Sunday, November 3, 2013

For Struggling ELLs--Language Issue or Learning Disability?

If an English language encounters ongoing struggles in the mainstream classroom, that learner's teachers sometimes look too quickly to a possible need for special education to "fix" the problem.  Is the failure to succeed in content classes a sign of a learning disability or the result of non-inclusive teaching strategies?  This is a situation that surfaces in many classrooms throughout the country nowadays, and one for which there is yet no clear solution.

How do teachers sometimes arrive at this conclusion?  Content teachers usually do not have the training that ELD/ESL teachers have in language acquisition.  Content teachers are often perplexed when they believe that because the student can speak easily, he or she should be able to transfer that skill to reading and writing.  When such a desired connection fails to appear, content teachers turn to teachers they know work with failing students-special ed teachers.  Sometimes this may work since special ed teachers have a wealth of materials to help students with special needs, but their skills do not really carry over into English language development delays of those students.  Another source not to be overlooked is support from ESL/ELD teachers.  These teachers offer guidance in assessing how much scaffolding is being afforded ELLs in the content classrooms.

So how can schools assist teachers here in deciding if the problem for the ELL is language or disability?  The questionnaire designed by Beth Crumpier is one step in the right direction.  Mainstream or content teachers can use it over time keeping data on the results every few weeks.  The tool clearly defines BICS  (conversational English) and CALP (academic language) development over time.  If over time, teachers notice a lack of progress in any of the elements in the tool, the teacher may be justified in advocating for special education assessment.

The questionnaire here is just a suggestion. The author also notes that schools in teams can create their own, but something should be in place to decide on proper placement of these students.


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