Evaluating an English Language Learner (ELL) student for a learning disability (LD) can be quite complicated. Currently, there’s no ideal testing procedure to distinguish between learning problems associated with learning to speak, read, and write in English; and an actual learning disability. Schools do the best they can with the tools they have. Researchers and educators have come up with some evaluation practices they believe are effective in getting ELL students the academic help they need.

Here are some general features to look for in a high-quality evaluation of an ELL student for learning disabilities:

  • Each child is assessed as an individual, creating a detailed picture of his learning challenges and strengths.
  • Assessment information is gathered from a variety of sources: regular education teacher, speech therapist, ESL teacher, parents, school psychologist and others. Information is collected through formal and informal assessments, school work and structured observations of the child in different settings at school.
  • Support in the child’s first language is provided, as needed, to most accurately determine his level of knowledge and skills.
  • Parents’ knowledge of their child is considered essential to addressing his learning problems. Information from parents about school and health history; personality and temperament; and strengths and challenges are all important.

The goal of this evaluation is to distinguish as accurately as possible which of a child’s learning difficulties are the result of English-language learning, and which are due to a learning disability.

Setting the Best Assessment Conditions Possible

To accurately measure a child’s language and literacy skills, assessments should be:

  • Culturally sensitive (don’t assume cultural knowledge that the child doesn’t have)
  • Known to be reliable for use with ELL students
  • Administered by a qualified professional

An oral language assessment (in one or both languages, as appropriate for the student) evaluates skills, such as:

  • How well the student understands concepts
  • How well the student understands vocabulary
  • How well the student expresses himself in both conversational language and in the more formal language used to discuss school subjects
  • How well a student understands what he hears

A reading assessment evaluates basic skills* such as:

  • Phonological skills (the ability to connect the sounds of language with letters or letter combinations)
  • Phonemic awareness (the ability to identify each individual sound in a word he hears, in order)
  • Decoding skills (the ability to read unfamiliar words by “sounding them out”)
  • Reading single words (automatically, from memory)

*Note: All of these reading skills are taught in research-based classroom instruction.

This is by no means a complete list of the language and reading skills the school team may evaluate. But often, if an ELL student has problems with these types of skills in both languages, school professionals will suspect a learning disability.

After all the evaluation data are collected and reviewed, team members will use their professional judgment to determine that either your child needs more support in his regular classroom, or that he requires special education services, in order to succeed in school.

By learning about the three types of learning problems that an ELL student may experience, you will be better able to work with your child’s school to get him the help he needs.

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