Review of the Challenges & Best Practices for English

VOLUME 11, NUMBER 1, 2014
A Literature Review of the Challenges & Best Practices for English
Language Learners
Katelyn Zimmerman, BA
Prek-12 Spanish Licensure & Master’s Program (LAMP)
University of Toledo
Toledo, Ohio
English Language Learners (ELL) face challenges in schools because they often do not receive
adequate linguistic support in a typical classroom. These students do not have access to
appropriate second language acquisition resources, and therefore they are sometimes
misdiagnosed with a cognitive delay. English Language Learners are then placed in a restrictive
special education classroom as a disproportionate rate. This article examines the best practices
for teaching English Language Learners.
In the United States, English is the most common language of instruction in most if not
all schools. However, for students whose first language is not English, the expectation to quickly
comprehend class content can pose a particularly burdensome obstacle. These students, known as
English Language Learners, cannot communicate effectively in the language of instruction when
compared to their native English-speaking peers. According to the U.S. Department of
Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2013), English Language Learners make up
over 9 percent of the student population in the United States as of the 2011-2012 school year.
That is an estimated 4.1 million students who are in need of language support services to help
them achieve academically.
In order to evaluate their ability to perform in an English-dominant classroom, English
Language Learners are tested for language proficiency through a battery of assessments. If the
student is unable to competently communicate in English, it is not only considered an academic
hindrance, but often the student is misdiagnosed as having a cognitive delay. English Language
Learners’ emerging language is often confused with language disability or disorder and English
Language Learners students are often inappropriately referred for special education services
(Sullivan, 2011). It is difficult to estimate exactly how disproportionate the rate of
misidentification and placement for special education services is because there is no mandate
requiring districts to report such information. However, it is confirmed that there is a greater
percentage of linguistically diverse students, like English Language Learners, receiving special
education services than expected (Coutinho & Oswald, 2006). Consequently, there is a
disproportionate number of English Language Learners identified as having learning disabilities.
In addition to understanding the frequent special education misdiagnosis, it is critical to
examine the achievement gap of English Language Learning students when compared to their
native English-speaking counterparts. Not only are English Language Learners performing
below the level of their peers in language-related instruction, but English learners also show
notable gaps in core subject areas due to high language demands (Alt, Arizmendi, Beal, &
Hurtado, 2013). Thus, these lack of resources and support lead to disparities in academic
Alongside the stigmas associated with low achievement, English Language Learners
placed into special education classrooms often do not receive adequate services that
accommodate their specific learning needs. As a result of misdiagnosing English Language
Learners with a cognitive delay rather than addressing their language learning, English Language
Learners are placed in special education where they do not have access to appropriate testing
accommodations or teachers equipped to tackle their specific linguistic needs. The justification
for special education placement is that the English Language Learner demonstrates an inability
to speak English and that the language deficit puts the student at an academic and linguistic
disadvantage to learn. However, it should be argued that ELL students are at an environmental
disadvantage (Sullivan, 2011, p. 317). English Language Learners are too frequently referred and
are often misrepresented as cognitively delayed or mentally disabled rather than having poor
language skills.
One qualitative interview study gathered information about the number of English
Language Learners who were misidentified as having learning disabilities. The study focused on
students who are middle school-age (grades 6-8) from three midsized New York State school
districts. State data was used to identify school districts that consisted of at least 10 percent
English Language Learners and 5 percent of English Language Learners with learning
disabilities. The research team conducted semi structured interviews with district and school
administrators, school support personnel, specialist teachers, and general classroom teachers.
Researchers found that there was a disproportionate identification of English Language Learners
who were diagnosed with learning disabilities (Sanchez, Parker, Akbayin, & McTigue, 2010).
The purpose of this literature review is to explore the reasons for the misidentification of
English Language Learners to special education services, to illustrate the challenges that English
Language Learners students face in education, to discuss the limitations of available services
available to English Language Learners, and to explore suggestions for best practices in teaching
and understanding English Language Learners.
Achievement Gap
English Language Learning students are unable to read, write, and perform in the
standard language of schools—English—which immediately puts them at a crippling
disadvantage. Because English Language Learners cannot yet communicate adequately in
English, they may appear to be low cognitive functioning when compared to their Englishspeaking counterparts. Overreferrals to special education become prevalent because limited
language proficiency is often confused with cognitive disability.
English Language Learners may be chastised for their inability to communicate
effectively in English; this difficulty may be highlighted when the English Language Learners
are asked to complete core subject tasks that require English language proficiency. For example,
English Language Learners may struggle on mathematics problem-solving tasks because the task
requires sufficient linguistic understanding of English (Alt et al., 2013).
National assessments reveal the achievement gap between English Language Learners
and English-speaking peers. Specifically, The National Assessment of Education Progress
reported that native English speakers outperformed English Language Learners on the core
subjects of mathematics, social studies, reading and science. The National Assessment of
Education Progress data reflect “subject-matter achievement, instructional experiences, and
school environment for populations of students (e.g., all fourth-graders) and groups within those
populations (e.g., female students, Hispanic students)” for grades 4, 8, and 12 across the nation
(National Center for Educational Statistics, 2014, para. 7). There are linguistic accommodations
tailored specifically for English Language Learners on the National Assessment of Educational
Progress; so, it is unclear why there is an achievement gap between English Language Learners
and native English speakers in core subject performance on the assessment. These data do not
explain the low academic performance among English Language Learners, but point out the need
for more individualized accommodations.
When English Language Learners are misplaced into special education, they often
experience drops in academic performance and misplaced students also experience complications
in social and emotional development. The inability to communicate inhibits English Language
Learners from effectively maintaining relationships with English-speaking peers. One metaanalysis contends that overidentifying English Language Learners with a disability in the
Emotional and/or Behavioral Disorders category violates their right to learn in the least
restrictive environment (Gage, Gersten, Sugai, & Newman-Gonchar, 2013). The isolation they
experience from being placed in a special education classroom restricts the ability for peers to
model appropriate social behaviors. Thus, English Language Learners in special education are
often not as mature socially as their English-speaking peers. Along with the academic
achievement gap, English Language Learners struggle with additional consequences of
misidentification in special education, such as gaps in social development.
Lack of Support Services
In order to better understand the needs of English Language Learners, it is crucial to
identify aspects of support services that may be lacking for English Language Learners. Support
services include both adequately trained teachers and the need for appropriate assessments. With
regard to teacher training, many teachers do not have sufficient knowledge or consistent practice
of teaching second language development, especially to English Language Learners within a
regular classroom. Also, many school districts do not have qualified personnel to provide
suitable second language instruction because there is a lack of professional development in that
field. One effective solution for school districts is to explore the option of using bilingual school
psychologists to help with properly assessing English Language Learners for special education
services (Olvera & Gomez-Cerrillo, 2011). Bilingual school psychologists can better address
student needs and options while evaluating and before identifying the student as cognitively
disabled, thus preventing the misplacement of a student into a restrictive learning environment
(O’Bryon & Rogers, 2010). Educators contend that the difficulties associated with learning “a
second language often resemble learning disabilities, and personnel without adequate knowledge
of learning disabilities and second language acquisition might incorrectly attribute students’
academic struggles” (Sanchez, et al., 2010, p. 17).
Some school districts do not have appropriate assessments for English Language
Learners and the instruments that exist have limitations. One commonly used test is the
Language Assessment Scales-Oral Espanol that assesses students for multiple characteristics
including academic achievement; a weakness of this assessment is that it neglects linguistic
nuances between English and Spanish. The scoring system also has weakness; students are
scored into three categories—non-proficient Spanish speakers, limited Spanish speakers and
proficient Spanish speakers and weighted by percentile. Students who score above the 50th
percentile are considered capable enough to perform in the regular education classroom without
additional language assistance or special program placement. This categorization puts limitations
on the ability to provide effective resources because it does not take individual language
differences into consideration. In addition to a lack of proper identification, the Language
Assessment Scales-Oral Espanol has limitations in accurately sorting English Language Learners
based on their individual linguistic needs (Macswan & Rolstad, 2006). Because there is no
standardized classification spectrum for English Language Learners, students can be
inappropriately defined and classified based on the arbitrary categories.
Best Practices
In order to help English Language Learners achieve their actual potential, it is essential to
evaluate the best practices for testing and assessment. Currently, there is no national standardized
method for assessing language proficiency in English Language Learning students. School
districts utilize a variety of language proficiency tests and 13 states encourage the use of an oral
native language assessment along with the English examination (Macswan & Rolstad, 2006).
English Language Learners also struggle on everyday classroom tasks that require a high level of
proficiency in the English language. Most of the time these students do not have effective
language supports to ease the test-taking process, such as an English-Spanish glossary with
common vocabulary words (Pennock-Roman & Rivera, 2011). When faced with linguistically
demanding test items, such as problem solving tasks, English Language Learners have a difficult
time because the focus relies on English language comprehension first rather than the contentrelated task.
There are multiple test accommodations that have proved successful in assisting English
Language Learners and provided better practices in core content-specific areas. One example of
a mathematics-specific assessment instrument that utilized effective testing accommodations for
English Language Learners is the KeyMath-3 assessment (Alt et al., 2013). The mathematicsfocused assessment implemented the use of language translation of test items to better determine
ELL’s mathematical knowledge. The research team translated test items into Spanish. During the
examination, when a student incorrectly answers a KeyMath-3 question in English, the test item
is re-administered in Spanish. Thus, the researchers can determine if the student does not
understand the mathematical concept, or if the student’s response reflects a problem with English
language comprehension. As a result of this modification, there was a significant improvement in
students’ test scores. Researchers concluded that an English-only administration of the exam
would not provide accurate evidence of English Language Learners’ mathematical skills and that
Spanish version is an appropriate accommodation for ELL students participating in high-stakes
mathematics assessments (Alt et al., 2013).
Studies suggest incorporating additional supports that more accurately assist English
Language Learners with regard to their specific classroom needs. One way to combat this
overrepresentation of English Language Learners in special education is to hire a consultant to
help referral team members more clearly define the difference between second language
development and learning disability. The consultant is able to collaborate with teachers and
administrators to provide neutral advice for placing a student in special education (Sanchez et al.,
Early Response to Intervention (RTI) strategies also show promise in providing English
Language Learners with improved early language development. Research indicates that when
schools administer early phonological awareness strategies in the student’s native language, such
as Spanish word recognition and fluency assessments, this type of RTI is a better predictor of
future performance in English literacy (Vanderwood, 2008). The improvement can be attributed
to the fact that phonological awareness is not a language-specific skill. English Language
Learners can apply these skills when they begin reading in English. The interventions identify
students who are at risk for reading disabilities, but results show that this type of instruction help
these ELL students “make substantial gains in reading” (Vanderwood, 2008, p. 1851).
Similarly, results from small-group reading interventions also see significant gains in
both English and Spanish literacy performance among English Language Learners. One example
of an effective intervention is Read Naturally, which is a daily, small reading group that focuses
on repeated reading and progress monitoring. For the sake of making the intervention equitable
for English Language Learners, the intervention materials are translated into Spanish. The daily
repetitions of reading and frequent progress monitoring associated with this Response to
Intervention technique help English Language Learners make considerable gains in oral fluency
and literacy (Vanderwood, 2008). Consequently, districts that adopt an early literacy intervention
can expect to increase early language development and reduce the number of students chosen for
referral (Sanchez et al., 2010).
Conclusions and Future Study
In order to serve English Language Learning students more appropriately, it is crucial to
acknowledge the growing achievement gap between English Language Learners and their nonELL peers. By addressing English Language Learners’ specific linguistic needs, it is possible to
reduce this gap in achievement and provide the best practice to assist English Language Learning
students achieve to their ability. Rather than testing English Language Learners’ cognitive ability
based on their language proficiency level, assessments should first be adapted to more accurately
provide individualized linguistic support. This means that support, including appropriate
language and core content testing, should be implemented before a student is evaluated and
placed in special education. By tackling the misdiagnosis before the placement into special
education, ELL students can receive more suitable support to help them achieve their academic
Schools must create support tools and utilize language resources to help teachers better
provide for their linguistically diverse student population. School districts should observe the
needs of the language learning population and stress the importance of early intervention
strategies. Research indicates that early and frequent interventions can improve English
Language Learners’ performance. Districts need to more closely observe the definition of ability
differences in the classroom to better classify their students with special needs (Artiles, Rueda,
Salazar, & Higareda, 2005). On the other hand, once a student has been referred and classified
as a student with a learning disability related to language, that student should receive services
befitting of their linguistic needs. It is true that “high-quality, effective instruction for all students
in both general and special education could diminish the significance of overrepresentation”
(Wolf et al., 2008).
Alt, M., Arizmendi, G.D., Beal, C.R., & Hurtado, J. (2013). The effect of test translation on
the performance of second grade English learners on the KeyMath-3. Psychology in the
Schools, 50(1), 27-36.
Artiles, A.J., Rueda, R., Salazar, J.J., & Higareda, I. (2005). Within-group diversity in minority
disproportionate representation: English language learners in urban school districts.
Council for Exceptional Children, 71(3), 283-300.
Coutinho, M.J., & Oswald, D.P. (2006). Disproportionate representation of culturally and
linguistically diverse students in special education: Measuring the problem. Tempe, AZ:
National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems.
Gage, N., Gersten, R., Sugai, G., & Newman-Gonchar, R. (2013). Disproportionality of English
Learners with emotional and/or behavioral disorders: A comparative meta-analysis with
English Learners with learning disabilities. Behavioral Disorders, 38(3), 123-136.
Macswan, J., & Rolstad, K. (2006). How language proficiency tests mislead us about ability:
Implications for English Language Learner placement in special education. Teachers
College Record, 108(11), 2304-2328.
O’Bryon, E.C., & Rogers, M.R. (2010). Bilingual school psychologists’ assessment practices with
English language learners. Psychology in the Schools, 47(10), 1018-1034.
Olvera, P., & Gomez-Cerrillo, L. (2011). A bilingual (English & Spanish) psychoeducational
assessment MODEL grounded in Cattell-Horn Carroll (CHC) Theory: A cross battery
approach. Contemporary School Psychology, 15, 117-127.
Pennock-Roman, M., & Rivera, C. (2011). Mean effects of test accommodations for English
Language Learners and non-English Language Learners: A meta-analysis of
experimental studies. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 30(3), 10-28.
Sanchez, M.T., Parker, C., Akbayin, B., & McTigue, A. (2010). Processes and challenges in
identifying learning disabilities among students who are English Language Learners in
three New York State Districts. Issues & Answers (REL 2010-No. 085).
Sullivan, A.L. (2011). Disproportionality in special education identification and placement of
English Language Learners. Exceptional Children, 77(3), 317-334.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education. (2013). The condition of
education 2013 (NCES 2013-037), English Language Learners.
Vanderwood, M.L., & Nam, J. (2008). Best practices in assessing and improving English
Language Learners’ literacy performance. Best Practices in School Psychology V (Vol. 5,
1847-1855). Bethesda, MD: NASP Publications.
Wolf, M.K., Herman, J.L., Kim, J., Abedi, J., Leon, S., Griffin, N., . . . Shin, H.W. (2008).
Providing validity evidence to improve the assessment of English Language Learners
(Tech. Rep. No. 738). University of California, Los Angeles, National Center for
Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.

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