Impact Feature Issue on Educating K-12 English Language Learners with Disabilities

English Language Learners with Disabilities:
What School Professionals Need to Know and Do


Lusa Lo is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director of Special Education, University of Massachusetts, Boston. She may be reached at

As our U.S. population continues to get more diverse, the number of English language learners (ELLs) with disabilities continues to grow. There is a need for schools to pay special attention to this particular group within the student population.

Effective and knowledgeable teachers make an important difference in the academic careers of our students. While colleges and universities prepare most of the pre-service teachers each year, not all state-approved programs include coursework that focuses on the pedagogy of teaching ELLs. Students who are acquiring English language skills may appear to be experiencing a language delay or learning difficulty. Teachers who do not have sufficient knowledge and skills about second language acquisition may misinterpret this performance as a disability. Unnecessary special education referrals may have been made prior to implementing proper interventions. A variety of instructional strategies must be used when working with ELLs. States should consider requiring an endorsement in Structured English Immersion for all certified teachers and principals. 

When ELLs are being evaluated for special education services, the IDEA 2004 requires that evaluations be conducted in the language most likely to obtain accurate information on what the students know and can do. In other words, students whose dominant language is not English should be evaluated in their native language. Unfortunately, only 16% of school professionals are from diverse cultures (Coopersmith, 2009), and an even smaller number of them have special education training. When bilingual evaluators are unavailable, interpreters are often used. However, the validity of the obtained evaluation data is a concern. There is an urgent need for universities and school districts to collaborate to recruit, prepare, and retain culturally and linguistically diverse teachers and specialists. These professionals not only can ensure that fair and nondiscriminatory evaluations are conducted, but also provide primary language supports to ELLs with disabilities. They can also ensure that the special education team considers the cultural values and beliefs of the students and their parents when developing the special education program.

While nondiscriminatory evaluation tools are needed to assess ELLs, school professionals should use a variety of assessment methods. When choosing a formal test, educators must review the examiner and technical manual carefully to ensure that: (1) the test is reliable and valid; (2) the test items and testing procedures are unbiased; and (3) the norm sample of the test reflects the cultural and linguistic background of the students. Although valid and reliable formal data are useful, informal assessment data are also crucial. The administration procedures of informal assessments are much more flexible than formal assessments. In addition, professionals can frequently and quickly assess their ELLs’ performance in more natural settings.

Research consistently suggests that many immigrant families of children with disabilities are confused with the special education process in the U.S. and need guidance and support (Lo, 2009). Some may misunderstand the purpose of special education services as additional support for their children. These parents need information regarding their children’s disabilities, their parental rights, how they should be involved in the process, and where to obtain resources to support their children. Professionals should take the time to explain each step of the IEP process to families of ELLs with disabilities (Lo, 2012a). Further, schools should partner with community organizations and organize parent education workshops in their native languages so parents can learn how to serve as their children’s advocates (Lo, 2012b).

Translators and interpreters are often used to bridge the communication gap between schools and linguistically diverse families of ELLs with disabilities. However, many of these individuals have never been formally trained to provide quality translation and interpretation. Many are also unfamiliar with the field of special education. When a large amount of terminology is used during IEP meetings and in IEP documents, these unqualified translators and interpreters may not know how to translate and interpret. There is a need for schools to train pools of translators and interpreters to ensure the quality of their services. Additionally, a glossary of terms commonly used in special education should be provided to them.

  • Coppersmith, J. (2009). Characteristics of public, private, and Bureau of Indian Education elementary and secondary school teachers in the United States: Results from the 2007-08 Schools and Staffing Survey (NCES 2009-324). Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education.

  • Lo, L. (2009). Perceptions of Asian immigrant families of children with disabilities towards parental involvement. In R. E. C. C. Park (Ed.), New perspectives on Asian American parents, students, and teacher recruitment (pp. 1–24). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

  • Lo, L. (2012a). Demystifying the IEP process for diverse parents of children with disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 44, 14–20.

  • Lo, L. (2012b). Preparing Chinese immigrant parents of children with disabilities to be school partners. In A. Honigsfeld & A. Cohen (Eds.), Breaking the mold of education for culturally and linguistically diverse students (pp. 95–102). Lanham, MD: R and L Education.