At the school where I work there are many English Language Learners (ELLs) and only two ELL teachers. The ELL students and teachers meet once a day – most of the time – on both a pull out and inclusionary basis. One of the ELL students in my class last year caused the ELL teacher, the regular classroom teacher, and myself some concern because of the increasingly garbled manner in which she spoke. Although we were monitoring this speech issue, no one could determine whether it was in fact her speech or a lack of fluency in her English pronunciation. This problem led me to wonder what kind of difficulty ELL teachers, and regular teachers who have ELL students, experience in diagnosing certain problems such as learning disabilities in ELL students. One article that I discovered on the matter is entitled, “When an ELL Has Difficulty Learning, Is the Problem a Disability or the Second-Language Acquisition Process?”1 by Suzanne Irujo.

As far back as the 1920s, immigrants from Mexico were given IQ tests in English and then, when their scores were low they were labeled “mentally retarded.” Although IDEA has done much examine and combat the overrepresentation of minorities in special education, the problem still lingers and must be carefully confronted on a case-by-case basis. Irujo points out that it is extremely difficult at times to determine whether or not a lack of academic performance or progress is due to lack of second language acquisition or because of a specific learning disability. Also, she points out that referring an ELL student to special education services might be damaging, even if the student is receiving more attention. ELL students who struggle to acquire second language skills experience difficulties with an external cause. These students will, given time, overcome their problem and they must focus on making meaning from the English language to do so. Quite the contrary, LD students face problems with an internal source, one that will not resolve over time. These students must learn compensatory strategies that will help them cope with their learning disability for life. Irujo worries that ELL students who are improperly labeled LD will be tracked into lower classes and never have the opportunity to reach their academic potential.

Irujo points out that there at least four out of six characteristics of a language processing disability can also be found in ELL students. These four characteristics include:
1. a lack of attention
2. difficulty interpreting verbal messages
3. difficulty retrieving stored information
4. difficulty organizing and/or sequencing information

When testing ELL students for a learning disability it is important to test them in their native language as well as English. The most significant problem with this testing occurs when the ELL student has not developed fluency in his or her native language. When this is the case, Irujo stresses that it is imperative that the student be observed in a comprehensive manner. Educators must take into consideration all aspects of the student’s environment, behaviors, and characteristics (as a student) in order to make the most informed decision possible. I feel that while this process is difficult and time consuming, Irujo is correct in her recommendation. The amount of instructional time lost to evaluation is outweighed in this instance by the life-long stigma and detriment of being labeled with a learning disability where none is present.

This Wikipedian research contributed by Rachel Fries