https://link-gale-com.mylibrary.wilmu.edu/apps/doc/A260137595/AONE?u=new90507&sid=AONE&xid=87ccb7ab
- Rinaldi, C., & Samson, J. (2008). English Language Learners and Response to Intervention. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(5), 6-14. https://doi-org.mylibrary.wilmu.edu/10.1177/004005990804000501