In education, it is always important to consider the whole student, including their personal background, before making referrals for special education services. This holds true for English Language Learners as well. Just like general education students, the success or failure of these children is often dependent upon more than simple aptitude. Do the students have supportive parents? What language is spoken at home? Is English acquisition important to the child? How much experience does the child have reading and writing in his or her native language? How long did they live in their home country? The answers to these questions certainly affect how successful an English Language Learner will be.
In my six years as a teacher, I have had the opportunity to work with six English Language Learners. Four of which were from Mexico, one was from the Philippines, and one was from Russia. Each student had unique needs and circumstances, but none were evaluated for learning disabilities. All of the students received extra help with their language in one form or another, but not under the realm of special education (none of them had IEPs). Most recently I've worked with a little girl from Russia. She moved to Michigan about five years ago (I taught her two years ago in third grade and again this year for 5th grade). We do not offer special education services at our school, but she has gotten extra help through Title I. Even if we did have special education, I don't believe it would be beneficial to her because she excels in so many things. She struggles with her reading, writing, and spelling, but has made immense growth in the past 5 years.
I believe the problem of misdiagnosis occur both ways - those who are learning disabled go undiagnosed, while some who are not learning disabled are labeled as such. I personally have never recommended an ELL student for special education evaluation based on low achievement, the students I worked with showed great progress and responded well to the strategies that I used with them within my own classroom so I did not feel that it was necessary to make referrals. I can see how this would happen though. According to an article about assessing ELLs for learning disabilities, many students are actually referred to special education because of “socioeconomic, linguistic and cultural factors rather than psychoeducational factors” (Geva, 2000, p. 14). When you take into account all that factors that effect student learning, it is easy to see what a proper diagnosis can be difficult. With that in mind, it is also important to remember that some ELLs DO have learning disabilities. I think that many teachers, perhaps myself included, often attribute difficulties in language acquisition to the fact that the student is not a native English speaker. Because of this, ELLs may be given more leeway, or simply allowed to struggle with the idea that as they become more proficient in English, their overall achievement will improve. In evaluating ELLs for special education, we need to take more into account than the native language of a student. Just because a student is not a native English speaker, does not mean that they have a learning disability, nor should we use their native language as an excusable reason for failure.
Geva, E. (2000). Issues in the Assessment of Reading Disabilities in L2 Children—Beliefs and Research Evidence.Dyslexia, 6(1), 14.
Coming from a poor background myself and relying on free school lunches throughout my school career, the correlation between socioeconomic status and reading success is especially intriguing to me. I have always loved reading and learning, so I have often thought about how I was able to overcome the obstacles that leave so many children struggling to excel. One explanation I have for this is the fact that I was raised in a home with both of my parents. Children receiving free or reduced lunches, at least in my experience as a teacher, tend to come from single parent homes. This is not always the case of course, but frequently enough to make a generalization. The fact that these children do not have both parents at home may be a contributing factor to the lack of vocabulary acquisition in low income students. Another explanation for the disparity between free and reduced students and non-free and reduced is the attitude in the home towards education. Typically people in low paying jobs do not have a higher level of education, while people with higher paying jobs typically have at least some college or trade school experience (US Department of Education). People who are willing to seek out higher education and end up earning higher paying jobs value education and pass this viewpoint onto their children.
While I have only been teaching for six years, I have been able to have two very diverse experiences, allowing me to work with a wide variety of learners. My first experience was in rural South Carolina. I worked as a third grade teacher in a failing Title I school. Poverty was a huge problem and most students came from broken homes. Reading and writing were not priorities, survival was. Unsurprisingly, the incoming third graders lacked the skills you would expect from the average incoming third graders. Just as mentioned in the Torgesen piece, the students often came into my class with a negative attitude towards reading, typically because reading was hard for them and they had not been given ample time to practice the skills needed. The other factors mentioned, including fewer opportunities to acquire a richer vocabulary, fewer chances to improve reading comprehension, and less time to practice reading, were all factors that had to be taken into account when planning literacy instruction in my class. In reading the list, it was almost as if someone was observing the students with which I worked! To help the struggling linguists, I adopted a workshop approach for both reading and writing instruction, allowing me to work in small groups and focus on the specific needs of my students. I found that not only did this help fill in the gaps with reading comprehension and vocabulary, but it also gave the students ample time to practice the specific skills that we worked on since they were to read independently or with partners while I worked with the small groups. While this approach did provide improvements for most of the students, most where still not performing at grade level, likely because by the time a student reaches third grade, reading habits have already been established. Torgensen references several studies in his article that point to the idea that those who struggle to read in first grade stay that way meaning that interventions in third grade are often too little, too late. In my situation, the school system did identify students needing extra help early in their educational careers, but due to the shear number of students in need, many students, in my opinion, were overlooked. Providing special education for that many students would most certainly be cost prohibitive due to the need for smaller classes and increased numbers of teachers and aids. In situations like this, where most of the students in the school could probably qualify for special education services of some kind, how are we as educators supposed to make these students successful?
In my current job, I teach upper elementary language arts and science at a private school. Most of the students are generally good readers, but there are always those students who find reading and writing more laborious than others. After this week's readings, especially the article by Hock et al, I am left wondering what I can do as an educator to help students that still struggle to read when they reach the upper elementary grades. According to the articles, early intervention is key. That seems fairly obvious. To me, even more than knowing the value of early intervention is knowing what to do with students that do not receive those interventions.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics. (n.d.). Income of young adults. Retrieved from website: http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=77
Over the years, legislation has greatly changed the face of education in the United States, especially in terms of literacy. NCLB in particular focuses specifically on improving reading and language in its Reading First initiative. In addition to focusing on early interventions, it also requires the use of scientifically based reading research (SBRR). What that means for teachers and students is that the materials being provided by publishers has to use SBRR. This provides a higher quality product with which educators can teach. Instead of providing materials that seem good, the publishers need to have data to back up their products. In addition to higher standards for literacy materials, more focus is being placed upon early intervention. According to the reading, IDEA allows districts to spend up to 15% of their budget on early intervention, meaning that many disabilities can be prevented or minimized before the effects become lasting. While not perfect, the legislation that has been put in place has served to focus the educational communities attention on literacy while also providing an equal education for students of all abilities.
When I started teaching in 2008, I worked as a third grade teacher in rural South Carolina. During my time there, I used the South Carolina state standards to guide my language arts instructions. My only previous experience with standards were the Michigan GLCE's, so I was actually happy with the standards with which I was expected to work. They were specific enough that I knew exactly what needed to be taught, but also not so extensive that I felt overwhelmed. This allowed me to teach a few things at a deeper level than I would have been able to with the GLCE's, where I felt I need to gloss over certain areas in order to focus on the needs of the class with which I did my student teaching. In 2011, I relocated to accept my current job at a private school in Michigan, again teaching third grade. This school had made the transition from GLCE's to CCSS, so I was expected to follow the new standards. Upon reviewing the CCSS, I actually really liked them. They were similar to the standards that I used in South Carolina in that they allowed me to teach the content more deeply than with the GLCE's. I still use the CCSS and I have to say that I do not have a complaint about them. I feel like they do a good job of guiding my instruction without mandating the exact way the material needs to be taught. I can focus on the needs of my students and still fulfill the requirements of the standards. To be fair, however, I have had very little experience using the CCSS with special needs and ESL students. I work at a parochial school that does not have the funds to support special education services, so those students typically choose to go to the public school. If I were teaching students with special needs, I might feel differently about the standards.
On paper, I think that the RtI model is an excellent way to address students with learning disabilities. If a problem can be solved in the general education classroom, then by all means, it should be. Why would you start with intensive interventions if the problem can be solved within the confines of the general classroom? It makes sense to use the continuum of increasing levels of intensity until a solution can be found. When implemented properly, I am sure that the RtI model would be extremely effective. The problem, in my experience at least, is that districts have not been properly trained in how to use the RtI model. In both of the schools in which I have worked, the success or failure has been left up to the individual classroom teachers who have not been trained in how to manage RtI. In both cases, I was essentially presented with a pyramid chart and told to "do RtI". It almost seems that in order to be effective, there needs to be someone in charge of managing RtI and following up with teachers and support personnel to ensure that interventions are taking place
According to Forman and Nixon, academic skills, experience, content knowledge, and professional development are all factors that contribute to the quality of a teacher. While important, I feel like even teachers who are deficient in one of the areas listed can still be successful if given the proper support within their school and the proper attitude towards teaching. Unfortunately, not all teachers have that support or demeanor. More likely, the quality of a teacher does have an effect on student learning. In the article, Forman and Nixon explain that disadvantaged schools are less likely to have high quality teachers. To me, this is essentially a double-whammy for those schools. They are starting with a tougher demographic, plus they lack the teachers needed to overcome the deficiency. Hopefully the requirements of NCLB for highly qualified teachers will help to shrink the gap.
I'm Edie - wife, mom, teacher, instructional designer, home renovator,
and lover of nature, travel, technology, and vintage campers!