Identifying Learning Disabilities in English Learners


Identifying Learning Disabilities in English Learners

Identifying learning disabilities in ELs is a very complex and often convoluted issue. While nationally English Learners are over-represented in Exceptional Children (EC) populations, they are also often disqualified from services on the basis of language acquisition or interrupted formal schooling. Added to these issues, is the lack of access to native language assessments which would allow teachers a fuller picture of a child’s level of functioning.

A true learning disability will show up in both languages (though they may manifest differently), but most teachers never get to see comprehensive data that reflects that. It is important to note that if a child has a learning disability, it will likely affect their acquisition of a second language, thus making language issues so interrelated, one may never truly untangle them. That said, there are things you can do to aid the decision making process.

  1. Learn about the child’s native language. If a child is struggling with certain aspects of phonemic awareness, it is worth your time to investigate if those sounds are represented in his or her native language. For example, a Hmong speaker will have no experience with the phonemes /j/, /kw/, or /r/. Therefore, you could expect him or her to possibly struggle with identifying, segmenting, and producing these sounds. Most words in Cantonese are monosyllabic, so you might expect a native Cantonese speaker to have trouble with multisyllabic words. The more you know about the student’s first language, the more you can differentiate between typical errors and signs of a problem.
  2. Understand where the student is in the language acquisition process. Children in the earlier stages of second language development will use knowledge of the rules and structures of their first language to help them make sense of the second. Sometimes students don’t know when or how to apply that knowledge however, and they apply it inappropriately. Take for example the Spanish speaker who puts the adjective after the noun. This is a common error and normal for speakers from this language group, rather than a sign of a disability.
  3. Take into account the distance between the child’s native language and English. Some languages share more similarities than others with English. The language distance can be quantified in additional years of study for speakers whose native language is dissimilar from English.
  4. Consider the student’s educational opportunities. Educational opportunities vary by country and circumstance. Even if a child does not have interrupted formal schooling (such as a refugee might), they still may not have had educational opportunities equal to students in the United States. Children from third world countries may not have access to books, technology, manipulatives, field trips, or other resources. Moreover, English Learners need a level of specified language instruction and additional time that native speakers may not. Teachers should have specialized training and skills to address the language needs of these students. English Learners should have adequate time, high-quality instruction, and opportunities to learn English.

The bottom line is, the more you educate yourself about a student’s native language, understand the language acquisition process, and get to know your student, his or her family, and culture, the better you will be able to make appropriate educational decisions.



  1. Thanks so much for sharing this. It’s so important for educators to figure our what’s a learning disability and what is just the development of English language abilities, esp for little ones who don’t speak English.


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