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Difference or Disability?

Nancy Cloud and Tabetha Bernstein explain how to identify learning disabilities in English language learners. See Debbie Zacarian's The Road Taken column, "I Don't Think I Can Ever Pass the Test!", Essential Teacher, September 2005 (pp. 10-11).

As a teacher of English language learners, you may have encountered the following situation:

A student comes to your class knowing little or no English. That's OK; learning English is the purpose of ESL. But as time goes on, you begin to observe that something else might be going on. The child struggles with tasks his or her peers find simple. Communication difficulties seem evident even when the child is speaking in the native language with a classmate. Despite your use of best practices for ESL instruction, the student seems to be making little or no progress, and it's not for lack of trying. You begin to wonder, "Could this student have a disability?"

Is It Really a Disability?

When you suspect an English language learner has a learning disability, careful evaluation is important to avoid misidentification. If a disability is present, the student may be entitled to special education support services.

On the other hand, the student may simply learn differently from his or her peers and may need more time or a different approach. A learning difference is not the same as a disability and should not be treated in the same manner.

Finally, be careful not to mistake linguistic and cultural differences for a disability. What may appear to be a communication disorder could be a simple lack of English language proficiency or a cultural variation in communication style.

Is a Special Education Referral Indicated?

Your next task is to figure out whether or not a special education referral is warranted.

The first step is to learn whether or not difficulties present in the second language (L2) also occur in the student's first language (L1). Family interviews in the native language, observations of the student interacting in the native language and culture, assessments in the native language, and any available school records from the child's school in the native country (if applicable) may prove helpful. If you do not speak the student's native language, find an interpreter.

Also find out whether or not the student has had any significant gaps in schooling. If so, the student may be more suited to a newcomer program aimed at filling these gaps. Deficits that are due to inconsistent schooling do not, however, constitute a disability, although the student will likely be at a disadvantage relative to consistently schooled peers.

Throughout the prereferral process, look for indicators that may characterize a genuine disability (Roseberry-McKibbin 2002):

  • difficulty learning at a normal rate, even with assistance (especially in the L1)
  • deficits in vocabulary (particularly when deficits also exist in the L1)
  • communication difficulties at home and with peers of similar linguistic and cultural backgrounds
  • family history of disability
  • report by parents of slower development than siblings
  • overreliance on gestures rather than speech (especially when also observed in the L1)
  • need for frequent repetition and prompts during instruction (especially when also seen with instruction delivered in the L1)
  • difficulty following directions, irrespective of language used
  • serious qualitative and quantitative differences compared with peers when speaking the L1

Look for Disability across Languages

A learning disability rarely occurs in one language and not in the other. It is usually evident in both languages and seen even when the student is immersed in the native language and culture. If the difficulties seem to occur only in English, the student is most likely still in the process of learning English. Not everyone learns a new language at the same rate; variation among students is natural.

The results of a thorough prereferral investigation enable you to make sound decisions about referring English language learners for special education. It may take more time, but in the end it is worthwhile to ensure that students needs are fully met, regardless of differences or disabilities.


These two documents suggest model prereferral processes for English language learners:

These five scenarios portraying bilingual students with different learning profiles help you practice distinguishing among English language learners with and without disabilities:

These online resource centers produce materials pertaining to L2 learners and informational materials in Spanish and English:

The link to English Language Learners/Urban Multicultural Project in the site below includes resources on accurately identifying and serving English language learners with disabilities. See especially the resources collected under the heading "Identifying English Language Learners with Special Needs."


Roseberry-McKibbin, C. 2002. Multicultural students with special language needs: Practical strategies for assessment and intervention, 2nd ed. Oceanside, CA: Academic Communication Associates.

Nancy Cloud ( is a professor of education in the Feinstein School of Education and Human Development at Rhode Island College, and Tabetha Bernstein ( is a bilingual/ESL literacy resource teacher for the Providence Public School Department, both in the United States.