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

Meeting the Educational Needs of English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities


Brenda-Jean Tyler is Assistant Professor, School of Teacher Education and Leadership–Special Education, Radford University, Radford, Virginia. She may be reached at bjtyler@radford.eduor 540/831-5868.

Shernaz B. Garcia is Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Special Education, at the University of Texas at Austin.

Mr. Santos is a 4th grade bilingual teacher in a large urban school district. His classroom includes Spanish-speaking students, some of whom receive special education services. Although well-prepared to meet their educational needs based on their English proficiency and cultural backgrounds, he is unsure how to be responsive to their disabilities. Ms. Green, a special educator with whom he collaborates at his school, is a monolingual English speaker. She wishes that her teacher education program had taught her how to adapt special education instruction to students’ levels of English proficiency and to make instruction more meaningful for students from different cultural backgrounds.

Like Mr. Santos and Ms. Green, many teachers find themselves inadequately equipped to meet the educational needs of English language learners (ELLs) who have a disability (Mueller, Singer, & Carranza, 2006). Teaching this population requires educators to be responsive to students’ needs related to their disability, language proficiency in the native language and English, as well as their socio-cultural identities (Cloud, 2002). Failure to address all aspects could create barriers to learning for ELLs with disabilities, particularly when they are taught in English. In this article, we provide a framework to guide general and special educators in creating a culturally/linguistically responsive and inclusive learning environment (García & Tyler, 2010). Since learning disabilities is the largest disability category, serving roughly 40% of all K-12 students with disabilities (Aud et al., 2012), we focus on ELLs with learning disabilities, but many of the considerations are relevant for ELLs with other disabilities.

When ELLs are not making sufficient progress in school, it can be difficult to locate the underlying source(s) of their academic difficulties, and to determine the relative influence of a possible (or identified) learning disability, language dominance and proficiency, and socio-cultural experiences. Complicating the issue is the fact that difficulties experienced by ELLs functioning in English can look very similar to learning disabilities (Salend, 2008). Additionally, instruction in each of the programs in which such students might participate – general education, ESL services, and special education – often fails to adequately account for all their learning needs because each program focuses on only one or two aspects of students’ identities. Clearly, disability, socio-cultural, and linguistic characteristics are integrally intertwined. To identify more clearly the role of each for ELLs with learning disabilities, they are separated for discussion as follows:

  • Key characteristics related to learning disabilities. According to IDEA (2004), learning disabilities affect a student’s ability to understand and/or use language effectively. Although students with learning disabilities are a heterogeneous group with differing strengths and needs, they frequently experience difficulty with fast and accurate decoding. Poor decoding skills result in slow, dysfluent reading, limited vocabularies, and, often, below-grade level comprehension (Hock et al., 2009). Learning disabilities also affect other areas critical to school success, such as working memory and information processing. Further, students with learning disabilities often lack self-monitoring skills, and may not use the learning strategies they have been taught (Shippen, Houchins, Steventon, & Sartor, 2005).

  • Learning in a second language. ELLs are a heterogeneous group, representing many languages, nationalities, and immigrant or refugee experiences. Whereas most ELLs acquire basic conversational English in a relatively short time, proficiency with the more complex, abstract vocabulary and concepts inherent in academic content can take up to 10 years or more to acquire (Collier, 1995). Moreover, learning to navigate schooling in a second language draws on more than knowledge of grammar and vocabulary; ELLs must understand linguistic subtleties and implications often conveyed through culturally-based references assumed to be background knowledge for all students. Challenges associated with learning in a second language are increased when the student has a learning disability, given the language-based nature of learning disabilities. Cognitive demands of a lesson increase to a degree not experienced by native English-speaking counterparts.

  • The socio-cultural contexts of education. Students from non-dominant socio-cultural and linguistic communities often enter school with world views, information processing styles, and communication patterns that vary considerably from those expected at school (Hollins, 2008). When students’ life experiences and identities are only minimally reflected in classroom discourse, instruction, and materials, students may encounter schooling practices that not only create barriers to learning, but which may appear unwelcoming, thereby affecting their achievement motivation, and contributing to feelings of alienation or marginalization.

Ensuring that the classroom environment provides equitable opportunities to learn for all students involves a two-step planning process: (1) identifying potential barriers to learning, and (2) selecting instructional approaches, materials and other resources that will provide comprehensible input, make learning accessible, and foster student engagement and motivation to learn.

Table 1 identifies several factors that teachers should consider when planning instruction so that the learning environment meets the educational needs of ELLs with learning disabilities. These recommended practices and strategies have been organized into four sections. The first section identifies key elements that may increase the level of difficulty of classroom materials for ELLs with learning disabilities, prompting special educators to think beyond their native English speakers and the reading level of the texts they use. The second section offers strategies and considerations targeted at making instruction and assignments comprehensible to ELLs with learning disabilities. In the third section, we address the accessibility of content, assignments, and instructional activities for students who are non-native speakers of English and who have learning disabilities. Finally, the last section addresses student motivation and engagement in ways that are particularly salient for students with disabilities from diverse socio-cultural and linguistic communities.

Table 1: Factors to Consider During Instructional Planning for ELLs with Learning Disabilities

1. Determine difficulty level of materials.

    2. Select and use instructional approaches, materials, and assignments that provide comprehensible input for ELLs with learning disabilities.

      3. Ensure that the content, assignments and activities are accessible.

        4. Foster student engagement and motivation to learn.

          In summary, we have offered an integrative framework for addressing students’ educational needs in ways that are responsive to their disability in the context of their socio-cultural and linguistic identities. To provide this kind of integrated instruction, teachers must receive the support of their school administrators, who can ensure that the necessary tools, time, and access to resources are available to support collaboration and sharing of diverse areas of expertise across programs and teachers. Accountability for the success of all students requires no less, if we are to ensure that no child is left behind.

          • Aud, S., Hussar, W., Johnson, F., Kena, G., Roth, E., Manning, E., … Zhang, J. (2012). The condition of education 2012 (NCES 2012-045). Retrieved from

          • Cloud, N. (2002). Culturally and linguistically responsive instructional planning. In A. J. Artiles & A. A. Ortiz (Eds.), English language learners with special needs: Identification, placement and instruction (pp. 107–132). Washington D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.

          • Collier, V. P. (1995). Acquiring a second language for school. Directions in Language & Education, 1(4). Retrieved from

          • Garcia, S. B., & Tyler, B. J. (2010). Meeting the needs of English language learners with learning disabilities in the general curriculum. Theory into Practice, 49(2), 113–120.

          • Hock, M. F., Brasseur, I. F., Desher, D. D., Catts, H. W., Marquis, J. G., Mark, C. A., & Stribing, J. W. (2009). What is the reading component skill profile of adolescent struggling readers in urban schools? Learning Disability Quarterly, 32(1), 21–38.

          • Hollins, E. (2008). Culture in school learning: Revealing the deep meaning. New York: Routledge.

          • Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400. (2004).

          • Mueller, T., Singer, G., & Carranza, F. (2006). A national survey of the educational planning and language instruction practices for students with moderate to severe disabilities who are English Language Learners. Research & Practices for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 31(3), 242–254.

          • Salend, S. J. (2008). Creating inclusive classrooms: Effective and reflective practices. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

          • Shippen, S. E., Houchins, D. E., Steventon, C., & Sartor, D. L. (2005). A comparison of two direct instruction reading programs for urban middle school students. Remedial and Special Education, 26, 175–182.