Hello Teachers of Emergent Bilinguals!
Our series on diverse learners ends this week with last, but not least, a look at English Learners with Disabilities.
As much as these labels can tell us some important information about students, it never fails to amaze me how unique each student is. While students may share a set of characteristics, they have additional life experiences that shape who they are and distinguish them from others.
English Learners with Disabilities are an incredibly misunderstood group of students. It’s often difficult for teachers and administrators to distinguish whether the student has a language issue or a learning issue. As a result they are frequently both over- and under-identified.
Who are English Learners with Disabilities?
Steven (*not an actual student) is a rising 6th grader at a middle school in the Brooklyn. He arrived in NYC with his family from Mexico in the 2nd grade.
He attended school in Mexico and received reading and writing instruction in Spanish. After the initial interview process, his school determined that he was an EL.
Per NYSED requirements, he was given eight periods of English as a New Language a week, four periods of stand-alone classes with other entering and emerging bilinguals and four periods of push-in in the classroom.
Since his teacher at the time had both a general license as well as TESOL certification, she was given a of 28 students, 23 of whom where ELs. She was responsible for all content as well as integrated ELA/ENL push-in instruction for all students, without any additional push-in support.
This is a typical pattern that schools use to avoid hiring additional ENL teachers.
About half-way through the year, Steven’s teachers agreed that he was advancing more slowly than his newcomer peers. He didn’t seem to have trouble acquiring oral language and communicating, but when it came to trying to read anything, he couldn’t get even basic words off the page. Even worse was his writing. His letters were malformed, and he couldn’t space words apart or write in straight lines.
Written expression was his biggest challenge – even when he orally produced a rich, complex sentence that showed comprehension, his teacher couldn’t get him to transcribe it in writing.
The stand-alone ENL teacher reported that the other Spanish-speaking ELs were applying some of their early Spanish literacy skills to begin reading words in English, but Steven wasn’t doing the same.
His teachers agreed that because his oral language was progressing, they were sure he would catch up by the end of the school year. But he never did. His school advanced him to the 3rd grade, and by then, the ENL teacher had stopped teaching phonics to students – the focus was on reading comprehension and vocabulary.
Steven’s parents were concerned but followed the school’s suggestion to wait and see. He was promoted year after year despite falling further and further behind.
Finally, in the middle of 5th grade, his teachers and the learning specialist recommended to his parents that he get evaluated.
His Individualized Education Plan (IEP) simply diagnosed him with a general “learning disability”.
The report did specify that he needed small-group multi-sensory instruction in phonics. However, there was no one at his school – even the Literacy Specialist – who was trained in Structured Literacy from an accredited Orton-Gillingham-based program. Had he specifically been diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia, the DOE would have had to provide him with this standard, effective and evidence-based treatment.
He received an RTI Tier 2, which made him eligible for pull-out sessions with a Reading Specialist and an Occupational Therapist for his writing difficulties.
The last months of school during Covid-19 were particularly difficult for Steven. It was impossible for him to read all the instructions in the documents his teachers sent to him.
His reading specialist would call home, but she was unable to get his small group on a video conference call at the same time to deliver instruction. She ended up sending assignments home to each individual child and calling every week to explain the assignments.
Steven will be a 6th grader in September on a 3rd grade reading level. Because his IEP called for small group instruction, he was recommended for a 12:1:1 program. Steven has a language-based, not cognitive disability. Now he will be in a classroom with other students with cognitive and behavioral disabilities, who have other, very different needs.
What we know: English Learners with Disabilities
NYC contains the lion’s share in the state of not only English Learners (ELs), but English Learners with IEPs.
Out of the almost quarter million students in NYC with disabilities, ELs with IEPs make up over 25%, or almost 40,000 students. They are mostly evenly divided between elementary and secondary school. 15% of them are in District 75, the NYC Department of Education’s (DOE) Special Ed district, a collection of Special Ed programs across the city for the most severely disabled students with cognitive and/or physical disabilities who need to be specialized, self-contained classrooms.
What’s happening here linguistically?
Disabilities can affect a student’s ability to process and use language for learning, whether it be auditory language (the ability to comprehend what you hear), written (the ability to comprehend what you read and produce writing) or oral (the ability to retrieve vocabulary, sentence structure, or produce specific speech sounds).
These linguistic challenges can affect students with all types of disabilities, but language-based learning disabilities (LBLDs) are very specific.
LBLDs are neurobiological and complex in nature. They not only have to do with cognitive differences in how the brain typically processes language, but also how multiple factors like memory, executive functioning, and auditory and visual processing come together to learn language. Students with LBLDs are not intellectually disabled but are often misdiagnosed or perceived as such due to lack of knowledge.
Dyslexia is perhaps the most common type of LBLD (read my post on dyslexic learners here), affecting approximately 1 in 5 learners. Dyslexia specifically affects the ability to perceive sounds when reading.
A less well known LBLD is dysgraphia. Dysgraphia affects a person’s ability both physically – they can have limitations in their ability to form letters, hold a pencil and write for a longer period of time – as well as cognitively – they have limitations in their ability to transpose a thought into writing.
Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is often co-morbid with both dyslexia and dysgraphia, and so a student with all three – dyslexia, dysgraphia, and ADHD – can be severely challenged despite having typical intellectual functioning.
All LBLDs are on a continuum of mild to severe, and so it can be especially difficult for teachers to recognize a student’s disability if he or she seems to be functioning relatively well.
How can we help students?
There are 3 broad principles that teachers can follow:
1. Develop oral-based means of instruction and assessment.
English Learners with Disabilities, perhaps more than any other profile of ELs, need oral-based instruction. Besides decades of research showing the benefits of development of academic oral English on reading and writing, research also shows that students with disabilities, including English Learners, benefit from oral-based instruction.
Practically, this means spending a significant amount of instructional time building background knowledge and vocabulary around the topic. Students also benefit enormously from visual scaffolding with pictures and videos to discuss content. Watch me lead an oral language development activity for teachers of Spanish-speaking ELs using visual supports.
But oral language development also includes reading aloud to students (watch me do a Read Aloud for a 3rd grade class of ELs here!). For ELs with Disabilities, this can be especially crucial in developing their phonological awareness and comprehension of vocabulary, text and reading comprehension.
Assessment can also be oral or test receptive comprehension: Can the student say the answer instead of writing it? Can the student draw or point to a picture to test comprehension? Can the student be read the text aloud and then given reading comprehension questions?
2. Provide explicit, systematic, multisensory instruction in phonics, morphology, and written expression.
Anyone who’s met me knows that I am an Orton-Gillingham practitioner who works with students with reading disabilities.
OG is a systematic, explicit, multi-sensory approach to teaching language that includes instruction in sound-symbol correspondence, vocabulary, and structure in written expression.
Research strongly supports explicit instruction for students with disabilities, as well as English Leaners.
What does explicit mean? Explicit instruction means the teacher introduces a concept directly, models specific examples, and guides students in practicing additional examples so that they have the information they need to try the task independently. Watch this classroom teacher giving explicit instruction in phonics and reading comprehension.
What does systematic mean? Systematic instruction means the teacher takes the student through all the steps necessary to achieve the goal. In phonics, this means a scope and sequence for sound-symbol instruction. Browse and download engageny’s complete phonics curriculum here, starting with kindergarten.
In vocabulary/word work, this means a plan for teaching certain prefixes/suffixes before others. Check out William van Cleave’s Morphology Matters curriculum for a scope and sequence for word part instruction, complete with lessons.
What does multi-sensory mean? Multi-sensory instruction in Orton Gillingham means the student practices VAKT – Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic and Tactile – modes of learning every time they study a sound-symbol correspondence or learn a new word part. VAKT simply means that when they read, they also say it, spell it, and often trace it. In this way, students practice word recognition using multiple modalities. Watch Dr. Susan Nolan explain VAKT in more detail here and see it in action with a first grade class.
VAKT can be practiced outside of a traditional phonics or word work lesson and incorporated into vocabulary instruction. Review the pronunciations of new words with students, have them repeat after you and divide the word into syllables. Students can then say the spellings out loud, reading the words off the board or a screen and simultaneously tracing on their desks. Finally, dictate the words to the students and have them spell from memory, and apply their knowledge by underlining the word in text, or using it in a sentence.
3. Strive to integrate repeated reading into every lesson.
The beneficial effects of repeated reading for Students with Disabilities, especially LBLDs are numerous.
Repeated reading – when a student or group of students re-reads a passage a number of times – allows the reader to practice getting words off the page with speed and accuracy, reinforces phonological awareness around intonation and expression, and reinforces syntactic structures and vocabulary knowledge, all of which strengthen comprehension. Watch this instructive video that explains and demonstrates effective methods for fluent phrasing.
Within a Close Read, teachers can model a short passage, deliberately pointing out the rise and fall of their voice, punctuation, phrasing, and vocabulary. Students can chorally repeat or record themselves individually on FlipGrid. The passage can be practiced two to three times while then discussing the specific analysis of the passage. In this way, English Learners with Disabilities have the opportunity to practice the mechanics of reading multiple times, while diving deeper into analysis.
Teachers, let me know what you think! How can I help you with your students? Comment below or DM me @AEBLL_Children.