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Learning Disabilities and Adult English Language Learners

Instructors, volunteers, and programs throughout the United States and Canada have been asking the same question for many years: How can we identify and assist adult ESL learners who may have learning disabilities (LD)? Dealing with learning disabilities is a complex issue even with adult native speakers, but for immigrants and refugees the problem is magnified. Linguistic, psychological, social, cultural, and educational factors make attempts to identify and assist learners a challenge. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 have served to focus attention on adults with disabilities by adding the force of law to assessment and accommodation. While these laws have helped to focus both attention and resources on adults who may have learning disabilities, so far, the majority of those efforts have been specifically related to adults who are native speakers of English.

This resource collection both provides background materials about learning disabilities from K-12 and adult education and gathers the few resources that directly address adult ESL concerns. While this is not a definitive list of LD materials, it is representative of what is readily available online and in print. NCLE does not endorse any particular approach or materials, and we encourage users of this collection to give thoughtful consideration to all resources. Although materials for K-12 or native speaker adults can offer important insights, such resources should be examined carefully in terms of the adult ESL context. While adult ESL learners may appear to share characteristics with adults with learning disabilities or even children with LD, the characteristics may stem from very different causes and require different solutions.

Some of the most promising materials on learning disabilities and adult ESL are those being developed by individual programs for their own learner populations. It is hoped that this collection can serve as a forum where practitioners will offer their own insights, experiences, and activities to add to the growing sum of practical knowledge about learning disabilities and adult ESL learners.

This list was compiled by Lynda Terrill and MaryAnn Florez at the National Center for ESL Literacy Education (now the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition) (Created July 2000; updated February 2004; updated June 2005).

CAELA Resources ERIC Database Articles/ReportsBooks
OrganizationsPolicy Discussion Lists Other ResourcesNewsletters

CAELA Resources

The following publications offer information that might be helpful to individuals working with adults with learning disabilities in an ESL setting.

There are additional digests addressing good practices in adult ESL instruction that would also support work with adults with learning disabilities.


The ERIC Database

You may find additional information, in the form of bibliographic references and citations, in the ERIC database. For access, go to: 
A good search of the ERIC database--most databases, in fact--begins with a search strategy that identifies the main concepts of the topic. In this case [adult ESL instruction], there are three: adults/adult education; ESL/limited English fluency; and learning disabilities.

A search of ERIC, then, would draw on descriptive terms (descriptors) that identify important aspects of those three concepts. Thus, descriptors chosen from ERIC's controlled vocabulary that you might want to use include some of the following:
adult basic education
adult education
adult learning
adult literacy
adult programs
English (second language) limited English speaking
non English speaking
second language learning
learning disabilities
learning problems disabilities
attention deficit disorder


Articles, Reports, and Other Documents

Almanza, D., Singleton, K., & Terrill, L. (1996). Learning disabilities in adult ESL: Case studies and directions. In Year in review (1995-96, Vol. 5): Reports of research conducted by adult education practitioner-researchers in Virginia. Richmond, VA: Virginia Adult Educators Research Network. pp. 1-6.
     In this article three adult ESL instructors discuss a practitioner research project aimed at the general question: "How can teachers assist adult ESL students who may be 'learning disabled' to acquire and retain literacy in a learner-centered classroom or computer lab?" Although the teachers found many questions, they also discovered some important insights about the effect of environment, interaction, and learner input on instruction.

Eckardt, M.E., et al. (1993). Teaching strategies for ESOL volunteers. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania State Department of Education, Bureau of Adult Basic and Literacy Education. (ERIC no. ED 386 959)

Florida Community College at Jacksonville. (2000). Guide for instructors working with adults with learning disabilities. Jacksonville, FL: Adult Studies Department, Quality Professonal Development Project.
     This guide and accompanying video provide an overview of general characteristics of learning disabilities of adults in ABE, GED, adult high school, and ESOL contexts. Suggestions for assessment criteria and procedures and instructional strategies are discussed. Instructional techniques and acommodations for learners with learning difficulties, who have not been formally identified as having learning disabilities, are also included. (Available from: Professional Development, Florida Community College at Jacksonville, 940 N. Main Street, Rm. 204, Jacksonville, FL 32202-9968; Tel: 904-632-3138)

Hatt, P., & Nichols, E. (1995). Links in learning: A manual linking second language learning, literacy and learning disabilities. West Hill, Ontario, Canada: MESE Consulting Ltd.
     This extensive and clearly laid out manual provides a compendium of information from a rationale for connecting language learning, literacy, and learning disabilities to definitions, strategies, case studies, and appendices. This book contains such practical items as a checklist for obvious learning disabilities, an in-depth explanation of the process of interviewing adult learners, and teaching strategies geared to specific types of learning problems. Although produced for instructors and programs in Canada, the information is pertinent for those in the United States or other countries.

Lingenfelter, M. (1993). Learning disabilities and the adult student of English as a second language. Saskatchewan: SIAST Wascana Institute, ESL Centre.

National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center. (1996). Bridges to practice: A research-based guide for literacy providers serving adults with learning disabilities. Washington, DC: Author. Bridges to practice is also now available for downloading from the National Institute for Literacy's Web site at Related information can also be found at

National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center. (1996). The adult ESL literacy student and learning disabilities.Washington, DC: Author. This document is now available online at

Osher, D., Webb, L., & Koehler, S., (1993). Learning disabilities: Learner-centered approaches. Training packet for a three-session workshop. Study of ABE/ESL instructor training approaches. Washington, DC: Pelavin Associates, Inc. (EDRS no. ED 368 943)
     This book contains training materials for a three-session workshop on adult learning disabilities for ABE and ESL instructors and volunteers. While this book provides many activities and specific materials, it is also noteworthy that the approach is learner-centered and stresses the importance of "looking at the whole person".

Paulesu, E., DZmonet, J.-F., Fazio,F., McCrory, E., Chanoine, V., Brunswick, N., Cappa, S.F., Cossu, G., Habib, M., Frith, C.D., & Frith, U. (2001, March). Dyslexia: Cultural diversity and biological unity. Science, 291(5511), 2165-2167. This article is now available online at

Riviere, A. (1996). Assistive technology: Meeting the needs of adults with learning disabilities. Washington, DC: National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center.

Root, C. (1994, April). A guide to learning disabilities for the ESL classroom practitioner. TESL-EJ, 1 (1).

Schwarz, R. (2000, March/April). A global focus on the learning disabled language learner. WATESOL News 30, (3). 5, 11.

Schwarz, R., & Rooney, G. (1999, Fall). Identifying and accommodating learning disabled students. Advising Quarterly 49, 9-16.

Shafrir, U. (1997). Adult literacy and study skills: Issues in assessment and remediation. Philadelphia: National Center for Adult Literacy. Technical Report no. TR96-13.

Shewcraft, D., & Witkop, E. (1998). Do my ESOL students have learning disabilities? A practical manual for ESOL instructors concerned about learning disabilities and the ESOL learner. Pittsfield, MA: Western Massachusetts Young Adults with Learning Disabilities Project.
     This manual provides some practical answers for questions that teachers often ask about learning disabilities and adult ESL learners. This book defines learning disabilities and offers a checklist of characteristics that might indicate LD as well as classroom strategies. Moreover, this book explains in detail how to respectfully approach and assist a learner who may have learning disabilities. This book includes an appendix with a homemade screening kit that also offers instructional strategies. (Available from Western Massachusetts Young Adults with Learning Disabilities (YALD) Project, 269 First Street, Pittsfield, MA 01201. Telephone: (413) 499-9531. Fax: (413) 443-7919).

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education. Division of Adult Education and Literacy. (report from conference, April 10-11, 2000). The Beginning of a process: Learning disabilities and Spanish-speaking adult populations. San Antonio,Texas: Author.
      This document describes a two-day conference in San Antonio, Texas in 2000 where a group of learning disabilities experts, educators, government officals, and others considered a variety of issues related to learning disabilities and adults whose native language is not English. According to the document, "This report is intended to provide an overview of the issues, and help reshape program design to enable the adult education, welfare and employment as well as training systems to to begin the process needed to make their program accessible to persons with learning disabilities, regardless of the language or languages spoken by these individuals." (p.19) This document is available from

Young, G., Gerber, P., & Reder, S. (1996). Learning disabilities and their impact on poverty and adult literacy programs. Paper presented at the 1996 World Conference on Literacy, March 1996, National Center for Adult Literacy, Philadelphia.


Chapman, J.B., Vaillancourt, B., & Dobbs, C.S. (1980). Learning disabilities and the adult student of English as a second language. Palatine, IL: William Rainey Harper College.

Ganschow, L., & Sparks, R. (1993). Foreign language and learning disabilities: Issues, research, and teaching implications. In S.A.Vogel & P.B. Adelman, (Eds.), Success for college students with learning disabilities. New York: Springer-Verlag pp. 283-322.

Gerber, P.J., & Brown,D.S. (Eds.). (1997). Learning disabilities and employment. Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

Gerber, P.J., & Reiff, H.bB., Eds. (1994). Learning disabilities in adulthood: Persisting problems and evolving issues. Stoneham, MA: Butterworth-Heineman.

Vogel, S. A., & Reder, S., Eds. (1998). Learning disabilities, literacy, and adult education. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.


LINKAGES: Linking Literacy and Learning Disabilities
This newsletter was produced by the National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center (NALLD)from 1994 to 1998. Ten thematic issues discussed various topics relating adult literacy and learning disabilities.

National, Regional, and International Organizations

Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA)
     LDA is a national, non-profit, volunteer organization dedicated to children and adults with learning disabilities. The website provides information on LDA's books and publications, policy news and updates, fact sheets on early childhood, and links to online resources and state LDA chapters.

National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)
     NCLD provides national leadership in support of both children and adults with learning disabilities. It's website includes publications (many online), links to organizations related to learning disabilities, recent issues of the annual publicationTheir World and information on policy, advocacy, events, conferences, and training.

National Institute for Literacy (NIFL)
     The NIFL is an independent federal organization that has focused on adult literacy and basic education issues, including learning disabilities, in the United States. NIFL's website offers access to information on its programs and services, NIFL publications, and LINCS system of adult education and literacy resources on the Internet.

Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), U.S. Department of Education
     OVAE sponsors a wide range of programs, activities, and information dissemination on adult and vocational education and related areas.

Western Massachusetts Young Adults with Learning Disabilities (YALD) Project, 269 First Street, Pittsfield, MA 01201. Telephone: (413) 499-9531. Fax: (413) 443-7919
     This project has worked extensively to develop, pilot, and disseminate information on working with young adults with learning disabilities.

Policy Issues

Americans with Disabilities Act Technical Assistance
This program provides information on the Americans with Disabilities Act itself, as well as the various projects developed to further understaanding and implementation of the Act.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997.
     This site, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, provides an overview of the Act, subsequent updates to it, and current information.

National Governors Association. (1998). Serving welfare recipients with learning disabilities in a work first environment. Issue Brief,July, 1998.
     This brief discusses ways in which states can serve adult welfare recipients with learning disabilities within the context of current legislation on welfare reform.

National Institute for Literacy. (1998, August). Learning disabilities and welfare-to-work: Part I in a Series. Policy Update. Washington, DC: Author.
     This update provides an overview of recent developments that may lead to a greater focus on disability issues in welfare-to-work programs. (For additional policy information from NIFL, visit the NIFL/LINCS Policy and Legislation page).

U.S. Department of Education & National Institute for Literacy. (1999, July 15) How states are improving literacy services for adults with disabilities. State Policy Update. Washington, DC: Authors.
     This Update focuses on the efforts of three states—Oklahoma, Illinois, and Connecticut—to more effectively serve the literacy needs of adults with learning disabilities.

Discussion Lists and Other Online Discussion Venues

Learning Disabilities is an electonic discussion forum sponsored by the National Institute for Literacy. Discussions focus on issues related specifically to adults with learning disabilities. Participants including ESL and ABE teachers, program administrators, policy makers, and other stakeholders share resources, ideas, news, and concerns related to literacy and learning disabilities at the adult level.

Other Resources

LD Resources Online
     This site is a regularly updated list of websites with information on learning disabilities.

LD Online's LD Indepth: Adult Issues
This page on the LD Online site offers links to a variety of articles on issues related to adults with learning disabilities. Categories covered include general background information, self-advocacy, and technology.     This site is a regularly updated list of websites with information on learning disabilities.

Learning DisAbilities Resources
     Created by Dr. Richard Cooper of the nonprofit Center for Alternative Learning, this site offers free and low-cost materials for learners with learning differences and those working with them.

National Institute for Literacy LINCS Special Collection on Literacy and Learning Disabilities
     Developed by the National Institute for Literacy, this site is a collection of information and links on issues of learning disabilities and adult literacy.

Teaching ESL among Adults with Learning Disabilities: Training Materials for Facilitators and Participants
     This is the online version of a training module prepared by a team of Colorado adult educators. It includes activities and information to help participants identify and gather evidence on behaviors exhibited by adult English language learners who may have learning disabilities and it proposes some instructional strategies for dealing with learners who do have learning disabilities.