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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.

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:

  • The entire school staff is committed to improving student achievement and has high academic expectations for all students.
  • Curriculum that meets the state's academic standards for what children should know and be able to do at each grade level
  • Use of effective bilingual or English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) instruction
  • Support in the student's first language for learning academic content
  • Use of research-based instruction-especially in reading and math-in the child's general education classroom; and
  • Training for all teachers (not just bilingual and ESL teachers) in how to effectively teach ELL students
  • Use of achievement test results to identify students who are struggling, and to make a plan for helping them.

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:

  • Whether the curriculum is research-based, especially in reading and math
  • Whether teachers are "highly qualified," as required by NCLB
  • The level of your child's skill in speaking English
  • What teaching method and program the school uses to teach your child English
  • How the English language instruction will help your child learn English and, at the same time, meet state academic standards
  • The requirements to finish the English language learning program and how long it will take to complete
  • How your child's achievement test scores compare to other students' in the school and district

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:

  • A team of school professionals with different qualifications is formed to identify and address the student's specific learning problems. For example, the team might include the classroom teacher, the ESL teacher, a reading specialist or the school psychologist. These pre-referral teams have various names, such as "student study team," "teacher assistance team," and others.
  • Members of the school team gather documentation on the student's academic performance, including: specific learning problems they've observed; what interventions they've used to help the student, and dates and length of time the interventions were used; samples of the student's schoolwork and assessments that show his current level of performance; the student's complete school record, for a history of problems and interventions.

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:

  • Specific behaviors the parent has noticed that may indicate a learning problem
  • What languages are spoken at home
  • At what age the child began to speak the home language(s)
  • Whether the student attended school before coming to the United States
  • Any health or medical problems that could affect learning
  • At what age the student began learning English

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:

  • What research-based interventions the teacher (or others) will use in the classroom; how often, and for how many hours per week, interventions will occur
  • What changes will be made to the classroom or instruction, for example, 20 minutes of extra reading instruction daily
  • How often the student's progress will be monitored and how it will be measured
  • When the team will meet again to review how well the plan is working
  • When and how to inform parents of the student's progress

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.


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

07/23/2010:
"i am apostgraduate inENGLISH LITERATURE.B.ED IN SPECIAL EDUCATION.(M.SC (PSYCHOLOGY).I AM WORKING AS PRINCIPAL,ASHRAYA SPECIAL SCHOOL.I TEACH ENGLISH FOR SLOW LEarners to make them integrate into mainstream"
01/12/2010:
"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??? "
12/12/2008:
" 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. "
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