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English Language Learners (ELL)
Challenges and Opportunities

Teacher Helping Student

An English language learner may struggle to learn for a lot of reasons and not all of them merit special education. It takes a thorough, sensitive evaluation to uncover an ELL's true needs. 


Take these steps to determine whether you're looking at second language acquisition problems, a learning disability, or a behavioral problem.


-Seek teacher insight: Bridge the relationship between the general education teacher and the English as a Second Language Department. Does the student exhibits the same behaviors when he works in his primary language? If so, consider special education intervention.


-Parents involvement: The information a parent can provide if they trust the team is invaluable.


- Connect with the student: Go beyond student observation, a student interview must be done as well. Forging a connection before administering more formal tests can give a meaningful insight into how his/her mind works.

Can students receive both ELL and special education services?


Yes. Once a child qualifies for special education services, educators must look at his or her specific social, language, and academic needs and select the appropriate instructional program to meet those needs, while ensuring the minimum amount of fragmentation of the academic day. This collaborative model may include participation in one or both programs.


A referral to special education can be made by a parent at any time. A Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meeting must be held upon parent’s referral.


Reasons for initiating a special education referral for an ELL


- The student is exhibiting the academic/behavioral difficulties in both first and second languages.

- The ELL teacher supports the position that the student is performing differently from his/her

cultural peers.

-The student displays very little or no academic progress resulting from appropriate instructional

strategies, alternative instruction, or academic interventions.

-Parents confirm the academic/behavioral difficulties seen in the school setting.

- School personnel such as tutors and aides confirm the academic/behavioral difficulties seen in

the classroom setting.



A team approach promotes support for differentiated instruction and the sharing of ideas and materials. The team can also determine timelines for further action and the need for further assessment. The expertise of educators in different disciplines can help establish changes in the curriculum, develop appropriate strategies to help the ELL student, and monitor student progress.

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