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 was written by Carly Spina:  GUEST POST: IS IT LANGUAGE, OR IS IT A LEARNING CHALLENGE?

Today’s post is from Michelle McCann.

Michelle McCann is an elementary ESL teacher in Milton, Ontario Canada.  She supports ELL students in the regular classroom through instructional support and capacity building with teachers.  She is working towards a Masters degree in Developmental Psychology with a research focus on teaching reading to English Language Learners.

I am currently a passionate ESL teacher at an elementary school of over 1000 students, 600 of whom identify a first language other than English on their registration forms. This number consists of students who are born in Canada as well as students who are Newcomers.  Their levels of language acquisition vary and these students are tracked using the STEP Continuum of Observable Language Behaviours as outlined by the Ministry of Education in Ontario.( Link to STEP) Program adaptations need to be made to support English Language Learners who are at the early STEP levels of English language acquisition.  

The question often arises as to whether a student is struggling because of language acquisition needs or special education needs.  The truth is, it can be very difficult to tell and we want to be careful not to make the wrong assumptions.

In our school, when a student is experiencing difficulties in the classroom, the teacher will refer the student to School Team through communication with the Special Education Resource Teacher (SERT).  The members of school team consist of the SERT, Classroom Teacher, Principal and ESL Teacher. Before an ELL student comes to school team, it is requested that the teacher consult with the student’s parents, the ESL teacher and the SERT in order to ensure strategies can be put in place to help support the student.  We have recently started considering the Seven Integral Factors when bringing an ELL student to school team (Hamayan, Marler, Sanchez-Lopez, Damico, 2013).  The factors include questions related to the Learning Environment, Personal and Family factors, Physical and Psychological History, Previous Schooling, Linguistic and Literacy Development, Academic Achievement and Acculturation. This work is quite new in our Board because the influx of newcomers to the area has been gradually increasing over time.  We are currently working on a referral form for school team that incorporates the seven integral factors. This way we can be sure to address the specific considerations of an ELL student. The School Team will come up with a plan to support the student, divide roles, monitor progress and decide when to reconvene.

Teachers are often concerned when a student is not making the typical progress expected for the grade level.  However, we know that when a student is learning an additional language, their level of English can impact their ability to access the curriculum, but it does not mean that they are incapable of understanding the concepts. Therefore we must be sure to give a student time to acquire English before assuming that their challenges are a result of special education needs. We also must consider ways to incorporate the students first language into their learning.

Sometimes an ELL student will experience challenges that do not appear to be a result of their acquisition of English.  This is where the process of documenting and tracking progress is very important. Working as a team to support the student is essential as it will help to determine if further special education supports are required.

After the implementation of a support plan from school team, if a student continues to struggle, a referral to School Resource Team can be made.  School Resource Team consists of the School team members as well as a Speech Language Pathologist and a Psychoeducational consultant. The parents of the student being presented are also invited to the meeting.  It can be challenging to determine if an ELL student has special education needs because many Speech Language Pathologists and Psychoeducational Consultants are hesitant to complete assessments with ELL students because they want to make sure the student has had enough time and support to acquire English.  This is where documentation of program adaptations, support and student progress can help to provide evidence when presenting an ELL student at School Resource Team. The question often arises as to whether a student’s challenges are also evident in their first language. Questions may arise as to when the student spoke their first words and their understanding of vocabulary, directions and concepts in their first language.   It is important that the school is welcoming and supportive to parents so that they feel safe to participate in the School Resource Team. Having interpretation services available for these meetings is helpful.

Ensuring a shared vision and understanding of our ELL students and working together as a team to provide support will help our students feel successful, safe and happy at school.  Documenting progress, ensuring open and ongoing communication and providing appropriate program adaptations will help determine the most effective program supports for our ELL students. The support may come through Special Education, ESL or both depending on the individual needs of the student.  

Reference: Hamayan, E., Marler, B., Sanchez-Lopez, C. & Damico, J. (2013). Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners – Delivering a Continuum of Service. (2nd ed.) Philadelphia: Caslon Inc.