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

The Present and Future of Bilingual/ESL Special Education


Roberto Figueroa is a Doctoral Student in Bilingual Special Education, University of Colorado Boulder. He may be reached at or 916/290-3044.

Janette Klingner is Professor of Bilingual Special Education, University of Colorado Boulder. She may be reached at or 303/492-0773.

Leonard Baca is Professor of Bilingual Special Education, University of Colorado Boulder. He may be reached at or 303/492-3353

Over the past 45 years, educators have come to recognize the unique needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students with exceptionalities (CLDE). This awareness helped establish the field of bilingual/ESL special education. This interface between bilingual, English as a second language (ESL), and special education has attempted to address the educational needs of these CLDE students. This article focuses on students learning a second language with a disability, the present state of practice, and recommendations for future practice.

What is Bilingual/ESL Special Education?

Bilingual/ESL special education may be defined as “...the use of the home language and the home culture along with ESL in an individually designed program of special instruction for the student” (Baca, n.d.). Its theoretical framework is based on three fundamental perspectives:

  • Sociocultural theory: The manner in which learning is connected to students’ cultures and communities.
  • Cultural capital and funds of knowledge of the community: The resources that come from the students’ cultures and communities.
  • Principles of effective learning: The principles that include teachers and students producing work together, developing language and literacy across the curriculum, connecting school to students’ lives, teaching complex thinking, and teaching through instructional conversations.

The collaborative consultative model has become a central tenet of bilingual/ESL special education. Rather than special educators being responsible for direct provision of services to students with special needs, these specialists work as consultants to general educators. This idea stems from the realization that unless the special education intervention actually eliminates the students’ academic problems, they will still experience difficulties during that part of the day when special help is not available. Therefore, consultation seeks to modify the students’ classroom experiences on a full-time basis by collaboration between specialists and classroom teachers. Ideally, this helps not only the students with special needs in particular, but also provides indirect assistance for other students who are not officially eligible for special services, and provides direct support for the teacher. Language/ESL specialists are part of this collaborative model as they support classroom teachers and special educators.

Current Issues in Practice

The educational landscape has changed a great deal since the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA, 2004). More and more states are following a Response to Intervention (RTI) process to decide which students qualify for special education. No longer is eligibility determined by establishing a discrepancy between students’ potential, as measured by an intelligence test, and their achievement. Thus, RTI addresses some of the long-standing concerns about biased assessment procedures with ELLs (English language learners). Yet RTI tends to be implemented in one-size-fits-all ways that do not adequately take into account the diverse needs of these students (Klingner & Edwards, 2006). And although intelligence tests are not administered with the same frequency as in the past, some problematic assessment procedures continue.

One reason for moving to RTI was to address overrepresentation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in high-incidence special education categories (i.e., learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and emotional disturbance). Though overrepresentation had been a concern for more than three decades (Dunn, 1968), the phenomenon came under increased scrutiny with the publication of a National Research Council report in 2002 (Donovan & Cross, 2002). The report showed dramatic overrepresentation among African American students in the intellectual disabilities and emotional disturbance categories, and wide variability across and within states in placement rates among Latino students in the learning disabilities category. Since the publication of that report, additional research has pointed to important differences in special education placement rates among different subpopulations of ELLs. In their investigation of special education placement rates among ELLs in several school districts, Artiles, Rueda, Salazar, and Higareda (2005) found that older ELLs were overrepresented in special education, but younger students were not. ELLs in English-only programs were more likely to be overrepresented than students in programs with some native language instruction. Sullivan (2011) recently examined placement patterns in Arizona and found that ELLs were more likely to be identified as having learning or intellectual disabilities than in previous years (prior to English-only legislation) and less likely to be served in the least restrictive educational environments relative to White peers.

The majority of students in special education have reading disabilities. Although they are still in the process of acquiring English as a second or additional language, they are more frequently taught in English than other CLDE students, typically without support for their English language development (Zehler et al., 2003). There are multiple reasons for this. One is that too few special education teachers have been trained in English language acquisition and lack the skills needed to help their ELL students. Another is the misguided belief by some that once CLDE students receive assistance in special education, all of their needs can be met by special educators. Rarely are the special education services they receive optimal. 

Looking forward, special education for CLDE learners requires reforms to better meet their needs. The focus of reforms should be on assessment as well as on instruction and support services, with the goal of creating a more equitable system for all students in education by making sure students’ needs are accurately identified and that those needs are addressed through high quality instruction. The first facet of reforming the way educational systems address CLDE students in special education is the accurate assessment of disabilities that takes into account the process by which a second language is acquired. A reason for the overrepresentation of bilingual students in special education is that the traditional assessment process cannot adequately distinguish between language acquisition and learning disabilities. Evaluations for learning disabilities give insufficient consideration to the effects of language acquisition on learning or on the assessment process (e.g., Figueroa & Newsome, 2006; Klingner & Harry, 2006).

Secondly, creating valid assessments of bilingual academic proficiency is integral to halting the overrepresentation of bilingual students in special education (Klingner & Artiles, 2003). A common misconception is that a bilingual student is a combination of two languages operating independently in the student, rather than recognizing the dynamic interplay of different languages (Grosjean, 1985). Instead of evaluating the entirely unique system of bilingual language acquisition, bilingual students are measured in terms of their proficiency in one language only in comparison with monolingual peers. According to traditional assessments, a monolingual student is considered to be at the correct developmental level if, for example, she can name five colors in English. However, the bilingual student who knows three colors in English and three colors in Spanish would be considered as lacking or behind when looking at her knowledge in only one language, when in fact she has a more extensive vocabulary (six colors altogether). By improving assessment practices, hopefully fewer bilingual students will be placed in special education for needs they do not have.

Also important is the manner in which CLDE learners’ needs are supported in the classroom. When ELLs are identified as having disabilities, their need for instruction in English language development does not end. In other words, ELLs with disabilities need the services entitled to students with disabilities as well as the services designed to support ELLs. They benefit from: (a) culturally and linguistically responsive teachers, (b) culturally and linguistically responsive and relevant instruction, (c) a supportive learning environment, (d) assistance with English language acquisition (such as oral language, vocabulary, and academic language development), (e) support in the general education classroom to help them access the general education curriculum, and (f) intensive research-based interventions designed to help them improve their academic skills in targeted areas.

English language learners without disabilities, on average, require three to five years in order to become orally fluent in English as a second or additional language, and four to seven years to become academically proficient in the language (Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000). This highlights the need for instruction in a student’s primary language to support their learning while they are acquiring English, especially for students with disabilities who may require more time to become proficient in a second language.

These examples present a clear direction for bilingual/ESL special education. Revised assessment practices are needed to make sure that bilingual students are not being misdiagnosed with disabilities and placed into special education. Once a student is found to have a disability, a different approach from “business as usual” is needed. Teachers must be trained in language issues so that they can support CLDE students in the acquisition of English though a variety of culturally and linguistically responsive teaching methods. And, more research is needed on high level teaching practices that are effective for CLDE students. As educational practices shift, special education for bilingual students can become more supportive of the challenges they face and more cognizant of the many strengths and rich potential they bring to the classroom.

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  • Baca, L. (n.d.). Approaches and strategies for serving English language learners with disabilities. Retrieved from

  • Donovan, M. S., & Cross, C. T. (Eds.). (2002). Minority students in special and gifted education. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

  • Dunn, L. M. (1968). Special education for the mildly mentally retarded: Is much of it justifiable? Exceptional Children, 23, 5–21.

  • Figueroa, R., & Newsome, P. (2006). The diagnoses of LD in English Language Learners: Is it nondiscriminatory? Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39, 206–214.

  • Grosjean, F. (1985). Multilingualism and language norming. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 477, 467–477.

  • Hakuta, K., Butler, Y. G., & Witt, D. (2000). How long does it take English learners to attain proficiency. Santa Barbara, CA: University of California, Linguistic Minority Research Institute.

  • Klingner, J. K., & Artiles, A. (2003). When should bilingual students be in special education? Educational Leadership, 61(2), 66–71.

  • Klingner, J. K., & Edwards, P. (2006). Cultural considerations with response to intervention models. Reading Research Quarterly, 41, 108–117.

  • Klingner, J. K., & Harry, B. (2006). The special education referral and decision-making process for English Language Learners: Child study team meetings and placement conferences. Teachers College Record, 108, 2247–2281.

  • Sullivan, A. L. (2011). Disproportionality in special education identification and placement of English language learners. Exceptional Children, 77(3), 317–334.

  • Zehler, A., Fleischman, H., Hopstock, P., Stephenson, T., Pendzick, M., & Sapru, S. (2003). Policy report: Summary of findings related to LEP and SPED-LEP students. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement of Limited English Proficient Students (OELA).