The Disabled Language Learner

English Language Learners and Learning Disabilities

Considerations and Recommendations for Effective Remediation

[see this post for more – here. / Also this post is a reply to this post- The Captive Mind]

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

Nelson Mandela

In classrooms all over the world, students are learning second languages in increasing numbers.  By 2030, it is estimated that 40% of the entire school population of the United States will be English language learners (ELLs) ( McKibbin and Brice, 2005).  Not only are the numbers increasing exponentially but students are not only  learning the language (in classrooms) but are more usually “pushed in” and having to learn the language “on the fly”, in classrooms where the content too has to be mastered.

Teachers are confronted with the dual task of having to teach the curriculum and also having to help students learn the language of instruction. Not an easy task for even a specialist in English language instruction. Discrepancies in test results between ELLs and non-ELLs have become alarming ( Goldenberg, 2008).  Teachers are under a lot of pressure and find it almost impossible to cope or keep up.  The result of this situation is the overrepresentation of ELLs in special education (Brown, 2005).  Teachers and administrators are too quick to refer ELLs to special education programs (for many reasons – see Appendix A). This creates not only undo stress on the educational delivery system but also a kind of “Mathew’s Effect” (Stanovich, 1986) whereby because of inadequate language instruction, those ELLs assigned to special education fall further and further behind until it is too late to catch up. On the other hand, if indeed a student does have a learning disability and not a second language acquisition issue, they too can fall further and further behind.

So we must understand more clearly the issues involved when differentiating between a learning disability and a second language acquisition issue. Both to help stem the over-referral of ELLs and also to correctly diagnose student learning disabilities.  The question is, how?  Is a student who is having difficulties remembering words or writing basic sentences in English, just in need of specific English language learning attention or do they really need special needs assessment and treatment? How do we as teachers decide? There are many important considerations that must be made.

The L1 – L2 Relationship – What causes the difficulty?

It is important to note “what” causes the difficulty in learning a language. This will help us as teachers eliminate a lot of false notions when looking for the cause of an ELL’s  difficulty in our classroom

There have been a lot of causes attributed to language acquisition difficulties, most notably; anxiety, motivation/effort, learning habits and “low” ability. However, these are most often just masks hiding the real problem. Dinklage (1971) studied why some great students at Harvard had problems learning a language. It didn’t seem right that such excellent students would fail miserably at language. He found out that the cause was not those normally assigned (effort, motivation, anxiety, access, strategies) but rather one of “disability”. Dinklage’s remedy to the student’s language learning difficulty was to have them taught in ways that worked for the learning disabled and in fact it worked.

What we need to realize is that almost all people suffer from a learning disability when it comes to learning a second language. Especially after our early years (>9). Compared to our first language (L1), our brain is clunky, our learning “stop and start”. It is no longer natural and some subconscious processes of learning are cut off. So we teachers must think of language learning ability along a continuum and further, fine tune our own classroom instruction more towards that of special education delivery (specific strategy focus, use of supports and modifications etc…).  We should assume a wider range both in terms of time and content when it comes to acquiring language.  One might even go so far as to suggest that because everyone does suffer from a second language learning disability, we should not refer any students to special education that have difficulties with language acquisition. If everyone has it, we should address the problem “systemically” and not piece meal through special education. Brown alludes to this in her finely argued work, “Reducing the Over-referral of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (CLD) for Language Disabilities”. She writes,

“One underlying problem consistently contributes to the over-referral of CLD students for language disabilities: The characteristics of second language acquisition – a language non-disorder – are mistaken for language disabilities. In other words, some language aspects observed in CLD students who do not keep up with their peers are not necessarily disorders, difficulties, or disabilities; they are simply an inherent feature of acquiring a new language” (Brown, 2005, p. 227)

What causes a language acquisition difficulty is not precisely known. Memory, our experiences and socialization, our physiology and the very nature of thought all play a vital role. We might posit that how we learned our L1 (the deficits and nature of that process) would affect our ability to acquire an L2.  Especially concerning age (1).  The exact nature of this dynamic is unknown but what counts is that we teachers respond with instruction that takes this into account.  Further, we can say with certainty that some ELLs do have a learning disability as opposed to a language non-disorder (given that up to 15% of students will (Root, 1994) and it is this issue of how to identify such, we now must address.

Questions To Consider:

1. What is the student’s L1 literacy?

This is the most important question. In a perfect world, the teacher would speak both English and the student’s mother tongue. The teacher would also have student records from their L1 school.  Assessment would be much more precise and easier. However most often this isn’t the case and the teacher will have to interview the parents and caregivers to obtain  a more precise learner history.  Students who have significant processing difficulties in their L1 are much more likely to experience difficulties in the second language classroom than not.  Perhaps, there is no learning disability but rather a lacking in literacy in the L1 which is transferred to the L2.  This is very often the case and before any intervention takes place, the student’s literacy needs in the L1 should be addressed through sheltered and intensive instruction. Primary language instruction can provide modest gains to most students (Goldenberg, 2008).

2. Time. How long has the student been studying English?

Often, teachers don’t understand just how long it takes to become fluent in another language. Students seem to make progress in social language and the classroom teacher assumes that because he/she understands the teacher conversationally, he/she understands academically. However, that is usually far from the case. It takes at least 7 years of study to acquire the academic language needed for the classroom (Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, Christian, 2006). Often, students need more time than the school system with its test driven nature will allow. Individual differences play a much stronger role in language acquisition than any other subject.  Teachers should be aware time might be a factor. It seems simplistic but too many students are wrongly referred to special education because they rightly go through a “silent period” (normal for ELLs). Education should not be run as a race, especially when it comes to language which is more organic and deep than many content based disciplines. Language is of the heart, not the mind.

3. Are there any other barriers to learning?

Second language learners in many cases, are experiencing significant social displacement. They arrive in a new language, without the traditional social supports. Teachers should ask themselves whether the student is making a smooth transition and the student’s learning is not being impeded by social factors such as social estrangement, culture shock, family problems, income disparity etc…  Very often, students are strongly affected by the transition to a new country/land. Gonzalez (2001) suggests that much over referral to special education is because of the cultural and social differences between instructors and students.  Further, perhaps the student isn’t getting enough integration into the wider community to facilitate their language development? Given the multicultural dynamic in many cities, this often is a factor dramatically slowing English language acquisition.

4. Have adequate formal assessments been done?

Too many second language students fall through the cracks in the system. They are inadequately screened for problems and don’t receive the early intervention that is imperative for success at school. Assessment should be done through a well coordinated team (see Appendix B).  Both formal and informal assessments should take place.  Assessments should be done in a culturally sensitive and appropriate (standard) manner. If possible, they should be functional (for language is all about “function” ) and about what the students “can do” and not just what they “know of”. If  possible, the gold standard of assessment in the L1 for cognitive and psychosocial development should be given. If not available, at least assessment for phonological awareness in their L1 should be provided. Ganschow and Sparks’ Linguistic Coding Deficit Hypothesis (LCDH), states that difficulties with foreign language acquisition stem from deficiencies in one or more of the linguistic codes in the student’s native language system (Schwarz, 1997). Thus, a possible quick way to assess for underlying language processing disability would be phonological testing in the L1.

5. Has everything been done right to assist the student in learning the language?

Before any decision about language disability can take place, the teacher or school must assure that adequate instruction and opportunity (also time – see point 2 above) was given the student. In terms of language acquisition, children learn in so many different manners. We should ask regarding effective classroom practices;

A)    Has a variety of learning styles been accounted for in the instruction? Has the instruction been clinical and strategy based?

B)     Has there been adequate comprehensible input provided? (often not, in the U.S. over 50% of ELLs receive all-English (according to the CREDE (Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence)  in class immersive instruction and are expected to “sink or swim” in many cases)

C)    Has the curriculum / assessments  been  modified and instruction not just text or oral in nature (audio support, leveled readings, visuals etc..)?

D)    Has the curriculum been taught with a sensitivity to the student’s background and cultural experiences?

E)     Have explicit learning strategies been taught and the student / family given support in their use?

F)     Have the instructors and staff  been given training in teaching ELLs and aware of the normal phenomena and processes that accompany learning a second language?

G)    Has the student been given extra instruction and support? Was the intervention intense enough and of a long enough duration?

H)    Has peer assisted learning been put in place (we learn language through social interaction and without this, language will be only slowly been acquired)?

I)        Has the school provided the resources to make both English language learning possible and for student integration into the wider culture?

J)       Has the student been assessed and monitored enough to suggest that the  learning difficulty is not just something temporary or short term?

ELLs really face a hard struggle and we should lean on the side of caution when thinking of referral to special education. ELLs face 2 times the cognitive load in a sense – One, they must learn the content of lessons and second, they have to learn the language. This is a big task and it isn’t any surprise that many have difficulty. It is probably even more surprising that the gap between ELLs and non-ELLs in testing (mentioned at the beginning of this paper) isn’t much wider.

The nature of language acquisition is still in the early stages of being discerned. Only a few decades ago we thought that learning a language was simply a matter of repeating phrases  — how different are our assumptions nowadays!  I’ve tried to suggest some ways that teachers and all stakeholders might reflect and look into the mirror  their ELLs face  – how they might see the issues that mask the true nature of their language learning difficulties.  English language teaching would do well to borrow much of the instructional focus and philosophical ground that special education has brought to the pedagogical table.  I believe that if we can see all ELLs in a sense as “learning disabled” (or even defined by the term SLAAP (Second Language Acquisition – Associated Phenomena) which Brown (2005) uses), we’d be much better at teaching them and much better at catching those with real learning disabilities and who especially need rapid and early intervention. Part of the challenge for the future in TESL will be to more clearly delineate the line between language learning and language disability. Doing so will much benefit our students and give teachers firmer ground to stand upon.


(1) There is most definitely a relationship between the first language of a child (L1) and their acquisition of a second (L2). However, among researchers, there is no clarity. Many believe in an innate “language window” or “critical period hypothesis” ( Lennenberg, 1967). This suggests that there is a set time for learning a language correctly and that outside this period, there is substantial difficulty in learning a second language, especially in terms of syntax. These advocates point to a biological basis for language and contend that somehow through age, we have less and less access to our “Language Acquisition Device” (Chomsky, 1959), either because the brain loses plasticity or it simply shuts off certain functions.  Others contend that language can be learned well and fluently at any age, this is known as the “Relational Frame Theory”.


Brown, C.L. (2004), “Reducing the Over-Referral of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (CLD) for Language Disabilities. NAHE Journal of Research and Practice 2 (1): 225-43.

Burnette, J. (1998). Reducing the Disproportionate Representation of Minority Students in Special Education (ERIC/OSEP Digest #E566. Arlington, VA: The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education

Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin and Alejandro Brice, (2005), What’s “Normal”, What’s Not: Aquiring English as a Second Language,

Chomsky, N. (1959), A Review of B.F. Skinners Verbal Behavior. Language, 35, 26-58, Reprinted in.Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, Mass: M.I.T. Press

Dinklage, Kenneth T. “Inability to Learn a Foreign Language” in G. Blaine & C. MacArthur(Eds.) Emotional Problems of the Student. New York, 1971: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Ganschow, Leonore, Richard Sparks & Elke Schneider. “Learning a Foreign Language: Challenges for Students with Language Learning Difficulties.” Dyslexia (Journal of the British Dyslexia Association) 1, (1995):75-95.

Genesee, F. , Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W.,and Christian, D. 2006, Educating English Language Learners. New York: Cambridge University Press

Goldenberg, Claude, (2008), Teaching English Language Learners. What the research does – and does not – say. American Educator, Summer.

Gonzalez, V. (2001). The role of socioeconomic and sociocultural factors in language minority children’s development: An ecological research view. Bilingual Research Journal, 25 (1&2), 1-30

Irujo, Suzanne, (2004), When an ELL has difficulty learning, is the problem a disability or the Second Language Acquisition Process?, ELL Outlook, March / April,

Lennenberg, E. (1967), Biological foundations of language. New York: Wiley.

Ortiz, A.A. (1997). Learning Disabilities occurring concomitantly with linguistic differences. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30, 321-32.

Root, Christine, (1994), A guide to learning disabilities for the ESL Classroom Practitioner

Schwarz, Robin L., (1977), Learning Disabilities and Foreign Language Learning,

Sparks, Richard, & Leonore Ganschow. (1993), “The Impact of Native Language Learning Problems on Foreign Language Learning: Case Study Illustrations of the Linguistic Coding Deficit Hypothesis.” Modern Language Journal 77,i 58-74.

This post originally appeared in Teacher Talk. 

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