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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.

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.

Comments from readers

"Hi. I am hispanic woman and I have 2 children my oldest is 6 and attends first grade now, since Kindergarten she has been recognized as a 'kinesthetic learner' but the teacher also implied that she has some attention issues. The pediatrician told us to wait since she was only 5 years old. She was placed in an ELL program though she speaks english most of the time she does have knowlegde of spanish but is not as fluent as she is in english. My husband only speaks english. I do speak both at home but mostly english. So now the ELL teacher suggested that we should take her to the doctor again because even though she is not 'struggling' she fears that she might fall behind because it seems that she has a hard time staying focused and finishes her tasks poorly. Now, last year she learned to read really fast,she is a hands on learner and was at the end of first grade level reading at the end of kindergarten, this year at the first parents teacher conference,her teacher said that ! she is ok. What should we do? She is very active so her pediatrician told us that she is just an active child. We are considering getting an specialist to asses her but the ELL teacher told us to get the forms from the doctor's office which I did but honestly those forms come from the pharmaceutical offices,like seriously??? Don't get me wrong, I know there are children that need medication and those meds have helped children through decades but is there any other way to help my child besides considering drugs??? Because I have the sense that it will go down that road with us. What are the goals by the end of this year on the ELL program for first graders? She reads ,writes and speaks english, I would like to know the standars for her age. Plus she and other children from different ethnicities have been placed in the same classroom so it kind of puzzles me ,if they want them to learn the language properly wouldn't be fair for them to be mixed with the rest of the english sp! eakers??? "
" It's extremely critical to a student's academic success to define their early learning needs. There's no two ways about it, Hispanic students have different values, different parenting, and come from a culture where boys are favored and are excused from the menial tasks that girls are expected to do. It'll take time for the lives of these students to assimilate American traditions and their parents, most likely, never will. "