16 – Distinguishing Between a Language Acquisition Problem and Learning Challenges in ELL Students

Michele Hudson


Working in the high school setting in a resource position, I often collaborate with teachers of students who are English Language Learners (ELLs) regarding placement and best programming options for some of their students. Distinguishing between a language acquisition difficulty and a possible learning difficulty/disability is very challenging, particularly when the student is a refugee with little or no education in their first language. This is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of my job. Becoming more informed on best practices will enhance my ability to be effective and culturally responsive in my role.


English Language Learners (ELL’s) come to us with a great range of cultural, linguistic, socio-economic and educational backgrounds. Some may be new immigrants by choice, others from refugee situations. Regardless of ‘why’, all students will have a challenging road ahead of them in acquiring English as an additional language. “Cummins states ‘English language learners typically require at least five years to catch up to their English speaking peers in literacy related language skills’” (Coehlo, 2012, p. 313). “Those with limited prior schooling will need more support for a longer period of time” (Coehlo, 2012, p. 314). As well, “it is reasonable to think that most cultural groups throughout the world probably have the same percentage of children with more complex learning needs as those statistically found in North American populations”(Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p. 81). Because of the similarities in characteristics of learning disabilities and language acquisition problems, it has been common to find ELLs overrepresented in special education for language acquisition issues and for ELL students with a learning disability (LD) to go undiagnosed. Klingner suggests using an “ecological framework” that “considers both contextual and intrinsic factors that can affect a student’s performance” (Klingner, NYC document, p. 7) to determine whether an ELL has a LD.

In order to effectively distinguish between language acquisition difficulties and learning challenges there needs to be a team-based process requiring extensive analysis of student opportunities to learn in the classroom and response interventions, consideration of background data and factors, and the use of appropriate formal and informal assessments over time to monitor student progress.

Opportunities to Learn and Response to Intervention (RTI)

“We cannot distinguish between LD and language acquisition without making sure that ELLs are receiving adequate opportunities to learn” (Klingner, 2012). As all EAL students are diverse in needs and backgrounds, a thorough profile needs to be established for new students during intake, gathering information about L1 education, first languages, cultural background, family circumstances and other specific needs. This “profile can be a powerful tool for informed decision-making about the kind of EAL support required within a school and a classroom” (Prokopchuk, 2017, Module 1).  Along with the profiling at intake, whether at a centralized center or at school, it is important for newcomers to be directed and set up with other organizations that can support the student and family. School staff needs to keep in mind the diversity of EAL students and understand the stages newcomer students go through.  Teachers must also be aware of their cultural beliefs and values and understand “the underlying values and belief systems that, translated into action or inaction often lie at the root of miscommunication” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p. 88). Following this, provision of quality instruction and appropriate assessment in a culturally responsive classroom occurs. Quality instruction includes taking into account students’ cultural backgrounds, providing research-based instruction and strategies such as scaffolding, comprehensible input and contextual supports, and use of appropriate assessment. Differentiated instruction and use of sheltered content classrooms as warranted should also be key components of effective instruction. Teachers must also be aware of the similar characteristics of LD and language acquisition difficulties, notably: difficulty following directions; slower processing speed; poor auditory memory and difficulty concentrating; being easily frustrated; and confusion with figurative language. However, there are slight differences to some of these behaviors when acquiring L2 over an LD.

ELL students may have difficulties with phonological awareness distinguishing sounds not in their L1, with sound symbol correspondence when different from L1 and difficulty pronouncing these sounds, as well as not remembering sight words when meanings are not understood (Klingner, 2012).  It is also important to note, “EAL learners can miss the meaning of an entire lesson if key words in readings and presentations are beyond their level of proficiency” (Prokopchuk, 2017, Module 10).  When students struggle, the first step is observation of the classroom setting. Klingner (2012) states that some ELLs are taught in ‘disabling contexts,’ with too few opportunities to develop their language/literacy skills.

The Response to Intervention (RTI) approach is a popular approach used by many school divisions in Saskatchewan to assess the quality of instruction. “RTI seeks to ensure that the learning difficulties are not the result of extrinsic issues in teaching, instruction, curriculum etc.” (Ortiz, 2017). “It is a ‘three-tiered’ approach that supports student learning by adjusting and modifying classroom instruction to meet student needs” (Prokopchuk, 2017, Module 10). Tier 1 is quality instruction and progress monitoring, while Tier 2 includes small group intervention support. Students who do not progress enter Tier 3 for intensive support and further evaluation or possible special education placement. “There is general agreement among RTI specialists that about 90% of students remain in Tier 1, while 5% of students require additional, targeted support in Tier 2, and the remaining 5% require more intensive levels of support in Tier 3” (Prokopchuk, 2017, Module 10). RTI address learning needs and measures the individual’s success.  It is a team approach which often includes the classroom teacher, EAL specialist, consultants and when needed, and the Special Education teacher. When students continue to struggle after Tier 1 and Tier 2 supports, further investigation and evaluations by school team personnel is required.

Student Background and Assessments

When a student shows signs of struggle and is not progressing, there are many possible reasons as to why and, as Klingner (2012) states, “there is a process of elimination and need to look at many factors.” If a student’s true peers are progressing, it is time to collect student data. “It is important to consider the unique characteristics ELLs bring to the learning environment and to think about how factors including their familiarity with and exposure to English, socioeconomic status, prior schooling experiences, and life experiences, interact with and influence their learning” (Klingner, NYC document, p.8). Data collection on student background should include information on previous schooling in L1, development in L1, the student’s cultural, linguistic and social systems, socioeconomic status, evidence of culture shock or trauma, and supports provided at home for learning the new language. “Thomas and Collier concluded that the strongest predictor of academic success is the amount of formal schooling in L1” (Coehlo, 2012, p.139). As well, “ELLs with LD exhibit difficulties in their first language as well as in English” (Klingner, 2012). Refugee students require special attention, as “most refugee learners require support to build basic literacy due to interrupted education or no formal education. There may be also be psychological, social, or emotional complications resulting from trauma, persecution, political upheaval, or war” (Prokopchuk, 2017, Module 10). “When conducting the assessment, do so with the notion that there is nothing wrong with the individual and that systemic, ecological, or environmental factors are the primary reason for learning problems. Maintain this hypothesis until data suggest otherwise and all plausible external factors have been ruled out” (Klingner, NYC document, p. 1). Since there are no tests that can reveal whether a student has an LD and because formal tests that are norm based are not appropriate for ELLs, assessment is often informal. Review errors over time. “EAL learners generally make consistent errors; learning-disabled leaners generally make inconsistent ones” (Helmer & Eddy, p. 81). Monitoring progress of ELLs should be multi dimensional and include multiple assessment methods.

Ortiz (2017) identifies the following as appropriate methods of evaluation: Curriculum Based measurement (CBM), Response to intervention (RTI with progress monitoring), Criterion referenced evaluation (class tests, benchmark performance) and Dynamic assessment (teach-test-teach models).  “Authentic Dynamic Assessment is a particularly useful evaluation approach as it can be used with classroom materials and academic content. The goal is to ascertain the degree of instruction required to promote learning. The less assistance required, the greater the individual’s “learning propensity” (Ortiz, 2017).  The focus is on developing a profile of strengths and weaknesses and areas of need and to set a plan for intervention.  If after quality instruction, intervention, appropriate assessments and background data have been taken into account and there is still no progress, further intervention by special education personnel may be in order to address a learning challenge.


Distinguishing whether an ELL has a language acquisition problem or an LD is a very complex and difficult task. There are no easy tests, no quick fixes. If it were easy, there would not be numerous studies on the topic. Incorporating differentiation and scaffolding in instruction, using multi-dimensional assessment over time, and performing interventions as well as considering student backgrounds, are all examples of best practice. They do not give us the ‘answers’ but can at least lead us in the right direction.

I will be more insistent that systematic information gathering and appropriate classroom-based interventions occur before my involvement. We have sheltered content classes in our high school, which are crucial for student success, but we also have many EAL students integrated into mainstream classes in which the teachers are still unprepared and lack the knowledge (and time!) to provide the level of scaffolding and differentiation needed to support the students. Therefore, this leads me to believe I must ensure that appropriate classroom supports have been in place long enough before warranting further assessments from the lens of special education. Teachers must follow the Adaptive Dimension, whether for my students with learning challenges or EAL students. A collaborative, team approach to informal assessment will occur. And when appropriate, a shared service delivery will be established.



Coelho, E. (2012). Language and learning in multilingual classrooms: A practical approach. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Helmer, S., & Eddy, C. (2012). Look at me when I talk to you: EAL learners in non-EAL classrooms. Don Mills, ON: Pippin.

Klingner, J. (n.d.). Distinguishing language acquisition from learning disabilities (NYC Dept. of Ed.). Retrieved from: http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/DABEF55A-D155-43E1-B6CB-B689FBC9803A/0/LanguageAcquisitionJanetteKlingnerBrief_73015.pdf

Klingner, J. (2012). Special Education considerations for English language learners with learning disabilities. Retrieved from: https://www.urbancollaborative.org/files/tampa_presentation_shorter.pdf

Klingner, J. K., & Edwards, P. A. (2006) Cultural considerations with response to intervention models. In Reading Research Quarterly, 41(1), 108-177.

Ortiz, S. (2017). Workshop presenter: English language learners – Instruction and intervention. College of Education. University of Saskatchewan. Saskatoon, SK.

Prokopchuk, N. (2017). Course Modules in ECUR 415: Current Issues in EAL. University of Saskatchewan. Saskatoon, SK.

Shore, J. R., & Sabatini, J. (2009). English language learners with reading disabilities: A review of the literature and the foundation for a research agenda. In ETS Research Report Series,1 I-48. Princeton, NJ.



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