Literature Review: English Language Learners and Learning

Disabilities
Megan Marsh
Teacher as Leader Spring A2 2016 / EDU 600
February 28 2016
Anne Lovejoy

English Language Learners are a rapidly growing subset of students in the public
school system. It was estimated, in 2005, that the number of ELLs in schools increased
by approximately 10% each year. (MCCardle et al.) With the increase of these new
students, new challenges have arisen in the classroom. It has long been difficult to
determine best teaching practices for students who are struggling. The variety of
factors that could impact ELLs has increasingly frustrated teachers and administrators
who have difficulty determining whether ELLs have a learning disability, or are struggling
due to their language proficiency. Historically, ELLs are “the student group with the
highest dropout rate, lowest achievement scores, largest mobility rate, and highest
poverty.” (McCardle et al., 2005, p. 1) It is up to teachers to find ways to combat this
problem as the number of ELLs in school in the United States continues to increase.
Various studies warn that almost half of the student population will be made of ELLs by
the second half of the twenty-first century.
What was originally intended to be a review of the current special education
requirements for ELLs was quickly abandoned. The majority of the research published
within the last twenty years urges further investigation into the special education
assessment methods, policies, and results. Some studies claim that there is an
overrepresentation of minority students in special education and that this needs to be
combatted. Others claim that minority students are underrepresented in special
education and are not receiving the necessary services and supports to be successful in
school. What the many studies seem to agree on is that the current assessments used

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for special education identification are based on the culture of White, middle class
students with a strong literacy background in English.
In 2005, a study was conducted to determine the issues of identifying learning
disabilities in English Language Learners. While it was understood that there was a
clear achievement gap between White and minority students, determining why was
difficult. National special education data suggested that ELLs were “underrepresented
overall on special education rosters…a smaller percentage…are receiving services than
would be expected, given the proportion of the overall population that they represent.”
(McCardle et al., 2005, p. 2). If, based on the percentage of the population, more
students should have been receiving special education services, what was getting in the
way? It turned out that districts did not consider themselves qualified to determine
whether the struggles of ELLs were language based or evidence of a disability. The
authors suggested that more research needed to be done to determine the necessary
steps in the identification process to determine eligibility in ELLs.
A study in 2006 took a different look at the special education question in regards
to ELLs. That study sought to determine of the assessments used for special education
were discriminatory to minority students. It was determined that the majority of tests
assumed that students being tested had a similar background and experiences to draw
from. Cultural bias and language bias were evident in the materials. The current data
and standards indicated “verbal tests in English and nonverbal tests generally may not
be valid or appropriate with EL populations.” (Figueroa & Newsome, 2006, p. 208) The
professionals assessing these students and making determinations did not consider
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“the possible impact of prior schooling, present schooling, or the curriculum of the home
as contextual factors to be taken into account to augment formal measures” (Figueroa &
Newsome, 2006, p. 210) Second language acquisition theories were also not
considered when assessing these students. Assessors tended to mistake
“interpersonal language proficiency for comprehensive English language proficiency”
among these students. (Figuera & Newsome, 2006, p. 211) This study concluded that
best practices of assessments were not used.
By 2010, researchers began to notice that students in the younger elementary
grades were underrepresented in special education but were overrepresented from fifth
grade through high school. The tendency of teachers was to not refer “ELLs for special
education in the early grades, thinking, perhaps that students need more time to
become English proficient. However, as ELLs get older, if they have not received
adequate instruction, the gap between them and their English monolingual peers
widens, as does the gap between their IQ and achievement.” (Linan-Thompson, 2010,
p. 970) This study recommended that before determining special education eligibility, a
strong Response to Intervention model should be used. This was seen as a way to
target ELLs and provide preventative instruction. It also suggested discontinuing using
timed measures when determining language skills. The study also made the case for
the achievement gap among White and minority students to exist, at least partially, due
to inadequate instruction. “ELLs with learning difficulties have a slower rate of learning
that becomes evident with the systematic assessment of literacy skills. On the other
hand, ELLs who lacked opportunities to learn, make rapid and consistent gains once

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they are provided systematic and explicit instruction.” (Linan-Thompson, 2010, p. 973)
Research in 2011 identified further instances of unequal opportunities for ELLs.
Many states mandated English only programs which directly impacted the way
instruction. Similarly, it seemed as if there was even more confused as to how to best
teach ELLs. The study looked at the pressures being put on states and districts from
federal procedures. The disability definitions and diagnostic procedures continued to
vary among states and school systems. The role of special education with ELLs
continued to be unclear. The average population of students receiving special
education in the United States was 9%, with ELLs being reported from zero up to
17.3%, varying by state. (Sullivan, 2011, p. 319) It was also found that school systems
did not have an adequate way to determine identification, placement, or outcomes for
ELLs. Data was scarce and varied depending on states as there was not yet an official
federal protocol for data reporting.
However, there was a trend of increasing number of ELLs recommended for
special education beginning in third grade. The importance of explicit English
instruction seemed to not be weighed when determining services for ELLs. Students
who received special education services often lost their ELL services. Special
education became a place where students were sent when English language support
was decreased for a variety of reasons. The study also looked at the instruments being
used to assess ELLs for special education. It was found that there are limited trained
professionals and limited assessments in native languages to be used with students.
Further compounding the issues was that there was a “tendency for both students

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identified as ELLs and students identified with LD to perform poorly on academic tasks
with high language demands.” (Sullivan, 2011, p. 320) Due to these issues, ELLs
began receiving special education services 2 to 3 years later than the average”
mainstream student. (Sullivan, 2011, p. 320)
One of the most recent studies, published in the spring of 2015 found that
“minority children are believed to experience systematic prejudice that results in their
abilities and behaviors being unjustifiably characterized as problematic.” (Morgan et al,
2015, p. 279) This was one of the first longitudinal studies that looked at minority
students from kindergarten through eighth grade. This study found that most minority
children have significant environmental factors that need to be overcome. They often
attend students with lower quality education and fewer resources. Students are
underrepresented in special education in kindergarten and first grade, but over
represented by third grade.
This study looked beyond only the assessments and found that there are other
issues, including “socioeconomic, linguistic, and/or cultural obstacles that constrain
access by minority families to special education services.” (Morgan et al., 2015, p. 279).
Those from minority families may see more of a stigma with a special education
diagnosis than their White counterparts. Families often suffer from less access to
health care and language barriers with doctors.
Assessments are still geared toward the white middle class population and
policies are still negatively impacting special education placement. “Federal legislation
and policies currently designed to reduce minority overrepresentation in special
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education may be misdirected. These policies instead may be exacerbating educational
inequities by limiting minority children’s access to potentially beneficial services to which
they may be legally entitled” (Morgan et al, 2015, p. 281). The study found that
minorities are less likely to be diagnosed, and less likely to be receiving services than
their White peers. The authors suggest an increased use of culturally and linguistically
sensitive evaluation methods. Similarly, the eligibility process needs to take into
consideration cultural bias, as well as cultural and language barriers that may be
causing students to be inappropriately identified and evaluated. (Morgan et al., 2015, p.
288)
All of these studies show that more research needs to be done on the impact of
special education on English Language Learners. ELLs are a rapidly increasing
population but are not receiving fair and equal education. Many of the studies suggest
using appropriate cultural and linguistic sensitivity when teaching students in any
setting. Strong early interventions can also help ELL students narrow the achievement
gap. “Early intervention programs focus on the ‘critical period’ between kindergarten
and grade three in which services show especially strong preventative or minimizing
effects on students’ academic, behavioral and social difficulties. “ (Hibel & Jasper, 2012,
p. 1) Many of these studies also show the inadequacy of state and federal laws
regarding education and intervention services for children. According to the research,
there do not seem to be any policies or procedures in place specifically with ELLs in
mind. The fact that ELLs are spread out over so much of the country and are entering
such different settings with such different backgrounds compounds the problem. What

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is clear is that teachers cannot wait for the education laws to help these students.
Research-based best practices and interventions should be provided for ELLs as soon
as possible. Students need to be studied over school years in order to pinpoint student
achievement. Teachers need to be required to learn more about second language
acquisition so that they feel more comfortable in teaching and identifying areas of risk
for students. Further professional development and studies need to be done to
determine what kinds of special education are most effective for ELLs. Until that
happens, it seems that ELLs will remain the highest percentage of dropouts and the
achievement gap will increase.

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References

Figueroa, R. A., & Newsome, P. (2006). The diagnosis of LD in English learners: Is it
nondiscriminatory? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39(3), 206-214. doi:
10.1177/00222194060390030201

Hibel, J., & Jasper, A. D. (2012). Delayed special education placement for learning
disabilities among children of immigrants. Social Forces, 91(2), 503-529.
doi:10.1093/sf/sos092

Klingner, J. K., Artiles, A. J., & Barletta, L. M. (2006). English language learners who
struggle with reading: Language acquisition or LD? Journal of Learning
Disabilities, 39(2), 108-128. doi:10.1177/00222194060390020101

Linan-Thompson, S. (2010). Response to instruction, English language learners and
disproportionate representation: The role of assessment. Psicothema, 22(4),
970-974.

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McCardle, P., Mele‐McCarthy, J., Cutting, L., Leos, K., & D'Emilio, T. (2005). Learning
disabilities in English language learners: Identifying the issues. Learning
Disabilities Research & Practice, 20(1), 1-5. doi:
10.1111/j.1540-5826.2005.00114.x

Morgan, P. L., Farkas, G., Hillemeier, M. M., Mattison, R., Maczuga, S., Li, H., & Cook,
M. (2015). Minorities are disproportionately underrepresented in special
education: Longitudinal evidence across five disability conditions. Educational
Researcher, 44(5), 278.

Sullivan, A. L. (2011). Disproportionality in special education identification and
placement of English language learners. Exceptional Children, 77(3), 317-334.

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