ELs With Special Needs: Combining Language Goals With Learning Strategies

EL teachers know about the many factors that can affect language acquisition, ranging from how to deal with culture shock to how to simplify grade-level readings without compromising the message. But every now and then, we encounter students who simply can’t comprehend or produce language well—in either English or their native language—until we realize it’s time to call the special education department for an assessment. And, sometimes, we’re lucky enough to have an individualized education program (IEP) already written for us that gives us some guidance on how to adapt our lessons.

Too often, though, the language needs of our students get less respect than the special education plans (Balderrama & Diaz-Rico, 2005). We often must become advocates in the IEP meetings to clarify how many of the concerns relate back to the language learning process. The ultimate goal is to have our students placed in the least restrictive setting possible while receiving comprehensible input to promote language acquisition.

Students should ideally be assessed for special needs in both English and their native languages (Echevarria & Graves, 2011). A skilled interpreter can help you learn more about the students’ backgrounds, explaining to the parents why such interventions are necessary. It’s especially important for the interpreter to demonstrate cultural sensitivity because concepts from American education may not translate easily into other languages (Robertson, 2007).

After reviewing the data to determine the students’ needs and language levels, it’s time to offer our input on the plan. For us, outcomes are often more important than the process (Echevarria & Graves, 2011). We need to show what language growth and development looks like so the adaptations can target the skills for progress. Many techniques that apply to native speakers, such as extended time, more images, and real-life examples, can also help our students move forward.

Outcomes are the main focus here, so everyone needs to know what the student must be able to do to show proficiency. Many states have clear standards to show what language progression looks like by skills, such as the ability to find a main idea in a speech or compare and contrast points of view, to demonstrate strong comprehension and expression of language. Something like that in the IEP can give other teachers ideas of what the adaptions look like when delivering lessons or offering tests, which should make it more clear what they can do to help the students.

It’s up to each ELL specialist and special education department to determine how formal this process is, but as long as everyone—including the students and their parents—understand the goals you’re ready to move forward. If the student meets these outcomes by the next IEP meeting, you have measured progress. If not, you have a better idea of the students’ capabilities and can re-assess the necessary adaptations.

Work Cited
Balderrama, M. V., & Diaz-Rico, L. T. (2005). Teaching performance expectation for educating English learners. Boston: Pearson.

Echevarria, J., & Graves, A. (2011). Sheltered content instruction: Teaching English learners with diverse abilities (4th edition). Boston: Pearson.

Robertson, K. (2007). How to address special education needs in the ELL classroom. Retrieved from http://www.colorincolorado.org/article/19960/.

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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