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Are English Language Learners in Need of Special Education

Published: 2019-01-11 - Updated: 2019-01-20
Author: Elizabeth Barker-Voss and Kristin Basinger | Contact: University of Phoenix

Synopsis: Paper by Elizabeth Barker-Voss and Kristin Basinger from The University of Phoenix focuses on challenges of managing needs of English language learners (ELLs) in the special education sector.

Main Digest

Children of immigrants, many of whom are not fluent English speakers, are the fastest-growing population of students in U.S. schools (Calderon, Slavin, & Sanchez, 2011). In recent years, English language learners "comprised 10.5 percent of the nation's K-12 enrollment (NCTE, 2008)" (Kim & Helphenstine, 2017, p. 422). With so many English language learners (ELLs), schools must be prepared to instruct these students. However, even with adequate instruction, many students continue to struggle and are referred for special education services. ELLs are "less likely than white or black students to be enrolled in programs for the gifted and talented...more likely to be placed in remedial-general education tracks...more often incorrectly assessed as being mentally retarded or learning disabled (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1993)" (Fletcher & Navarrete, 2003, p. 31). The purpose of this article is to examine why this occurs, and what can be done to even the field between ELLs and other students?


Many ELLs "are still classified as limited English proficient when they reach middle or high school--suggesting strongly that preschool and elementary programs are not adequately addressing the needs of English learners" (Calderon, Slavin, & Sanchez, 2011, p. 104-5). Some educators believe that if quick progress is not made, the English language learner may have a disability that interferes with learning English. Oftentimes, this is believed to be a processing disability or unspecified learning disability among other possibilities. The child may be tested and placed into Special Education. This occurs at a high frequency compounded by the fact that the tests are often administered in English and not the child's native language.

According to Kim & Helphenstine (2017), new language learning can take anywhere from two years (to acquire basic skills) to seven years (skills of a native speaker). Many factors affect language acquisition, such as development of native language and similarities between the native language and the language being learned. Similarly, in the first year, students may experience a "silent period," which may be perceived as a disability, when in actuality, it is a focus on listening and comprehension (Kim & Helphenstine, 2017). Rather than prematurely placing ELLs in Special Education, possible ideas to assist with native language proficiency to progress into English proficiency include: "explicit vocabulary instruction to facilitate reading comprehension in the student's first and second language...teach and encourage the use of reading comprehension strategies in the student's first and second students develop a strong foundation in their first language" (Klinger, Artiles, & Barletta, 2006, p. 125). May these interventions and those similar help to produce more results in English?

Person writing in a notebook, an open laptop computer is seen to their left.
Person writing in a notebook, an open laptop computer is seen to their left.

Being placed in Special Education classes may do more harm than good. ELLs would be labeled with a possibly incorrect label and placed in classrooms where they may not have proficient English language models. "Interventions that are specifically geared to help processing, linguistic, or cognitive disabilities often do not help child acquire second language," and may actually harm the student's ability to acquire English (Kim & Helphenstine, 2017, p. 423). If a child does not have a disability and is only struggling to acquire the language, placement in a Special Education classroom may impede language growth, spiraling into less learning in all areas and lower expectations of these students.

Quality programs in preschool through third grade can be helpful to language acquisition, as this is a time of learning new skills rather than reviewing and reteaching older skills (Calderon, Slavin, & Sanchez, 2011). "Teachers' knowledge about how children acquire languages, their grasp of when and how to maximize the use of the primary language spoken in the home, and their modeling of academic discourse in the first and second languages" affects all students' learning (Calderon, Slavin, & Sanchez, 2011, p. 119). Providing additional training and resources to teachers may assist language development in ELLs.

According to guidelines, set by the by the No Child Left Behind Act, English proficiency is based on three factors: proficiency levels on state assessments, the student's overall success in the classroom and assimilation into the English speaking society (Cook, Boals, & Lundberg, 2011). As the state assessments are not administered in the student's native language, it becomes difficult to ascertain if a learning disability exists. Furthermore, the student's overall success will be impacted by both a learning disability and any ELL challenges.

Time and patience is needed for ELLs. It is important to examine and determine why a student may not be learning English as quickly as expected. Is it a language acquisition issue, or are further services needed? In some cases, intervention may be needed through special education services, but not all. It is recommended that, whenever possible, ELL students are administered state proficiency assessments in their native language. This will provide the most accurate assessment of the child's proficiency with the established academic standards and assist in establishing an IEP, which addresses and monitors the student's progress. Finally, further research is required, to determine if new programs and strategies should be developed for specific demographics of students, based on their native language. District budgets are already severely underfunded so this responsibility might be placed upon the Department of Education.


Calderon, Slavin & Sanchez. (2011). Effective instruction for English learners. Princeton, 21(1), 103-127.

Cook, H. G., Boals, T., & Lundberg, T. (2011). Academic achievement for English learners: What can we reasonably expect? Kappan, 93(2), 66-69.

Fletcher & Navarrete. (2003). Learning disabilities or difference: A critical look at issues associated with the misidentification and placement of Hispanic students in special education programs. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 30(1), 30-38.

Kim & Helphenstine. (2017). The perils of multi-lingual students: "I'm not LD, I'm L2 or L3." Journal ofInternational Students, 7(2), 421-428.

Klinger, Artiles, & Barletta. (2006). English language learners who struggle with reading: Language acquisition or LD? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39(2), 108-128.

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Cite This Page (APA): Elizabeth Barker-Voss and Kristin Basinger. (2019, January 11). Are English Language Learners in Need of Special Education. Disabled World. Retrieved January 21, 2022 from