Adapted from Strategies to Identify and Support English Learners With Learning Disabilities, February 2020, written by WestEd’s Elizabeth Burr and published by REL West.    

While some guidance exists, there are no definitive processes for accurately identifying English learner (EL) students with learning disabilities and determining the appropriate academic supports for them. Educators may struggle to determine whether a student’s academic difficulties stem from a language acquisition need, a learning disability, or some other factor(s). As a result, EL students are both under- and over-identified for special education services.

Ways to increase the more consistent identification of EL students with learning disabilities include:

  • Offering multi-tiered early intervention strategies
  • Developing well-designed and implemented referral processes
  • Providing options, beyond referral to special education services, for supporting students who are struggling at school

What’s at Stake

EL students with learning disabilities who are not accurately identified may miss out on important special education services. And EL students who are misidentified as having a learning disability receive special education services that they do not require. When students end up in classrooms or programs mismatched to their needs, it hampers their educational opportunities and achievement.

Questions to Ask

To accurately identify and support EL students with suspected learning disabilities, educators can start by asking:

  • Is the student receiving instruction of sufficient quality to enable him or her to make the accepted levels of academic progress?
  • How does the student’s progress in listening, speaking, reading, and writing English as a second language compare with the expected rate of progress for his or her age and level of English proficiency?
  • To what extent are behaviors that might otherwise indicate a learning disability be considered typical for the child’s cultural background or part of the process of adjusting to life in the United States?
  • How might extrinsic factors — that is, factors beyond classroom instruction and learning such as health, family circumstances, environmental factors, education history, and exposure to trauma — impact the student’s academic progress?

Key Data to Inform Decisionmaking

To make the appropriate referral to special education evaluation, a multi-disciplinary team (including the general education teacher, EL specialist, special education teacher, and district administrator) should review multiple sources of information, including:

  • The cumulative file, including report cards, attendance history, behavior history, primary language proficiency, and progress in English language proficiency
  • Extrinsic factors beyond classroom instruction and learning that may impact learning
  • Documentation of interventions provided
  • Assessments of academic achievement, health, and areas related to the suspected disability ◊ Instructional practices in the school environment
  • Observations in more than one setting
  • Family interviews

What We Know: Strategies for Leaders

Research suggests various ways that state and district leaders can create consistent processes and policies to help educators accurately identify EL students with disabilities, including:

  • Develop clear policy guidelines for pre-referral, referral, and assessment
  • Implement pre-referral strategies through tiered systems of support
  • Examine multiple sources of data when considering appropriate referral
  • Involve parents and families as integral sources of information
  • Provide professional development for those involved in pre-referral interventions, assessments, and referral processes
  • Institutionalize collaboration to include general education teachers, EL specialists, special education teachers, and administrators
  • Develop processes for ongoing review of academic, behavioral, and language-proficiency progress

Review of State Practices

Drawn from a review of state education agency websites, five common themes suggest ways to identify and assist EL students with suspected learning disabilities:

  • Assess EL students’ language and disability needs using a multi-tiered system of supports.
  • Have a clear policy statement that additional considerations will be used in determining the need for special education services for EL students.
  • Provide appropriate test accommodations for EL students.
  • Employ EL reclassification criteria specific to EL students with disabilities.
  • Provide publicly available guidance to aid educators in identifying and supporting EL students with learning disabilities

The full brief also includes:

  • A comparison of features from 15 guidance manuals on supporting English learner students with suspected learning disabilities with links to those manuals
  • A list of noteworthy resources for policymakers, administrators, and practitioners

Download REL West’s Strategies to Identify and Support English Learners With Learning Disabilities, February 2020.