Children with learning disabilities (LDs) in reading and youngsters who are English language learners (ELLs) both are at risk for low reading achievement, but for different reasons. Children with genuine LDs in reading have intrinsic learning difficulties or differences, often related to problems in phonological processing that impact their word identification skills. ELLs usually can learn to read normally in their native language, but they lack sufficient exposure to both spoken and written English, which can adversely affect their development of English literacy. When both situations coexist for the same youngster — when a child with a learning disability happens also to be an English language learner — the issues surrounding identification and remediation can be very complex.
Evaluations of English language learners for possible LDs must consider many variables, including native language and literacy skills, English language and literacy skills, cultural factors that may influence test and school performance, family and developmental history, educational history, and the nature of previous reading instruction. Whenever possible, formal assessments should include tests administered in and developed for the native language; translations of English tests are highly problematic and should not be used. Formal native-language assessments are quite feasible for certain languages, such as Spanish. However, dozens of different languages may be represented in a major metropolitan center, and unfortunately, for many of these languages, no formal assessments may be available.
English-language assessments should always be interpreted with great caution, as they often simply reflect lack of exposure to English or normal developmental patterns involved in acquiring a second language. Nevertheless, the right assessments can be useful for planning an educational program. For example, if an English language learner with a suspected learning disability obtains a low score on a measure of English vocabulary, it may be impossible to know if the low score reflects a language disability as opposed to insufficient exposure to English; in either case, however, the results suggest that the child would benefit from instruction in English vocabulary.
Information from parents about the prior history of the child and family should be used to supplement any formal assessment data. For instance, parents should be asked about whether the child had difficulties or delays learning to talk in the native language; about the educational history of both the child and the family, such as opportunities to learn literacy in the native language and consistency of school attendance; and about any medical conditions, such as hearing or visual impairment, that may affect both language and literacy development.
For an English language learner experiencing difficulty with English reading skills, patterns such as the following suggest the possibility of a learning disability:
- The child has a history of oral language delay or disability in the native language.
- The child has had difficulty developing literacy skills in the native language (assuming adequate instruction in the native language).
- There is a family history of reading difficulties in parents, siblings, or other close relatives (again, assuming adequate opportunity to learn to read).
- The child has specific language weaknesses, such as poor phonemic awareness, in the native language as well as in English. (However, these difficulties may manifest somewhat differently in different languages, depending on the nature of the written language; for example, Spanish is a more transparent language than English, so children with phonological weaknesses may decode words more accurately in Spanish than in English.)
- The child has had research-based, high-quality reading intervention designed for English language learners, and still is not making adequate progress relative to other, similar English language learners.
Several studies have suggested that English language learners with LDs can benefit from interventions known to benefit monolingual youngsters with learning disabilities. These interventions include explicit phonemic awareness instruction, structured and systematic phonics instruction, explicit instruction in comprehension strategies, and peer-assisted learning. The extent to which this instruction should happen in the native language initially, if feasible, is still a matter of debate.
ELLs with LDs also have some specific instructional requirements related to their status as English language learners, such as needing an emphasis on English vocabulary development and the use of sheltered English techniques to aid English comprehension. Examples of sheltered English techniques are the use of visual aids, such as props, pictures, gestures, and facial expressions, to help convey meaning; encouraging children to expand and elaborate their responses to help develop oral expression abilities; and structuring oral input based on the level of understanding that children have.
Although much remains to be learned about ELLs with LDs, currently there is a great deal of interest in this population in the research community, with a number of ongoing studies. In the future, this research should increase our knowledge about the best ways to identify and teach English language learners with learning disabilities.