Navigating An ELL Label, A Sped. Label, or Both

by Jennifer Schultz

"We worry about what a child will be tomorrow but we forget that he is someone today." — Karl Meninger

As an English Learner Specialist, I’ve found that analyzing a child’s rate of success has always been a tricky area for me to navigate.  It is easy to resort to comparisons, but take caution in doing this. No two children are exactly alike. Each child brings a variety of experiences and personality traits with them. These should be celebrated and capitalized on when instructing children.

There are many factors that contribute to how quickly a child will learn a new language.  Some of these include; previous schooling, attitude/personality, personal experiences, and/or stress/trauma.  But at what point does an educator consider the child may have additional needs that are hindering their learning?  Determining if a child is an English Language Learner (ELL) is usually fairly simple. Granted there are a handful of students that fall into a grey area.  On the other hand, determining if a student, who speaks a different language has a special learning need, can become much more complex. (To learn more about a proactive way to address factors that impact achievement, see Confianza’s Essential Elements of a Powerful Language Plan.)

Too often, ELLs become overidentified or underidentified in the Special Education Program.  It is important for all stakeholders to invest the time and resources into determining whether a child needs more personalized, tailored instruction.  Relying on multiple people in your building, in addition to parents, helps to come to a collaborative decision about what is best for the child. Content teachers, administrators, and specialists need to take careful consideration.  Here, I will share three tips for addressing potential Special Education issues for English learners:

  1. Develop a clear understanding of the language acquisition process by familiarizing yourself with typical patterns of language development.

When we consider a child to have special learning needs it is critical we look at our Tier 1 or universal instruction, first.  Content teachers need to have an understanding of how language is developed in addition to, what issues can slow language acquisition.  Analyzing classroom instruction to support diverse learners is a powerful professional practice. Resources and coaching cycles can help support content teachers.  Teachers need to work collaboratively in order to scaffold and modify instruction to meet the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students. This article from Confianza can help build capacity of language levels and how to use students’ assets to design instruction.

  1.  Seek out support in learning how to effectively design instruction, create assessments, and manage interactions with families from diverse backgrounds.

In addition to tailoring Tier 1 instruction it is also important to look at prevention and early intervention strategies. One major component in this piece is parent/family involvement. All parents have an underlying driver, they want what’s best for their children.  It is important that parents are part of school conversation so that they may offer insight.  In addition it is a parents right to understand procedure and law in identification processes.  Make sure there is strong school to parent connections in place. If a special education referral comes up, the conversation will be much easier and well received if the parent(s) already feel comfortable and supported when speaking with the school.  Please also note, navigating special education conversations with some cultures need to be handled delicately. The special education label, can be perceived negatively. Parents may be concerned that their child may be segregated by a label. It is important to educate them about inclusive school practices, in the United States.

Having an open line of communication with parents can be one of your best windows into understanding whether or not a child has learning disabilities. One key factor is asking the parents if the child struggles in the native language as well. You may also want to discuss if the parents have noticed issues at home.  While you don’t want to compare, inquiring if siblings have acquired skills at a dramatically, different rate can also be helpful. All of these factors could be indicators that the child is struggling and may need extra support.  For more on family engagement for English learners, see Confianza’s collection on this topic here.      

  1. Collaborate with colleagues in specialized areas such as; ELL, special education, and speech and language therapy in order to best service the child as a team.

When determining if a child may have more needs than just language acquisition, it is important to have a team analyzing many different factors.  An EL teacher should be determining if the child is making yearly gains on a language acquisition assessment, as well as, an acquisition continuum.  The classroom teacher should be looking at the rate of success of the target student, to other ELs in their classroom. Finally, the special education teacher should be offering appropriate intervention suggestions and data collection, to determine if progress is being made.  Read this related advice I share on the power of teams for English learners.

*image taken from Georgia Department of Education

In Conclusion: It Takes a Whole School

In conclusion, when determining if an EL student qualifies for a special ed. label, a variety of factors need to be taken into account.  Analyze the classroom teachers’ Tier 1 instruction, and offer supports so that they can create content that is accessible to all students.  Communicate with family members about concerns the school is having. Determine if parents have similar concerns at home. Make sure that parents understand their rights and the steps in the LD referral process.  Next, determine a research based intervention and a means to measure success rates with fidelity. Most importantly, consult throughout the process as a team. Remember that the ultimate goal is doing what’s best and right for the student.

ELL populations continue to increase across the United States and projections only support that these rates will keep rising.  These students bring rich family values, a deep culture, and a drive for a quality life. We have a responsibility to support these students to be the next positive influencers for our global society.  Therefore as educators we must celebrate and facilitate ways in which to support and nourish each individual child’s strengths.

To Further Your Learning:

Additional Resources:


Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners: Delivering a Continuum of Services (2nd Edition) by Else V. Hamayan, Barbara Marler, Cristina Sánchez-López, Jack S. Damico    

Transforming Schools for English Learners: A Comprehensive Framework for School Leaders 1st Edition by Debbie Zacarian

In Confianza's work with change agents in schools, we use our structured, inquiry-based Action Cycle process to Ask, Analyze, Act and Assess around a specific issue of concern.  Our Action Cycle Guide for Implementing Equity, Language & Literacy Practices is now available for purchase.  You can also participate in our facilitated Confianza Cafe with a Certified Confianza Coach.  See our set of professional learning offering options.


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