Methods for Students with Special Needs

Methods for Students with Special Needs


Schools in the United States of America (USA) face challenges with identifying English Language Learners (ELLs) with special needs. In 2018 statistics, the National Education Association declared 50.7 million students in public schools with 5.02 million students being ELLs. They further declared ‘English language learners are the fastest growing student population group in public schools’. It is estimated that by 2025 there will be more than twenty five percent of public school students who are ELLs.

The following table explains the majority mother tongue languages of ELLs in USA public schools:

A number of factors contribute to the challenge of identifying ELLs with special needs and includes cultural implications, teacher bias, and standardized policy development. Experts cite a lack of robust educator training, insufficient salary bands, and the overall growth of the ELL population. However, what’s most apparent is a significant, systemic issue on both sides: society’s perception of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds(Steinhardt, 2018).

This Literature Review will explain methods for identifying and serving culturally and linguistically diverse students with special needs. 

Considerations for Identifying Language Learners with Special Needs


Assessing students for special needs education is challenging. Many students with barriers to learning struggle with testing situations and find it difficult to stay on task (Watson, 2019). The challenges with assessment are exasperated when there is a lack of clarity around ‘whether a student’s struggles stem from their limited English-language proficiency or a learning disability’ (Mitchell, 2019). Given this, it is important for educators and support staff in schools to follow a consistent process that is learner-centred and considerate of the individual learner’s requirements to adequately complete an assessment of their learning abilities (Watson, 2019).


Secondly, it is reported in the literature that teachers often are ‘confused, and sometimes clueless, about the educational rights of both English-learners and students with disabilities (2019). An example is when in 2018 a researcher ‘came across educators who mistakenly assumed there was a mandatory three-year waiting period before English-learners could be referred to special education services’ (Watson, 2019).

The literature further explain ‘confusion among educators could be problematic for English-learners’ families, especially those who may not know that their children can qualify for special education services or even understand how schools define learning disabilities’ (Mitchell, 2019). It is important to note ‘the concept of a learning disability does not exist in many cultures’ (Watson, 2019) and this could be a helpful perspective for ‘licensed staff- English speaking staff- to think about’ (2019).

Performance-Based Assessments

To address the need for consistent procedures for assessing ELLs for barriers to learning, the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, & Equity (SCALE) developed a Special Education Assessment Handbook (edTPA) designed from performance- based assessments of teaching quality and effectiveness for ELLs with special needs (2018). ‘edTPA Special Education is a nationally available performance assessment to measure readiness to teach learners with identified disabilities’ (p. 1). The assessment within edTPA Special Education is designed with a focus on learning and principles from research and theory about the target student population and their teachers.

The assessment is composed of three tasks:

  1. Planning for instruction and assessment.
  2. Instructing and engaging the focus learner.
  3. Assessing learning. 

Role of Teachers

Heavily invested in focusing on providing teachers with appropriate training with research-based methods, the edTPA includes the step-by-step guide outlining the role of teachers, and activities, while conducting assessments.

To accomplish assessment, the teachers will continue to teach the content they normally teach with planning and instruction consistent with their teaching practice. Teachers will develop an ‘in-depth case study of one learner (focus learner) from class, group, or caseload.

The focus learner should have multiple learning needs to demonstrate how the teacher will meet the complex needs of the student’ (p. 2). The guide explicitly details the activities the teacher should take with their focus learner as well as suggested procedures for further inquiry into the individual student’s learning needs. 


A collaborative, multidisciplinary approach is recommended with teachers engaging the feedback from each other and parents about an individual student’s performance in mother-tongue language, linguistic diversity with other languages, experience, socio-emotional development, medical history, and other relevant information about the student’s learning experiences. Collaboration is essential when identifying the needs of ELLs and making unilateral decisions is not helpful to the teacher or the student. 

Equity and Inclusion

ELLs are the fastest growing population in USA public schools. ‘Consequently, equitable practices both in and out of the classroom must be implemented to ensure that English-language learners get a fair opportunity not only at learning, but also at excelling in learning’ (Alrubail, 2016). Equity and inclusion for ELLs includes providing quality instructional practices and resources, including fair assessments, free use of dictionaries and thesauruses, extra time, and the option of using multimedia. 

Ensuring Fair Assessment

Teachers conduct multiple standards and testing in their classrooms. It is important for teachers to ensure fair assessment of ELLs. The first step is to separate language skills from content skills. ‘Some of these language skills include vocabulary, comprehension, phonology, grammar (syntax), and meaning (semantics). Content assessment focuses on whether or not the student was able to grasp the subject matter’ (2016). Researchers suggest a ‘double scale of criteria: criteria related to the content being delivered and criteria related to the language being used’ (2016). This strategy can be presented easily by teachers creating a rubric to evaluate the language skills and content skills of the student. 

Providing Students with Quality Instruction and Resources

‘Research suggests that effective English-language learning classrooms foster a strong environment of collaboration, dialogue, and group engagement’ (2016). In order to be successful with English-language learning, students should be presented with multiple opportunities to engage in and practice conversational style learning with their peers. This benefits their oral language skills development and fosters a culture of community in the classroom. (2016)

Equitable Accommodations

ELLs often need accommodations to understand the meaning of an assessment’s content. They also need time to gather their thoughts and process the information to form ideas to respond to what is being asked of them in the assessment. Teachers can provide information and instructions using a variety of methods and technologies. Engaging the ELL in the assessment process by encouraging the use of multimedia to complete necessary tasks is one method for teachers to provide equitable accommodations to their ELL.

Another method is allowing translations during the assessment process. Translators may assist the ELL in the assessment process or teachers may provide extra time for the ELL to translate the questions into their mother-tongue language. Alternately, ELLs may respond to questions during the assessment in their mother-tongue language and then translate into English. 

By providing accommodations for equity and inclusion, teachers foster a sense of community in their classrooms. This creates a safe and caring classroom culture by creating space for the individual and collective needs of the students. 

Common Factors for Misidentification of Language Learners with Special Needs

Hamayan et. al (2007) identified three reasons misidentification of ELLs as students with special needs would occur as problematic assessment practices, the influence of the medical model when addressing educational issues, and funding biases toward special education. 

Problematic Assessment Practices

Overidentifying ELLs as in need of special education as a result of the methods and complexity of assessment is a disservice to the ELL students, teachers, and their school community. The assessment process is complex and ‘requires consideration of multiple factors, including symbolic proficiency, affect, previous experience, cultural and linguistic learning and application, expectations, and contextual variables’ (2007).

Biases emerge that influence the assessment and include:

  • a focus on superficial behaviors rather than underlying factors as indices of difficulty
  • the collection of inadequate data- often in the form of norm-reference and standardized test results- that do not enable sufficient descriptions of proficiency
  • a lack of recognition of several consequences of bi [multi] lingualism during assessment, and 
  • the application of inappropriate discrepancy formulas for interpretation purposes (2007).

Intrinsic v. Extrinsic Behavioral Factors

Researchers suggest that ‘at a superficial level, the way that academic and language difficulties manifest among ELLs is very similar to the way such difficulties manifest among students with long-term disabilities or special needs’ (2007). An example of this phenomenon is reported when ‘ELLs’ accuracy rates and error patterns were similar to those reported for same-age children with specific language impairment because both ELLs and mono-lingual English-speaking learning-disabled students may frequently search for words in English even though they have understood the concept’ (2007).

It is important for assessors to recognize that language and learning disabilities, although they may exhibit similar behaviors, are different ‘due to factors intrinsic to the learner, such as a neurological impairment or a problem with symbolic processing’ (2007). 

Data Gathering

Challenges with assessments include the validity of the data collected during referral and evaluation process. Often the data lacks in validity because of the reliance on standardized test scores.

Researchers point out that standardized tests typically:

  • focus on superficial aspects of language structure
  • have validity and authenticity concerns
  • provide numbers that have a differentiating function rather than an interpretive function and 
  • focus on identifying students’ weaknesses. (2007)

In addition, standardized tests do not take into consideration that students are bilingual or multilingual with a mother-tongue different from the intention of the tests having been designed for monolingual students. (2007). A consequence of ELLs taking standardized tests is their lower scores being interpreted because of having a learning disability, rather than recognizing that it is normal for ELLs to have lower test scores simply because they are participating in an assessment that is based on a language that is not their mother-tongue. The same can be said for the factor of time and resources as ELLs often require more time to process test questions in English and standardized tests are developed with parameters built in for the time it takes to complete an assessment. 

The Influence of the Medical Model

ELLs are overidentified due to the influence of the medical model on special needs education. Over the past three decades, the USA has relied on the medical model for understanding the special needs some students have in learning as learning disability diagnoses are supported through the medical model through identification.

Pediatricians are active participants in a collaborative process to develop understanding about a students’ underlying issues related to learning and challenges in learning are ‘identified much like the list of ailments that are officially recognized as diseases in the medical field’ (2007). The tendency to view academic and language learning difficulties from the perspective of human pathology is evident in the medicalization of learning problems in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) and the International Classification of Diseases (World Health Organization, 2002).

The medial model capturing learning and challenges in learning has created a ‘grounding for the discipline of special education’ (Hamayan et. al, 2007) within a medial orientation. Given there are social and cultural factors involved in ELLs acquisition of theEnglish language, the influence of the medical model provides a complexity to add to the confusion of the superficial presenting factors between an ELL and a student with a diagnosable learning disability. 

Methods to Identify and Service Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students with Special Needs through a Holistic, Culturally Sustaining Approach

Formal and informal methods for assessment to identify and service culturally and linguistically diverse students with special needs through a holistic, culturally sustaining approach involves the continuing education of teachers who work with ELLs.

Robertson et. al (2018) compiled the following recommendations to ‘strongly encourage educators working with ELLs to’ (2018):

  • Educate themselves as much as possible about the process of language acquisition and other important factors in working with ELLs so they become familiar with the typical pattern of language development. 
  • Request the support and training needed to provide effective instruction for students, conduct accurate assessment and evaluations, and manage interaction with diverse families effectively.
  • Review and revisit the assessment, evaluation, and screening procedures currently in lace in the school or district to determine whether they make sense for ELLs.
  • Seek out collaboration with school or district colleagues who specialize in ELL and bilingual education, special education, speech-language therapy, and parent outreach in order to pull together different areas of expertise as part of a team. 
  • Update and improve evaluation processes if needed with input from colleagues who have relevant experiences as well as staff from other districts. (2018)

Mitchell (2019) offers the following suggestions to ‘determine whether a students’ struggles stem from their limited English- language proficiency or a learning disability’:

  • Establishing relationships with parents, bilingual education and special education teachers, speech pathologists, trained interpreters, and others to help identify a student’s needs.
  • Using data from sources such as attendance records, classroom observations- and standardized test and school assessment results that focus on knowledge and skills, not just English proficiency.
  • Consider students’ skills in English and their native language and create classrooms that value their cultural and linguistic backgrounds. 

Determining whether a student’s learning difficulties stem from ‘limited English language proficiency or a diagnosable learning disability’ (Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands, 2019) is challenging for many teachers.

The following are three evidence- based recommendations for teachers to assess their ELL students:

  1. Form Collaborative Teams: include parents and family members, students, English learner/ bilingual education teachers and experts, cultural liaisons, general education teachers, special education teachers, school administrators, other school personnel such as psychologists, speech pathologists, and trained interpreters. 
  2. Use Multiple Measures: include data sources like student health and attendance records, parent interviews and surveys, classroom and home observations, student work samples, standardized test results, local assessments, teacher interviews, student performance data, oral language samples, history of interventions provided to student.
  3. Be Culturally and Linguistically Responsive: create a classroom that values ELLs’ strengths and fosters their success through integrating students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds, building and nurturing positive relationships with students, parents, and families, selecting assessments that produce valid results for English learners, considering students’ skills in English and their native languages, and holding high expectation in language acquisition and content learning. 


Identifying and serving culturally and linguistically diverse students with special needs is a complex process. Perceptions of society influence teachers, students, supporting professions, parents, and communities. Providing adequate and meaningful professional development opportunities for teachers to appropriately assess learners with equity and inclusion is paramount to the validity of assessment for English language proficiency and special needs determinations. 

Further Reading

Guidance Manual for Educators: English Learners with Special Needs

Sources of Evidence Based Practices in Special Needs Education

Vulnerable and long neglected, many English learners with disabilities languish with unmet needs in city schools

4 Challenges of English Language Learners Who Learn and Think Differently

EEF Blog: Five evidence-based strategies to support high-quality teaching for pupils with SEND

Special Education and ELLs: The Referral Process

Assessing Students With Special Needs

Meeting the requirements of learners with special educational needs

Addressing ELLs’ Language Learning and Special Education Needs: Questions and Considerations

Language Use by Bilingual Special Educators of English Language Learners with Disabilities

Special Education Assessment Process for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) Students

Challenges in Special Education Identification for ELLs

Students in Special Education, English-Learners May Go Back to Class First. Here’s Why

Ways to Better Serve Often-Misunderstood English-Learners With Disabilities

Evaluating English-Learners for Special Education Is a Challenge. Here’s Help

Supporting Emergent Bilinguals with Individualized Education Plans


The SIOP Model

Teaching with the SIOP Model


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1 in 4 Students is an English Language Learner: Are We Leaving Them Behind? (2018, May).

Anonymous. (2018, October 24). Addressing ELLs’ Language Learning and Special Education Needs: Questions and Considerations. Colorín Colorado; Colorín Colorado.

Anonymous. (2007, February 11). Reasons for the Misidentification of Special Needs among ELLs. Colorín Colorado.

COE – English Language Learners in Public Schools. (n.d.).

Guidance Manuals for Educators of English Learners with Disabilities: Ideas and Lessons from the Field. (n.d.). Retrieved September 5, 2021, from

Identifying English Learners with Disabilities. (n.d.).

Mitchell, C. (2019, June 18). Evaluating English-Learners for Special Education Is a Challenge. Here’s Help. Education Week.

Number of English Language Learner students in U.S. public schools 2018. (n.d.). Statista. Retrieved September 5, 2021, from (2019). Testing Alternatives for Special Needs Kids. ThoughtCo.

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Educator and published author of conflict management and children's books. Living life to its fullest. I believe in courageously honouring my truth and living my legacy. Lover of meaningful conversations, coffee, food, art, and building connections. I love writing about my fascination with culture, food, adventure, self-love, and living a healthy and fulfilled life!

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