Difference or Disorder?

Simple Steps to Start Your Conversations About Struggling ELs.

by Katharine Muller

English learners face many challenges in school: developing language, acquiring grade level content, and in some cases, adjusting to different social and cultural norms. But what happens when we suspect something more? How do we know it’s time to request a disability evaluation?

The truth is ‘disability vs. difference’ is a complex issue, and sometimes the only way to unravel the mystery is to provide the student with a comprehensive bilingual evaluation. But there are some steps you can take to help make the decision-making process a little less daunting when it comes to our struggling ELs.

Katharine M Post

Tip 1: Like to Like?

Hopefully, most educators know that comparing the progress of a native, monolingual English speaker to an English Learner is inappropriate. Their life experiences and linguistic development are just too dissimilar for true comparison. But are all ELs the same? Is a Spanish-speaking EL born and raised in the United States and exposed to English and Spanish from early life really comparable to a student from Venezuela who has been in the United States for two years? When comparing ELs progress to peers, make sure you ask the simple question: are these other students really peers? Have they attended the same type of programming and been in the United States a similar length of time? Make sure right from the start that your comparisons are truly ‘like to like’.


Tip 2: Does it Make Sense?

Anyone who grew up bilingual or has experience with bilingual students probably has some anecdotes involving “Spanglish” or some other mixture of languages. One of my personal favorites from my teaching days is “Maestra! El me kickió (Spanglish Translation: He kicked me!). But “code-switching” or “translanguaging” is a normal part of bilingual development. So when is it not OK? When is it an indicator of something more concerning? Ask yourself, does it make sense? “Kickió” makes sense because the student is taking an English word and conjugating it (correctly) using Spanish grammar rules. That’s actually a pretty high level of linguistic awareness! But when the errors don’t make linguistic sense, you might need to dig a little deeper. Bilingual speech language pathologists and bilingual dyslexia therapists can be good resources for what’s typical in language and phonological awareness development and what’s not. 


Tip 3: Don’t Ask If the Student Is Struggling.

This one probably sounds counterintuitive. Of course you would ask if the student is struggling, right? But remember all those challenges our English learners face? That means a lot of ELs are going to struggle at some point in their school careers. So worry less about the struggle and more about whether or not the struggle itself is unusual. Are the student’s difficulties more severe or of longer duration than their peers’? If so, you may have a red flag signaling more might be going on. 

Finally, there are the (justifiable) concerns about over-identifying English Learners for special education. We should never place a child in special education solely because of language or cultural differences. But English learners who need special education have a right to special education. And that’s one of our obligations as educators, too.  


Katharine Muller, M.Ed. is a certified bilingual teacher and educational diagnostician with more than 20 years experience working in Texas public schools and regional service centers. She is trained in both English and Spanish dyslexia intervention programs and has presented at multiple regional service centers and conferences across the state on assessment for English Learners. 


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