Identification, Assessment, andInstruction of English LanguageLearners with Learning Difficulties inthe Elementary and IntermediateGradesA guide for educators in Ontario school boards (March, 2014)Vicki Adelson, Esther Geva, and Christie FraserCopyright 2014 Adelson, Geva, & Fraser, Toronto ONWebsite: www.utoronto.ca/gevalabApplied Psychology & Human Development
Purpose of this GuideThis guide is intended to support educators in Ontario who work with English language learners (ELLs) and/orspecial education students. Specifically, this guide focuses on elementary and intermediate school-age ELLswho are struggling in reading and writing. The aim of this guide is to help teachers consider whether strugglingELLs have a learning difficulty or whether they are struggling merely because they are ELLs, and to helpteachers and schools address the needs of those students. The information provided can be used by teachers,School Support Teams (SSTs), and administrators.
About the AuthorsVicki AdelsonVicki Adelson is currently working towards a Master of Education in the Department ofApplied Psychology and Human Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education(OISE), University of Toronto. Vicki has worked as both a special education and English as aSecond Language teacher. She currently works as a Special Education Consultant for theToronto District School Board. Her particular interests include the use of assistive technology,evidence-based literacy interventions, and professional learning for teachers. Vicki’s goal is to bridge currentresearch with educational practice to effectively support students with special education needs.Dr. Esther GevaEsther Geva studied in Israel, the US, and Canada. She is a Professor in the Department ofApplied Psychology and Human Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education(OISE), University of Toronto. Her research, publications, and teaching focus on: (a)developmental issues and best practices concerning language and literacy skills in childrenfrom various immigrant and minority backgrounds, including children who immigrate fromnon-literate countries, (b) language and literacy skills in normally developing learners and learners withlearning difficulties, and (c) cross-cultural perspectives on children’s psychological problems. She haspublished extensively in these areas, presented her work internationally, and served on numerous advisory,policy, and review committees in the US and Canada concerned with research on literacy development inminority children.Christie FraserChristie is in the final year of her doctoral studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies inEducation (OISE), University of Toronto, in the Department of Applied Psychology andHuman Development under the supervision of Dr. Esther Geva. Her research interests include:the cognitive processes involved in learning to read, language and literacy skills in Englishlanguage learners with and without learning difficulties, and reading intervention andremediation for struggling readers. Her teaching focus is the area of educational psychology, assessment forprogramming, and reading instruction for pre-service teachers, Early Childhood Educators, and certifiedteachers returning for additional qualifications. One of Christie’s ongoing initiatives is bridging research andpractice, and helping educators to develop their evidence-based practice.
Table of ContentsBackground InformationPageDemographic Context1English Language Learners1Struggling English Language Learners1Frequently Asked Questions about English Language Learners Suspected ofHaving a Learning Difficulty1. How likely is it that my ELL student has a learning disability?32. How do I know if an ELL has learning difficulties and requires special education3support? How do at-risk ELLs differ from typically developing ELLs?3. What do I do if I am concerned about the progress of an ELL student or suspect9s/he has special education needs in literacy?4. What kind of interventions and instructional strategies can I use to promote literacy12development for ELLs who are struggling?5. When is it appropriate to do a psychological assessment on an ELL?136. What are some considerations about using psychological assessments with ELLs?167. Is an assessment in the student’s first language necessary?168. What are the concerns about misidentifying ELLs?17Endnotes19Resources21References26
Background InformationDemographic ContextMany immigrants to Canada settle in Ontario, specifically in Toronto and the surrounding areas1. The studentpopulation in Ontario comes from a wide range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The Toronto DistrictSchool Board (TDSB) in particular, serves a high number (i.e., 53%) of students who speak a language otherthan English at home2. In Ontario as a whole, 20% of students have a home language other than English orFrench3.Depending on their language proficiency, some of these students are identified as English language learners(ELLs) and given support to develop English language skills. In Ontario, 4% to 8% of students are identified asELLs3. In the TDSB, the percentage grows to just over 15%2. Additionally, 17% of elementary students and23% of secondary students across Ontario are identified as needing special education support in a range ofprograms and settings3.The number of students who fit into both groups (ELL and special education) is not known. From the statisticsprovided, it is clear that this number is not negligible. The needs of these students, and the processes andstrategies used to best support them, are not well defined.English Language LearnersIn Ontario, students who arrive at school without sufficient English language abilities are referred to as Englishlanguage learners (ELLs). These may include immigrants born in a non-English-speaking country or those bornand raised in Canada in non-English speaking homes. These students are supported through English as a SecondLanguage (ESL) or English Literacy Development (ELD) programming and services, offered through a range ofservice models.Within one to two years of arrival, most immigrant ELLs acquire conversational and day-to-day languageproficiency4,13. However, it can take five to seven years to acquire grade and age appropriate English academicand literacy skills4,13.Although typically developing ELLs may struggle in school to some extent because their English languageskills are still developing, with exposure to spoken and written English and appropriate teaching, these studentscan perform just as well in school as their monolingual peers5. As in the general population, within the ELLpopulation there will be some students who struggle more than other ELLs, for a wide variety of reasons.The Ontario Ministry of Education has published several excellent resources about the needs of Englishlanguage learners and the strategies and techniques teachers can use to support them in our schools. Theseresources are listed in the Resources section at the end of this guide.Struggling English Language LearnersOnce students are identified as struggling, educators need to determine whether the difficulties are due toEnglish language learning a learning difficulty, or both. Students may need to be taught differently dependingon: the root cause of their difficulty6, considerations of developmental level, and/or prior educational history. It1
can be challenging to differentiate between students who are struggling due to a lack of English development,and those who are affected by a more pervasive learning difficulty7.Sometimes characteristics of typical ELLs look similar to the learning difficulties experienced by students withspecial education needs6. It is necessary to gain more information and to go through a systematic and focusedprocess to determine the root of each student’s difficulties, and the most appropriate and effective method toaddress his/her needs6. The chart below outlines some of these difficulties.Student Difficulties Explained Through an ELL and Special Education LensBehaviourObserved inthe StudentDifficulty in reading andspelling wordsDifficulty incomprehending textPoor writing skillsEasily distractedTrouble followingdirectionsCan’t rememberinformation taughtAdds, deletes or replaceswords; paraphraseswhen speakingTrouble retelling a storyDifficulty with mathword problemsAggressive orwithdrawn behaviourSocial and emotionalproblemsReason the Difficulty may beExperienced by an ELLLack of exposure to English word reading andspelling; unfamilarity with English wordsKnowledge of English language skills(sentence structure, vocabulary, grammar,morphology, pragmatics) underdeveloped;lack of relevant background knowledgeDevelops in tandem with language; studentdoes not have the language skills to expressthinkingDoesn’t understand; requires morevisual/concrete support; is overwhelmed &exhausted by language learning processDoesn’t know the vocabulary used; needstime to comprehend an utterance in onelanguage and translate into another.Overwhelmed with multiple demands oflanguage learning; may do better in the theirnative languageMay not yet have learned the word, lacks thegrammar to use the word correctlyUnfamilar with the vocabulary or content ofthe storyLacks the vocabulary and/or cultural contextto understand the problemLack of educational experience; differentcultures have different behavioural norms;withdrawn behaviour may be due to a ‘silentperiod’ which is normal for language learnersStress related to moving to a new country andculture often leads to social and emotionalissuesPossible Special EducationExplanationMemory problems; phonologicalprocessing deficits; difficulties reading atthe word-level (i.e., dyslexia)Language processing problems;sequencing problems; memory problems;difficulty drawing inferences; difficultywith connectivesOrganization or processing problems;memory problems; fine motor skills ormotor-sequencing problems; slowprocessing speed; difficulty developinglanguage skillsAuditory processing difficulty; attentionproblems, including ADHD; processingspeed difficultySequencing or memory problems;attention problems; language processingproblemsMemory problem; language processingproblemsMemory or oral language processingdifficulties; word finding difficultiesOrganization or processing problems;long-term memory problemsLanguage processing or abstract/fluidreasoning problems; working memorydifficulties; dyscalculiaSelf-regulation issues; socialcommunication concerns; languageprocessing problems; anxiety ordepressionSelf-regulation issues; mental healthconcerns; learning difficulties and relatedfrustrationAdapted from: Hamayan, E., Marler, B., Sanchez-Lopez, C, and Damino, J. Special Education Considerations for English language learners: Deliveringa Continuum of Services. Caslon Publishing, 2007, p. 40 and Connecticut Administrators of Programs for English language learners (CAPELL). (2011).English language learners and Special Education: A Resource Handbook. Connecticut State Department of Education, p. 11.2
Frequently Asked Questions about English Language Learners Suspected ofHaving a Learning Difficulty1. How likely is it that my ELL student has a learningdisability?ELLs are equally as likely as monolingual speakers to have alearning disability8. In the general population about 12% will havea learning disability13; whether they speak one language or several,whether they speak English or another language. However, formany reasons, the same percentage of ELLs is not necessarilyidentified as having a learning disability6. ELLs have been bothunder- and over-identified as having learning disabilities. This willbe discussed further in Question 8.Definition of a learning difficulty:In this guide, students who aredescribed as having a learningdifficulty are students who areacademically at-risk. Their difficultieswould not come from a lack oflanguage exposure, social/emotionalconcerns, or cultural differences. Thesestudents may potentially meet thecriteria for a diagnosis of learningdisability. The focus of this documentis on ELLs who may have a learningdifficulty. Students with other needs ordisabilities will not be discussed in thisdocument.A 2010 study by the TDSB looked at special educationdemographics and patterns within that school board2. This studyshowed that students identified with special needs are more oftenthan not, born in Canada. Although 53% percent of all TDSB students speak a language other than English athome, less than 40% of students identified as exceptional fit this category2. This suggests that students whohave recently arrived to Canada are less likely to receive special education support even though they may needit. There are no statistics available about the number of ELLs in special education or about students who areidentified as needing both ESL/ELD and special education support. It is probable that ELLs who also have alearning disability are underidentified in the TDSB. This pattern is also likely applicable throughout Ontario.v Learning Disabilities (LD) can be expected to be evenly distributed among all students; ELLs arejust as likely as other students to have a special learning need8.v There are reports of both overidentifiation and underidentification of ELLs with LD6.2. How do I know if an ELL has learning difficulties and requires special educationsupport? How do at-risk ELLs differ from typically developing ELLs?English language learners are, by definition, developing English proficiency and can be expected to have somedifficulties in school. That said, these difficulties differ from students with learning difficulties. The generalindicators of a students with learning difficulies are outlined on the next page.3
Characteristics of Typically Developing ELLs vs. ELLs Who May Have a Learning DifficultyTypically Developing ELLsELLs who may have a Learning DifficultyCan be expected to make steady progressWill likely lag