Learning Difficulties and English Language Learners

People from other cultures who enroll in Adult Basic Education classes often come from varied backgrounds, cultures, and a wide range of school experiences.  While they are attempting to learn English, they are frequently adjusting to a new culture, navigating U.S. customs and mores, looking for employment and helping other family members fit in to society.  They may have come to the United States for a variety of reasons and may have left close relatives in their native countries and/or experienced traumatic events. All of these variables can impact rate and manner of learning.  Because of these complex factors, determining if ELL students might have a learning disability can be a challenging endeavor.

There are some facts ABE teachers should be aware of when they are working with ELL students who are making slow academic progress.  It takes one to two years to develop sufficient English oral language skills Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and seven to ten years to develop Cognitive Academic Proficiency Language (CALP).  CALP is complex grammar, vocabulary, semantics, and higher order thinking skills necessary to successfully progress in academic settings.  It is not developed until one has learned English at a level in which he/she can fully understand the language in order to apply it when learning academic subjects.  As a result, ELL students often understand information well orally before comprehending basic academic subjects; such as reading, writing, and math.  The misconception can be that the individual has a learning disability, when in actuality they are still learning the language.

There are other variables to consider when distinguishing between ELL students who are having learning difficulties versus learning disabilities.  Many cultures do not provide formal schooling (similar to that in the United States).  For instance, although a student may tell you they completed the eighth grade; this could mean they attended school three times a week for a few hours.  Compare this system to the U.S., where it is required to attend school five days a week for 13 years.  In addition, ABE class schedules typically occur for two to three hours a few times per week.  Limited formal instruction prolongs the language acquisition process.

The English language can be more demanding to learn compared to several other languages, due to the irregularities and unpredictability of English.  The older a person is, the harder it is to learn a second language because the neural language pathways in the brain have already been established.   As a result, it is more difficult to decipher the sounds one is not used to hearing.  Our brains automatically detect sounds at a rapid rate once we learn a language because our brains predict commonly heard sounds.  It takes more conscious effort to understand and recall foreign words and sounds as we age.  That is why children tend to learn second languages more readily; their brains have neural plasticity and therefore are more receptive to learning new sounds easily and naturally.

Because ELL students may have been in refugee camps, been abused, and/or been exposed to war and suffering, there is a possibility they may be suffering with mental health difficulties or physical health issues.  The words and concepts associated with depression, anxiety, or PTSD are often not well understood and may be associated with shame for people from other cultures.  Therefore, the student may be uncomfortable talking about their feelings or seeking help.   In addition, there may be physical issues that go undetected, such as head injuries, vision, or hearing loss.  This can be exacerbated if the student does not have health insurance or the financial means to access a physician’s care.  All of these issues can affect learning.

There are many complex factors that impact ELL students’ lives which would need to be ruled out prior to a formal learning disability assessment.  Even when an assessment may be deemed appropriate, the formal testing presents its own challenges.  Testing typically consists of an ability and achievement test.  The tests administered to confirm or rule out a learning disability are standardized measures, normed on people born and raised in the U.S.  This means the test questions are based on American culture and concepts.  For those from other countries, the questions can be culturally biased and challenging to comprehend.  In these instances, test results have a high probability of being inaccurate and therefore cannot provide valid or useful information to the students or teachers.  Secondly, few formal tests have been published in second languages and use of interpreters is not feasible due to the lost translations between languages.

It may be helpful to ask your students questions in order to gather more information and understand their individual learning challenges, such as the following:

  1. Did you learn to read in your native language?
  2. How often did you attend school? (How many days, hours, weeks per year)
  3. What subjects did you study?
  4. How long have you been in the U.S.?
  5. Did you have learning difficulties in your native country?
  6. Do you speak English at home?
  7. Have you had a recent medical evaluation?
  8. Have you had a vision or hearing exam before?

Also consider the following:

  1. How is the student progressing in comparison to peers from similar backgrounds/cultures?
  2. How long has the student attended your class or other ABE classrooms?
  3. How many hours of instruction has the student received in comparison to students born and raised in the U.S.?
  4. Does the student show a clear pattern of strengths and weaknesses both in and out of the classroom?

Diagnoses are not always the answer.  If an individual is having learning difficulties, it is important to consider applying creative instructional strategies in order to teach multiple learning styles.  The multi-sensory approach has been universally successful as a method of instruction.  By using several senses, the information can access multiple pathways of the brain.  For example, using kinesthetic, touching, hearing, saying and seeing strategies during instruction offers broader possibilities for learning.    Use of hands on, practical skills can advance learning and memory as well.  For instance, teaching language through use of props or integrating social skills by having students participate in activity based lessons.