Editor’s Note: I recently completed publishing a series of guest posts on the topic of teaching Math to English Language Learners. I thought it would be helpful to me – and to all ELL educators – to do a similar series on English Language Learner students who might, or might not, have additional learning challengers, and how we can best approach handling that kind of situation (see ARE YOU AN ELL EDUCATOR & HAVE INTEREST IN WRITING A GUEST POST ABOUT ELLS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS?). I’ll be adding these posts to The Best Resources On Assisting ELLs With Special Needs – Help Me Find More.

This first post in the series is written by Carly Spina

Carly Spina is an EL/Bilingual Instructional Coach for Glenview District 34 in Illinois. She has 12 years of experience in education. She has served for five years as an EL teacher in grades 3-5, and six years as a third grade classroom teacher in an English/Spanish Bilingual TBE program. Her professional passions include parent engagement, flexible seating and classroom design, and EL Advocacy. She has spoken at the University of Illinois and the Illinois Conference for Teachers Serving Linguistically & Culturally Diverse Students. In 2015, she was the recipient of the IEA Reg Weaver Human and Civil Rights Award.


As EL teachers, we are often asked of our struggling students, “How do we know if it is a language issue, or special education issue?” How should teachers should work with EL students who they think may have special education needs?

Examine your concerns. Why do you believe this student has special education needs? Are you comparing this student to other similar EL students, or are you comparing them to monolingual  students? In the age of MTSS and RTI, it is very easy to compare our EL students with monolingual students. Remember that language development takes time. Instead of plugging EL students into interventions that are not linguistically appropriate (and usually delivered by an adult who lacks EL expertise), try beefing up their language services!

Enlist the support of the experts in your building. Share your concerns with your special education teams, school psychologists, and/or interventionists. Be specific with your areas of concern. Ask for their advice and support in helping you plan for instruction.

Plan for your instruction carefully, and document progress and challenges. It is important to collect evidence on student performance. These pieces of evidence can include test scores and assignment scores, but it also equally important to provide anecdotal notes/data, too. Use this data to drive your instruction. Reflect on your language data that you have on hand. Is there documented growth of language development over time in each domain? Does one specific domain need to be strengthened? Provide meaningful, specific feedback directly to your student so they know exactly how to improve on specific skills. Ahead of time, explain the expectations for the assignment or project, and provide rubrics along with examples and non-examples of the final desired product.

Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need. If basic needs are not met, students are not available to learn. Be sure that your students feel physically and emotionally safe. Ensure that your students are comfortable, fed, and have enough sleep. If you have a tired student, let them sleep. If they are hungry, feed them. If they feel unsafe or uncomfortable, work with your school staff in establishing norms and conditions which promote the safety and well-being of all students.

Remember that regardless of a label a student has, it is important that everyone in the building takes shared ownership and develops a shared responsibility. No teacher should have the mindset of abdicating responsibility for students who aren’t on their caseloads or class lists. All students are our students.

Celebrate the successes. When you find something that clicks with that student, be sure to celebrate with your student. It is so important that we maintain a growth mindset and positive attitude with our struggling students. It can be very easy to focus on skills the student has not yet mastered. Every success should be celebrated, no matter how small. Be sure to also share this positive feedback with parents and other teachers on your team, so that they can utilize a similar strategy for their content areas. Growth is growth!

Incorporate student interests and choice into your instruction. Be sure you are hitting your lesson with multiple modalities – include opportunities for movement, for creativity, for passion, and for collaborating. If your students aren’t given the opportunity to speak or move, it is easier for them to “check out.” Do some research on Whole Brain Teaching, which combines TPR, oracy, student empowerment, and engagement.

Don’t dumb down, scaffold up! Increase the scaffolding that you are using. If your educational team shares the same concern, design a plan where every adult is utilizing additional scaffolds into their instruction. Make those adjustments into students’ Core Tier 1 instruction. Remember that scaffolds are not just “using visuals.” There are different types of scaffolds: Sensory (visuals, podcasts, listening prompts, manipulatives, realia, Total Physical Response, etc.), Interactive (conversation partners, small groups, think/pair/share, video diaries, etc.), and Graphic (infographics, charts, tables, etc.). As the student progresses, remove the scaffolds one by one.

Monitor progress. Most of your school psychologists or interventionists will tell you to use progress monitoring probes for different areas of concern. As an EL advocate, you must ensure that those probes do not present a cultural bias. Whenever possible, use local norms so that you are comparing growth that is typical to that of other language learners. Allow for additional time to meet goals. You can also monitor progress by using your formative assessment data, classroom observation data, student engagement data, and other pieces of information. Allow these data points to help you adjust your instruction so that you are filling that need!

Be excited. When I hear someone explain something they’re passionate about, I’m instantly enamored and want to know more. It’s the same with our students. They will be more interested and engaged in learning if the teacher speaks about the topic passionately. Sometimes, you may have to fake it. Start your lessons with a fun hook. Build excitement for the next day. For more ideas, read Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.