Students whose primary language is not English face an extra layer of challenges in school. They must simultaneously learn to communicate in English and learn the core content of their classes. So, when an English learner struggles academically, it can be tough for educators to discern the source of the difficulty. Is it due to the processes of second language acquisition and acculturation, or perhaps to a learning disability, or some combination of factors?

Accurately identifying the nature of learning challenges is vital to ensuring that students in the nation’s growing English learner (EL) population receive the supports they need to succeed in school. Current systems do not always correctly identify learning disabilities among English learners, and even EL students who have been identified to receive special education services often continue to struggle academically.1 Recently, the Regional Educational Laboratory West (REL West) at WestEd has produced much-needed guidance on this topic in a comprehensive report, Identifying and Supporting English Learner Students with Learning Disabilities: Key Issues in the Literature and State Practice, and an accompanying resource brief.

Lead author Elizabeth Burr, a WestEd Senior Research Associate, says recognition of the topic’s importance has been increasing. The report and brief have been disseminated nationally by the Institute of Education Sciences, widely cited, eagerly used by educators, and gaining the attention of state policymakers.

Awareness, support, and communication are needed

The REL West report identifies factors in policy and practice that can hinder the academic progress of English learners who may also have disabilities.

One factor is lack of awareness. Eric Haas, Senior Research Associate and co-author of the REL West report, says many teachers and other school and district decision-makers are unaware of best practices for identifying and addressing disabilities among English learners, leading to problems in how — or whether — students are referred to special education services. Accordingly, adequate training and ongoing support are needed to better inform special education referral policies and to improve educators’ ability to distinguish between the process of second language acquisition and the presence of a learning disability.

Research on best practices suggests that different types of evidence from different contexts should be considered in determining what combination of EL and special education services a student may need. “Teachers and administrators tend to get a partial picture of a student’s academic, social, and behavioral capabilities,” says Burr. “So research suggests the value of conducting evaluations in a variety of settings and including input from different teachers, family members, and both a bilingual and a learning disabilities specialist.” Haas adds that parental input is particularly important for understanding challenges that may, for example, be related to the student’s previous education experience, fluency in his or her first language, or the student’s attitude toward school and learning English.

Given language and cultural barriers, overreliance on standardized testing, especially if conducted only in English, can undermine educators’ ability to understand how well an English learner with a potential learning disability is doing. “The literature review yielded such recommendations as offering assessments and meetings with the family in the student’s first language,” says Burr. “Although taking this approach seems obvious, not a lot of districts have the resources or supports to do so.”

“Stakeholders increasingly recognize that EL and special education systems need to work together to provide the right services for students.”

Haas also emphasizes that acculturating to U.S. schools and developing English proficiency do not necessarily happen in even steps. “Educators and specialists must continue to gather information about students over time. Many students have long, quiet periods in which they are learning English but are not yet ready to speak at a fast pace or participate a lot in class.”

Lastly, there is much room for improved communication among everyone involved in supporting English learners who have, or may have, disabilities. “Stakeholders increasingly recognize that EL and special education systems need to work together to provide the right services for students,” says Haas. Unfortunately, he adds, EL and special education specialists traditionally work separately from each other as they assess and provide services for dual-identified students.

Helpful guidance already exists

On topics such as the process for referring English learners to special education, including whom and what to include in the process, “information is out there, but not readily available in many places,” says Burr. “Teachers are hungry for assistance and often don’t know about guidance that already exists.” She points to the federal English Learner Toolkit as one important source.2 REL West’s report describes guidelines and protocols used by 20 states with the largest populations of English learners. From this wealth of information, the report distilled five guiding principles:

  • Provide accommodations for English learners taking standardized tests.
  • Have a clear policy statement to ensure that a variety of considerations are used when determining whether to place English learners in special education programs.
  • Ensure that assessments and criteria for exiting EL support programs appropriately accommodate English learners who receive special education services.
  • Use a multitiered approach to help determine and address English learners’ potential language and disability needs, an approach that starts with appropriate intervention responses in the classroom before moving to a formal special education process.
  • Provide comprehensive manuals to aid educators in identifying and supporting English learners who may have learning disabilities.

This last point is key. Five states — Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia — already have such manuals for identifying and supporting English learners with disabilities. “These manuals provide practical tools and resources for working with students,” says Haas. For example, they describe information on second language acquisition and progress, laws and regulations related to the rights of EL students, examples of pre-referral strategies and early interventions, and concrete tips for conducting assessments and interviews with families.

“The manuals also include handy checklists to help educators untangle behaviors that could be related to either a learning disability or English language acquisition,” says Burr. “By laying out a typical process for second language acquisition, the manuals help educators avoid over-referring students to special education and also avoid waiting too long to refer students.”

From research to policy

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal government is promoting statewide English language proficiency standards to help address variations in current requirements across districts and states. The legislation requires that states establish ambitious long-term goals for student performance and measurements of interim progress for particular groups, including children with disabilities and EL students. States also must report on how many students with disabilities are also English learners. Haas says new policies should promote ways for students to demonstrate English proficiency that take into account any learning disabilities the students may have, without weakening the criteria used to determine when students are ready to exit EL support programs.

Partly in response to federal legislation and to research from REL West and others, more states are taking action on behalf of English learners who may have learning disabilities. California is one example. With about a third of the nation’s English learners, California is working to improve the ability of schools and teachers to identify and support EL students with learning disabilities in order to reduce the current overrepresentation of EL students, as compared to non-EL students, who receive special education services in the state.

With bipartisan support, California passed new legislation in 2016 that requires the California Department of Education to develop or adapt a manual similar to those available in other states.3 Authors of the REL West report are among those who provided input on California AB 2785, and the report provided some of the bill’s text, according to Burr.

Arizona is another state taking notice of the EL resources highlighted in the REL West report. In May 2016, Burr presented findings from the REL West research at the semiannual statewide Practitioners of English Language Learners meeting. Following the event, Kelly Koenig, Deputy Associate Superintendent in the Arizona Department of Education’s (ADE’s) Office of English Language Acquisition Services, said, “This topic clearly resonates with our educators who struggle to meet the particular needs of dual-identified students. Our participants were appreciative of the study findings, especially the practical guidance from the comprehensive state manuals. They expressed interest in collaborating with ADE to adapt the manuals for use in our state.”

Says Burr, “This work is meeting a real need of our state policymakers and educators. In doing so, it represents what the REL is all about: translating research into evidence-based policies and improved practice.”


1 See REL West research reports focused on EL students, available from
2 See chapter 6 of the English Learner Toolkit, on addressing English learner students with disabilities, available from
3 See