IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

English Learners with or at Risk for Disabilities

A young girl is sitting and reading a book

English learners (ELs) are the fastest growing group of students in U.S. public schools. They are disproportionately at risk for poor academic outcomes and are more likely than non-ELs to be classified as having specific learning disabilities and speech/language impairment. Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education in school year 2018-2019 (Common Core of Data, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) data) indicate that approximately 14.1% of students in classrooms across the country received services through IDEA Part B. Nationally, 11.3% of students with disabilities were ELs, a little higher than the percentage of total student enrollment who were ELs (10.2%). However, it is important to distinguish between language and literacy struggles that are due to learning English as a second language and those due to a language or reading disability. For those who have or are at risk for a disability and in need of intervention, it is also important that the interventions are linguistically and culturally appropriate for these children.

Since the first round of competitions in 2006, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) has funded research on ELs with or at risk for disabilities. The projects are in broad topic areas, including early childhood; reading, writing, and language development; cognition and learning; and social and behavioral skill development. They vary with respect to the types of research conducted (such as exploration, development, efficacy, measurement) as well as the extent to which they focus on ELs, from ELs as the exclusive or primary population of interest to a secondary focus as a student group within the general population.

As an example, David Francis (University of Houston) explored factors related to the identification and classification of reading and language disabilities among Spanish-speaking ELs. The aim was to provide schools with clearer criteria and considerations for identifying learning disabilities among these students in kindergarten through grade 2. Analyzing data from previous studies, the team found that narrative measures (measures in which narrative responses were elicited, transcribed, and scored) were more sensitive to identifying EL students with disabilities than standardized measures that did not include a narrative component. They also found that the differences in student language growth depended on the language used in the instruction and the language used to measure outcomes. Specifically, language growth was greatest for Spanish-instructed students on Spanish reading and language outcomes, followed by English outcomes for English-instructed students, English outcomes for Spanish-instructed students, and with the lowest growth, Spanish outcomes for English-instructed students.

A number of these projects are currently in progress. For example, Ann Kaiser (Vanderbilt University) and her team are using a randomized controlled trial to test the efficacy of a cultural and linguistic adaptation of Enhanced Milieu Teaching (EMT). EMT en Español aims to improve the language and related school readiness skills of Spanish-speaking toddlers with receptive and expressive language delays who may be at risk for language impairment. In another study, Nicole Schatz (Florida International University) and her team will be using a randomized controlled trial to compare the efficacy of a language-only, behavior-only, or combination language and behavior intervention for students in early elementary school who are English language learners with or at risk for ADHD.

Overall, NCSER has funded 12 research grants that focus specifically on English learners, dual-language learners, and/or Spanish-speaking children with or at risk for disabilities, including the following:

In addition to the research focused specifically on English learners, many other projects include ELs as a large portion of their sample and/or focus some of their analyses specifically on the student group of ELs with or at risk for disabilities. A few recently completed studies show encouraging results with little differences between ELs and non-ELs. For example, Nathan Clemens (University of Texas, Austin) investigated the adequacy of six early literacy measures and validated their use for monitoring the reading progress for kindergarten students at risk for reading disabilities. As part of this project, the research team conducted subgroup analyses that indicated ELs do not necessarily demonstrate lower initial scores and rates of growth over time than non-ELs and that there are few differences between ELs and non-ELs in the extent to which the initial performance or rate of growth differentially predict later reading skills. As another example, Jeanne Wanzek (Vanderbilt University) examined the efficacy of an intensive multicomponent reading intervention for fourth graders with severe reading difficulties. The team found that those in the intervention group outperformed their peers in word reading and word fluency, but not reading fluency or comprehension; importantly, there was no variation in outcomes based on English learner status.

NCSER continues to value and support research projects that focus on English learners with or at risk for disabilities throughout its various programs of research funding.

This blog was written by Amy Sussman, NCSER Program Officer