1. How are students with special learning needs identified?

There is no research that directly addresses the issue of identifying and supporting special needs students in TWI programs in the United States. As a result, most of the research-based information presented here and in the other questions in this section relates to second language learners with special needs in general, regardless of educational context. To tailor this section to the interests of our readers, anecdotal information from TWI educators is also provided.

In TWI programs, as in other language learning environments, it can be difficult to tell whether a student who is learning in a second language is having problems in school because of a long-term learning disability or a temporary second language learning difficulty. In general, though, a common rule of thumb is that true learning disabilities will be evident in both the first and second languages, while a second language learning issue will only be evident in that language.

For native English speakers, this rule of thumb can present challenges for students in 90/10 programs in particular, as formal English literacy instruction in these programs does not generally begin until Grade 3. In this case, conducting some assessments in English and potentially delivering some interventions in English would help to determine if the learning difficulty is a second language issue or reflects a true learning disability.

In the case of minority students in general and language minority students in particular, federal regulations require the use of unbiased assessment measures and techniques, and they ask educators to address the overrepresentation of minority students in special education services. Despite this, children of Hispanic origin continue to be overrepresented nationally in the categories of learning disabilities, hearing impairments, and orthopedic impairments. The possible biases against students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in the psychological assessment process is a topic that has been widely debated (e.g., Artiles & Ortiz, 2002; Brown, Reynolds, & Whitaker, 1999; Reynolds, Lowe, & Saenz, 1999), and best practice guidelines and alternative methods for assessing these students have been proposed (e.g. Gopaul-McNichol & Thomas-Presswood, 1998; Jitendra & Rohena-Diaz, 1996; Peña, Quinn, & Iglesias, 1992). These suggestions have included using a variety of measures in both the first and second languages and relying on multiple informants in determining the needs of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

When a teacher identifies a student as having academic problems, the first thing that needs to be done is to start gathering as much information about the learner as possible. That information should include background characteristics, oral language proficiency and literacy skills in both the first and the second language, academic achievement in both the first and the second language, sensory abilities (hearing/vision), social skills, and emotional/behavioral issues. In addition, it is helpful to gather information about possible differences in functioning in these domains at home and at school. Because this is a lot of information to gather, it is generally advisable to form a team to collect  and interpret data and determine a plan of action based on findings. When all of the relevant information has been gathered, the team makes the decision as to whether special education interventions (if they are different from second language support) would be best for the student, and if so, what types of interventions are required.

Teachers at Nestor Elementary School, a 90/10 TWI program in San Diego, use what they call the red folder process to identify students with special needs. The red folder process is initiated when the teacher notices that a student is struggling academically. The folder contains a checklist  that outlines the procedures that should be followed and documents  interventions and their effects. The program also provides guidelines that differentiate recommendations for native Spanish speakers and native English speakers, with special attention to the elementary grades, when native English speakers are learning to read in their second language and therefore may be exhibiting second language learning issues rather than reading difficulties.

Following the procedures laid out in the red folder, the teacher works with the parents or guardians, the resource teacher, and other colleagues to implement interventions to assist the child with his or her academic difficulty. After 4 to 6 weeks, the teacher documents the effects of the first set of interventions, and additional interventions are implemented. If no progress is noted after several months of this process, the red folder is given to the Student Study Team (SST) and a more formal meeting is scheduled. At the SST meeting, parents meet with the resource teacher, the classroom teacher, and one or more of the following individuals: the principal, a school psychologist, a speech pathologist, a reading specialist, and additional resource teachers. Each case is different. In some cases, testing may be decided upon at the first SST meeting, while with others, the team may decide to try additional interventions and reconvene 1 or 2 months later to see how those interventions worked and whether additional supports are needed.

At Key Elementary, a 50/50 TWI program in Arlington, VA, there is a similar process for identifying children with special learning needs. As at Nestor, the process begins with the classroom teacher, who refers the child to the Student Assistance Team, which meets weekly, or more often if needed, to discuss the performance of referred students. If classroom interventions have been tried and have not been effective, the team completes a pre-referral checklist designed for English language learners. This checklist is meant to help educators make the distinction between a learning disability and second language acquisition issues.

Completing this checklist is a long process, taking from 2 to 10 weeks. The team first needs to decide on focal areas that will help them define their concerns about the child. The different areas addressed in the checklist are language, thinking, motor skills, writing, reading, mathematics, work and study habits, and social and emotional development. Each area is described in terms of a list of behaviors. For example, some of the targeted behaviors for writing difficulty are “forms letters correctly” and “holds head at an appropriate distance while writing.”

Once the team has decided the areas of difficulty, team members review each of the described behaviors in that area and indicate whether the student can perform that behavior easily, adequately, or with difficulty, or has limited experience. All of the behaviors are evaluated separately for the first and second language. Finally, after having identified the specific areas of difficulty and the language(s) in which those difficulties occur, the committee chooses appropriate adaptations and instructional strategies from the checklist. In the area of writing, for example, some of the adaptations suggested are to use a slant board or to use color-coded cues to indicate where to begin or end writing.

The strategies and adaptations are implemented for approximately 1 month, after which a follow-up meeting is held to discuss the student's progress. After this second meeting, the team can make the decision to either continue with the adaptations or propose the student for a Child Study. The Child Study is the first step in the special education eligibility process, and there is a reasonable certainty that a student who has been proposed for a Child Study has an academic or cognitive difficulty that is not related to second language learning issues. Click here for a visual representation of the special education referral process in Arlington (VA) Public Schools. This process is aligned with the new IDEA RTI (response to intervention) requirements.

At this point, a committee is formed to further assess the student’s strengths and challenges. As mentioned previously, one difficulty in conducting these assessments is that they often contain biases that can affect student performance. For example, the norming populations for standardized diagnostic tests generally include few English language learners particularly those at the lowest levels of English language proficiency. Additionally, test items may be culturally biased and may require the child to make inferences beyond what he or she has been taught in school. To address this concern, the committee conducting the Child Study relies upon multiple indicators in both the first and second language in order to get a more complete picture of the student. In addition to state standardized achievement tests and standardized achievement tests frequently used for diagnostic purposes, such as  (e.g., the Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery-Revised (WLPB-R) (Woodcock, 1991) (see Question #2 in the section on assessment), the following are some of the most common measures used:

  • Degrees of Reading Power (DRP)
  • Curriculum-based tests developed by classroom teachers
  • Writing Samples
  • Classroom Observations
  • Oral language assessments by the classroom teacher and speech language pathologist if required. (See Question #2 in the assessment section for a list of commonly used language assessments.)