By Janette Klingner, University of Colorado at Boulder
Challenge 3: The characteristics of learning disabilities in many ways mirror characteristics associated with second language acquisition. When English language learners (ELLs) struggle with reading, it can be difficult to distinguish between learning disabilities and the language acquisition process.
What should teachers do when their ELLs are struggling? What if some students really do have LD? How can teachers tell which students should receive additional interventions or who to refer for an evaluation for possible placement in special education? A useful rule of thumb is to look at how many ELLs are struggling. If the majority of ELLs are making little progress, the teacher should focus on improving instruction. If most ELLs are doing well and only a few are struggling, the teacher should look more closely at what is going on with those individual students and consider that they may need additional support.
First let us focus on classrooms where the majority of ELLs are struggling. How should classroom teachers adjust instruction when their ELLs are making little progress? Effective teachers of ELLs must become keen observers of children and should have a wide repertoire of instructional practices at their fingertips in order to match instruction to a particular child’s needs.
Instructional approaches that demand one particular pathway are inappropriate for ELLs because they lack the flexibility needed to meet the widely varying needs of the ELL population. This is problematic because when reading instruction is scripted or a method insists on a pre-determined sequence of what is to be learned and how it is to be learned, the responsibility to adjust falls on the child to match the curriculum. The child who cannot meet the program where it begins and stay in step soon falls behind. In such programs, teachers have little flexibility to adapt the program to meet children’s individual differences. Thus, the first question the teacher should ask when ELLs are struggling is:
- Is my instruction culturally, linguistically, and pedagogically appropriate to meet students’ needs?
If the answer appears to be “no,” then the next question should be:
- How can I adjust instruction to be more appropriate?
Optimal literacy instruction for ELLs accounts for the influence of culture and experience on cognition and learning, behavior and communication, language development, and motivation. Some LD diagnoses of ELLs are made not because the students have internal deficits of some kind, but rather because they have not received an adequate opportunity to learn.
Another way to think about this is that it is not that the children have disabilities, but that they are in “disabling contexts.” Many ELLs are provided with too few and insufficient opportunities to develop their language and literacy skills. Prior to referring a young ELL for evaluation of a reading disability or for more intensive interventions as part of a Response to Intervention model, teachers should consider the types of language and literacy instruction to which the child has had access. The following questions may guide teachers as they reflect on their instructional practices for language and literacy learning for ELLs:
- Have I developed a strong, positive relationship with the child and his/her family?
- Do I personalize instruction? Do I value the child’s linguistic and cultural background? Do I connect classroom learning to the child’s daily experiences?
- Do I give enough attention to affect, interest, and motivation?
- Do I pay sufficient attention to the development of oral language?
- Am I aware of aspects of reading that can be confusing for ELLs?
- Have I found out about differences in the child’s first language than English so that I can clarify misunderstandings and provide additional practice?
- Do I adjust instruction to provide students with additional support when students do not seem to understand (e.g., explicit instruction at their level, more opportunities for meaningful practice)?
- Are the books I use at levels students can read and understand?
- Do I pre-teach key vocabulary and use multimedia, realia, appealing photos, charts, and other visuals to help make instruction comprehensible?
- Do I focus more on the content of students’ responses than the form when checking for comprehension and provide multiple and varied ways of demonstrating learning?
When the answer to at least most of these questions is “yes” and most ELLs in the class are progressing, yet a few continue to struggle, supplemental support should be provided to those students. Struggling ELLs should be provided with small-group language and literacy interventions that are explicit, responsive to their needs, personalized, relevant, and not based on deficit views of the students.