Building a Pathway of Optimal Support for English Language Learners in Special Education

Feb. 15, 2011

Source: Teacher Education and Special Education, v. 34 no. 1 (February 2011), p. 59-70 .
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Changes in the population of students served in special education to include large numbers of English language learners have put great pressure on personnel preparation programs. University programs that prepare teachers to teach English language learners (ELLs) within special education are a vital component of the pathway that will lead to optimal ELL outcomes. Their preservice programs must include the training of special education teachers in strategies for effectively serving students with disabilities who are also English language learners.

The current article delineates the many problems experienced by ELL students within special education. The article also describes a set of preservice modules that were designed for special education teacher candidates to learn about and develop strategies for working with students of diverse language backgrounds.

A typical cumulative pattern reported for ELL students in the primary grades has been
(a) an initial lack of achievement in basic skill areas and failing grades;
(b) subsequent grade retention with emphasis on the same basic skills that they had difficulty mastering the first time around;
(c) continued academic failure;
(d) referral for special education assessment; and
(e) confirmation of a learning or language disability (Ortiz, 2002).

Several practices have contributed to the lack of achievement of ELL students within this ineffectual process. Little attention focused on the classroom instructional context because the special education evaluation process mostly examined within-child deficits using norm-referenced standardized measures.
In reality, the classes in which the ELL students earned their failing grades provided few if any English language acquisition accommodations to help them overcome language barriers to academic achievement in English.


The authors argue that teacher preparation programs need to ensure that candidates develop the skills to (a) determine the nature of students' learning problems and (b) design learning environments that address the cultural, linguistic, and special education needs of students who are second language learners.

At California State University, Los Angeles, faculty developed a set of modules to introduce beginning special education credential candidates to the skills needed to meet the needs of ELLs with disabilities. after the first year of piloting the modules, the candidates reported at least modest gains in their understanding of the challenges to effectively assess and instruct ELLs receiving special education services. A final module has been introduced at the end of the program so that candidates completing their professional special education credentials can demonstrate application of principles of assessing and teaching ELLs with special needs. Only by infusing these principles into special education teacher training programs can we hope that future generations of ELLs will not repeat the experiences that past generations have had to endure.

Ortiz, A. A. (2002). Prevention of school failure and early intervention for English language learners. In A. J. Artiles & A. A. Ortiz (Eds.), English language learners with special education needs (pp. 31-50). McHenry, IL: Delta Systems Co.

Updated: Sep. 14, 2011