In an environment of tight budgets and limited state aid, school districts have been making the difficult decision to declassify English as a Second Language (ESL) students. That is, districts have been deciding that ESL students should no longer be automatically eligible for special educations services.

The schools contend that ESL is simply a lack of proficiency in English, and it should be handled that way. They say ESL students are being over-diagnosed for learning disabilities when, in fact, they are not at all disabled.

While I understand a school's desire to avoid over-referral to special education, I worry about this new approach to ESL. If not done properly, it could cause many students to miss out on desperately needed services.

As many as 20 percent of people in the United States have a language-based learning disability, most commonly dyslexia, according to the National Institutes of Health. It's reasonable to assume ESL students are affected at that same rate.

However, it can be very challenging to diagnose a learning disability in a child who is learning English as a second language. How do you tell the difference between an ESL child who simply needs time to catch up with her peers and an ESL child who would greatly benefit from special education services to successfully learn English?

In addition, many of these students have parents who speak very little English. They might not be able to articulate their child's problems, and they might not be able to advocate for their child to receive special education, if needed.

How do we go about finding and testing the kids who really need help?

We need to use the right assessment tools. You can't just take an English test and translate it into another language. It has to be written in the student's native tongue to truly capture all the nuances of that language and fairly assess a child's ability to speak, listen, read or write.

We need to look at the whole child. Only through observation can we get a good understanding of a child's learning style. We also might be able to pick up on known predictors of language-based learning disabilities such as the way a student struggles with verb tenses.

Detecting a learning disability in an ESL student certainly presents special challenges, but it's worth redoubling our efforts to make sure we are not ignoring or losing those kids who truly need our help. When a disability is missed, its negative impact on learning can resonate throughout a child's life.


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