Stupid ESL and Special Ed Tricks…


It started with a “tweet” from Deven Black, where he lamented about a student placement. I convinced him to blog about it for the upcoming ESL/EFL/ELL Carnival. Here’s the story in Vice Versa « Education On The Plate:

When she arrived from Ecuador two years ago, Juanita, who barely spoke ten words of English, was placed in a special education class. Today she is a sixth grader who speaks English well but she is still in a special education class. Her teacher and I are wondering why.

Juanita is a real person, though that is not her real name. She is charming, funny, friendly and hard working. Aside from the remnants of her accent she seems like any number of other girls in our inner city middle school. Juanita smiles easily, tells a good joke and occasionally gets a little cranky. Her classwork and grades are not spectacular, but they are not terrible either. They are on the level of a middling general education student.

A month after he came to the US with his parents Robert was enrolled in kindergarten in a multi-ethnic, mixed income suburban district. This district has a policy that all students born outside the US must be placed in ELL classes, no exceptions.

Blanket policies are rarely a good idea, even if that policy would have helped Juanita. Here’s why.
Robert was born in South Africa to British parents. English is not only his native language, it is his only language. He speaks it with better enunciation and grammar than the school aid who insisted she had to enroll him in the ELL class.

Clay, I’m usually with you on this, but I’m sorry, when my students end up coming out of second and third grade not reading, they’re screwed. We have a sixth grader like this, cannot read, and is working on decoding at age 12. He should have been identified LONG ago for services. He may go to college one day, but it’ll be a minor miracle if he does.

What’s all that other stuff about where I’m disagreeing with Clay? Well, actually when you get down to it, I wasn’t. Clay was discussing how Arne Duncan had said there was no chance for a kid who can’t read at 8 years old going to college, to which Clay pointed out President Woodrow Wilson (and a President of Princeton) did not learn to read until he was 12 years old. But, at the heart of Clay’s post (and the really good comments there) and what Deven says clearly is that you really can’t use the same yard stick to measure all kids and blanket policies that do NOT treat our kids as individuals will fail them in the end.

My proposal would be that you use what data you have (which will include both summative testing, and observation) to help these kids, but ask questions, and try to get quality data (not like testing a student new to the country in English as happened to Juanita). I have found EL students muddling along through school at the two lowest proficiency levels (we have five in California with the top two being passing) on state testing. Sometimes the adults in charge take a look at the kid and just say, well that’s because he is learning English, just give him time. While it is true that not all kids learn at the same speed, sometimes that is a sign that more is needed and it doesn’t take much to figure out if you have a problem that needs to be addressed.

Sitting on our school’s student study team (the team tasked with looking at individual students who are struggling), the test scores can tell us a bit, but it’s the questions we ask each other about the individual child that tell us more. If an ELL child has low test scores, the next thing to look at is to look at their CELDT scores (a test of English acquisition that all California students take to see how they are progressing). If they start out behind on the standards test, they could be progressing in knowledge, but it won’t show because they are still behind grade level. The CELDT tells us some more about how they are doing on things like listening and speaking in English. The test stays the same for a 2-3 years, so a flatline score is a sign that something is not going right. Ask yourself, are they getting English Language services that are addressing their specific deficit, or are they learning something they have already mastered.

But, it’s the subtle questions that can really point to a problem. California’s default model for ELLs is to put them in a Sheltered English program. Parents are asked once a year what how they would like their children to be educated, in a bilingual or sheltered program. Most opt for sheltered. This means that we are not doing assessment in the child’s home language if they’ve been in the country for more than a year or so. One of the most important questions to ask a parent when we have a student who is not progressing both in academic testing and in English acquisition is  are they maintaining or losing their knowledge of their home language. If they aren’t learning English, and they are losing their home language, they are, overall, losing language. This is not a good thing. Do the kids have signs of attention problems like a wandering focus? Do they have an inability to retain information after it is taught to them? Is this true in BOTH English and their home language? If you are answering yes to these questions, they could have a processing disorder, and should be tested. If they are in primary, and they have few home language skills along with below age-level English, that can be a sign of a language disorder (like PDD-NOS or Austism Spectrum Disorder). ASD is really hard to spot in Language Learners, but it happens.

I think all these cases teach us the danger of making assumptions where we either ignore data, over-rely on data, or look at the wrong data, instead of looking at the total picture, and the total child.

3 Comments to

“Stupid ESL and Special Ed Tricks…”

  1. June 6th, 2010 at 4:56 am      Reply ddeubel Says:

    So glad I got here via the blog carnival! Great that you shared these real examples, just a few of so many thousands, “left behind”. We are doing so much wrong.

    I’ve written a bit about this and have published some guidelines that schools/admin should follow when looking at whether a student has a learning disability or a language difficulty. The trouble is – the problem is our own terminology and paradigm/thinking in education! I really believe that learning a second language IS a kind of special need and teachers should be slowing down and practicing / teaching with and through a lot of the same techniques/principles that special educators do.

    But you are right – we need more consistent evaluation, that is a major problem. Plus ensuring they are nurturing their L1 literacy. Start there. You can find my article with recommendations in this old blog post –

    Thanks for the insightful post.


  2. June 6th, 2010 at 8:20 am      Reply alicemercer Says:

    Well, since my state’s default model is immersion, rather than bilingualism, L1 is not developed, sigh. ESL students do get special instruction (all of us teaching them need extra certification), and if they are not progressing, they get more pull-out with a specialist, but if that isn’t working, you have to look both at your ELD program, and whether as the Harvard study you reference showed, they need interventions for LD. BTW, most of our students are born here, or came here before age six.

  3. June 13th, 2011 at 7:49 am      Reply Reuben Says:

    Dont know exactly how i got to this article but the first snippet about juanita made me want to say something. I and probably a lot of other people agree with your stances about treating the child as a whole and each situation individually. Don’t you think there is a problem with a large beaurocracy that will never change? I wish it would but…

    So the question becomes what could be done possibly outside of the school systems maybe in the private sector for education. Im not a teacher, is that too regulated?


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