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

United Action for Improving Academic Outcomes of ELLs with Disabilities


Manuel Barrera is an Associate Professor of Urban Education at Metropolitan State University, St. Paul, Minnesota, and a Research Associate with the National Center on Educational Outcomes, University of Minnesota. He may be reached at or 651/999-5923.

As students with disabilities and students in general education become increasingly diverse ethnically and linguistically, the need for schools to be effective in promoting united action to improve academic outcomes for English language learners (ELLs) with disabilities has become more pronounced. There may be a misperception that parents of ELLs who themselves may not be literate in English are not likely to be helpful in promoting academic outcomes in their children’s education.

Aside from the legal necessity for involving the child’s parents in the planning and education of a student with a disability (IDEA, 2004), there are also professional and pedagogical reasons why parent involvement is essential for effective schooling of ELLs with disabilities. These students, like all students, need their parents to understand the importance of school, to believe that their children can benefit from completing an education, and to support their children’s participation through moral, emotional, and physical means of support. The more connected parents and communities feel toward the schools that educate their children, the more connected students will feel with the educational process they encounter in their schools.

This feeling of connection is a first step in developing united action in effecting positive academic outcomes. Such connections are made effectively in the process of parent, educator, and student collaboration as students participate in classes or in the all too ubiquitous standardized assessments that students must take as part of demonstrating academic competence. For teachers to be maximally effective, they require the help of parents and children’s communities to demonstrate that there is no disjunction between the goals of families for their children and the goals of educators for their students. However, this very need for collaboration – united action – is often one of the most difficult tasks for educators, and parents, to accomplish. Three aspects of this problem include collaboration among parents and educators in IEPs and IEP meetings; the difficulties and differences between general education, special education, and ESL/bilingual education educators; and structural issues associated with schools that may impede the connection with parents for united action in promoting their children’s education.

The effect of cultural and linguistic differences between home and school for English language learners, especially ELLs with disabilities, has been a major challenge. The primary vehicle for fostering parent, educator, and student collaboration for children with disabilities is the process of developing the Individualized Education Program (IEP). Yet, parents of ELLs with disabilities, and ESL or bilingual teachers, have often expressed feelings of frustration at being excluded from IEP meetings or only marginally involved for “rubber stamp” forms of decision-making (Liu & Barrera, in press). ELL parents may feel that their knowledge of the child’s native language skills, likes and dislikes, as well as the student’s preferred learning styles are not taken into consideration. In addition, these parents may feel that their own goals for their child’s learning are not valued by school staff (Liu & Barrera, in press).

On the other hand, educators may not be trained in working with linguistically and culturally diverse parents and may have limited knowledge of how parents’ cultural and educational backgrounds influence their desires for their child’s academic experiences. Parents may not be familiar with the terms teachers use for instructional strategies or materials that will be used in the classroom. Additional time must be allowed for interpretation of IEP meetings so that interpreters can fully explain ideas that may not exist in the parents’ native language.

ESL and bilingual teachers (Goldstone et al., in press; Liu & Barrera, in press) may have limited opportunities to collaborate with special education and content teachers to plan instruction for ELLs with disabilities. ESL teachers, like their counterparts, are busy and may serve a sizeable number of students, making it difficult for them to attend IEP meetings without explicit support and expectation to do so. When these teachers do attend IEP meetings they may experience communication difficulties if they have a different way of conceptualizing and talking about learning for ELLs. Many special education teachers may not be familiar with concepts of second language teaching and learning (Robinson & Buly, 2007) increasing the complexity of creating authentic communication on a multi-disciplinary IEP team.

In addition, there are school structural issues that may impede collaboration among educators not simply in developing IEPs, but in the ultimately more important direct service to ELLs with disabilities as IEPs are implemented and students are integrated into the “free and appropriate public education” these students need and deserve. One major structural problem is often seen as unavoidable: the school day versus the time that parents, especially working parents, may have in participating in meetings and activities typically planned by educators based on school working hours. A second issue is the difference between how students are expected to participate in school and what teachers must do to manage the teaching of increasingly diverse students. In both cases, an important amount of problem solving must be engaged by parents and the various educators involved with their children in order to overcome difficult barriers.

While much of the collaboration among parents of ELLs with disabilities and educators remains based on a paucity of and very generalized research (Harry, 2008), some very good ideas have been generated. Some schools and individual educators have tried to implement them. In my own research with parents over 10 years, a common observation has been that parents welcome opportunities not only to discuss the issues and needs of their children with disabilities but are often very interested in “instructional dialogues” very similar to those of educators in the field (Barrera & Liu, 2008; Vang & Barrera, 2005).

The National Center on Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (Waterman & Harry, 2008) has compiled important wisdom and practice for effective parent-educator collaboration in supporting ELLs with disabilities. In addition to improved communication strategies, a common point for parent involvement, important approaches that seem to increase and promote effective collaboration include the following:

  • Provide open-ended group meetings of parents to provide them with a safe environment to ask questions (safety in numbers) of select school staff known to be especially communicative with parents (e.g., cultural or parent liaisons, student- or parent-identified teachers or administrators). Such meetings can be used to determine parent-identified issues of concern that may result in future informational or development sessions.

  • Provide possible topics for future meetings such as book selections for students, math or other curriculum and how it is taught in the U.S., parent expectations, and community resources, among others.

  • Engage parents in school site decision-making bodies that are often not well known among immigrant and linguistically diverse communities.

  • Assign staff or designate teachers to work on parent-school collaboration on a periodic and rotational basis to spread the knowledge base of current parents and parent involvement expertise.

  • Create parent educational development programs on topics such as family literacy, family-based mathematics and science, as well how to engage in parental volunteering.

  • Establish specific parent advisory boards to strengthen community-based guidance for issues related to ELLs with disabilities.

There is a rich resource for parent involvement resident in virtually every staff with ELLs in their schools: teacher assistants and others involved in parental advocacy or “cultural liaisons.” Indeed, several parents in my research studies (Barrera & Liu, 2008; Vang & Barrera, 2005) reported that they took such jobs because they felt it important to serve as a conduit for improving communication and knowledge among parents and the schools who serve their children. A good first step for promoting strong collaboration with parents of ELLs with disabilities is to start with the collective wisdom of those educators who already may be involved with the communities of these children.

Ultimately, “collaboration” among parents, educators, students, and their communities must be seen as engaging in our common task to realize real academic progress for students. Doing so cannot simply be about feeling that what has been is appropriate, but that it is appropriate. The only real way to accomplish this task is to think that parents and educators are engaged in action and that action must be united action.

  • Barrera, M. T., & Liu, K. K. (2008). Involving parents of English language learners with disabilities through instructional dialogues. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 19(1), 43–51. Retrieved from

  • Goldstone, L., Liu, K., Hatten, J., Christensen, L., & Thurlow, M. (n.d.). Practitioner recommendations for improving the validity of assessment results for ELLs with disabilities. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

  • Harry, B. (2008). Collaboration with culturally and linguistically diverse families: Ideal versus reality. Exceptional Children, 74(3), 372–388.

  • Liu, K. K., & Barrera, M. T. (n.d.). Providing leadership to meet the needs of ELLs with disabilities. Journal of Special Education Leadership.

  • Robinson, L., & Buly, M. R. (2007). Breaking the language barrier between general and special educators. Teacher Education Quarterly, 83–95.

  • Vang, H., & Barrera, M. T. (2005). Hmong parents’ perceptions on instructional strategies for educating their children with disabilities. Hmong Studies Journal, 5, 1–20. Retrieved from

  • Waterman, R., & Harry, B. (2008). Building collaboration between schools and parents of English language learners: Transcending barriers, creating opportunities. In Practitioner Brief (pp. 1–24). Tempe, AZ: National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational System.