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

The Common Core State Standards and English Language Learners with Disabilities


Delia Pompa is Senior Vice President of Programs with the National Council of La Raza, Washington, D.C. She may be reached at or 202/785-1670.

Martha Thurlow is Director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached at or 612/624-4826.

Led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and working with content-area experts, new standards for English language arts and mathematics were developed in 2010. The new standards are known as the Common Core State Standards, or CCSS for short. These standards have now been adopted by 46 states, replacing the reading and math standards that states had identified for themselves.

What do these new standards mean for English language learners (ELLs) with disabilities? How are they related to the English proficiency of ELLs with disabilities? Do they really change anything? To answer these questions, it is necessary to say just a bit more about the CCSS and their implementation. Then we address some of the promises and the challenges that may come with the CCSS as we educate ELLs with disabilities. Finally, we identify some next steps for educators and parents of ELLs with disabilities.

 The CCSS are also viewed as being dependent on understanding the English language as well as the content of English language arts and mathematics. This means that there are inherent challenges for students who are learning English. It also means that there are challenges for students who have disabilities that may interfere with their access to the content or with demonstrating their knowledge and skills in the content.

 The promise of the CCSS for English language learners, students with disabilities, and students who are both is that they are fewer and deeper. Teachers will no longer have to attempt to cover a large number of standards, but can spend more time on each concept. Teachers also can embed formative assessments in their instruction to check on student progress. Creating formative assessment lessons can deepen students’ understanding of mathematics and English language arts.

Consortia of states are in the process of developing new technology-based assessments for the CCSS. These assessments hold the promise of being a new generation of assessments that truly measure the academic achievement of ELLs with disabilities. Current assessments are limited in the number of items that measure achievement on either end of the achievement spectrum; the new generation of technology-based assessments may remove that limitation.

Educators across the country are challenged by the new standards for English language arts and mathematics, even when they are just thinking about typical students – those without disabilities or those whose English skills are well established. Implementation requires a shift in their thinking about the content itself and about when certain topics need to be taught.

For ELLs, challenges surround the reliance on English skills. Major initiatives, such as the Understanding Language initiative out of Stanford University, confirm that ELLs need more than a focus on language acquisition independent of content learning. They need improved instruction in the content areas of English language arts and mathematics, as well as science, but they also need continued work on English skills that are aligned to the CCSS so that they have access to the CCSS instruction.

For students with disabilities, challenges surround their ability to access the curriculum with the supports and accommodations needed to reduce any barriers to learning due to their disabilities. Barriers to learning might include learning disability issues, language disability issues, emotional or behavioral issues, or a variety of sensory and intellectual disability issues.

For ELLs with disabilities, the challenges are two-fold: They involve both language acquisition and disability issues. These dual challenges require that educators and parents be aware of the needs of ELLs with disabilities as the CCSS are implemented.

It is imperative that educators working with ELLs with disabilities, and the parents of ELLs with disabilities, be aware of the CCSS. They also need to be attuned to both the challenges and opportunities that the CCSS create for ELLs with disabilities. Recommendations for next steps for educators and parents of these students include:

  • Make yourself familiar with the CCSS, and how they are linked to college and career readiness. Two useful resources are the CCSS Web site and a parent/teacher resource from the Council of the Great City Schools.
  • Ensure that educators working with ELLs with disabilities are trained in the CCSS, and have an understanding of how to develop curriculum, instruction, and formative assessment aligned to those standards.
  • Use data to determine the needs of individual students, as well as programmatic needs of ELLs with disabilities.
  • Focus instructional goals so that educators and parents have a common purpose – improving the access and success of ELLs with disabilities in achieving the CCSS.
  • Ensure that evidence-based practices are used to reach the targets identified by the CCSS, while at the same time recognizing the language and disability needs of ELLs with disabilities.
  • Implement the appropriate strategies deeply. This requires a focus on core, effective strategies that blend language and content instruction, and leaving behind extraneous activities that may be fun but that do not address the instructional needs of ELLs with disabilities.
  • Monitor and provide feedback so that there is a continuous emphasis on improvement and change in the instruction of ELLs with disabilities. 

States and educational organizations are recognizing the importance of the CCSS for all students. Ensuring that ELLs with disabilities realize the promise of the CCSS will require that educators and parents work together toward this end.