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

Who Are English Language Learners with Disabilities?


Elizabeth Watkins is ELL and Minority Issues Specialist, Special Education Policy Section, Special Education Division, Minnesota Department of Education, St. Paul. She may be reached at or 651/582-8678

Kristin Kline Liu Kristin Kline Liu is Senior Research Fellow at the National Center on Educational Outcomes, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota. She may be reached at or 612/626-9061.

English language learners (ELLs) with disabilities represent an increasingly larger segment of the K-12 student population in the U.S. Because of the interaction of their disability and second-language learning processes these students may have unique learning needs that affect teaching and also affect the way students show what they have learned. This article will explore what is known about the prevalence of disabilities among ELLs and the characteristics of ELLs with disabilities. It will conclude with recommendations for schools and organizations serving these students.

Definition of an ELL with a Disability

Generally speaking, an ELL with a disability is a student who is eligible for both special education and English as a second language (ESL) or bilingual education services. There are different identification issues associated with each service, creating variability in the definition of an ELL with a disability across the country. Educators in different locales must be aware that they may not always be considering the same students when they refer to ELLs with disabilities.

Students who are identified for special education may receive services for any one of the 14 federally recognized disability categories. Some variation in the primary disability categories occurs across states. Federal legislation requires that ELLs with suspected disabilities be assessed in both their native language and English to ensure that any difficulties with learning are evident in both languages and are not solely the result of natural second-language learning processes. Educators and schools report that providing appropriate assessments in two languages and differentiating language learning from language-related disabilities is extremely challenging. For this reason, there is a national concern with the accuracy of special education identification rates for ELLs. This concerned is heightened for ELLs in some racial or ethnic groups.

Students who are ELLs are not proficient in English and are eligible for English language support services.1 Schools commonly provide ESL and/or bilingual education to identified ELLs. ESL prioritizes language instruction while bilingual programs include content instruction in the native language as well as instruction in English. The goal of both types of programs is to increase students’ English proficiency so that they can succeed in English-only content classrooms. Typically, children are identified as ELLs through a multi-step process that includes a home language questionnaire parents complete when children are enrolled in school. If parents report that another language is used in the home, students are then given an English language proficiency screening test to determine whether or not they are eligible for ESL or bilingual education. Parent consent for language screening is not required, but parents have the right to refuse ELL services.

While the ELL identification process may appear straightforward, the accuracy of the information gathered may be compromised at several points (Bailey & Kelly, 2010). For example, parents may provide different answers to the home language questionnaire if a child moves to a new district or language use patterns in the home change. Individual states and school districts may ask different questions on the questionnaire, use a different screening assessment, and set different score ranges to be identified as an ELL. There may also be inconsistencies in administering the home language questionnaire to parents whose children have known disabilities.

Variations in the special education or ELL identification process may result in different groups of students being included in the group of ELLs with disabilities in different places. An educator in California and a disability advocacy organization in West Virginia may not be talking about exactly the same type of student when they refer to an ELL with a disability.

Numbers Nationwide

Determining the exact number of ELLs with disabilities nationwide is a challenge because there is a limited amount of publicly-available information on students who are both ELLs and have an identified disability. Estimates may differ depending on the purpose for which the information was collected, and the way in which the information was collected. For example, the Office of Special Education Programs reports on the number of students in special education for ages birth through 21 who were also limited English proficient (LEP).2 This information is included in federally mandated child count data provided annually by schools. However, it is reported by school special education staff and not by ESL or bilingual education departments, and thus may not reflect the total number of enrolled ELLs. In addition, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) data identify the number of students of various racial/ethnic groups in each disability category, but do not break out the data for ELLs. It is possible to find national data on the number of Hispanic students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, for example, but not on the number of Hispanic ELLs in this disability category.

We get the most comprehensive picture of the population by piecing together information from multiple sources and making some general inferences about ELLs with disabilities based on what we know about ELLs and about students with disabilities overall. However, this type of approach must be interpreted with some caution. Some estimates of the population size are provided below based on a combination of information from multiple U.S. Department of Education sources for the 2009-2010 school year:

  • About 9.3% of K-12 students in U.S. schools were identified as ELLs (roughly 4,647,016 out of 49,788,000).3

  • According to IDEA child count data for the 2009-10 school year, 518,088 students with disabilities were classified as limited English proficient (LEP). This represents approximately 8.5% of all students with disabilities (Data Accountability Center, 2013a).

  • Of the 518,088 LEP students reported as receiving special education services, 200,347 were in California, representing 39% of the national total. Only 2% of all ELLs in the state are identified as having disabilities, however, compared with 4.8% of English proficient students. Among all states, California identified the highest percentage of ELLs with disabilities. More than half of all states report that they provide special education services to less than 0.5% of the ELL population.

ELLs with disabilities have a number of characteristics that vary across students. By definition they are all limited in their English proficiency, but students may vary greatly in the amount of time they have spent in the country, their previous educational experiences, their actual levels of English proficiency, the other languages that they speak, and the type of primary disability that they have.

Nationwide, the majority of ELLs speak, or have exposure in the home, to some form of Spanish. However, there may be as many as 400 different language groups represented in the ELL population across the country (Boyle, Taylor, Hurlburt, & Soga, 2010). Common language groups for ELLs with disabilities most likely reflect the common languages spoken by ELLs overall. For the 2009-2010 school year, the largest language groups reported by states included speakers of Arabic (29 states), Chinese (32 states), Hmong (7 states), Russian (7 states), Somali (10 states), and Vietnamese (31 states).4 Different areas of the country had concentrations of different language groups represented in that year. For example, Somali was among the largest language groups in the ELL populations of 10 states. Schools and advocacy organizations in these states could expect to serve Somali ELLs with disabilities and could anticipate the need for Somali-speaking staff, as well as the need for materials in Somali. However, Somali was not one of the largest language groups in the other states, perhaps due to different patterns of Somali refugee resettlement and migration. Global events are also a factor in predicting what groups will require services as a result of trends in immigration and refugee resettlement.

National data on students in special education do provide data on primary disabilities for all students (Data Accountability Center, 2013b). From the data on all students with disabilities we can make some inferences about ELLs with disabilities. In 2009-2010 approximately two-thirds of all students with disabilities ages 3-21 were identified with Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD), Speech/Language Impairments (SLI), Mental Retardation (MR), and Emotional Disturbance (ED). The largest group of students had specific learning disabilities, followed by those with speech or language impairments. It is likely, then, that the largest groups of ELLs with disabilities could have these same primary disabilities. Evidence provided in 2001-2002 by ESL departments in K-12 schools (Zehler et al., 2003) and by a 2006 Office for Civil Rights data collection (Office for Civil Rights, 2013) verified that these disability categories were, in fact, common among ELLs.

Services Received

In 2006, the Office for Civil Rights reported that, nationwide, only about 88% of students with disabilities who were in need of ESL or bilingual instruction actually received it (Office for Civil Rights, 2013). State level data can show variations among ELLs with disabilities who received language support services across racial and ethnic groups. For example, in one Midwestern state 60% of students with disabilities in the Hispanic ethnic group reported that their home language was Spanish. However, only 58% of these Spanish-speaking students were classified as ELLs and the remaining 42% were classified as English proficient. Of the students who were classified as being eligible for ELL services, 7% did not receive them. This information raises questions regarding the accuracy of the disability identification, the accuracy of procedures to determine English proficiency, and whether students were being denied services for which they were eligible.

Program and Service Considerations

The information presented in this article shows the diversity of ELLs with disabilities and some of the variation in this student population across states and across types of organizations serving the students and their families. It is important for educators and others who work with ELLs with disabilities to ensure they understand the characteristics of students in general and specifically of the population in the area they serve. Several recommendations are provided here to consider in developing programs and services for ELLs with disabilities and their families:

  • Understand that if you serve ELLs or students with disabilities, you most likely serve ELLs with disabilities. These students are a part of both groups, but may have needs that are different from either due to the interaction of students’ disabilities and second-language learning processes.

  • Keep in mind that the labels applied to students are not sufficient to describe students’ characteristics. Because there is a great deal of variability in the population of ELLs with disabilities, educators and service providers must look beyond the group name and develop appropriate ways to understand the complex characteristics of the students they serve. They should be sensitive to within-group variation and to changes in group characteristics due to acculturation that occurs over time.

  • Recognize that descriptions of populations of ELLs with disabilities vary across states and programs, depending on who is identifying the size of the group and for what purpose. No one source of information captures all of the relevant information on students. Each state is unique in the size and make-up of the population of ELLs with disabilities, the prevalence of particular home languages, and other factors relevant to providing appropriate supports and services for students and families. It may be necessary to piece together a knowledge base from multiple sources of information, but this must be done cautiously.

  • Plan for student and family supports and services that meet the needs of the particular population in your area. Having targeted services and supports that meet the needs of a particular language group, for example, will require staff who are knowledgeable about the characteristics and needs of students and families from that group. Developing this type of knowledge in staff will require specialized staff recruitment and training efforts within a school or organization serving individuals with disabilities. Outreach materials will be needed in both the languages and preferred media of the local population. For example, some groups may be more likely to access information via DVDs or local television while others prefer print information. Organizations should also be prepared for periodic shifts in the language and cultural groups requiring services, due to changes that occur at the local, national and international level.

  • Know that there will be ongoing issues and challenges in appropriately identifying and serving ELLs with disabilities in schools. The needs of ELL families will fluctuate over time, particularly with newly arriving groups. Research in the field of ELL special education is also evolving rapidly. Educators and policymakers must be flexible and willing to rethink decisions based upon changing circumstances and emerging information.


1 The term ELL is just one of many terms used by educators to refer to these students. Others include: English learners (ELs), used by the federal Office of English Language Acquisition and many ESL or bilingual programs funded by that office; and Limited English Proficient (LEP), used by the Office of Special Education Programs. There are also terms for related groups such as Language Minority (LM) or Persons with a Home Language Other than English (PHLOTE) students – for those who have a home language that is not English but who may not have limited English proficiency – and terms like Formerly English Proficient (FEP) to refer to students who have exited ESL services but are still being monitored for their academic success. Not all terms are equivalent.

2 See , Part B Data and Notes, Child Count Data.

3 To calculate the percentage of ELLs we divided the total number of ELLs that states reported in 2009-2010 Consolidated State Performance Reports (available at sy09-10part1/index.html ) by their projected total enrollment using projected growth rates for Fall 2009 published in the Digest of Education Statistics (Table 34 available at ).

4 Based on data compiled from 2009-2010 Consolidated State Performance Reports (available at ).

  • The use and validity of home language surveys in state English language proficiency assessment systems: A review and issues perspective. (2010). Project Deliverable for the Evaluating the Validity of English Language Proficiency Assessments (EVEA) Grant Project of the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction, State of Washington, (White paper published at

  • Boyle, A., Taylor, J., Hurlburt, S., & Soga, K. (2010). Title III accountability: Behind the numbers. (Evaluation brief). Retrieved from

  • Data Accountability Center. (2013a). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) data [data tables for OSEP state reported data]. Retrieved from

  • Data Accountability Center. (2013b). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) data [data tables for OSEP state reported data]. Retrieved from

  • Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education. (2013). Civil rights data collection [2006 national and state estimations: Projected values for the nation]. Retrieved from

  • Zehler, A., Fleischman, H., Hopstock, P., Stephenson, T., Pendzick, M., & Sapru, S. (2003). Descriptive study of services to LEP students and LEP students with disabilities (Vol 4). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students.