ELL Students and Special Education

Posted by Dr. Maria Ramirez on 3/6/2018 7:00:00 AM

English Language Learners (ELL) are in the United States

The English Language Learners (ELL) population is rapidly increasing in the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2016) the percentage of school students in the United States who were ELLs was higher in school year 2014-15 (9.4 percent, or an estimated 4.6 million students) than in 2004-05 (9.1 percent, or an estimated 4.3 million students) and 2013-14 (9.3 percent, or an estimated 4.5 million students). Spanish was the home language of 3.7 million ELL students in 2014-15, representing 77.1 percent of all ELL students and 7.6 percent of all public K-12 students. Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese were the next most common home languages (spoken by approximately 109,000, 104,000, and 85,300 students, respectively).

Language Proficiency

Title VII of the Improving America's School Act of 1994 provides the following definition to identify limited English proficient students. An individual with limited English proficiency "is someone who has sufficient difficulty speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language, and whose difficulties may deny such individual the opportunity to learn successfully in classroom where the language instruction is in English" (Rhodes, Ochoa, & Ortiz, 2005, p.1).

Most experts agree that it takes 5-7 years to acquire academic English, or the language proficiency needed to succeed academically and professionally.  Students may acquire social language (the language used on the playground or in the cafeteria) much more rapidly, but there is frequently a gap between social and academic English.  In addition, newcomer ELLs may go through what is known as a "silent period," in which they say very little but listen carefully to everything happening around them. Even though they are not speaking during this period, they are still in an important stage of language development (Roseberry-McKibbin and Brice, 2005).

ELL and Special Education

Newly released figures from the U.S. Department of Education's EDFacts data collection shed light on the population of ELLs who are also students with disabilities. In 2014-15, approximately 665,000 ELL students were also identified as students with disabilities. ELL students with disabilities represented 13.8 percent of the total ELL population enrolled in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools.

Disproportionate Representation

The disproportionate representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education has been a controversial issue for more than 30 years. In the early 1970s, Diana v. State Board of Education (1970) and Larry P. v. Riles (1972) were two cases alleging the inappropriate placement of culturally and/or diverse children in special education programs. The impact of these two cases was so significant that Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act created in 1975, specifically required that students be assessed in their native language whenever feasible and in a non-discriminatory manner. Despite the history of litigation and legislation, disproportionate representation of linguistically diverse students in special education continues to be an issue to this day.

Best Practices

Identifying English language learners (ELL) with special needs is a complex and difficult process, because the difference between learning disabilities and second language acquisition can easily be mistaken for the other.
As a result, ELLs could be identified incorrectly with a learning disability, or vice versa, their disabilities sometimes may not be recognized due to the language barrier. In either case, these students will not receive the specific services they need to succeed academically (Welner, 2006).

Is the disability present in both languages?: One important clue is to see whether the disability is present only in English. If the student only shows the difficult behavior in English settings and not in his/her non-English language(s), then it cannot be an indicator of a disability. A true disability will manifest across all the child's languages and in most settings. If an ELL "struggles to retell events" in English and not in his/her home language or in a bilingual retelling, then this cannot be evidence of a disability. How does the student compare with his/her peers?: Another initial question to ask is whether the student is making academic progress at about the same rate as other ELL students from similar backgrounds (students who share similar linguistic, cultural, educational, or refugee experiences) and to compare that progress over time

Research clearly indicates that many school psychologists are not trained to assess culturally and linguistically diverse students. Questionable assessment practices with ELL students include the use of untrained interpreters, insufficient or inadequate language proficiency testing, and intellectual and academic assessments conducted only in English.  When evaluating ELL, the assessment team must include a qualified person with language competence in oral and written skills in the child's primary language. In addition, tests and materials must be provided and administered in the student's primary language or other mode of communication unless the assessment plan specifies why this is not feasible. And finally, once the language acquisition and/or acculturation factors are ruled out as the primary basis of the problem, a determination must be made about the language in which the student will be assessed. Assessors should accumulate evidence acquired through interviews, student observation, and review of background information.


Hamayan, E., Marler, B., Sanchez-Lopez, C., & Damico, J. (2013). Special education considerations for
English language learners. Delivering a continuum of services (2nd ed.).

Rhodes, R., Ochoa, S., & Ortiz, S. (2005). Assessing culturally and linguistically diverse students. A
practical guide. Guilford Press.

Roseberry-McKibbin, C., Brice, A., & O'Hanlon, L. (2005). Serving English language learners in public
settings: A national survey. Language, speech, and hearing services in schools,36, 48-61.

U.S. Department of Education (2016). National Center for Education Statistics.
Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgf.asp.

Welner, K. (2006). Legal Rights. The Overrepresentation of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse
Students in Special Education. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 6, (38).


Dr. Maria Ramirez-Chase, Ph.D.

School Psychologist