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 is by Pat Baldwin.


Pat Baldwin is a Geoscience and ESL Science Teacher at Maine East High School in Park Ridge, Illinois.  He used to keep track of the languages his students speak, but he lost track years ago. Recently, across two section of 32 total students, he had 16 different languages. He holds a Master’s degree in Geology and a Master’s in Linguistics, and is one of my district’s assessment literacy trainers. He excitingly goes home to his loving wife and two wonderful children.


Teaching ELL is a hard enough gig as it is. Now lump on top of that ELL layer any of the other layers that you can see across any given student: Special Ed, Gifted, Autistic, Artistic, ACEs, and any other you can think of. Just because the student is picking up English doesn’t mean they can’t have additional ways to describe them as a learner.

I get the students who are fresh-off-the-boat (really they’re fresh-off-the-plane) and are ready for a new life here in America, and a new life in a new high school. It takes a little time to get through the first layer of their “ELL-ness”, but once you do, you can start to learn about them as a learner. That’s when you may start noticing other issues that are preventing their learning process. Here are a few tips to help your ELL students that may have other special needs.

Document It!

Start writing down what you are noticing is an issue with the student. They can’t seem to follow multi-step directions; they have troubles sitting still in class; they have emotional outbursts in class; they aren’t being challenged enough and they are acting out because of it; they can’t transfer auditory explanations into written explanations (even in their native language).

Write down the issues you are begging to see, and start keeping track of it. Give specific instances that describe the setting. See if you start noticing patterns in the behavior that are beyond your original observations. Be really sure that you can back up your claim of special needs with multiple lines of evidence.

Talk to Your Colleagues

Chances are, if you are seeing some of these patterns emerging with you students, other teachers are observing it as well. Start asking the student’s other teachers what they are noticing in their classes. This is a great opportunity for you to poke your head into other classrooms and really walk away with multiple wins. You get to gather more evidence on what is happening, and you get to see some great teaching in action.

Don’t be afraid to invite other teachers in to your classroom as well. Again, chances are that if the student is showing signs of special needs in your class, those signs are happening elsewhere. And what a relief that would be to the other teacher when they find out they aren’t the only teacher that is struggling with that student.

Rope in the counselors, deans, department chairs, coaches or other admin. The more eyes for observation the better. And you’re laying the foundation to show the leg work it takes to get students the special services they may need.

Become a Scientist

Once you’ve identified issues that you think might indicate a student has special needs, you need to test out those needs. Do some research (counselors, special ed teachers, and other admin are great resources to start) on what research based strategies are effective as supports for the special needs of the student. Try out one and write down your observations during the lesson. Don’t get frazzled if you don’t see results right away. Try the strategy a few times and follow the trends.

Eliminate the Language Variable

Any good scientist tries to eliminate all confounding variables in their work. Unfortunately, the biggest variable that needs to be overcome is the main reason they are in my class … Language. How do we tell if a student has special needs or they simply don’t understand the language yet?

There is no reason why a student shouldn’t be able to express themselves in their native language to show their mastery. They need to understand it in their native language first before they can put it into another language. Why not have the student submit written responses in their native language? There are plenty of tools that can translate pictures of text to English. I rely heavily on other students to help me with our new arrivals. I need my communications to be clear and understood from the outset, and sometimes the best way to do that is to use someone who speaks a different language than I do. Good thing I’ve got a classroom filled with those students!

Most Importantly … Talk to the Student!!!

This probably should have gone first, but take the time to have a conversation with the student. This is a great chance to build a deeper relationship and really show you care about the success of the student. Point out some of the observations you’ve made and dig into if the student notices similar trends. Have they had issues with this before? Have they been successful in the past?

After all of these things have been done, you’ve gotten a good foundation to look for special needs of a student. Follow through whatever pathways your school has in place to show concern for a student. If you’ve built up enough evidence, then you should have an easier time getting that student the services they deserve. I’m lucky enough to work in a district that has the resources and personnel to handle ELL students with special needs, and it is fairly rare to get denied services when ample evidence that there is a need exists. If, however, you come across issues with getting services, there is nothing that prevents you from making accommodations that you have evidence for. And, if you start finding success with certain practices … Share them with the world!