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:
- Vision, hearing or health problems
- Lack of sleep
- Excessive anxiety or worry
- Stressful school situations, such as bullying
- Stressful family situations such as serious illness, death or divorce
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:
- Type 1: Learning difficulties that result from the learning environment. For example, ELL students may not have access to effective English language instruction. Or classroom teaching may assume life experiences or cultural knowledge that students don't have.
- Type 2: A learning difficulty that can be addressed in the regular classroom if it's identified right away and the student gets additional, focused instruction to help him catch up with classmates. When the student doesn't get immediate help, the learning problem gets worse and may be confused with a learning disability (Type 3 below).
- Type 3: A learning problem that is not a result of the learning environment. Your child may have a learning disability (LD) that makes it hard for him to understand, remember or use the knowledge and skills he's taught. Students with LD have average or above-average intelligence, but they require extra help from a special education teacher-in addition to their regular classroom instruction-in order to succeed at school.
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.