Distinguishing between Learning Disabilities and

between Learning
Disabilities and
Janette Klingner
University of Colorado at Boulder
First, what does the law say?
Specific Learning Disability 34 CFR 300.8(c)(10) IDEA
• A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological
processes involved in understanding or in using language,
spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect
ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do
mathematical calculations, including conditions such as
perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain
dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.
– (ii) Specific learning disability does not include learning
problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing,
or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional
disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic
• A child has a specific learning disability, as defined in 34 CFR
300.8(c)(10), if:
• The child does not achieve adequately for the child’s age or to
meet State-approved grade-level standards in one or more of
the following areas, when provided with learning experiences
and instruction appropriate for the child’s age or Stateapproved grade–level standards:
Oral expression.
Listening comprehension.
Written expression.
Basic reading skills.
Reading fluency skills.
Reading comprehension.
Mathematics calculation.
Mathematics problem solving.
• 34 C.F.R. § 300.534 Determination of
(b) A child may not be determined to be
eligible under this part if—
(1) The determinant factor for that
eligibility determination is—
(i) Lack of instruction in reading or
math; or
(ii) Limited English proficiency
Required Observation
• The group described in 34 CFR 300.306(a)(1), in
determining whether a child has a specific learning
disability, must:
Use information from an observation in routine
classroom instruction and monitoring of the child’s
performance that was done before the child was
referred for an evaluation; or
• Have at least one member of the group described in 34
CFR 300.306(a)(1) conduct an observation of the child’s
academic performance in the regular classroom after
the child has been referred for an evaluation and
parental consent, consistent with 34 CFR 300.300(a), is
Language Acquisition or Learning Disability?
The single biggest error
made in placing ELLs
into special education is:
language acquisition as
a learning or language
We must help educators
become better at
making this distinction
Language Acquisition or Learning Disability?
To a large extent, determining whether an
English language learner has a learning
disability is a process of elimination.
• Many factors must be considered and ruled out as
possible reasons for a child’s struggles.
• There are multiple possible explanations for every
There are no tests that by themselves can
definitively tell us whether the student has LD.
It’s important to…
Understand the
second language
• Oral language
• Written language
• Literacy (and what can be confusing)
Know possible characteristics associated with LD
Look at the quality of instruction and students’
opportunities to learn
Child Study Team Example
James was at ESOL Level 1.
Teacher: “My real concern is that when I give a direction (in
English) he gives me a blank look, like he doesn’t
understand. He’s lost.” She also noted that he had difficulty
paying attention.
Assistant principal: “A lot of children in ESOL have these
Teacher: “But I think it’s more than that. It’s more a matter of
higher level thinking.”
This was accepted by the team and they proceeded to refer
the student for an evaluation. They did not discuss his
native language skills, and whether he exhibited these
same problems in Haitian Creole.
James’ Class (with almost all ELLs at beginning stages of proficiency)
Teacher: “The last sense is the sense of touch. That means you feel. Feel
the floor with your elbows. Can you feel it?” [OC: The students don’t
understand what to do. There are no visual cues.]
Teacher (yelling), “Some of you are being extremely rude.” Then she
asks more calmly, “So did you feel the floor with your elbows, but do
you normally feel with your elbow?” A few students respond, “No.”
Teacher yells again, “You just finished telling me you were listening,
Ezekiel. Were you lying to me? I’m only going to call on the people
who are listening.”…Teacher: “If I wanted to eat cake, what sense
would I use?”… “My point is that you use your sense of taste to
decide if you like it.”
Teacher (yelling): “Pay attention to me, not his shoes! His
shoes aren’t going to give you a grade. I will.” “If one
more person touches shoes, I’m going to throw it in the
garbage. It’s important to make sure your shoes are tied,
but not while I’m teaching.”
Challenge 1: Many misconceptions
about second language acquisition
prevail. What should teachers
understand about this process?
Sequential Bilinguals and Simultaneous
ELLs with
LD exhibit
in their first
as well as
in English.
• When students are sequential
bilinguals, it is not hard to determine
whether difficulties are evident in both
• When students are simultaneous
bilinguals, it is much more challenging
to determine if difficulties are the
result of language acquisition or LD.
• We need a new way to think about the
process of simultaneous language
acquisition (Escamilla).
1. Semilingualism is a valid
concept and non-non
classifications are useful
Semilingualism and non-non categories
result from tests that do not measure
the full range and depth of language
proficiencies among emerging bilingual
students acquiring two languages.
2. Assessment and instructional
frameworks developed for
monolingual students are
appropriate for ELLs.
Literacy instruction and assessments in
a second language differ in key ways
from native language instruction.
3. The majority of ELLs in the U.S.
are sequential bilinguals.
The majority of ELLs in the U.S. are
simultaneous bilinguals. This is
especially true among long-term ELLs.
4. All ELLs learn English in the same The length of time it takes students to
way at about the same rate.
acquire English varies a great deal;
many different variables affect the
language acquisition process.
5. Errors are problematic and should
be avoided.
“Errors” are a positive sign that the
student is making progress and are a
necessary aspect of second language
6. ELLs are not ready to engage in
higher level thinking until they
learn basic skills.
ELLs are as intelligent as fully
proficient peers and should have
frequent opportunities to engage in
higher level thinking.
7. Learning/acquiring more than one
language at a time is confusing.
Children around the world
learn/acquire multiple languages
Challenge 2: The characteristics of
students with LD can be similar to
those of English language learners
acquiring English as a second
language. How can we tell the
Behaviors Associated w/ LD
Behaviors when Acquiring an L2
Difficulty following directions
Difficulty following directions in English when
they are not well understood
Difficulty with phonological awareness
Difficulty distinguishing b/w sounds not in L1
Slow to learn sound-symbol
Confusion w/ sound-symbol correspondence
when different than in L1
Difficulty remembering sight words
Difficulty remembering sight words when
word meanings not understood
Difficulty retelling a story in sequence
May understand more than can convey in L2
Slow to process challenging language
May have poor auditory memory
Slow to process challenging language not
well understood
Better auditory memory in 1st language
Confused by figurative language
Confused by unfamiliar figurative language
May have difficulty concentrating
Processing a second language can be tiring
May seem easily frustrated
May seem easily frustrated
Challenge 3: Current LD
identification models in RTI are
based on assessing how well
students respond to “research-based
instruction.” What does it mean for
instructional practices to be
“research-based” for ELLs?
What Do We Mean by “Research-based”?
• The RTI model is based on
the principle that
instructional practices or
interventions at each level
should be based on
scientific research
evidence about “what
• However, it is essential to
find out what works with
whom, by whom, for
what purposes, and in
what contexts—
With Whom?
• When deciding if a practice is
appropriate for
implementation as part of an
RTI model, it should have
been validated with students
like those with whom it will
be applied.
• The National Reading Panel
report “did not address
issues relevant to second
language learning” (2000, p.
With Whom?
• English language learners are
often omitted from participant
samples because of their limited
English proficiency.
• Yet language dominance and
proficiency are important
research variables and can affect
treatment outcomes.
• Leaving students out of studies
limits the external validity and
applicability of such studies,
especially for those who teach
culturally and linguistically
diverse students.
With Whom?
• Research reports should include
information about:
– language proficiency
– ethnicity
– life and educational experiences (e.g.,
socio-economic, previous schooling)
• Data should be disaggregated to
show how interventions might
differentially affect students from
diverse backgrounds.
By Whom?
• Who is implementing the
instructional practice?
– Researcher?
– Experienced teacher?
– Specialist?
– Paraprofessional?
For What Purposes?
• What is the goal of instruction?
– Some widely touted instructional
approaches help improve word
identification skills, but not necessarily
reading comprehension.
– According to the Reading First Impact
Study: “Reading First did not have
statistically significant impacts on
student reading comprehension test
scores in grades 1-3.”
In What Contexts?
• Variations in program implementation and
effectiveness across schools and classrooms
are common (see the First Grade Studies for a
classic example, Bond & Dykstra, 1967).
– When students struggle, is it the program, the
teachers’ implementation, or the school
– What is it about the system that facilitates or
impedes learning?
In What Contexts?
• It is essential to observe in
– Is the instruction appropriate for
students’ language and learning
– What is the relationship between a
teacher and students?
– How does the teacher promote
interest and motivation?
• We draw different conclusions
when several students are
struggling rather than just a few ...
More thoughts on research…
• Experimental research studies tell us
what works best with the majority of
students in a research sample, not all
• Some practices may be effective but
have not yet been researched.
• Qualitative research helps us
understand why a practice works or not
and factors that can affect
• Observation studies in the classrooms
of effective teachers tell us a lot about
the attributes of successful teachers
and the characteristics of effective
• With RTI, if a child does not make adequate
progress with research-based instruction that is
presumed “to work,” the assumption is made
that the child must have a deficit of some kind.
– How do we ensure that the child has in fact
received culturally and linguistically responsive,
appropriate, quality instruction?
– As with earlier identification criteria, this model
must be based on students having received an
adequate “opportunity to learn.”
Opportunity to Learn?
• Instruction by a teacher who lacks
preparation in teaching English language
learners and believes she is using generic
“research-based” practices
• Most students in this class are at
beginning levels of English proficiency
First Grade Class
The whole Class is sitting in a circle, with the teacher seated at the head.
Teacher says, “Yesterday, how many of you knew your sight words? One
student speaks out, “One?” Another, “Three?” Teacher replies, “You are
right. Three students were able to tell me their sight words. We need to
practice these words; we are really behind. Every one of you should know
these sight words by now. You need to practice these at home. Don’t you
practice these at home?” Teacher says this with frustration in her face and
voice. Teacher states, “Only those 3 students will be able to pull from the
treasure chest.” … Teacher begins sight words practice and holds up index
cards with-Big, My, See, Like, I, At, This, And, Up, Have, Too. Students repeat
sight words as Teacher holds up index cards. This is a repetitive process. She
then holds up the word “Big” without saying anything. One student says the
word “Big.” She holds up a another. “See.” The same student says the word
again. She holds up the word “see” again and tells the student who knew the
previous answer not to say anything. Pause. Another says “see.” She
continues to go through this process with all the words, and says, “Okay guys,
you need to practice these at home, you are not paying attention, you should
have known these words by now.” (Orosco, 2007)
Challenge 4: Some recommendations
emphasize the similarities between
learning to reading in English as one’s
first or a second language. Yet there are
also important differences teachers
should understand.
• There are important differences
between learning to read in one’s L1
and L2 (August & Shanahan, 2006; Goldenberg,
• Learning trajectories for emerging
simultaneous bilinguals are not well
• Benchmarks and expected rates of
progress may not be the same (Hopewell,
Escamilla et al., 2012; Linan-Thompson, Cirino, &
Vaughn, 2007).
• Many ELLs have a gap between their
English word reading and their word
knowledge and comprehension
(Mancilla-Martinez & Lesaux, 2011).
• Some recommendations put too much
emphasis on phonological awareness
and letter naming at the expense of
other skills, such as oral language,
vocabulary, and comprehension (e.g.,
the IES Practice Guide for ELLs).
90The Gap between
Reading Words & Comprehending Text (Lesaux)
Grade 4
Percentile Rank
Grade 5
Grade 6
Grade 7
Grade 8
Word Reading
Oral Language
Reading Comprehension
Factors that Influence Reading for English
Language Learners
Reading skills in
L1 & L2
Oral proficiency
in L1 & L2
Interest and
Learning context
Teacher’s skills
& behaviors
Challenge 5: How can we tell which
English language learners to refer
for a special education evaluation?
What information do we need to
make that decision?
Guiding Questions
• When a child shows signs of struggling, the first
step should be to observe in her classroom.
– Is instruction targeted to and appropriate for the
student’s level of English proficiency and learning
– Is the teacher implementing appropriate
research-based practices with fidelity?
• If the teacher is modifying practices, for what reasons?
– Does the classroom environment seem conducive
to learning?
Decision Points when ELLs
Struggle with Reading
Are most of
true peers
• Look at how many ELLs are struggling.
• If the majority of ELLs are making
little progress, the teacher should
focus on improving instruction.
• If most ELLs are doing well and only a
few are struggling, the teacher should
look more closely at what is going on
with those individual students and
consider that they may need
additional support.
George Batsche & David Tilly
• If instruction seems appropriate and most ELLs in
the class are thriving, the next step should be to
collect student data:
– Has consideration been given to the child’s
cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, and
experiential background?
– Have authentic assessments been used in addition
to progress monitoring?
– What tasks can the student perform and in what
– Does the student differ from true peers in rate and
level of learning?
– Have the child’s parents been asked for their
Assessing ELLs
Multiple assessment methods are
needed to provide a comprehensive
view of learning.
 No single best test or assessment strategy.
 Different assessments tap into different skills
and knowledge.
 Assessments should be used only for the
purpose for which they were designed.
A Common Scenario: Early Literacy Measures
Letter Names &
Letter Sounds
•Oral Language
Knowledge of
word function
or type
Word Reading
Metalinguistic Skills
•Text Characteristics
• Background
•Understanding of
The Comprehensive Assessment System
• Many skills go into what we call “literacy”;
we need measurements across different
areas to fully gauge student progress.
• The assessments currently being used only
provide a partial assessment of literacy
• Oral reading fluency does not predict
comprehension for English language
learners like it does for fluent English
speakers (Crosson & Lesaux, 2009).
Case Study: Marta (a true story)
Marta was tested, identified as having LD, and placed in my LD
class before the beginning of 3rd grade. Her 2nd grade teacher had
referred her for a special education evaluation because of a lack of
academic progress. Based on the results of their battery of tests, the
IEP team considered Marta to be low in both her home language
(Spanish) and English. They believed that she had auditory processing
deficits and showed a significant discrepancy between IQ and
Marta had been in a bilingual program and received instruction
in Spanish in kindergarten, but then her family had moved to a school
without a bilingual program and she had been instructed in English
only in 1st and 2nd grades. Marta’s parents described her as intelligent
and very helpful at home with her younger siblings. They were
concerned that Marta was not doing better in school, and trusted the
school’s judgment that Marta needed special education.
When Marta became my student in September, I assessed
her in both Spanish and English using the Brigance and made
the decision (in collaboration with her family and others) to
provide her with Spanish literacy instruction (as well as
intensive oral English language development). I used the
Language Experience Approach (LEA)—she dictated stories to
me in Spanish that she then learned to read. She “took off,”
gaining 2 grade levels in Spanish reading in just a few months.
She expressed a strong interest in also reading in English, and
so in February I began English literacy instruction. I continued
to use the LEA AND added DISTAR (plus thematic units based
on interest). By June she was on grade level in English and
above grade level in Spanish. We reassessed her eligibility for
special education and found that she was ineligible. She was
exited from the program. Is she a success story? YES, but….
• How can we make sure not to misidentify ELLs like Marta?
In conclusion…
Distinguishing between LD and language acquisition is
a complicated process that requires a comprehensive
approach to assessment that evaluates the "societal
and educational context within which the child has
developed” (Cummins, 1986).
We must “shift from a within-child deficit paradigm to
an eco-behavioral perspective” (National Association of
School Psychologists, 2006).

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