Separating Difference From Disability With Students Learning English as an Additional Language


Catherine Collier, Director of the national professional development project Curriculum Integration for Responsive, CrossCultural, Language-based Education (CIRCLE) at Western Washington University.


6 July-2 August 2015 

Who Should Attend?

K–12 practitioners working with ELLs in general education, bilingual education, and special education


TESOL Members: US$390
TESOL Global Members: US$165
Nonmembers: US$515

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More About This Course

A growing number of students from diverse racial, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds have unique learning needs as they acquire school English and adapt to the culture of the American educational system. Among this diverse population of students are at-risk learners and learners with a variety of disabilities. The reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires school personnel to establish and document language difference versus language disorder and language learning difference versus learning disability.

This situation presents school districts and even the most experienced education professional with unique challenges and remains a serious test of service proportionality in American schools. The needs of these diverse learners are not being appropriately addressed when “difference” is used to disproportionately place diverse learners in speech pathology services and special education nor when students from diverse backgrounds are denied special services when they have limited English proficiency. 

This 4-week course addresses specific issues in assessment, intervention, and identification strategies that are most effective in separating difference from disability. Participants will learn what tools and strategies are available and appropriate to use. RtI models for English language learners will also be explored, focusing on the interpretation of data gathered during the general education intervention problem-solving process, prior to conducting an evaluation for special education.

What Will I Learn?

Participants will learn
  • how to distinguish learning and behavior problems due to difference from those due to disability
  • about research into distinctions between language difference and language disability in linguistically diverse students
  • how to use screening and intervention planning forms and procedures for diverse learners during the problem-solving, instructional intervention process
  • how to use assessment and intervention processes appropriate for culturally and linguistically diverse students
  • about key legal constraints on identifying and assessing culturally and linguistically diverse students for special education placement
  • a process for developing cross-cultural intervention plans and/or IEPs for an at-risk diverse learner
About the Instructor

Dr. Catherine Collier has more than 45 years experience in equity, cross-cultural, bilingual, and special education beginning with Civil Rights voter registration in 1964. She completed her doctorate with research into the referral of Latino/Hispanic students to special education programs.

For eight years, she was a classroom bilingual/ESL teacher, special education resource room teacher, and diagnostician for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Arizona and Alaska. She established and directed the Chinle Valley School, Dine Bitsiis Baa Aha Yaa, bilingual services for Navajo students with severe and multiple disabilities for the Navajo Nation. She was the director of a teacher-training program, Ikayurikiit Unatet, for the University of Alaska for seven years, preparing Yup’ik Eskimo paraprofessionals for certification as bilingual preschool, elementary, and special educators. She was an itinerant (diagnostician/special education) for Child Find in remote villages in Alaska.

For eight years, Dr. Collier worked with the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education, Research, and Evaluation at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she created and directed the Bilingual Special Education curriculum/Training project (BISECT), a nationally recognized effort. She was the director of resource and program development for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and is a Sequoyah Fellow.

Dr. Collier is the author of several books and articles on cross-cultural and multilingual special education. She is active in social justice for culturally and linguistically diverse learners and families. She started the first bilingual special education programs for the Navajo Nation and the White Mountain Apache. She works extensively with school districts on professional and program development for at-risk diverse learners. Dr. Collier provides technical assistance to university, local, and state departments of education regarding programs serving at-risk cognitively, culturally, and linguistically diverse learners. She works with national organizations to provide professional development in the intersection of cross-cultural, multilingual, diversity, special needs issues in education.

She is the director of the national professional development project Curriculum Integration for Responsive, CrossCultural, Language-based Education (CIRCLE) at Western Washington University. She is the principal developer of the screening and software program Acculturation Quick Screen and many instruction, assessment, and intervention materials for diverse learners. Her most recent publications are a chapter on acculturation in the Multicultural Handbook for School Psychologists, and two books,Response to Intervention for Diverse Learners and Seven Steps for Separating Difference and Disability.