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.

The first post in the series was written by Carly Spina:  GUEST POST: IS IT LANGUAGE, OR IS IT A LEARNING CHALLENGE?

The second was authored by Michelle McCann: GUEST POST: ELLS & SPECIAL NEEDS – A VIEW FROM CANADA


Today’s post is by Jessica Bell.

Jessica Bell teaches Sheltered English and English as a New Language at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. Follow her on Twitter @jessbell79.


If you work with children, or work in education, you’re familiar with acronyms and labels. Labels and acronyms are tricky, because they’re used to describe people – and we know people are very complex. A question that invariably comes up when you work with high needs populations, like English learners and students with special needs,  is what do you do when these separate labels are used to describe the same person.

How do you tell if a student needs special education services or English language services or both? I work with high school students, and this is still an issue we debate. English language proficiency can take 4-6 years to develop, and research shows that a big factor is a student’s academic performance in their native language. We also know that in the US, as many as 80% of English learners were born here, which means they most likely can only speak and listen in L1. Lack of proficiency in L1 can complicate the issue. It is also very important to note that a learning disability must be present in both languages. Occasionally a SIFE (student with interrupted formal education) is mislabeled because gaps in knowledge or application can be confused for a disability when the reality is that they have not had adequate schooling. . For more information about determining if a student could be labeled SIFE, I recommend Boosting Achievement by Carol Salva. Another informative resource about distinguishing between language delays, disorders, and differences can be found here.

When I’m trying to make a determination, a lot of information is needed to start wading through layers  in order to determine what the correct placement(s) should be. Some of the questions I ask are:

Did the child attend a school where L1 was the primary language of instruction?

DId the child receive special education services in L1?

What kind of print environment is at home? Are their books in L1 and L2?

If the child is fluent in L1, are the issues the same as in L2?

What data points are available to disaggregate?

How much historical data is available?

How many schools (and in how many countries) has the student been enrolled in?

Are the parents concerned about the student’s academic performance?

How does the child interact with their peers?

How does the child interact with their parents?

What tasks at home do they excel at or struggle with?

How does the student interact with teachers?

*Please note that tests given in L1 may be skewed if the child isn’t literate in L1.


In my experience, the more data, even anecdotal, the better. I like to look for trends to try to determine which services a student needs. I also keep several things in mind:

Are there any major changes in behavior between school and home?

Is the child successful in sports or hobbies?

Is the a marked difference between the child’s spoken and written communication – in L1 or L2?

How is the child’s personality when faced with a challenging task?


I talk with a special education teacher of record, a parent (after all, they know their child best!), and a guidance counselor if available. If a student also has severe social issues, or seems to struggle with tasks that don’t involve language (sports, hobbies, home tasks, etc…) then it is possible they may need more services than just ENL services. A decision about what kind of services a student should receive should be a group decision. Parents must be involved along the way – not only are they a valuable resource, and are legally allowed input about how their child is serviced.

Unfortunately, there’s no right answer to this complex issue.