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


The fourth was by Jessica Bell: Twice Exceptional

The fifth post was by Marcela Falcone: Guest Post: “Distinguishing Between A Special Need And A Language Acquisition Issue” 

Today’s post is by Aishwarya M and Savitha V.


Aishwarya M has been teaching English to middle-school students from low SES in India since 2012. She is a novice teacher researcher. She is interested in all things teaching and learning, language, and mental health. Follow her on twitter @teachingtenets

Savitha V has been a teacher of Social Studies to middle-school students from low SES in India, since 2015. She is interested in understanding the process of teaching and learning, policies and systems that facilitate learning, particularly in the educational landscape in India. She can be reached at savitha.vsar@gmail.com


As middle-school teachers working in the low-income sector in India, we face several external impediments such as insane workloads, lack of support systems and professional development opportunities, meagre salaries and the expectation to innovate constantly.

In addition to this, a constant reality that has stared at our face everyday is learning gaps in students. Despite our best effort everyday, we have not been able to reach a few students, and every student we don’t reach has left a nagging feeling of inadequacy in us – a feeling that has remained long after the student graduated from our class and moved on, a feeling that forced us to question ourselves and our practices.

During our initial teaching years, we rightly attributed the learning gaps to our own teaching practices including curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. As our practices became more evidence-based and rooted in research, we began to reach more students. But some students still remained marginalized. It is at this point that we started asking if there’s anything else at play.

Unfortunately, none of our training had taught us that learning gaps are all too common and have two broad causes (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L., 2016):

    • Developmental and learning difficulties which can be caused by socio-economic disadvantage, lack of educational opportunities, poor school attendance, change in medium of instruction, lack of family environment and stimulation necessary to facilitate development and learning, emotional turmoil due to child abuse, severe family dysfunction, insecure attachment etc. (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L., 2016) Jensen, E., 2009)
    • Developmental and learning disabilities which are neuro-biological conditions that interfere with the acquisition, retention, or application of specific skills or sets of abilities caused by atypical brain functioning. (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L., 2016)

We also learnt about the prevalence of learning difficulties and disabilities in the demographic our school served, the laws in India and abroad, the process of identification and assessment of learning difficulties and disabilities, and organizations and people in our city who could potentially support us.

Our preliminary knowledge about learning difficulties and disabilities was not enough to reach the marginalized students and made us feel even more inadequate and helpless. In the absence of resources and formal support systems for students with special needs (Turnbull,A.; Turnbull,R.;Shank,M.;Smith,S.J, 2004), it was clear that we had to find things we could do by ourselves to even be able to create a small difference in the learning experiences of our students.

Given that the demographic we serve is highly susceptible to learning difficulties, we started there. We started an Academic Support Group to provide explicit and targeted instruction to 15 students with learning difficulties. After about 6 months, we realized we still lacked certain crucial data. This led us to collect data about developmental and academic history of the students and the nature of their academic challenges –  from the teachers, parents and the students themselves – to gain insights about possibilities of developmental difficulties. As far as we could, we tried to find relevant support structures for the student – school counselor, social worker and the parents.

This still left us with a number of students whose academic failures we couldn’t explain. In addition to this, the underrepresentation of students with learning disabilities in our school (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L.i, 2016) strengthened our suspicion about some of our struggling students having learning disabilities.

We learnt that Identification and assessment of learning disabilities are carried out by psychologists and involve three main stages. (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L., 2016)

    • Initial screening – to identify those who may have a learning disability
    • Comprehensive assessment – to confirm or rule out a diagnosis
    • Psycho educational tests – in case of a confirmed diagnosis, to understand the specific difficulties of the student to be used to create an IEP.

In our city, generally, one round of initial screening is done by a special educator at school before the student is sent to a government hospital for identification and assessment. In the absence of resources at school, we couldn’t move forward in our investigation. Our reading led us to discover an encouraging development – the tools for the initial screening are becoming increasingly available to classroom teachers in recent times. (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L., 2016)

In the following paragraphs, we have tried to explain in brief the key pieces of information that helped us conduct initial screening tests for dyslexia on our own.

[Cautionary notes:-

      • Screen positive is not the same as positive diagnosis.
      • Although, we suggest that one should err on the side of caution and conduct initial screening tests after ruling out all other causes for the learning difficulty, one must be aware of overrepresentation, the resultant labelling, the emotional impact on the student and other long term negative effects if this process is not carried out with utmost sensitivity.]
      • Inaccurate reading, difficulties in spelling and slow reading are the three cardinal features of dyslexia. (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L., 2016)


      • In order to suspect dyslexia in a student, the professional should be able to answer the following questions in the affirmative. (Christo, C., Davis, J. M., & Brock, S. E., 2009)
        1. Does the student perform significantly below his/her peers on measures of basic word reading and decoding skills?
        2. Has the student had sufficient instruction?
        3. Have you ascertained that the difficulties in reading are not due to another developmental disability such as ID, ADHD, or emotional disturbance?
        4. Does the student have a deficit in phonological processing, orthographic processing, and/or rapid naming?
        5. Does the student have oral language skills within the normal range?
      • Here are a set of tests that a classroom teacher could use for screening. (Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, L.L., 2016)
          1. Single word reading and spelling tests –
            1. Schonell’s word reading test (Schonell, F. J., & Schonell, F. E., 1950)
            2. Schonell’s spelling test
          2. Tests of phonological awareness – (rhyme recognition, syllable deletion, phoneme recognition, phoneme differentiation, phoneme deletion, phoneme substitution)
          3. Tests of decoding – non word reading tests  

        Once our initial screening was done, we alerted the school administration about students who screened positive and we are trying to put together a system in place to address their needs. Since creating a system is a long-drawn process, we have been trying to figure out what accommodations we can already start providing to the students in class, and how we can change our pedagogy to suit them better. The most significant change in our pedagogy has been to move towards direct instruction from more inquiry/activity based methods. It helps that special education is based on sound educational practices that can be beneficial to even general-ed students.

        In cases where the screening turned out to be negative, our quest to find out the root cause of the students’ learning difficulties continues.


        1. Thambirajah, M.S; Ramanujan, Lalitha Lakshmi (2016), Essentials of Learning Disabilities and Other Developmental Disorders: Sage, New Delhi. Pages 5, 6, 10, 31, 33, 40-41, 52, 55, 60-62.
        2. Jensen, Eric (2009),Teaching with Poverty in Mind: Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD, Page 13-45.
        3.Turnbull,Ann; Turnbull,Rudd;Shank,Marilyn;Smith,Sean J (2004), Exceptional Lives: Special Education in Today’s Schools: Pearson, New Jersey, Pg 15.
        4. Christo, C., Davis, J. M., & Brock, S. E. (2009). Identifying, assessing, and treating dyslexia in school, New York: Springer, Pg 89.
        5. Schonell, F. J., & Schonell, F. E. (1950). Diagnosis and assessment testing. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.