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Investigating English Language Learners: the Difference Between

Second Language Acquisition & Learning Disabilities

Jacey Gustafson
Drake University
Fall 2015

This paper provides a brief overview of the extremely large problem of the
overrepresentation of English Language Learners in special education due to learning
disabilities. English Language Learners are an ever increasing population in our schools
across the nation; each year we gain approximately 10% more English Language
Learners. Overall, these students make up about 16% of the special education population,
while representing half of the learning disabled population. These students are thought to
have learning disabilities for many different reasons, but their second language
acquisition is not accounted for as often as it should be. Coincidentally, second language
acquisition and learning disabilities run parallel to each other in regards to developmental
stages, characteristics, and struggles for children. This article discusses the flaws in our
current assessment of English Language Learners for special education and some
solutions as to how we can better assess these increasingly important students.

What is the difference between a Learning Disability and Second Language

There are many reasons for a student to receive special education services. One of
the most common reasons to receive special education services is due to a learning
disability. A learning disability is a neurological condition, which affects academic
learning. Academic learning can be inhibited by the inability to use or understand
language parts or as a whole. This includes areas of reading, writing, speaking, listening,
spelling, thinking, and computing mathematical problems (Hallahan, Kauffman, &
Pullen, 2015).
Coincidentally, minority students make up 44.54% of the special education
population with learning disabilities (Zhang, Katsiyannis, Ju, & Roberts, 2014). Looking
at the percentages of minorities who have been diagnosed with a learning disability can
be misleading because many minorities are learning English as a second language.
Sullivan (2011) said it is extremely important to consider both the racial makeup of the
student in question, and the native language because there are many issues that arise with
the development of a second language that make identifying learning disabilities
abundantly complex. Klingner, Artiles, and Barletta (2006) found that middles class
Mexican American English Language Learners (ELLs) were the students who were most
likely to be identified as learning disabled and receive special education services because
of difficulties in reading, writing, speaking, or other language based activities. This is
especially alarming because the vast majority of ELLs (77%) in American schools are
native Spanish speakers (Case, 2005; Klingner et al., 2006). I believe there is a direct
correlation between the high percentage of minorities with learning disabilities and the

extremely high percentage of Spanish speaking ELLs whose native language is not
English. I believe the native language is not being adequately accounted for when ELLs
are being assessed, which is resulting in an unnecessary overrepresentation of ELLs in
special education for learning disabilities.
This is a troubling concept to comprehend because the U.S. Department of
Education estimates that nearly 40% of the school-aged population will speak English as
a second language by the year 2030 (Klingner, 2006). If the ELL population continues to
grow, which it is anticipated to increase 10% per year (Zhang et al., 2012), and continue
to be overrepresented in special education, our education system will have major issues to
overcome in the future. Sullivan (2011) made a great point when discussing the high rates
of ELLs who struggle with academics; she elaborated by saying that it is very unlikely
that all of the ELLs who struggle with academics truly have learning disabilities, rather
that there is a flaw in the system for recognizing difficulties with language acquisition. In
order to avoid the overrepresentation of ELLs in special education, I believe schools
should be better trained to educate and assess ELLs, particularly in the areas of Second
Language Acquisition (SLA) and implement culturally and linguistically mindful special
education assessments. This leads us to the discussion of English Language Learners who
are overly identified as having a learning disability when in all reality the issue most
likely lies within the acquisition of a second language.

Second Language Acquisition

What exactly does Second Language Acquisition (SLA) look like for ELLs? That
is a difficult question to answer because SLA is dependent on numerous factors that vary

greatly amongst ELLs. Some factors that influence the rate of SLA are socioeconomic
status, native language proficiency, prior educational experiences, age, motivation, and
opportunities to learn (Case & Taylor, 2005; Klingner et al., 2006). Additionally, ELLs
follow stages of SLA that can potentially resemble the signature learning disability signs
(Case & Taylor, 2005), which makes it difficult to distinguish between troubles with SLA
and a true learning disability. Both of these variables make it extremely difficult to create
a standard procedure to assess ELLs for special education services.
Coles (2014) found when ELLs are learning English as a second language, they
develop Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) first because they are engulfed
in a school setting where all of their likeminded peers are speaking English, and children
absorb communication skills from their peers the fastest at young ages. Typically, ELLs
acquire BICS with anywhere from one to three years of exposure to the new language.
However, academic language is much more difficult for ELLs, and even non-ELLs, to
acquire. She went on to say that Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP)
takes anywhere from seven to ten years for ELLs to acquire. This is a major reason why
ELLs may appear to struggle with the language demands and activities in class. It may be
easier for ELLs to socially interact with others in English in an informal manner, while
formal academic English-based tasks require more cognitive concentration and language
proficiency that very likely has not developed during the beginning stages of SLA. While
considering ELLs language acquisition, attributes of both BICS and CALP are essential
to take into consideration because it is unreasonable to expect ELLs to fully comprehend
complex academic language when they are beginning to learn this new, complex, and
foreign language.

Rinaldi and Samson (2008) discuss how dire it is to identify ELLs who have a
learning disability as early as possible in order to provide the necessary services, both
language supports and special education services, to best educate the child. As Klingner
et al. (2006) discovered, General education teachers sometimes hesitate to refer ELLs to
special education because they cannot determine if ELLs difficulties with learning to read
are due to second language acquisition issues or learning disabilities. This shows us that
teachers are paying attention to the language development of their ELLs and that teachers
are aware of the discrepancies between SLA and specific learning disabilities. One way to
resolve this issue it to ensure that our teachers have the proper training in order to identify
the differences between SLA and learning disabilities, or at least have the schools staffed
with a linguistic professional to assist in assessing ELLs. However, Klingner et al. (2006)
also found that teachers were referring ELLs for special education when they had low
language achievements, low reading scores, and general academic deficits. In these
situations, it is the teachers responsibility to provide sound, evidence-based teaching
methods to attempt to make the content comprehensible rather than immediately assume
the child needs to be assessed for special education services. Our efforts as educators
should fall somewhere in the middle, rather than falling at one extreme or another. For
example, we should not refer ELLs for special education assessments if the only deficits
exist in language based academic tasks; and we should also avoid waiting too long to
refer ELLs who are showing signs of a true cognitive-based, learning disability. This is a
difficult balance to maintain, but specific training can help teachers reach this delicate
balance and use their best judgment. There needs to be more support in the schools for
the teachers and students in order to find this balance. This brings us to the current flaws

in special education assessment for ELLs and the ways that we can remediate those flaws
in our education system.

Current Flaws in Special Education Assessment for ELLs

One of the major flaws in special education assessment for ELLs is that there isnt
a standard procedure to follow when ELLs are being evaluated for special education
services (Klingner et al., 2006). The procedure for assessing ELLs varies from state to
state, and even school to school. Moreover, the ELL students each have a unique case and
numerous factors that contribute to SLA, which makes it difficult to assess each ELL
based off a standard procedure for special education services. However, there is a strong
need for a consistent evaluation of ELLs in order to determine whether or not special
education services are necessary for ELLs. Ideally we would have a nationwide
assessment procedure to follow that has consistencies in the many different variables
present with ELLs, but unfortunately there is not very much information on how this
process can be carried out in order to best serve every ELL with their unique special
When educators wrongly identify ELLs language acquisition or limited English
proficiency (LEP) as an intellectual disability or intellectual deficit, ELLs end up getting
overly represented in special education and stigmatize the student even more. As stated
previously, it is difficult to distinguish between SLA and a learning or intellectual
disability; however, it is critical that educators are educated in both areas in order to
differentiate between SLA difficulties and intellectual disabilities in order to place all

students appropriately and provide them with their entitled supports within the school
The most surprising issue with ELL special education assessments is that the
students are assessed in English. However, according to IDEA (2004), Federal law
dictates that examiners conduct evaluations in the childs native language or other mode
of communication and in the form most likely to yield accurate information (as cited in
Cole, 2014). Several researchers in the field have noted the importance of evaluating
ELLs in their most proficient language in order to fully understand if the child does in
fact have a learning disability (Cole, 2014; Ortiz & Yates, 2002; Rinaldi & Samson, 2008;
Case & Taylor, 2005; Piazza et al., 2015; Sullivan, 2011). These same researchers have
also found that many schools do not follow this mandate, and ELLs who are referred for
special education end up getting assessed in English rather than their native or most
proficient language. In the following section we will discuss positive ways in which
ELLs should be assessed for special education.

Changes in Special Education Assessment for ELLs

There are countless ways to remediate the current flaws in special education
assessments for ELLs. Some of those suggestions follow. Educators can assess students
in their native language, or their most proficient language, and assess the students in
English (Case & Taylor, 2005; Rinaldi & Samson, 2008). By assessing the students in
both languages we would be able to cross reference the test results to determine if
language acquisition was the underlying problem, or if there truly is a learning disability,
or a combination of the two, in order to accommodate the child as needed. This is a

tedious process but it is vital in order to properly assess ELLs with potential learning
disabilities. Rinaldi & Samson (2008) highlighted that these assessments should be
evaluating the whole child in a variety of tasks and settings in order to paint a full picture
of the childs needs, abilities, and potential disabilities. Directly supporting this idea,
Klingner et al. (2006) suggests that educators should use a variety of alternative methods
for assessing students strengths in a variety of settings.
In the general education classroom there are many ways to help ELLs acquire the
English language in culturally and linguistically responsive approaches. Klingner et al.
(2006) found that students who were learning a new language, with different language
backgrounds, in the same general education classroom, developed basic literacy skills in
similar manners. They focused heavily on phonological, print, and alphabetic knowledge.
Languages vary greatly in the phonemes that are used. For example, the Korean
language, Hangul, does not have the phoneme that English has for the letter L, so this
is a particularly difficult phoneme for Koreans to pronounce. Also, many languages are
not based on alphabetic script; Chinese, Japanese, and Hangul are a few examples of
languages that are not alphabetical script. Students from these cultures may not know that
the English language is read from top to bottom, and left to right. These are a few
language concepts that are innate to the native English speaker, but are often times
overlooked when teaching ELLs. Students who were provided with explicit phonological
instruction in small groups saw considerably advanced improvements in reading and
comprehension (Klingner et al., 2006).
Another way to help advance SLA is to encourage students to read and write in
their native language during class, it is much better for students to advance their native

language literacy skills they already have because those literacy skills will transfer when
learning another language (Case & Taylor, 2005; Klingner et al., 2006). Promoting a
strong proficiency in the ELLs native language will encourage positive literacy behaviors
during SLA and help ELLs learn English more efficiently. Going along with these ideas,
if the teacher suspects an ELL has difficulties with language, whether it is reading,
writing, speaking, or listening, it is essential that the teacher provide additional early
interventions before referring the ELL for special education (Rinaldi & Samson, 2008).
ELLs need help building their schema surrounding American culture (Klingner et
al. 2006) because the standardized tests that are used to assess academic achievement are
extremely culturally biased. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills was explicitly mentioned by
Klingner et al. (2006) for representing culturally biased information in the assessment,
which skewed the performance of ELLs because they did not have the proper schema to
make sense of some of the questions. Teachers can spend time supporting ELLs by
explicitly teaching cultural differences and exposing the students to the new culture in
order to help mitigate this issue. Schools, administrators, and teachers can also evaluate
the standardized tests to try and eliminate culturally biased aspects of tests that ELLs will
be required to take.
By teaching in a culturally and linguistically responsive manner educators can
make the content comprehensible for all students, especially ELLs. Simply including
trade books, discussions, projects, or bringing in guest speakers about the cultures that are
represented in your classroom will help teach the entire class in a culturally responsive
manner. When educators take these small steps in the general education classroom it will
help ELLs make significant advancements in English language acquisition. Showing all

students that you care about them as an individual person will encourage all of your
students to learn, participate, and engage in your daily classroom activities. By bridging
the cultural gap in education it is my hope that ELLs will not be overrepresented in
special education for specific learning disabilities. It is also crucial that all teachers and
administrators are well versed in the stages of second language acquisition compared to
that of learning disabilities.
ELLs make up a significant and steadily growing population in our education
system. With minorities making up about half of the total students identified as having
learning disabilities currently, there is a severe need for change. The overrepresentation
of ELLs and minorities with learning disabilities can most likely be attributed to the
uncanny similarities between second language acquisition and characteristics of learning
disabilities. It is important for our education system to reevaluate how ELLs are assessed
for special education because of the language discrepancy that exists. We should be
assessing ELLs in both English and their native, or most proficient, language in order to
truly understand where the ELL is having difficulties. By neglecting to assess students in
both languages we are doing a disservice to the increasing ELL population. There are
numerous ways that our schools can accommodate ELLs in culturally and linguistically
responsive methods. The ELLs are becoming more important with every passing year
because they will soon be the majority in school districts across the nation, it is important
that we assess, place, and support these learners properly before it is too late.

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