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When an English Learner Struggles Academically: Telling the Difference Between Second Language Acquisition and a Possible Learning Disability

Date: September 20, 2016
Location: Webinar

An English learner student's academic difficulties may be caused by struggles with second-language acquisition, by a learning disability, or other factors. Misidentified students can end up in classrooms or programs mismatched to their needs, which could hamper their educational achievement.

In this webinar, Dr. Julie Esparza Brown of Portland State University focused on strategies for increasing educators' understanding of the full context of English learner students' lives in order to adequately assess their English language acquisition progress and know when to seek additional supports. Dr. Brown discussed the importance of collecting information to fully understand students' language development, culture, and background; explained the process of second-language acquisition and typical vs. atypical language development; and highlighted research-based strategies to avoid over-referral of students to special education or overlooking possible disabilities.

As a result of their participation, webinar attendees learned:

  • Important things to know about English learner students: their language development/profile; cultural background; life experiences; educational experiences; and personal characteristics.
  • The process of second-language acquisition and differences between typical and atypical language development.
  • Appropriate supports and screening tools to use prior to referral to special education.

The webinar featured an interactive segment with a case study to illustrate application of the select practices.

This webinar was a replication of Dr. Brown's presentation at the September 9th Arizona Practitioners of English Language Learner (PELL) Conference in Phoeniz, AZ. Learn more about the conference here.

Learn more about strategies for supporting English learner students with disabilities in a REL West resource brief here.


Dr. Julie Esparza Brown is an associate professor in the Special Education Department at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, where her teaching, research, and publications focus on the interface of bilingual and special education. Since 1998, much of her focus has been on preparing ESL and bilingual teachers and, most recently, bilingual special educators. Additionally, she consults locally and nationally on issues related to RTI and EL students, least biased assessment of EL students, and effective instruction for diverse learners. Dr. Brown received her PhD from Portland State University, an MA in Special Education at the University of San Diego, and a BA of Music at Willamette University with a specialization in Music Therapy.

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When an English Learner Struggles Academically

Dr. Julie Esparza Brown, Associate Professor, Portland State University