Helping English Language Learners Who Struggle in School

English language learners often struggle in American classrooms. How can parents and teachers determine if there's more going on, such as a learning disability? There are methods to help pinpoint the cause.

By Linda Broatch, M.A.

Are you concerned that your child who is learning to speak English also struggles too much with his schoolwork, or that he's frustrated or discouraged with school? Has his teacher told you that your child is learning more slowly than his classmates?

Children who are learning English may have difficulty with schoolwork for many reasons. In order to help your child, you and the school must first figure out the specific reason for his problems.

Think About Your Child's Health and Well-Being

As a first step, think about factors such as physical health, emotional issues or other challenges he may face. For example, learning problems can sometimes be the result of:

If your child hasn't had a recent medical check-up, it's a good idea to schedule a complete physical examination to rule out any health issues.

Types of Difficulties English Language Learners May Experience

For English language learner (ELL) students, learning English at the same time they're learning academic content, such as science or social studies, is very difficult mental work. So it's not unusual for them to struggle with learning issues on occasion. But ELL students may also experience more serious learning difficulties. According to Dr. Alba Ortiz, a professor and researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, there are three types of conditions that may lead to learning difficulties for ELL students:

If your instincts tell you that your child may have an LD, trust those feelings, and ask your school to have your child tested for LD. However, it may be useful, before asking your child's school to evaluate him for LD, to consider how the learning environment (Type 1 difficulties), or undetected learning problems (Type 2 difficulties) might be contributing to your child's struggles with schoolwork.

Type 1 Difficulties: What Type of Learning Environment Helps ELL Students to be Successful?

There are several educational practices and conditions that researchers and experts consider important for all ELL students' learning and school achievement. These include:

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the school is responsible to provide parents information, in a language that parents understand, about the learning environment: This includes:

Ask the principal for this information to be sure your child is making good progress in English language learning and academic work-and that the learning environment supports your child's success.

Type 2 Difficulties: How Can Early Intervention Services Help ELL Students Overcome Learning Difficulties?

Some children, even if they receive high-quality instruction in their regular classroom and in their ESL or bilingual classroom, will have problems learning to read, write, spell, understand what they hear or read, solve math problems or use reasoning skills. Most of these children do not have a learning disability; they can catch up with their classmates if they're given more intensive instruction in problem areas, as soon as possible. Most schools have a plan in place to provide help, in the regular classroom, for a student having difficulties learning. Here are some important steps a school may take:

The school team talks with parents or family members to better understand why the student is having learning difficulties. For example, they may ask questions about:

After the team has met to review all the information about the student, they make a plan of action to improve the student's performance. The plan includes:

Ask your child's teacher or principal if the school has provided extra instructional help for your child and what the results were. Work with school staff to determine what next steps to take to help your child learn.

Type 3 Difficulties: Formally Evaluating an ELL Student for Learning Disabilities

Schools have different procedures for deciding when to formally evaluate a student for learning disabilities. Regardless of the school's formal evaluation process, you have a legal right at any time (under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) to ask the school to formally evaluate your child for learning disabilities (LD). If the school declines your request, they must give you their reasons for doing so, in writing. On the other hand, if the school wishes to formally evaluate your child for LD, they must have your written permission to do so.

Once the formal evaluation process begins, the school will provide you a document describing parents' rights and responsibilities. Under IDEA, parents are full and equal members of the teams that evaluate the student and determine whether he's eligible for special education services; your questions and knowledge are essential to this work.

Unfortunately, there's no ideal method to distinguish between a learning disability and problems associated with learning to speak, read, and write in English. However, researchers and educators have come up with evaluation practices they believe are effective in getting ELL students the academic help they need. Don't hesitate to share this information with your child's school.

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.