My Own Journey of Discovery About Disability and ELLs

Sep 22nd, 2014 | By | Category: Levels, Secondary
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Jeff Mattison


—I have to admit: I’m not an expert on the topic of differentiating between language learning and disability. The genesis for this article stems from a new challenge that I have faced in the past year in my new position teaching ELD at a high school with policies and procedures for its EL program still developing.

It all started when Eunsil (a pseudonym) entered my class on the first day with her soft, warm smile. She was very polite but said little. After a few weeks of her reticence to speak at all and her inability to make sense of anything she read, I knew there was more going on than just a newcomer’s silent period. As it would turn out, Eunsil’s needs were layered and complex.

She was adopted as a teenager from South Korea and soon had her name changed to Jackie (another pseudonym) by her adoptive parents. They too were discovering daily the extent of her social, physical, and intellectual needs to adjust to her new environment and the culture of home, school, and community. An SST (student study team) was eventually formed, comprising her teachers, the school psychologist and speech/language pathologist, and her Korean-speaking counselor.

After months of meetings, tests, and discussions for best approaches and accommodations, Jackie still did not have an IEP (individualized education plan) that directed me in her education. The reason she did not is the impetus for writing this article—when the usual tests were administered with Jackie to diagnose disability, they were translated from English to Korean because her English ability was so low. However, the act of translating them invalidated the results so they couldn’t be conclusive. We would have to source Korean tests from her interrupted schooling experience as well as test her speech abilities in her native language. Only then would we know if she had a disability that would transfer to her second language, English. To quote our district speech pathologist Donna Huff, “In order to have a disability, the language and/or pronunciation difficulty must be present in the native language.”

At the Los Angeles Regional Conference this past March, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Beth Lasky of CSU, Northridge about this topic of differentiating language learning and disability. Here are some key insights that she shared with me:

● On diagnosing or assessing the need
“It is important to observe the student in a variety of situations within and outside the classroom. Shadowing the student, to document the opportunities to use academic and nonacademic language. Identifying the types of responses the student uses in various situations, subject areas, and around different peers and adults. It is also important to talk with family members to determine the amount and type of language used in the home and community. … Taking the time to shadow and observe the language characteristics of the student while using effective teaching strategies in both the first and second language within the classroom can help alleviate any misidentifications.”

● On promoting language development for those with a disability
“‘TALK!’ Allowing the student to have conversations and either be read to, or read, in their first language is extremely important. Oftentimes we have parents who will say, ‘I can’t read or I don’t have time to read.’ I stress the importance of talking with the child. Talking about a book, using the pictures, and making up a story. Talking while driving, walking, cooking. TALK, TALK TALK. Oral language is a key component to promote language development for all ELL students.”

● On the administrative or district level’s role in supporting appropriate placement
“The implementation of a multitiered instruction and assessment model such as response to intervention (RTI) enables an equitable way of identifying struggling learners who are ELLs. Collaborative teaming and data-driven problem-solving processes lead to increased support for students, more options for intervention, and support for teachers. When educators collaborate there are opportunities for flexibility to try new approaches, increase teaching methodologies, and additional sets of eyes to observe and help with problem solving. RTI is often seen as a pre-referral process toward special education services and placement. However, when used correctly it can lead to appropriate instruction that meets the needs of all learners.”

I have since learned that this issue is not new in states with large populations of minorities and ELLs. This is what I get for living and working in the field of California TESOL for 10 years. What is needed to reduce neglected or improper diagnoses, Dr. Lasky emphasized, is more understanding of the differences between English learners and students with disabilities.

Jackie is in my ELD once again this school year. Even though we don’t have conclusive answers on the nature of her disability, we have tried enough approaches to help her grasp some comprehensible input and create meaning that others understand. She is grasping enough of phonics and sight words that she has been able to read entire picture books aloud to her admiring classmates and me, her proud teacher. Jackie’s soft, warm smile has yet to be discouraged by the obstacles that have slowed our progress toward identifying her needs and the methods most effective for meeting them.

If you have any experience with discerning language learning needs and disability, or would like to learn more, I hope that you will attend the Elementary and Secondary Level Workshop on “Differentiating Second Language Learning and Disability” at the Annual Conference in Santa Clara, 1-2:15 p.m. on Saturday, October 25. Until then, please tweet me @jmat_esol with any pertinent links or comments and I will share it with my (small) community of followers.

Jeff Mattison is Secondary Level chair.

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