Skip to main content
elementary teacher working with a small group of students in class

English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities

Bilingual speech-language pathologist Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan discusses effective assessment and instruction strategies for English language learners with learning disabilities, as well as ways to help encourage the active involvement of parents of ELLs with LD in their children’s schools.

On this page:

Program description

Featuring bilingual speech-language pathologist Dr. Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan. This webcast discusses effective assessment and instruction strategies for English language learners with learning disabilities, as well as ways to help encourage the active involvement of parents of ELLs with LD in their children’s schools.

This free webcast is made possible by AFT Teachers, a division of the American Federation of Teachers, as part of a Colorín Colorado partnership between AFT and Reading Rockets.


Dr. Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan is a bilingual speech-language pathologist and director of Valley Speech Language and Learning Center in Brownsville, TX, and the author of Esperanza Program, a Spanish multi-sensory reading, writing, and spelling program. Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan was co-principal investigator of a longitudinal study funded by NICHD and IES examining the oral skills and literacy development in both English and Spanish of Spanish-speaking children. She is a founding member of Brownsville Reads, a nonprofit organization offering literacy awareness and training to educators, parents, and members of the community.

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and Leadership Texas. She serves on the State Board of Examiners for Speech Language Pathology and Audiology and is a member of the American Speech Language and Hearing Association and the International Dyslexia Society.


Delia Pompa is the Vice President of the Center for Community Educational Excellence, at the National Council of La Raza.

Watch the webcast

Related resources

Articles and books by our presenter, Dr. Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan

Other resources

Related links from Colorín Colorado

Related links from LD OnLine

Related links from Reading Rockets

Discussion questions

  1. Share something that you learned from the webcast that was new to you. Then, talk about ways you see yourself using that information within your school setting.
  2. How does your school work to identify and teach ELL students with LD? After listening to Dr. Cardenas-Hagan, what changes might you propose?
  3. Describe the challenges your school would face in trying to assess students in both languages.
  4. From what you heard today, how does effective instruction for ELL learners with LD differ from just plain effective instruction for all students?
  5. Besides this webcast, what types of professional development would help you work with the ELL learner with LD population more successfully?



Delia Pompa: How do we recognize learning disabilities in English language learners? How can we help them become strong readers? I’m Delia Pompa. Please join me for our next Colorín Colorado webcast, “English Language Learners with LD.”

Voice Over: Funding for this webcast is provided by the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Additional support comes from the National Council of La Raza.

Delia: Hello. I’m Delia Pompa. Welcome to the Colorín Colorado and Reading Rockets webcast series. You know, teaching reading to a child who’s just learning to speak English can be a challenging task. When that student also has learning disabilities, the challenge is magnified. Dr. Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan is here to help. Dr. Hagan is a bilingual speech-language pathologist and director of the Valley Speech Language and Learning Institute in Brownsville, Texas. She also works with the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics at the University of Houston. Thanks for being here, Doctor.

Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan: Thank you for inviting me.

Delia: Let’s start with something very basic.

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: All right.

Delia: What are learning disabilities? I know that there are legal definitions and other controversies about it, but in practice, what do we mean by learning disabilities?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Well, a learning disability would mean, a child or a student who came to school and the teacher would notice that they’re having difficulty and not progressing in the areas, possibly, of: reading, writing, spelling. It may be that they’re having trouble understanding, or difficulty in math or reasoning, problem solving. Those kinds of difficulties.

Delia: To what degree are learning disabilities a phenomena of the English language?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Well, what we know at this point in time and, what’s very difficult to tease out, are what are the differences between a child typically developing English and whether that child is having great difficulty in learning. Often, it’s very hard to tease out between language and language difficulties and a learning disability.

Delia: So we’re talking about a bilingual child here. How does a learning disability manifest itself in the child’s native language, say Spanish?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: All right. So what we see — no matter what the language, and within languages, and across languages — what we will find are similar patterns of difficulty. For example, if the student were dyslexic, they would show very clearly in their native language, say Spanish, the same kinds of difficulties - having trouble with processing of sounds and playing with sounds, having trouble reading single words. That trouble then leads to difficulty in reading fluency and comprehension, etc.

Delia: So how would a teacher tell the difference between a learning disability and just difficulty in learning the English language? I know that’s a pretty basic question, and that’s a big question. So give us the basics on that.

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Actually, it’s quite a complex question that you have asked and one that researchers have — we’ve been trying to really tease out what this means. But, indeed, what we will see is, and what we need to be careful [of], are all the variables. Students who come to school, one of the first things you must do is really evaluate. Provide some type of screening and use that as your anchor. And then the teacher must try and incorporate all the effective strategies that we know work for monolingual speakers, [they] can also work for English language learners. But here has to be adjustments and adaptations. And as you adjust and provide those adaptations, what you’re looking for is some progress. And you have to monitor that progress very carefully. And only then, when the student doesn’t appear to be responding, then should you go further and make a step into having them evaluated by experts.

Delia: That is a lot. And so let’s take-let’s go through the first steps here. What does a teacher do when an ELL student who she suspects has an LD problem arrives?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: What the teacher must do is first gather information. That teacher needs to be the detective. Find out from the families, from previous teachers what has been - what have been the opportunities for this student. What was the language of instruction, because was this child exposed to English before, or is this first time the student’s being instructed in English? Or is this instruction in Spanish? How many years of opportunity have they had? Have they been responding to that opportunity? And if not, then decide, you know, what do I need to do. Or maybe the teacher needs to continue to collect information.

Delia: Well, should a school assess in both languages?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: You asked me just the perfect question that I would love to answer. A gold standard, a gold standard would be to test in the two languages. And the reason you would test in those two languages is to give yourself a complete picture of what the student really understands and knows. So giving, for example, a test only in one language gives you an incomplete picture. You must understand their skills in their native language and the second language. Make sure that it’s not an issue of acquiring that second language but, indeed, an issue of having difficulties in learning despite the language.

Delia: What if the school doesn’t, as is usually the case, have a bilingual staff member to perform the assessments?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: What you can do, and often what teachers and school districts do, is look out in the community. Look for regional centers that have experts, or actually try and find these persons to help in the assessment process. You can also actually train people that, maybe these are people who understand the language. But maybe they can be trained along side a diagnostician, the diagnostician can be there for the testing. But just making sure that native language was clearly evaluated and used in determining whether, indeed, the student, in fact, exhibited a learning disability.

Delia: Well, what does a comprehensive dual language assessment include?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: If you were looking for a dual language assessment, you must include all the areas. I’m a speech language pathologist so I would want to make sure that there would be a very nice look at language: how well children understand concepts; how well they understand words; how well they’re able to use words in their first language and also in the second language. But aside from that, you must very clearly look at those reading skills, the basic reading skills which include looking at their ability to process sounds, their ability to read words and then their ability to comprehend what they’ve read. Of course, you have to look at the highest level of language, and that would be written language, and an area that’s not my expertise, math, which very clearly we can also see it manifests itself in the area of math.

Delia: That is thorough and that’s a lot. We have tests for kids who are native English speakers who do everything you describe. The tests do. What is the availability for second language learners? Can you use the same tests?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Well, that’s another question and one that really, you know, researchers might not agree upon at this time. But what we do know is that it is important that these tests are culturally sensitive, that they’re not culturally biased, that they really are assessing what they are assessing, that when they get tested for reliability and validity to make sure that those tests included English as a second language learners in their studies.

Delia: Well, say a school now to this point’s done everything right — they’ve had valid and bilingual assessments, they have a skilled bilingual professional assessing the student and they evaluate the results. I’m guessing even with everything in place this is still a very complicated situation. So let’s tap into what you just described yourself as, which is a bilingual speech pathologist. What issues are going to pop up still that could be confused with LD? What language issues? I mean, you’ve still got the child who’s learning a second language. What are some issues a teacher might see that would cause some confusion for her?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Right. Some of the areas of inclusion do, indeed, exactly what you said. You’re looking at two languages often developing either simultaneously or sequentially. And what often gets confused, and what muddles the water, there is what we see is that the students are often assessed in the second language and they may just be acquiring that second language. So second language acquisition, children go through a period of time where it’s a non-verbal period where they’re taking in all the information. We call it the “silent period”. And sometimes that might be confused for a language disability or a learning disability when, in fact, they don’t present with that difficulty in their native language and it’s just a part of that second language acquisition process.

Delia: So those testing them in two languages becomes even more important there. There are a lot of challenges in this situation. What’s your recommendation to well-meaning professionals who are doing the best they can with the resources they have?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Well, what we want to make sure that they do is actually — and I’ve been a proponent of Colorín Colorado and really LD On-Line — there are resources on-line. We want to make sure that they are incorporating effective practices for English language learners making sure that they really are understanding the information, scaffolding that information, being very descriptive and explicit in the instruction.

Delia: Thanks. Now we’ve covered the first step. Now we know they’re identified as ELL with an LD. What’s the next step?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Well, once you’ve really teased out, you need to make a plan. And based on the information that plan needs to be what will be the language of instruction. What often happens in schools is there’s a plan possibly developed, but we don’t stick to the plan. And students get moved from one model possibly trying to learn English, maybe back into Spanish. So we have to be consistent with the language of instruction and give that program model an opportunity for the students to respond. And then make the decisions along the way of how they’re responding to the intervention.

Delia: I assume you’re talking about an IEP, and the next question I have actually relates to that, I’m guessing most schools don’t have a person who’s an expert both in ELL and in developing an IEP. What do you do in that case? how do you do this without somebody that has that expertise?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: What you need to make sure of when you develop that Individualized Education Plan, you need to make sure that that plan — you know that there are certain goals and objectives that you need to meet. For an English language learner what that means is that you are looking at what other adaptations can we make. How can we make the information more comprehensible? Maybe we need to take smaller steps in getting to the goal. Maybe we need the native language as a support to reaching those goals. And so you want to keep the goals in mind. You have the same goal objectives, and the goals are in mind and in place, but you need to take into consideration that language and provide that native language support for the students so that they will understand the information that they are trying to learn.

Delia: So then what would the IEP look like? Let’s take an example. Let’s take a third grader newcomer who’s dyslexic. What would his IEP look like?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Well, the IEP would certainly include the same types of effective practices for a dyslexic child in English. Those effective practices can be conducted, for example, in the native language. And what we often must keep in mind is, say the intervention. One point I do want to make is that intervention should match the language of instruction in the regular and general education classroom. So whatever you’re trying to improve should match the language of instruction in that classroom. And so even in the IEP of a dyslexic student you’re still going to want to work on the areas of phonological awareness and the phonics and the reading, but where you might find some differences are in the new sounds. The sounds that are not prevalent in the native language. You want to explicitly teach those in the second language. Words and word meanings that they may not have in that second language, possibly they have it in the first language. You have to look carefully at that also. They also need to learn there’s much cross-linguistic relationships. And so, for example, much of the Spanish language can be adapted to English. And so learning what’s similar and what’s unsimilar is very important. And that needs to be pointed out to the student and included in an Individualized Education Plan.

Delia: Well, it sounds like there’s a lot of overlap. What is the main difference between an IEP for a native English speaker and a student who’s bilingual or just learning English?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: So the main differences, again, are teaching the similarities and the differences within the language and across languages, and making sure that that student clearly understood those new concepts and there was clearly some native language support in that instruction.

Delia: There are a lot of factors to consider here. Can a regular classroom teacher handle an ELL LD student in her classroom? Can she handle the teaching?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Well, what we see across America is the likelihood of our teachers being placed in a classroom where they have English language learners is increasing. And definitely they can help these students. What they know as effective practices in the classroom can work with our English language learners. But what we need to make sure of, again, is that these English language learners have that native language support, that teachers are able to help them make the connections from that first language to the second language and that they are explicitly taught the similarities and differences. In our research studies we are starting to get some nice results in actually explicitly teaching these students who struggle those similarities and those differences.

Delia: Well, as you know, most teachers in this country are monolingual in English. So even if a teacher doesn’t speak the native language, are you saying that that teacher can use the native language to help the child learn English?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: What I’m saying, and I’m so glad that you brought up the point, what I’m saying is that you don’t have to know the language to know the cross-linguistic relationships.

Delia: I see.

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: And so looking at what’s similar you can analyze languages without having to speak it. And you can do this in the English language teaching them about the structure of English and how it’s similar or different to their native language.

Delia: Give us an example of that. Here’s a teacher who speaks no Spanish and she’s got a Spanish-speaking student in her classroom. How is she going to use that to help them learn English?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Well, Spanish is the easiest language actually.

Delia: Okay, let’s do Russian.

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Actually, Russian also. These languages are alphabetic languages. And so when the languages are alphabetic, that makes it easier for the teacher to see those shared and unshared components. For example, if you’re teaching sounds and letters — and sounds, for example, in the Spanish language — many of the consonants from Spanish directly transfer to English. What would be problematic are the vowel sounds of English. Those short vowel sounds are very difficult for our English language learners, and how vowel sounds change in the context of words. And so having them understand how they change, the patterns of why they change and actually having them being able to pronounce those sounds and work with those sounds is very important, not only for reading, but also for spelling and writing.

Delia: What about day to day, more functional interactions? A lot of classroom instruction is given orally. How can you make sure a struggling ELL student is getting all the information they need from what’s going on in the classroom orally?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: And you’re right, there’s lots of language occurring in the classroom. And what a teacher can make sure that he or she keeps in mind is making sure that: for every new concept that there’s been some way to check that student’s background knowledge. Often the students that are English language learners need even basic vocabulary words that they might not understand, or even the academic vocabulary words. Having visuals, and actually having them engage and do hands-on activities, total physical response, all of that helps our students. Plus, having lots of repetition, rehearsal and practice. That helps our English language learners very much.

Delia: Is instruction for these kids different or is it just plain old good teaching? Are there specific effective methods that a teacher should be using that are different than she would use for other students?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Actually, there are effective practices for monolingual English speakers and our English language learners. So, indeed, you want to explicitly go through each of the steps of what they are learning. You need to recheck to make sure that it was understandable, that they comprehended.

And then you want to have them have lots of practice. But our English language learners need much modeling and our teachers need to be expert models for these students and help them along the way. They must also make sure that the students feel comfortable in trying and in attempting this new language. What happens to our English language learners is, they are working on learning the new language while also trying to learn new content. So it’s twice the cognitive work — learning the language and learning the content and the language of that content area.

Delia: So it’s good teaching, plus. How can technology help in that?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Well, technology… For example, you can get books on tape. It’s very important also for our students to be able to pronounce the words and the sounds correctly. So you can have books on tape exist for these students. And those kinds of materials can be resources. Again, you have resources in Colorín Colorado, which, I use those resources. For example, the cognates. And, you know, 60% of the English language comes from Spanish. And, you know, having the children be aware that can help their vocabulary and for them to increase that vocabulary in their second language.

Delia: In our staffing patterns today we often have specialists for ELL students and specialists who provide support for the LD student, and then you’ve got the regular classroom teacher. How can you coordinate the functions of those three? What’s the best thing, or how can a classroom teacher today coordinate with both the LD specialist and the ELL specialist to make sure that struggling reader with LD is getting all the good instruction they need in the classroom?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: It is extremely important for these key specialists to work together, to make that plan together. It doesn’t make sense for our teacher that’s in the regular education classroom to be doing something totally different than the specialist (maybe the reading specialist or the, you know, resource teacher, what have you). What we need to make sure is that plan is working very nicely and when the students are getting these extra services, that those services compliment the instruction that’s happening in that general education classroom. So getting together, having those meetings, keeping in constant communication regarding this process — for the student to achieve language, to achieve literacy, to achieve that academic language — is crucial and a must for our teachers and specialists in schools.

Delia: Well, as you know, our classrooms are fairly large. We have 25 to 30 kids in classrooms all across this country, and teachers have to respond to all 30 of those kids. How does that teacher make sure that the ELL LD student in her classroom is getting all the support he or she needs, at the same time she’s not slighting the other students or she’s giving everybody their full instruction? How does that happen for one teacher?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: And it can happen. And what needs to happen is: we know that even young children, as early even as kindergarten, are very good at what we call the “peer-assisted learning.” And what can be done is differentiating that instruction. What that means for the teacher — and how this looks in the classroom — is the teacher could have small groups or the students could be paired together. And what that does is it, when you pair someone that has more English language skills than someone who has less, when they’re interacting they’re serving as models for each other. And it helps not only the monolingual English speaker but certainly our English language learner as they hear excellent models. And so here when you pair students together ,or get these small groups working together, you have more children on-task, using the language, addressing the content of what they’re supposed to be learning. And the teacher can move around the room from small group to small group, or from small partner to small partner, checking and making sure that each understands their roles and that everyone is getting an opportunity to engage and to learn.

Delia: Well, does this happen spontaneously as you go through your day or do teachers have to do a lot of up-front work to get to the point that you describe?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Well, actually, in classrooms that we’ve been working in, what you see is: early on those routines are established and the roles are established. And even these little children are able to take those roles very seriously. What you see is they start to help one another. And what’s very nice is, yes, the teacher has to up front give them clear directions. But then this becomes very routine, so as part of the lesson the children expect it. And when the teacher doesn’t put them into partners or small groups, they’re like, “Hey, it’s partner time.” “What happened today, teacher?” And you actually see the students saying, “We want our partner time. We want our opportunity to work in a small group”.

Delia: So the teacher’s built that into her lesson plan. She’s thought about this ahead of time.

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Yes. And what we know about that small group work is it is extremely effective. Students are more apt to respond and engage in language and conversation when it’s a small group rather than doing it in a large group, say of a classroom of 22 students. That can be quite intimidating. So this gives all the children those opportunities. And those students, those ELL students, are more apt to respond in that small group instruction.

Delia: You know, Dr. Hagan, when you were describing assessment earlier, you talked about taking into account the cultural and social and educational background of a student when you were doing this assessment. How do you take that information and use it on a day-to-day basis?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Well, very important in the classroom. We continually need to check to make sure that the students really understand even basic words. We’ve been quite amazed that there are some common words that students don’t understand while also challenging them with the higher level vocabulary.

So it’s making sure-giving them the opportunity to practice these new words. We know children need many practices, like maybe 12 exposures to a word before they actually know that word. So we want them to use that word. What’s also important is for them to check for the understanding.

Go back and check. Give em that rehearsal, that repetition and make sure that the student clearly understood. And if they didn’t, then you scaffold and you go back and put it into smaller steps.

Delia: I think our teachers probably have more experience taking into account language differences but when it comes to culture and social background, can you give us an example of how those differences might play out in the classroom?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: I can remember a few examples. I can even remember in a classroom where the teacher was talking about a dishwasher and the students… You know, that would have been something you thought that they understood but they had not had that experience of a dishwasher.

And so the teacher very quickly related it. She knew that across the street from the school there was a washateria (ph.) and she said, “That dishwasher is just like that washing machine except it washes dishes automatically”. I’m an English language learner myself and I remember, for example, an egg, you know, simple uses of an egg.

You know, you can make scrambled eggs. But for me that egg has a different meaning. As a young girl, I knew my grandmother would get an egg and make sure that that egg — it was kind of folklore — she would rub it against us and say that that would cure us of all evils and ailments, what have you.

Delia: Las curitas.

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Exactamente. And so, you know, egg, to me, has a different connotation than it would to a typical probably monolingual English speaker. And so we need to become aware of the different cultures, the different routines and bring in that culture and those routines into the classrooms.

And then students will get so engaged and be willing to share their culture and some of the ways that they celebrate their special days or special celebrations.

Delia: Well, say a teacher is doing all of this. She’s using the native language, following the IEP, providing intensive instruction, incorporating culture. How can she be sure that the student is improving?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: It’s a must to ensure that. And what we want teachers to do very clearly is to have progress monitoring tools that are related to the content of what they’re teaching, and do this very often (every week or every two weeks) to make sure that the students are understanding.

We want our teachers to be diagnostic and prescriptive in their teaching. So everyday whatever a child gives you, that informs the teacher how can I adjust that instruction to ensure that the student has learned. So those progress monitoring tools are important not because they’re required by school districts but because they help you and inform your instruction.

Delia: What are some resources or are resources available that would help a teacher who has an ELL LD student in their classroom?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: We’ve been doing lots of research in this area and there are websites in which you can look at some of these new tools. The Department of Education, the Institute of Education Sciences and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development actually sponsored much research, especially for our English language learners.

And you can get some of that information from the Center for Applied Linguistics right here in Washington, D.C. And that website is (opens in a new window).

Delia: Good memory. I’m sorry.

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: That is a good memory because I often go back to make sure, okay, here are some tools that teachers can use and it tells you what’s available to this point in time. So we’re lucky that these tools are now being developed. We need more of these tools, but there are some that exist at this point in time that they can use quite effectively with English language learners.

Delia: Thank you, Dr. Hagan. And I stepped on that last piece that Dr. Hagan gave us, which is the website. It’s (opens in a new window). Thank you. One resource we haven’t discussed is parents. We’ve got a video clip from a school in Chicago, Rachel Carson Elementary. What they’re doing is some innovative things to get parents involved with the kids.

Now the kids you’ll see here don’t have learning disabilities but we think the strategies you’ll see can apply very broadly. Let’s take a look.


Narrator: Principal Kathy Maher learned early on that one key to teaching young readers successfully is getting parents involved.

Kathy Mayer: To get parents into a school one of the first things you have to think about is what would appeal to the family. What would you want to see for your own child?

Dr. Claude Goldenberg: Parents who come from other countries obviously aren’t quite sure what the rules of the road are with respect to U.S. schools. So they might be reluctant to be assertive or aggressive as far as finding out information. But they care very much about their children’s education.

Narrator: Angelica Torres is the parent of three kids at Rachel Carson Elementary School in Chicago. At first she was skeptical about getting involved.

Angelica Torres: I said, “Well, I wanna get into it to see what happens. If I don’t like it, I just get out and that’s it”.

Narrator: She liked it. Now she’s a dedicated parent volunteer and she’s part of a concerted effort to make parents partners in their child’s education.

Dr. Claude Goldenberg: Not only are the parents very motivated but they’re also, in most cases, competent, at least at the beginning levels, to help their children acquire beginning literacy skills.

Narrator: Rachel Carson Elementary has partnered with a family literacy project at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The program trains Latino parents with limited English to become literacy models for their children at home.

Dr. Emma Violand-Sánchez: Unfortunately, many immigrant parents who do not speak English feel that they cannot help their children because they don’t speak English. When I talk to parents, I always say, “The language that your child speak and the language that you speak is a resource”. I think that talking to the child continuing to develop their oral language in their native language, it is important.

Narrator: Today’s session is about vowels. The group learns fun, engaging ways to teach their kids letters and sounds.

Angelica Torres: The literacy classes are real good. You know, they teach you how to teach your kids the alphabet, how to read to them. Once you go one time and you learn things to help out your kids, you know that you’re doing something good.

Narrator: Now Angelica gets to put into action what she learned.

Narrator: At first Angelica’s son didn’t like reading but she found out how to change that.

Angelica Torres: Instead of telling him, “You have to read. You have to read”, they told me, you know, “You read to him so he get, you know, excited about it”. You read one page, he reads one page. And I used to tell him, “Don’t read those Clifford books because they’re for kindergarten kids.” And those are the ones he likes to read. So they told me, “It’s a good idea if you let him read those. It doesn’t matter what he’s reading. He’s reading something.”


Delia: That was an interesting clip. In the clip Dr. Violand-Sánchez talked about language as a barrier for some parents. How can parents who don’t speak English themselves help their children become strong readers?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Well, it’s absolutely necessary. We know so much about reading depends on language and language is cheap and doesn’t cost money. So what we want to make sure is that parents are telling the stories of their lives, they’re working with words.

Some parents will say, “I’m not literate so how can I help my own child?” But, indeed, you can even get a book and look at the pictures and tell the student the story, having them retell the story to you. Some schools are actually having adult literacy classes for our parents which has been very, very helpful.

But just incorporating language. Going to the library. There are lots of community libraries. Some of the school libraries are staying open. Getting that book, taking that book home, going through the book, having the student try — their own child try to read the book and then to talk about what they think it’s about would be excellent.

And a lot of families and different cultures are known for their storytelling abilities. Those storytelling abilities are very rich in language and you must have language and rich words and rich vocabulary to end up having high levels of reading comprehension. So I always tell families, “Talk to your children”.

If you can, read to them. Have them read to you. Go to library. There’s lots of story times there. Lots of schools also provide after-school classes, not only for families but also for the students themselves.

Delia: Well, you described so many resources a parent has and many parents have. But in the clip (Unint.) seemed reluctant at first to go to the school. You know, what are some of the reasons that a parent of an ELL student might be hesitant or reluctant to come to the school?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: It’s very intimidating to go to a school if you do not speak the language of the school. In many cultures the teacher and the school personnel are held in the highest esteem and it’s very intimidating when you don’t know the language. So teachers and school leaders need to engage our families.

For our families it was always, okay, they’re gonna have what we call “pondosa” (ph.), the little sweet bread, or they’re gonna have a coffee, and maybe even doing it in some small session, small group sessions. What you also find is usually one of those brave parents that have come to the school and have them be the leader in getting their other parents from the neighborhood into the school.

Some schools have parent resource centers where they can feel free to come throughout the day and they can learn, as you saw in this video clip, about how to help their children. And those are less intimidating. The other thing is making sure that we’re communicating in their language.

A lot of times families don’t come to the school because they weren’t aware that there was even a meeting because the information was not communicated to them via their own language that they can understand.

Delia: You’ve made a clear case for why it’s so important for parents of an LD student to be involved in their child’s schooling. But even English-speaking parents of LD kids face a lot of challenges when they talk about developing an IEP, making sure their kids are being supported appropriately.

What about the parent of an LD child who’s also ELL? What can schools do to help them get more involved and help them get the services and to come to school?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Right. You can imagine how intimidating it is to come to a special education meeting whereby all these professionals are there to tell you about your own child and all the work that needs to be done and all the objectives that need to be met.

But actually including the family in that process, letting them know, “This is gonna be okay. We’re gonna take it step by step and here are some of the things you can do in your home that will also help”, and also leaving that open-door policy of them being able to come to ask questions and frequent meetings with these families on how they can better help their student in the home and also some additional community sources that may be available, especially during the summertime because we wanna make sure our English language learners are not having a dip in the summertime, because we often see that between May and the fall students also take a dip in their learning and so we want to keep them active.

And that would be a perfect time for the parents of our English language learners, especially those who have learning disabilities, to keep those students engaged and providing them with learning opportunities in their home and in their community, as well as possibly in the school.

Delia: Now we seem to be doing a better job in our schools of recognizing and honoring the cultural and linguistic differences of kids, but we sometimes forget that their parents also have these linguistic and cultural differences. How do we honor that for parents in working with them?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: We also need to learn more about the interactions with parents, what they feel comfortable doing, how verbal they feel and how you talk to them. For many parents sometimes as English speakers we’re very direct in our communication styles, where in other cultures the communication style is not as direct.

And so learning about those communication styles, learning about how parents can best feel comfortable in engaging, and then providing the families also with some resources. There’s many community resources on helping these families identify and learn also that second language.

These students have a better chance if their family member and if English is spoken in the home so that they have some models in the home. And if they don’t, then you find other community members that can provide those models for the students.

Delia: How do you take into account the literacy levels of parents?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: What happens with our parents is quite interesting. In one of the studies we looked and saw, you know, for some of them, they did have literacy skills and for others they had limited literacy skills.

And so, again, what we were encouraging them was to engage in some adult literacy courses, to actually come to the schools as you saw in the clip working with families that even though you’re not literate there’s some activities that you can do that have minimal literacy requirements that you can engage your children that will help them in their literacy.

But I think it would be most helpful for the parents of our students to have those opportunities themselves to become literate so that they can, in turn, help their students and their children, their loved ones in their home.

Delia: And you mentioned this for kids, but what about for parents? Are we talking about native language literacy and native language activities for them?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Actually, we’ve been looking at that very closely and, yes, indeed. Actually, when you look at adult literacy models, we don’t see that we’ve been as successful, and part of not being successful is probably because there hasn’t been enough native language support in those adult literacy programs.

And, actually, we would like to start looking at that, making sure that the same kinds of effective strategies that we’re learning about for our English language learners as students, that we should be applying and looking at how that applies to our adults, our parents.

And so looking at that native language support certainly seems a direction that we must take so we’ll have more success in those adult literacy programs.

Delia: Okay, that’s a lot. So let’s step back so we can look at the big picture. What sort of academic success are we going to expect from ELL LD kids and how does that compare with the success of native English speakers with LD?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: You know, what we want is we want to look at every child as an individual. And what we expect from that child is that they are responding to the intervention. And so, as we mentioned before, that close monitoring is extremely important because that’s gonna tell us how we need to adapt our instruction to give to these students.

And so for our English language learners we have to closely monitor it, and I would recommend that if that monitoring fits the intervention, the language that you’re intervening in, but also looking at that native language and seeing how that’s progressing and how we might be able to use that to continue that trajectory.

And what we are finding is we haven’t done a very good job of following our English language learners who are referred to special education services. That we need to do a better job of looking at those that stayed within the general education model and those that received special education services, but also looking at what service delivery models were implemented and what was the language of instruction.

That, to me, seems like a future direction to really know what are we doing, what works best for what child and for how long to better inform our practitioners. So a lot of work still needs to be done in that area.

Delia: You know, you work in this field everyday and probably have lots of ideas about what the next steps might be. You talked about some future work. What about for the rest of us that don’t work in the field everyday. What are some future steps in this field?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Some future steps surely include designing even better assessment tools to make sure that we’ve covered every aspect of language and literacy and learning that we possibly can. What also needs to be done is to look at the accommodations that we give our English language learners to see, well, how effective are those really, and especially the accommodations that we give not only for instruction but for assessment.

What we also need to look at and what we have been looking at is we know that our English language learners can respond to effective interventions. There have been studies that clearly demonstrate that our English language learners can make progress with interventions.

And looking at them, whether those interventions we’ve looked at in their native language and in their second language. But if we have good programs and good intervention models, the students respond. What we need more of and need to figure out how to do even more effectively is academic language skills — higher level critical thinking, having the language and the vocabulary and content area literacy.

Understanding and helping our teachers who teach in the content area such as science and social studies and math that there is language and literacy opportunities in every one of those subjects, and that we can help our English language learners develop an academic language, an academic vocabulary, and that we are all instructors of language and literacy.

Delia: You know, in light of the difficulties in assessing these kids and in light of the challenges that you just described in teaching these children, it seems to me that it’s gonna be very easy to overlook their needs, their ELL and their LD. And it seems sometimes like a huge challenge so it’s easier to overlook them.

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Uh huh.

Delia: Why is it so important that we not overlook them in our schools?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: What I tell folks is we know that our future is gonna depend on our English language learners when we look at what the demographics of the United States are looking like. It’ll be very common for most teachers to be exposed to English language learners.

We wanna make sure that all our students are successful because they are our future. They are the future of, you know, the doctors and the lawyers and the ambulance drivers. They are our future teachers. And so we need to make sure that we have provided them with the best education so that they will achieve their academic goals and then turn around and contribute back to their communities and make a difference in their communities.

They are our future and the success of our United States.

Delia: That’s a lofty goal and a good one. Any final thoughts on how we carry it out or what else we have to do to make sure we get there?

Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan: Well, again, I think it’s very important to follow these children carefully, to look at the language of instruction, to make sure that when we’re making decisions those decisions are based upon the data that you collected, the data-good, sound data to say, “This is how this student should be instructed. This is the language of instruction”, and not switching the plan in the middle, maybe doing some adaptations to that plan.

But what happens to our English language learners, again, is that they are switched from one language to the next and there’s not consistency across those languages. And making sure that we are providing them with the opportunities for learning, you know, not only the social language skills but those academic language skills, and learning those higher level comprehensive skills, higher level vocabulary.

That’s where our future will be, in looking at comprehension, vocabulary, academic language.

Delia: Dr. Hagan, thank you so much for talking with us today and for giving us all that good information, and for the passion you seem to have for your work. It’s a model for all of us, I believe. And thank you for watching. For more information about teaching English language learners to read and how to reach out to their families, please visit our website, (opens in a new window)

On the main page for this webcast you’ll find recommended readings, discussion questions and more. I’m Delia Pompa. Thank you for joining us.