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When ELLs Struggle: Recognizing the Signs

It is important for educators who are screening English language learners (ELLs) for learning difficulties to consider
that some behaviors that are considered signs of a learning disability also resemble linguistic behaviors of students
learning a second language (L2). In addition, the behaviors may reflect cultural differences or values of students
coming to U.S. schools from other countries and educational systems.

The following table highlights examples of similarities between possible linguistic, cultural, and learning disability (LD)
explanations for behaviors demonstrated by ELLs. The list is not comprehensive, nor should it be used as a diagnostic
tool, particularly since not all students with LD exhibit the same learning difficulties. Rather, it is a starting point for
conversations regarding students having difficulty. We urge you to explore other potential explanations for learning
difficulties based on what you know about your own students.

Student Behavior Potential Potential Potential

Language Cultural Explanations LD Explanations
(Limited L2 proficiency)
School Expectations

Social Interaction
Student has trouble interacting Student may not Different cultural norms Student may have trouble
with: understand peer / regarding: with:
Peers (taking turns, teacher Touch Language
interpreting body language conversations, Proximity processing
and behavior, etc.) questions, etc. Eye contact Auditory processing
Teachers (asking questions Signs of respect Oral processing
and voicing needs, etc.) Teachers authority Abstract reasoning

Student feels: Student may be: Student is adjusting to Student may:
Frustrated Struggling to a new cultural Be aware that
Withdrawn communicate environment he/she is falling
Anxious Feel overwhelmed or Student feels stress behind
tired by the demands due to current or Feel unsuccessful
of learning a new previous situations and
language instability (especially
refugees and migrants)

In the Classroom

Student has trouble: Student has limited Different cultural norms Student may have trouble
Meeting deadlines comprehension skills regarding: with:
Finishing work on time and may not Time management Organization
understand Deadlines Memory
assignment or

Classroom Activities
Student has trouble: Student has limited Different cultural norms Student may have trouble
Following directions comprehension skills regarding: with:
Working in a group and may not Expressing contradicting Auditory processing
Paying attention understand activity opinions Language
Concentrating Student has limited Group vs. independent processing
Finishing tasks access to scaffolding work Sequencing
Participating in classroom and support (visuals, Gender roles Focusing
discourse demonstrations, etc.) Prioritizing
Cause & effect

Student does poorly on: Limited understanding Different cultural norms Student may have trouble
Summative assessments of content due to regarding: with:
unfamiliarity with L2 Testing-taking skills Language
what he/she knows in Sharing work vs. processing
L2 cheating Expressing and
organizing ideas

Student Behavior Language Cultural Explanations LD Explanations
(Limited L2 proficiency)
Language Skills / Proficiency

Student has trouble: Student is unfamiliar Student has: Student may have trouble
Mastering sound-symbol with phonetic rules Different cultural with:
relationship and patterns of L2 experiences and Language
Rhyming Student has limited references than those processing
Recognizing sight words literacy skills in L1 presented in reading
Learning new words material
Comprehending text

Student: Student hasnt learned Student has: Student may have trouble
Is reluctant to write a variety of structures Different cultural with:
Has trouble expressing, and vocabulary in L2 experiences and Fine motor skills
organizing, and Student is afraid to references than those Expressive language
developing ideas make mistakes relevant for the
Makes frequent Students social assignment
grammatical errors language is stronger
Speaks more fluidly than than academic
he/she writes language

Student: Student is in silent Different cultural norms Student may have trouble
Is silent for long periods period regarding: with:
of time Student hasnt learned Student participation in Oral language
Has trouble pronouncing structures and discussions difficulties
words vocabulary in L2 Expressing
Speaks with frequent Student is afraid to contradictory opinions
pauses and errors make mistakes Gender roles

Student has trouble: Student has limited Student may have trouble
Understanding spoken aural comprehension with:
directions skills Auditory processing
Remembering what Student needs extra Focusing
he/she has heard scaffolding and
support (visuals,
demonstrations, etc.)


Cognitive Skills Student has limited Student may have trouble

Student has trouble academic language with:
understanding, remembering, skills and background Organization
and/or identifying: knowledge applicable Sequencing
New concepts to new concepts Abstract reasoning
Cause & effect Student has limited
Classifying reading/listening
Summarizing comprehension skills
Abstract ideas
Idioms & slang

Adapted from Hamayan et al. (2007) and Klinger et al. (2008).


Hamayan, E., Marler, B., Sanchez-Lopez, C, and Damico, J. Table 3.3: Possible Explanations for Typical
Difficulties Encountered by ELLs. Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners. (p.
40). Philadelphia: Caslon, Inc.

Klinger, J., Hoover, J., and Baca, L. (2008). Data-Driven Decision Making in a Multi-Tiered Model. Why
Do English Language Learners Struggle with Reading? (pp. 79-83). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.